Editor’s note: This interview contains discussion of emotional, physical and sexual violence.
On average in Australia, a country of almost 25 million, one woman every week is killed by somebody she has been intimate with. A woman is hospitalised every three hours. It’s estimated that Australian police are called to a domestic abuse incident every two minutes (and it’s estimated that only 20–40 per cent of incidents are reported).
See What You Made Me Do, written by Walkley award-winning investigative journalist Jess Hill and available now from Black Inc., is a deep dive into the abuse so many women and children experience – abuse that is often reinforced by the justice system they trust to protect them. Critically, it shows that we can drastically reduce domestic violence – not in generations to come, but today. KYD’s publisher Alice Cottrell spoke to Jess on the phone from her home in Sydney.
KYD: In See What You Made Me Do you reframe the question of ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ to ‘why does he stay?’, putting the focus on the perpetrators of abuse. Can you tell me about the thinking that led you to structure the book in that way?
Jess Hill: I started writing the book because I was tired of hearing women say that no one understood their choices or what they’d been through. People couldn’t understand that they were in danger even after they’d left the relationship. We can’t have had over 2 million women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner and have such a poor understanding of how that impacts on them and their kids. Once I’d really looked into the behaviour of victims and why they did what they did, I was surprised at how quickly it became easily comprehendible. And I guess at the end of that it was like, ‘well, it’s one thing to understand why they make certain choices, but what about understanding why abusers make certain choices?’
When I started to try to understand where the perpetrators were coming from it was like turning myself inside out. I got taken down this total rabbit hole. It was so discombobulating and deeply disturbing. There’s one early paragraph [in the book] where a guy is raping his partner and he says ‘I’m doing it because I love you’. And I came across story after story like that, where the perspective of the perpetrator was so alien to the actual situation that they were perpetrating…it just did my head in. I’m married to a psychotherapist and he works with men of all kinds, including perpetrators. It was really though my daily conversations with him, trying to excavate where these guys were coming from, that I realised we had to find a way to not only articulate the experience of these men and go beyond the stock answer of ‘they do it for power and control’, but also to find a way to speak to them. To explain their emotional situation and the drivers for their behaviour so viscerally that they couldn’t help but relate to it, even if they still wanted to eschew responsibility and blame their partner. In the end it came to me that basically, unless this book spoke as powerfully to perpetrators as it did to survivors, there was no point writing it.
We’ve had a long time of awareness campaigns, of speaking to victims, but now we’re coming up to the tail-end of #MeToo and the question on everyone’s lips is why do men do these things? Men who are otherwise normal, loved by family, friends and coworkers, how can they be so viciously distorted in intimate situations? That’s the work this book has got to do, and I had to go through pretty extreme personal pain to interrogate it.
I’d like to ask you about the importance of language in the way we talk about this issue. You make a linguistic distinction early in the book when you’re referring to ‘abuse’ rather than ‘violence’. Can you explain why that is?
When I was writing the book the question I was so often asked by women was ‘How are you going to deal with the fact that a lot of violence is not physical? How are you going to explain to people that some of the worst abuse we suffer is psychological?’ I never had a very good answer for them. Then I read this opinion piece by Yasmin Khan talking about why she decided to change her language in her work up in Brisbane with migrant victims of domestic abuse, and it just immediately made sense. We don’t talk about ‘child violence’ because the mistreatment of children comes in various forms. And if we only talked about ‘child violence’ we’d exclude all the children who experience horrific abuse that’s not physical.
In the end it came to me that unless this book spoke as powerfully to perpetrators as it did to survivors, there was no point writing it.
Even though domestic violence is a stronger, sharper term, there were too many women who didn’t feel like their experience was described by that term. And, worse still, women wouldn’t identify themselves as being in a domestic abuse situation because there wasn’t physical violence. But they could be in horrific situations of coercive control where they were living under systematic campaigns of domination, and yet because their partner didn’t belt them, they wouldn’t identify themselves as victims. In the UK, where they’ve brought in coercive control laws, the police changed their language to domestic abuse as well because they had the same experience, and they didn’t want women to not report because they didn’t think they were included. That’s why I thought it was absolutely imperative. Even if ‘domestic abuse’ sounds more benign than domestic violence did, I just think we have to do whatever we can with the language we have to include the greatest amount of victims.
Can you explain some of the strategies, intentional or unconscious, common to many of the perpetrators of coercive control?
In intimate relationships, in order to have a coercive control situation take hold, you’ve got to have established love and trust. A lot of survivors talk about being ‘love-bombed’ in the beginning of the relationship, where their partner was just obsessed with them, was the most affectionate, interested person they’d ever been with. During that period of intimate relationships one of the things that happens is that we have to divulge secrets. We have to divulge our most intimate details in order to establish that intimacy. Now, unfortunately, in domestic abuse situations the sorts of intimate details that are given in those early periods then become a blueprint for how the perpetrator will design their abuse. The basic foundations of coercive control are very similar from relationship to relationship, but the details are unique. They’re bespoke to that relationship, and that’s the point.
Classic techniques or behaviours…whether it’s intentional or just something the perpetrator is doing unconsciously, they will isolate the victim from supportive connections. They could move them to a different place, or they make it difficult or explicitly prevent them from seeing their friends or family. Then they turn around their behaviour to make it seem like it’s the victim’s fault. The victim is then looking inwards thinking ‘what am I doing to make the perpetrator like that?’. Then, when the victim is really trying to figure out ‘why has this person who was so loving before become so awful?’ the perpetrator starts messing with their reality. That’s where you get a lot of people talking about gaslighting. Basically the perpetrator denies what’s happening right in front of both the perpetrator and the victim’s eyes and pretends that something else has happened. And they do it so often that the victim starts to doubt their own sanity.
There are a number of other techniques or behaviours. Alternating punishments with rewards, making it really uncertain as to whether one day things are going to be good or bad. Enforcing trivial demands, which is basically about setting arbitrary rules with no rhyme or reason to them. Basically what the perpetrator is doing is training compliance into their partner, because they just have to learn to obey whatever rule comes up because the consequences could be so awful that there’s no point resisting. Demonstrating omnipotence…perpetrators make it feel like there’s nowhere that their partner will ever feel like they have independence from them. That might mean messaging them 50 times a day, or installing a tracking app on their phone or a GPS tracker in their car and always popping up wherever they are in places they never could have known unless they had been tracking them…so they start to assume these godlike powers in the victim’s mind. Some of the other techniques are things like threatening and degrading.
One of the really important things to know is that the whole architecture of coercive control is held together by fear. But it’s also held together by love. Because it’s held together by the belief that the victim has that this is an aberrant type of behaviour, and that if they just do the right thing, find out what they’re doing wrong, find a way to fix their partner, they will go back to the loving person that they were in those first few months or years.
I also wanted to ask you about the issue many people, in society at large as well as in the police force and court system, have with the idea of a ‘perfect victim’ – there being only a specific kind of victim that they’re able to understand or sympathise with.
I guess in the 1970s that was quite a conscious decision the domestic abuse sector made, which was to specifically portray the type of woman that policymakers could feel some sympathy with, or could even imagine to be their own daughter or sister or mother. That woman was a white, middle-class woman who was almost always portrayed as cowering in fear. It’s backfired because now that’s what people expect to see, and if they don’t see that person they don’t know how to fit them into the victim paradigm that they have in their mind. When they see a woman who is violently resisting her partner – which, by the way, is incredibly important for a lot of women’s dignity – if they show that violent resistance, then they’re not a passive victim.
Women of colour, women with disabilities, poor women, women with substance abuse issues…The cowering woman in the corner is, I would suggest, almost nobody. I’m not saying that women don’t cower in the corner and they’re not afraid, but that’s not the totality of their experience. And when women look at those posters they don’t see themselves in that person. They see someone who is doing their best to survive, they see someone who is working as hard as they can to help the person they’re with to become a better man, to stop the abuse. They see themselves as much more than a victim, but that’s all we portray back at them. So many women will talk about the fact that for a long time they didn’t report because they didn’t see themselves as that victim.
When women look at those posters they don’t see themselves in that person. They see themselves as much more than a victim, but that’s all we portray back at them.
We’re talking largely in terms of perpetrators being men and the victims of abuse being women. You explain in the book that of course women can also be controlling, abusive and violent. But you take time to explore why the idea of equivalence between male and female abuse is a myth. Can you explain that a bit further?
It’s a myth because even though you have situations where females can be perpetrators of abuse, it’s very, very rare that they can hold a system of coercive control together. Though of course there may be fear from male victims, especially and absolutely validly about the threat the female perpetrators may pose to their children, it’s very unlikely and unusual for a female to be able to totally eradicate a man’s sense of self-worth and to degrade them into the state of total subservience that coercive control requires. The reason why that’s important is because those sorts of controlling relationships are really the most dangerous form of domestic abuse.
More reactive types of violence that we see most often coming from women are still incredibly traumatic for men and can be life-ruining. But it’s not the kind of violence that often sees men fleeing their home and needing to find crisis accommodation where they have to seek protection from someone who is meaning to kill them. It’s a very distinctive and different type of abuse. And I think particularly in terms of being pursued through the legal system after the relationship is over, that too is far less common than with male perpetrators. Once female perpetrators leave the relationship they rarely try to hang on and exert their control over years and years. Whereas male perpetrators can do that for decades… in any way they can find, with the family law system and various other legal avenues.
I think we absolutely do need to talk about what happens to male victims and not just footnote them, because I think up until now we’ve vacated the space and left it for ‘men’s rights’ groups to occupy with misinformation. But you just don’t have the same issue of domestic homicide towards men. And that frames the issue entirely differently.
One of the most terrifying and shocking sections of the book for me was learning about the Family Court, which seems to be incredibly dysfunctional. Can you explain a little about how it’s dysfunctional and why that is?
Essentially what you have is a system that is geared towards doing whatever is possible to get a child into contact with both parents. That’s the presenting ideology of the Family Court, and it’s based on research that shows that children do better when they’re in contact with both parents. Unfortunately, way too often family law judges treat family violence as though it’s just an inconvenience, a historical issue, an issue of relationship conflict that has occurred between the two parents and has not concerned the children, which just flies in the face of all the evidence that we have. It’s like we’ve got a system that is still 20-25 years in the past in terms of understanding the impact of domestic abuse on children, issues around primary attachment and the necessity of keeping children with their primary carers.
What’s also unfortunate is that there’s a system of expert report writers – often psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers – far too many of whom, in my opinion, have virtually no understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse and child sexual abuse. And I can tell you, family violence is one of the most counterintuitive types of human behaviour that we have. If you don’t have a particular clinical experience or training in it you will come to the wrong conclusions about certain behavioural choices, the types of people are perpetrators or victims, the effects of trauma. Those reports are one of the most important pieces of evidence that the family court considers, and yet there are no standards or guidelines as to how qualified the people writing those reports need to be in their understanding of family violence.
The result of all of that is that even children who are really candid in their testimonies are disbelieved. They’re basically disregarded as though their testimonies don’t mean anything. Even when research shows that children don’t lie. They fabricate far less often than firstly fathers, and then mothers. When children are not believed…the court then sees a woman, most often, who is trying to break contact between the child and their other parent, which to the family law court is like a capital crime. And the consequences that can come down from the family law court for that kind of behaviour, if they don’t think it’s justified, can be horrific. We’re talking about custody being swapped with no warning, contact completely prohibited for months at a time.
A brilliant thing about See What You Made Me Do is that it offers concrete suggestions for ways we can tackle this issue. I think I’ve certainly been guilty of thinking that what we need to do to diminish domestic abuse is tackle gender inequality in the long term and bring about a generational cultural shift in attitudes. Which of course is necessary, but in the book you outline practical, immediate interventions that offer help to victims of domestic abuse now. Can you tell about some of the most successful short-term strategies you encountered while writing the book?
The two strategies that really stood out to me were the strategies of focused deterrence and justice reinvestment. The impacts of those two strategies, both in places that were experiencing way above average levels of domestic abuse and homicide, was not only radical in terms of reduction but was also relatively quick. Both systems took a couple of years to actually establish because they hinge on deep collaboration between groups that are not necessarily used to working together, but once the systems were in place there were enormous reductions in assaults and homicides within the space of a few years.
The system of focused deterrence in the United States was based on a strategy that was used to fight gun crime in Boston. One academic, a criminologist called David Kennedy, thought we should put more stock in the rationality of offenders. That if given the choice between choosing a better path and getting help, or continuing to offend and being locked up for a long period of time, they will choose to stop their offending. That was completely against the status quo understanding of how offenders worked. [So even] without necessarily solving the root issues of poverty, unemployment, racism…they were actually able to see reductions in the short term. Those are things we should be working on long term, no doubt, that is the root of these crimes. But we need to see reductions now. In High Point, which was the first city to trial this seriously, within 8 or so years their rate of domestic homicide had been cut by two thirds.
Then you’ve got a similar situation in Bourke, which was one of the top-rating towns in New South Wales for domestic abuse, with justice reinvestment again focused on collaboration, bringing agencies that had been working either individually or even at cross purposes together on a very regular basis. I’m talking about daily meetings with police and community groups, deep, qualitative data being collected on who the most dangerous offenders are and how the various service agencies can combine their efforts to address what’s going wrong in these people’s lives that may actually have an effect on their perpetration of violence. They found after two years of this project, and of police being much more proactive and working together with community, they had a reduction in the domestic assault rate of almost 40 per cent.
The sort of societal reform we would see if we really made domestic abuse the public safety issue that it is would be one of the greatest nation-building exercises in our history.
These are strategies that are achieving the unthinkable, and the unthinkable is that domestic abuse can be radically reduced in a short period of time. That’s really what I want people to come away from the book with, that there are a number of different strategies, if we pull together and really come at it from that community-level response, that radically reduce what is a core dysfunction in our society. Mass homelessness, the increase of women in prison, massive overburden of children in child protection services…the list of problems that are caused by the prevalence of domestic violence and domestic abuse is inestimable, it’s so huge. The sort of societal reform we would see if we really made domestic abuse the public safety issue that it is would be one of the greatest nation-building exercises in our history.
What are some of the key shifts in Australian policy you would like to see happen?
I’d like to see community-owned initiatives get a lot more support from government. I’d also like to see a much more serious consideration of how we can make coercive control a crime, because I think that would totally revolutionise our understanding of how domestic violence works. For most women the psychological aspects of abuse are worse than the physical aspect, and yet that’s not how our law responds. I would like to see a much more collaborative response to victims. I think we see that in the Orange Door initiative in Victoria at the moment, where service providers are all under the one roof for victims to access. In addition to service providers and all the other things that women need to access when they’re leaving an abusive relationship, I’d really love it if women could access police in that same place. And those police would be specifically trained in the dynamics of domestic abuse and applying a protective policing strategy, rather than trying to get the victim to fit into a punitive law enforcement system that often does not fit their needs. Really, at the heart of it, we need to see far greater education of our judiciary, our police, and of the lawyers that represent these women. The fact is that a lot of professionals are dealing with family abuse on a daily basis and yet still don’t really have the education or skills to deal with it properly.
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) offers confidential information, counselling and support services and is open 24 hours to support people impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse.
At a time of reduced government spending, Women’s Community Shelters offers a new ‘tri-partite’ funding model in which Government, philanthropy/business and community all work to provide funding to establish and operate crisis accommodation shelters. You can make a donation here.