Policing domestic violence
In this story
Axl had shat on the courtyard again, and Mary knew she had to clean it up. She was cleaning up everything. Her ex-husband had brought the dog home, then left for rehab. Mary was left with her four children and a bull terrier. A living nightmare, she called it. And so she prepared the children for school, and prepared herself for her ex’s violent return.
Axl was a baby monster, bred for violence. A muscle dog. Which was why Chris had taken it home from the pound. He relished its viciousness. Relished its suggestion – as he walked it around the block – of his own toughness. Axl was a trophy for the most pitiful form of masculinity. So were the baseball bats spiked with nails that he left around the house. Apparently a man had to prepare. On a little-watched YouTube video, Chris had filmed himself sparring with a boxing bag – he was demonstrating the power of open-palmed hits to the head of an opponent. “Remember, there is no rules when you are threatened,” he wrote beneath the video. “Defend accordingly.” What he failed to mention was that the majority of violence he committed was directed against his wife in front of his children.
So Mary crouched to clean the shit off the concrete. They weren’t neat, solid excretions. It was sloppy. She knew she’d have to wash the deck. It was a perfectly foul metaphor. And as she scrubbed the stain, she thought back on 10 years of marriage – on the assaults, the burglaries, the five-day absences while Chris rushed towards meth-fuelled oblivion. And then she thought about Axl. “I want him gone,” she wrote in her diary later, “but I don’t want him gone. He represents Chris to me. But also, he’s Chris’s victim. Because he has those eyes. Those angel eyes… I have removed the abusive person that would just kick him and punch him and hurt him. Then ponce down the street because he’s a ‘muscle dog’.”
Ten years earlier, Mary and Chris were married at a wedding without booze. He didn’t drink, and Mary was unaware of his past. “He was a sensitive musician,” Mary tells me, “or at least that’s how he presented. He just wanted to write music. He was listening to Jewel at the time.”
Mary and Chris were happy, for a while. Then they had their first child, and Chris slumped into depression and bitterness. He blamed the child for thwarting his dream of becoming a rock star. He was a distant father, and the distance grew commensurately with the drugs he was using. Mary wanted him back with his child, wanted him to know that being a father and realising his ambition weren’t mutually exclusive. “I had a little money at that time. And I’d give him $10,000 to buy musical equipment and told him he could still live his dreams. Stupid.”
Chris spent the money. He bought guitars and amps and keyboards. But equipment wasn’t talent. He grew resentful. He said Mary and the kid were weights on his ambition. Mary thought they could work it out. “I thought I could show him that I loved him and could put his mind at rest – as if it had anything to do with me.”
Mary fell pregnant with twins. Chris fell further. He indulged in dramatic benders, and started using different names for himself. One was “Wolfgang”, a reference to Mozart, because Chris saw himself as a genius – albeit one whose talents were cruelled by an endlessly unsympathetic world. Chris’s failures were never his. They belonged to his wife, his children, society. He posted music clips online, and instructional videos about how to make curds and whey – a fine source of protein for the health conscious, he suggested. Chris desired online fame, as musician, warrior and health guru. And when he began to beat his wife, and to threaten her with power saws, he was also offering himself online as the guy to speak to about song structure, street fighting and health regimens. A Renaissance man. I’ve watched videos of his music – sickly sweet acoustic tunes, undistinguished but for their warped grandiosity.
“I’ve never had a violent partner before,” Mary says. “Then I tell my friends – ones I’ve known for 25 years – and they’ve had similar experiences. I never knew.”
In 2013, Mary would write in her diary: “The victim is often unaware that she is a victim of domestic violence. She doesn’t realise that the husband is portraying the common properties of classic DV perpetration. She doesn’t think that he is like every other DV perp. She thinks they have a special love and that he is just a troubled man, with childhood issues and the control and domination has become completely normal to her. Also, she could’ve been told for the whole relationship that if she ever leaves, she will be killed. After a while of seeing him with weapons and other forms of psychological pressure she starts to believe this.”
Before that diary entry, there were years of frightening abuse. Threats to kill, beatings, vandalism. His mood was volatile. In 2010 Chris returned home enraged because Mary had failed to take his 20th call that night. The calls were a jealous battery, and she put her phone away before falling asleep on the couch in front of a movie. A girlfriend had nodded off on the other sofa. They were woken by Chris and his mate. Bellowing, intoxicated. It was a bad scene. Mary’s head was slammed to the floor, and the back windscreen of her friend’s car smashed. Chris’s mate helped block their escape.
Mary fled the house and hid behind a tree. She called her friend but couldn’t get through – presumably because she was on the phone to police. Mary texted her to get out. Then Mary herself called the police, but tells me they hung up on her. Later, she wrote: “[Police officers] then wrote a report on the application for intervention order based upon what my husband had said to her (without once seeing me or talking to me). Report was very biased and said I was on heroin. [That night] children were left with friend of husband that had helped him and barred us from leaving the room.”
Mary never saw her friend again.
Later, Chris would write a letter of apology from a police station: “Sorry for lying to you and sorry for touching you. These things are never OK. See, I am ashamed. Ashamed of my own behaviour and idiocy. The bitter, hurtful things I said, when you present me with them it freaks me out. BADLY.
“The fear that I have lost you is great. Tell me, have I lost you? I need to know see, because life without you seems dark. Very dark. I said those things to the police last night as a way to scare you … I bought a gun today planning to end my life. I can’t do it. To you or the kids. Not anymore … Do you still love me? I simply can’t live without you! I can’t. I am lost without you.”
He signed off, “Love forever”.
Looking back, Mary says, “There were all these superficial declarations of love. Just bullshit. You want to show me love? Don’t fucking strangle me.”
The violence continued. In fact, it escalated. In 2012, Chris went on a rampage, smashing windows and mirrors and tearing out a chunk of Mary’s hair. He threw a knife at Mary, which stuck in the wall beside her head, then went to the garage to fetch a power saw with which to intimidate her. “But he was so drug-fucked that he couldn’t work out how to turn it on.” He told her he knew what it was like to kill somebody.
Mary called the police, but was dismayed by their reaction. She wrote in her diary: “The police walk in. They see the knives hanging out of the wall. They see the smashed up house. They take him to the station. They don’t search him or charge him. They serve him with an invalid intervention order … [One police officer] said ‘but you said that he threw the knives at the wall, not at you’ then ‘there is no crime against smashing up your house’.”
She continued: “Women in DV are already ashamed at having to call the police. The very act of calling the police is an extremely last resort because I know I’m going to have to pay for it. I expected to be treated like a victim. I expected them to save me. All of their behaviour had the effect of confirming to me that I’m alone.”
The first priority of attending officers is the safety of the woman, and the extrication of the offender. Depending on the situation, and resources, the house may be declared a crime scene and the crime investigation unit called in. But the arrival of those first officers does not necessarily trigger an immediate investigation.
Mary got the impression from most police officers she dealt with that they didn’t see domestic violence as seriously as they did street crime – that some officers she met perceived her situation as an altercation between equals.
Mary had multiple encounters with police. She called them when her ex-husband scaled the balcony, or threatened her over the phone. One day, he came over to take the children on a holiday and assaulted Mary with a milk crate. It split open her eye, an injury witnessed by her mother. Mary tells me it “took police 45 minutes to arrive. For that, [Chris] was convicted, but he was given a suspended sentence. A suspended sentence means absolutely nothing to a criminal.”
I put a list of Mary’s grievances to Victoria Police. Their response was as follows, reproduced here in full:
“Victoria Police has focused on family violence for many years now as the number of calls for help has increased significantly.
“We are dedicated to doing what we can to stop the cycle of violence by holding perpetrators to account and working closely with victims.
“Last year we critically examined our response in our submission to the Royal Commission into Family Violence.
“Our dedication to the issue is unwavering.
“We are aware of complaints made by Mary in relation to her interactions with police.
“Mary’s case has been reviewed a number of times including by local police and Professional Standards Command.
“Mary was spoken to about the results of the review.
“If Mary would like to take this further she is welcome to refer the issue to the independent broad-based anti-corruption commission.”
Mary’s case has been reviewed multiple times by Victoria Police.
Chris has breached multiple intervention orders, has been convicted for the assault and unlawful detention of a man, and is entirely estranged from his sister, a woman who supported Mary during the couple’s divorce proceedings. Chris has left the state now, and is on parole. Mary says she feels like “the luckiest woman alive” now that he’s gone. “I can ride my bike. I can leave the house. I feel lighter.” But the relief isn’t pure – it’s mixed with dread. “I’m telling people about this – about what he’s capable of – because if I’m killed by him in the future, people can’t say that they weren’t warned.”
But there is also Mary’s fear of what damage has been wrought upon her children by the violence and anxiety. One of her diary entries from 2013 is heartbreaking. “Woken up early in morning [by child] getting into my bed crying. She’s had a bad dream. She dreamt Chris came over while I was at yoga and killed them all.” But life as a single mother went on. Later, she writes: “Got up, got breaky and lunches. Put dinner on to cook while I’m out.”
Mary’s story is a case study in domestic horror – a despicably common one. It’s also a correction to stereotypes of male aggressors. Chris tried on many seemingly contradictory roles – sensitive musician, political activist, health guru, drug dealer and steroid-enhanced bouncer. For a while, his charm could disguise his narcissism. At some point he replaced Jewel T-shirts with death metal ones, proudly displaying the naked torsos of women strung on meat hooks. And for all of Mary’s suffering, there are limitations to justice – the efficacy of intervention orders, for instance, and thresholds for evidence.
But things are better for her now. She’s studying and enjoying a freedom she hadn’t experienced for much of her 10-year marriage. She’s by turns hopeful and cautious, relaxed and fatalistic. She rejoices at his distance, but allows that he may kill some time in the future.
“Even 10 years from now,” she tells me. “The resentment will linger.” She possesses enormous anger and frustration, the result of a long nightmare’s difficult fit with a complicated justice system.
Names have been changed.
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 Feb 27, 2016 as "‘If he kills me, people were warned’".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial