Opinion

Jane Gilmore
The untold stories of family violence

Domestic violence is the most important story in Australia. As Margaret Simons, associate professor of journalism at Monash University, has said, “The statistics alone tell us this is Australia’s biggest crime, health and human rights story. It is also one of the biggest political and economic stories.”

While the statistics, frequently repeated – one woman a week killed by a current or former partner – are necessary to describe scale and prevalence, they add little to the public’s emotional connection to the causes and effects of domestic abuse. It is in combining the experience of survivors with data that stories begin to resonate. But it is hard to persuade people to believe survivor stories. Misinformation spread by anti-women men’s rights activists – such as the thoroughly debunked myth, favoured by Pauline Hanson, that women lie about domestic violence to win child custody battles – only makes it harder.

Mistrust is also increased by inept representation in the domestic violence sector, by well-meaning but ill-informed groups such as White Ribbon, which announced this week it will wind up due to insolvency. A not unexpected result of decreased donations to a charity that demonstrated on multiple occasions that its senior management did not have a clear grasp of the complexity or breadth of men’s violence against women.

White Ribbon was the most visible organisation in Australia dedicated to ending men’s violence against women. Yet its actions repeatedly frustrated the domestic violence sector, survivors and their supporters. When the charity decided to remove references to women’s reproductive freedom from its website, or to accept donations from pubs in return for helping these establishments to get permission to install more poker machines, these were not gaffes or mistakes. They demonstrated a fundamental failure to understand the problem that White Ribbon was meant to be fixing.

The charity became all about marketing – selling a brand rather than supporting grassroots change. Men who made arses of themselves in public could make a donation in return for absolution. A simple transaction. Meanwhile, the complex stories – of the men who were abusive and wanted to change, or the women who didn’t fit the “perfect victim” mould – were lost in the fantasy of “good men”, white knights and champions.

In recent years, many journalists have worked hard to tell the story of Australia’s domestic abuse epidemic more honestly. But stories of abuse are complicated. By nature, they are often messy. Domestic abuse survivors can carry trauma for years after the relationship has ended. And reporting their stories with clarity and credibility, as we must do, is difficult work.

Drug and alcohol addiction, financial hardship and post-traumatic stress disorder are all common for survivors of long-term abuse. But these are often not the stories we tell; we stick to the safe narrative of the perfect victim, which only makes it more difficult for women living with the inevitable effects of trauma to see themselves, and to understand their responses, as perfectly normal. It is a twisted form of victim-blaming, the suggestion some women don’t deserve abuse because they are such a good woman/wife/mother – rather than because it is a basic human right to live free from abuse and violence.

A few years ago, I was contacted by a woman, whom I’ll call Jenny, responding to a social media discussion about why women often stay with violent men. In an email, she told me she was about to leave her abuser and wanted to explain how financial, emotional and physiological barriers had built up over years to form what felt like impossible obstacles to her leaving.

She was clear and articulate and seemed like an ideal source for a story I was writing.

Then, I spoke to her on the phone and realised she was not yet ready to leave her abuser. It became clear her children were direct as well as indirect victims of her husband’s violence. But Jenny was adamant: she wanted me to publish a detailed description of the abuse he had inflicted on her and her children, as well as the fear and manipulation he used to prevent her leaving.

While Jenny and her children were still living with their abuser, publishing any details that could identify her would be dangerous and ethically indefensible. She agreed it would be risky if her husband found out but kept insisting that he would never read an article about domestic abuse written by a feminist, so it didn’t matter.

A few days later we met in person and, despite the early hour, I suspected she had been drinking. Eventually, I asked her and she said she had – it was the only way she could cope with her constant terror, she told me. She insisted she was capable of making the decision to speak on the record and asked why I wouldn’t let her make that decision for herself. In truth, she was still able to clearly explain how difficult it was to find a job and a safe home, and she vividly described how the cycle of violence – building tension, explosion, remorse, promises, honeymoon period, building tension et cetera – had played out in their relationship.

And she wanted me to use her name and photo in the article so people would know it was true and she could take ownership of the story about her life.

But publishing her story as she asked me to – with photos, details and her real name – was far too dangerous. Jenny didn’t have enough experience with the way the media moves and she didn’t understand how it would be almost impossible that her husband wouldn’t see the article. And identifying her would identify her children, who were too young to make an informed choice about something that could put them at risk and follow them for the rest of their lives.

It would have been unconscionable for me to publish the article Jenny wanted me to write, but she was also right in saying I was overriding her choice to take ownership of her story.

This isn’t the story the media usually tells about itself – the stories we fail to tell. In reporting on men’s violence against women, the imperfect victims are often erased because of trauma, mental health, risks to the survivor and the constant threat of defamation. These are also not the stories told by organisations such as White Ribbon, where protecting the brand seems to matter more than telling the truth of the issue.

Jenny was right to point out that if the only stories we can tell are from people who have completely recovered, have found safety and have no minors in their care, we aren’t documenting the experiences of the vast majority of domestic abuse survivors. The motive may be well intentioned, but it can infantilise adults and denies their right to self-determination. It can seem, and sometimes genuinely be, exploitative to publish survivor stories from people suffering trauma, but it can also be a transformative process. Almost all victims of abuse feel shame about what was done to them, and one of the strongest dynamics in reinforcing shame is secrecy.

Making the abuse public is frequently described by survivors as the most empowering thing they have done – it is the ultimate rejection of shame. But for journalists, balancing a survivor’s right to speak against our greater experience of the risks of media exposure presents a dilemma. And in practice, the nuance needed to tell these stories doesn’t lend them to glossy marketing campaigns about “good” blokes who will call out “bad” blokes at the pub.

Eventually, Jenny agreed we could not publish a story that identified her. Instead, we decided to document her thoughts and experiences as she struggled to leave and publish it when her husband was no longer an immediate threat to her or her children. We are still trying to work out what that piece could look like.

Hopefully, a smarter, better, more focused organisation will take up the space left behind by White Ribbon. We need men to be part of the solution. We need them to organise, labour, discuss and reach out to one another. And we need them to be telling the true stories of violence and abuse, because the only way to fix a problem is to understand its true shape. 

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 Oct 5, 2019 as "Silent survivors". Subscribe here.

Jane Gilmore
is a freelance journalist and the author of Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media.