Lateral damage counting domestic deaths
Deanne Bridgland greeted the appointment of Rosie Batty as 2015 Australian of the Year with muted delight. As she wrote to me this time a year ago, “I’m pleased, don’t get me wrong, but dubious.” While Deanne empathised with Rosie’s suffering and agreed with much of what she had to say, she viewed Rosie as “an appropriate face” of domestic violence – unlike herself. “I wear the face of DV. No teeth and 37kg… I walk every day with this disfigured face and arms.”
Not anymore. Deanne Bridgland’s dream of becoming a feminist poet and anti-violence campaigner is over. She was found last Saturday after someone reported barking coming from her small apartment on Carlisle Street, St Kilda. When police broke in they found Deanne’s tiny, lifeless body on the floor, along with her beloved security dog, Ghost. She might have been dead for as long as a week.
What haunts me most about this terrible scene is that I saw it coming and failed to stop it. Deanne’s death played out exactly as I feared. “What do you want us to do?” the overworked St Kilda cops would ask whenever I rang them panicking because I couldn’t raise Deanne for weeks. “Break down the door?” “Yes,” I said. “Yes, break down the door; she is either dead or in trouble.” Just because you see something coming doesn’t mean you can stop it.
This is the point at which you might expect to read about some brute or brutes killing Deanne, which is how she feared her life would end. But despite the accumulated damage caused by the many rapes and beatings that were inflicted on her, Deanne’s death will not be recorded in Australia’s list of domestic violence victims. While her body is now with coronial services, I have little doubt any autopsy will show she died from natural causes. Deanne was skeletal over the past few months, suffering seizures, bleeds in the brain, and what she said was a form of diabetes. It seems she took a turn and fell.
Counting dead women is a fraught task for anti-violence campaigners, complicated by the limitations of source material, with fatalities largely drawn from deaths mentioned in media and police reports. According to the anti-violence group Destroy the Joint, 79 women were killed by violence in Australia in 2015.
The statistic has come under fire for including fatalities that fall outside standard definitions of domestic or family violence, the so-called “lateral violence” against women arising from societal misogyny. The decision to list all cases of violence against women, including the relatively rare cases of women killing women, was not taken lightly by the group. Those who suggest the list serves to exaggerate the extent of violence against women might instead consider the wider structural forces that conspire to keep victims such as Deanne Bridgland from ever being registered on it.
Deanne was always after a platform to speak about male violence against women – she courted any publicity she could – but as it turned out she died without being heard, really heard. “No one wants to listen to an angry woman – especially if she’s got a drug problem,” I told her in 2009. Deanne’s struggle with drug addiction was an aspect of her life I wanted kept quiet – fearing it would cloud the central issue of her abuse at the hands of her former partner, Nicholas Pasinis, and her subsequent abuse by Victoria’s criminal justice system.
Those with little experience of life on the margins might find it difficult to understand how men can use drugs and alcohol – as well as brute force – to control women. Pasinis liked keeping Deanne vulnerable, and encouraged her substance abuse.
Police knew how dangerous Pasinis was and thought there was a good chance he’d kill Deanne, but after filing a complaint against him, Deanne decided to withdraw it. She was focused on staying alive and made the best decision she could in appalling circumstances. She knew that even though Pasinis was in jail, he was having her followed. She thought he was “like Superman and could walk through walls” to get at her.
Deanne Bridgland’s decision to withdraw her complaint made perfect sense to domestic violence workers, who know women are most at risk of being killed when they try to get away from their assailants. The police, however, were less understanding and subsequently turned on her, charging both her and Pasinis with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It was an unusual way for authorities to nail Pasinis and one that inflicted terrible collateral damage on his victim.
Deanne and I became close during her trial, which ran over the summer of late 2009 and early 2010, and we stayed that way. She was fascinated by the workings of the media, and I was gripped by the sheer force of her personality. Her solicitor at the time, Nick Button, also went on to become her friend and, along with a handful of others who tried and failed to keep her alive, he is devastated by her death.
Deanne was nothing short of magnificent during the three days of cross-examination she endured at the conspiracy trial. It was an extraordinary experience watching this small, damaged woman, who struggled to stay standing in the witness box, use her own trial as a platform to get her abuser’s crimes on the public record.
She was convicted and given a two-year suspended jail term, but she said the media coverage made it all worthwhile. Her goal was to see Nicholas Pasinis publicly shamed – and thanks to her courage he was, albeit in a fashion she found frustratingly anodyne. If she’d had her way, Pasinis would have been paraded on national television with his crimes tattooed across his forehead, but this was not something I was prepared to help her with. “Let the public know exactly what I’ve been through,” she begged. “Give me a real social autopsy.”
Deanne loved words. When she had the strength she’d write poetry so dark and furious she made Sylvia Plath look like a happy clapper. Having studied sociology, psychology, religion and nursing, she loathed the media’s preference for telling “acceptable” stories of domestic violence, the sanitised ones, and was intrigued by how hard I found it to get script approval on the initial report I did about her for the ABC. An early iteration of my script appalled one male producer, particularly my reference to Deanne having been raped orally, vaginally and anally – this being part of her testimony, although Pasinis was never charged with the offences. “Who speaks like that?” the producer snarled at me on the phone. Chastened, I rewrote the script: “Testimony she has given about being repeatedly raped is too disturbing to report.” This little weasel of a sentence passed editorial muster and provided Deanne and me with a running joke – every time she was subsequently done over by “the system” we’d sigh, too disturbing to report.
She got her mojo back after the conspiracy trial, but it took long stints in hospital and extensive counselling. In 2013 she approached a different, more sympathetic, police unit and assisted in getting Nicholas Pasinis convicted on two counts of intentionally causing serious injury. In separate incidents, he had broken both her arms. Unnamed in the trial, she told the court she had an “inconsolable sadness and hopeless outlook for the nature of humanity”. Pasinis was sentenced to eight years in prison with a non-parole period of six.
Deanne Bridgland was a difficult victim for police. Apart from her addictions, which she made many valiant attempts to overcome, she suffered from what psychologists call “learned helplessness” in which victims of trauma come to feel so powerless they fail to develop effective escape strategies when faced with danger.
She never recovered from it, and in her last months became prey to a host of low-life thieves, frauds and drug dealers. Those who loved her were dismayed when, last July, a known dealer got to her in hospital, where she’d just woken from a 10-day coma, and hit her up with heroin before abducting her and fleecing her bank account.
Without a full-time carer she didn’t stand a chance. Nicholas Pasinis might not have delivered a fatal blow, but he destroyed the life of one of the most beautiful people I’ve had the privilege to know. When we come to counting our dead, women such as Deanne Bridgland must not be forgotten, however unsavoury their stories might be.
National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 23, 2016 as "Lateral damage". Subscribe here.