There’s a spike of activity in November. They swarm around talkback radio like aggrieved bees, industriously stuff their blogs with sound and fury. They send letters to editors, plant barbs in online comments and, one wryly imagines, coalesce in kitchens to swap war stories and strategy. More likely, though, their attempts to cohere their message is undertaken remotely, each member alone at his keyboard, joined to the others by a shared sense of injustice.
For it is in November that White Ribbon Day falls, and they are the Forgotten Men – their pain buried beneath politically exact campaigns about violence against women. I say ‘campaign’, but the temperature of their pique suggests they think of it less as a ‘campaign’ and more as a female conspiracy to emasculate fellas – cynically assisted by male leaders desperate to burnish their image.
These are the Men’s Rights Activists (MRA), the guys who aggressively lobby editors and politicians about the perils of discussing gendered violence. Their self-appointed mandate is broader than this, but I’ll limit it to violence against women for this essay. The perceived peril, as far as I can tell, is that the public might only contemplate the suffering of women, ignoring the horrors women domestically visit upon men. In our witless rush to correct historical imbalance, they assert we are pushing the pendulum the other way. What hope does a bloke have when his sorrow and vulnerability is lost beneath an avalanche of pop feminism?
I watched these guys for some time while I worked in the Office of the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. I read their letters to the Chief, read their open missives to other leaders online. Police and politicians were variously denounced as misguided, bigoted or calculating jackals. I watched how an occasionally sober post on their website would be hopelessly undermined by the trail of open, rancid misogyny in the comments. I followed their passionate rhetoric about female perpetrators of family violence, but noticed they’d elide the fact that approximately 84% of perpetrators are men.
I became convinced, however, that despite their zeal and volume – these guys are studiously vehement – they represented a minority. I advised that we should not be swayed by them. I also watched as they confused their individual stories for trends; saw them conflate the personal with the social. Anecdote trumped data. I experienced their sophomoric mix of abuse, intimidation and self-pity – most of their lobbying couldn’t rise above primal screaming.
Their anger also manifested as intolerance for any issue that wasn’t theirs. Last November, the Acting Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Graham Ashton, went on local ABC radio to discuss White Ribbon Day. Calls from the public were taken, and one furious man was put through to Ashton. ‘Do you know what the male suicide rate is!?’ he screamed. ‘Why aren’t you–’ The producer hit the ‘dump’ button.
The caller’s fear of the avalanche made for some queer logic. To discuss the rape and assault of women is not to suggest male suicide is negligible. What would the caller suggest? That we ignore everything not immediately related to male self-harm? What did the gentleman find so offensive, other than his suspicion that his pain was being ignored? And would he have felt the same if Ashton was talking about the road toll?
And yet, the pain of these men appeared sincere and significant. I suspected that many of them had seen darkness. Their arguments – strained as they often were – did occasionally reveal inadequacies in our discussions of domestic violence. I didn’t feel like I could totally ignore them – or at least that there wasn’t much gained in smugly rejecting them outright.
We are constantly misapprehending the nature of violence and we are especially ignorant of domestic forms. The MRA guys got me thinking about many things but, for the sake of length, I will restrict my attention to two: the limiting contingencies of political arguments; and, by way of my own experience of intimate abuse, our destructive habits to blame victims and to crudely misapprehend the complexities of human relations.
A very short primer on violence and gender: the majority of assault and murder is visited upon men. Unlike women, they are more likely – in both categories – to fall victim to a stranger. The constant in all formulations, though, is men. Some MRA attempt to make this point. And it’s legitimate, but they allow it to be dismissed too easily because of ad hominem arguments and bigotry.
Then there is sexual violence. For adult victims, this is overwhelmingly committed against women. Some 90+ per cent of rape victims are female, and the inverse is obvious: perpetrators are overwhelmingly male. As sexual assault investigators have told me, rape is most often a crime of control – sexual motivation is cast beneath, or amongst, an ugly and explosive entitlement. The same is true of child abuse. Counter-intuitively, perhaps, child molesters aren’t necessarily paedophiles – that is, someone pathologically attracted to prepubescent children. Much child abuse – definitive percentages are impossible to acquire – occurs as grotesque forms of control, frustration, anger and vindictiveness.
As a writer and adviser to the Chief Commissioner, I tried to sensibly disentangle these variations – to make precisely clear what kind of violence we were talking about, and the conditions in which they occur. I believed, as colleagues did, that violence against women had largely been ignored because it happens largely in homes. We cruelly and presumptuously relegate that violence beneath us – cast as either inevitable, mutual or the inconsequential tempests of white trash.
In advocacy it’s best to have neat, clean lines of rhetoric, un-smudged by qualification. I detected an awkwardness from some anti-domestic violence advocates about the fact that more men than women are murdered and assaulted. This is only a suspicion, and nor does it spring from some shadowy cabal of feminists, as imagined by some MRA. No, I suspect that the statistic was treated awkwardly – if at all – because it was a distraction from their main game of violence against women. This frustrating thinking extends to most advocates – there’s a common fear that there is limited public sympathy and political will, and that any complexity or footnote will dilute the strength of their appeal.
But there are other facts, too. That 15% of domestic abuse victims in Victoria’s last reporting period were male, and that the actual number might be higher owing to underreporting. Do we ignore these men? What do we do? In a culture that has ruinously encouraged male inarticulacy, how do we combat male anxiety or embarrassment? I don’t think these are fatuous questions.
This is not to undermine the obscene reality of domestic violence, or its gendered nature. We know that each week in Australia one woman is murdered by a partner or ex-partner. We know that domestic violence comprises roughly half of police work in Victoria and New South Wales. And we know that the overwhelming amount of that violence is committed by men on women. These aren’t the delirious hoaxes of feminists. They are facts. Given the obvious gender imbalance of the data, there’s a legitimate question – ‘Why men?’ – which is obscured by the screams of ‘Not all men!’ Inquiry shouldn’t be confused for attack. Isolating violence against women, or family violence, is not an act of radical political exclusion – it’s a plea to accept the particular dynamics of these forms of violence. The fact that more men are murdered than women doesn’t help us understand why so many women are being killed or bludgeoned by men who have declared to love them.
I arrived in our capital on the eve of Canberra Day. It was March 2009. A friend picked me up from the airport and drove me to my hotel. I thought I’d be fine. I was heartsick and nervous, but work would insulate me. I’d meet people, I always did. I’d moved to South Korea on my own when I was 22. This would be a cakewalk.
I thought I would be fine. I never thought that I wouldn’t be. I never entertained the idea that years later I’d be writing about this. ‘Get on with it,’ I would tell others. ‘Stop dramatising your neurosis. It’s boring and self-defeating. There are people doing things, not only thinking things, like police officers and paramedics and…’
But here we are. March 2009. Canberra and naive dreams of Camelot.
The sole reason for my move – work – quickly revealed itself as a shabby vaudeville, a pit for castaways who had somehow found salaries far above the national average, for which a sense of irony and self-awareness had been removed so they could assume ever-increasing salaries were an inviolable right. It might’ve been funny, had I not moved 3000 kilometres away from my home for it.
Why didn’t I head back home? I’m asking myself that now. Well, my girlfriend was soon embarking on a long-planned six-month tour of the world – she wouldn’t be there if I was, anyway. Soon, the strain of distance would end it all.
I was also liable for the cost of my move – flight, removalists, hotel accommodation for a month – if I didn’t fulfil a year’s work. For a man with no savings, I blanched at the thought of a $10,000 bill. Most of all, there was the stubborn determination to see it out. I’m not one to easily accept defeat. It would get better. I’d meet people.
Then I met Dorothy*. And know this: Dorothy’s skills, as vile and grasping as they are, would have been nothing without my loneliness and my vain need to save a damsel in distress. This madness needed a curator. I was that guy.
She was attractive. We began to take quick cigarette and coffee breaks, and soon she was telling me about her boyfriend, the father of her children. Okay, I thought, that’s that. No worries.
Except she began telling me about the beatings and verbal abuse. She told me of her helplessness. I should have wondered why she was telling this to me, a practical stranger, and perhaps I did. But I told her to waste no more time rationalising the toxicity – she needed to leave him. I encouraged her to speak to a professional. I looked up the names of counsellors. I felt a strong obligation to assist, mixed with the arrogant assumption that I was the right guy to confide in.
I’ve thought hard about the damsel-in-distress dynamic. About whether I’m a sucker for it. If I’m driven by compassion and arrogance, if the altruism is tempered by a selfish need to improve someone. I think that was once the case. I don’t know how much was conscious. But I did feel that once I came into the knowledge of Dorothy’s despair, I had an obligation to meet it.
Dorothy left her boyfriend and we began dating. Almost immediately it didn’t feel right. There was a vague dread, some disturbance at the bottom of the lake. My instincts told me to have nothing to do with her, but I felt I’d already come too far. This was a young woman with children, who had just emerged from a battered existence. She had made it clear that I was all she had.
We told no one at work.
It couldn’t last. My misgivings were too strong and we were hopelessly mismatched. She was vain, ignorant and petty. She wasn’t interested in the stars, only her feet. And while her darkest potential was far from being revealed, I instinctually felt danger. I steeled myself and broke up with her, letting her know that I was still on hand to assist, to counsel, to cajole. And I meant it.
Meanwhile, I had become hopelessly depressed. When you’re well, there’s an avid search for what’s causally significant to your depression. When you’re unwell you don’t have the energy or insight, there’s just a quick search for palliatives, which for me was booze and rock music.
My frustration at work metastasised into a bald loathing, while my absence from friends and conversation became an unspeakable horror. Why had I moved here?
Dorothy could not let it be. She proposed a casual affair, no strings attached. My need for companionship, sex and the small, grounding pleasures of domesticity met Dorothy’s desire to possess someone. Pretty soon this malnourished but mutual engagement was tightened by Dorothy’s threats of suicide if I called it off, once and for all. The straightjacket was tightened by the fact we worked together. I had become the chief architect, owner and occupier of a very dark cell.
But I fought back. Music was my muscle, my way back to feeling alive. I played tracks that tickled wistfulness, articulated misery or gave me a battle cry. I fought hard against self-absorption, and critically challenged my complaints that Canberra was somehow at fault. Depression is a temporal funk, and it mocks and warps perception. Things look different; taste different. The near-catastrophic funk seeped from my head like gas, infecting the city. Streets, parks, buildings – it was all tainted.
But Teenage Fanclub and indie rock couldn’t fill all the places. The mellifluous chords would fade well before touching the space where I contemplated the consequences of breaking all ties with Dorothy. I suspected that the consequences would be awful. Life-changing, even. I was right.
We kept sleeping together. I kept telling her that this was just casual. She kept telling me she would kill herself, that her ex was threatening to beat her, that he was threatening to kill the kids if he ever saw me with them.
I believed it all. And it kept me there. Even as I became awesomely mute and belittled by the space between us. Even though, with her manipulations and tireless self-aggrandisement, she became a ghoulish reinforcer of my depression. Even though I was fighting for optimism, meeting people and saying ‘yes’ to things, reminding myself of things that mattered, she cloaked me in her abject emptiness.
I still thought she could kill herself. She told me she would. Many times. I knew that this might have been a ruse – was, in fact, most likely a ruse. But unless you’ve been there, been the subject of this ultimate game of bluff, it’s insufficient to suggest you can just walk away. I weighed the odds: my nervous system or her life. I didn’t gamble against the house.
I was a husk. Worse, I knew it. My curiosity and sense of joy was broken. My dynamism dead. How did this happen? I needed a key change, something to lift me up and back to myself. And music? It was refuge, not salvation. Salvation was down to me.
I had begun to politely enforce some space between us. It wasn’t as clear and sharp and brutal as it needed to be, but I was afraid of the fallout at work. Despite this, I was shocked to find her – uninvited – with a group of my friends when I met them for a festival.
Here she was, once again the yoke I so desperately wanted to break from. The day went from bad to hellish. By early evening she was swaying with booze. She was also screaming at me. I don’t recall exactly what she said, but I suggested calmly that she should leave, that she couldn’t drive, that I would order her a taxi. She threw something at me and stormed off.
I didn’t go after her – I had been going after her for a year and it was killing me. The cycle was always the same: in lieu of creating anything from warmth, decency or curiosity, she would manufacture hellish, attention-seeking dramas.
I went back to my friends, resolving to never speak to her again – to hell with the consequences at work. But a couple of hours later I received a suicide note by text message.
It’s simply too painful and strange to recount in detail the following 12 hours. But I will never forget it. After countless, desperate calls to so many different people, I was resigned to the fact that she was dead and that, in a way, it was my fault. In fact, she had made that clear in her text. It was a surreal and agonising night. I think I slept for about two hours, and rose again at sunrise.
At about 9.30 that morning I received a call from her. She was okay. She was in hospital, even though my calls the previous night to hospitals had no record of her being admitted. Questions came to mind, but once again I gave her the benefit of the doubt, kept my cool and told her I would come visit her. She told me not to worry, that her mother and her ex were with her.
After a few days passed, I realised – though I never had a smoking gun – that I’d been duped. That the most outrageous and sickening game for attention had been played. My nervous system was scorched.
She was away from work for a few weeks. I had cut all contact, though I would receive texts from her aggressively inquiring why I hadn’t been in touch. She accused me of being callous, insensitive, and of sabotaging her mental health. But I didn’t bite.
By this point, I had confided in a friend at work – a woman of enormous consideration and patience. She trusted me, and distrusted Dorothy. I was relieved to have finally begun telling my story, though we both suspected that this wasn’t the end of it. Her faked suicide having failed, I expected the attempts to win my attention to continue. We both waited for the next chapter.
Again, it came via text. As a result of the failed overdose, she wrote, the beginnings of a child she didn’t know she carried had perished. She dated the time of conception to the last time we had slept together.
I was at work when I received it and went outside in shock. I bought a coffee, rolled a cigarette and sat down. My hands trembled. I felt faint. Despite my considerable reservations – despite all of my suspicions – her text message cut through them a little. It was so profoundly personal, so shocking and sickening, that I couldn’t help but partially accept it as true. What if it was? Would I want to abandon this person now?
Of course, that’s what it was designed to do. I called her, pretended I fully trusted her claim and offered condolences, and reiterated that I could do no more. That she needed professional help. I was gentle, but firm. Privately, I felt sick. After a few days, I was okay. Any doubt I had evaporated. Somehow I knew there would be more.
When Dorothy returned to work, we both knew the score. I had removed myself. I would no longer dance obediently for her. She ignored me, dramatising her disdain. Okay, I thought.
She would scuttle outside with colleagues, furtively looking in my direction as she left the office. At another point, she moved cubicles further away from me. I asked my colleague what was up – I was the guy who should be making a fuss here.
Here’s what was up: Dorothy had been telling people that I’d sexually harassed her. I managed to milk that out of a colleague, who seemed to have grown frightened of her. You might think that by this point my capacity for wonder had been dashed, but no. I was stunned. Coming into work triggered anxiety attacks, which I just privately saw off in the bathroom. I skilfully concealed my horror. But here’s what it was like coming into work each day: it was a contaminated place, filled with dark and vexatious rumours. I didn’t know what, precisely, was said. What the lie about me was, exactly. I didn’t know how many people knew, or how much they believed.
She eventually left work before me. I suppose it had been a race. We were both desperate to leave. After she did, things finally, slowly began returning to normal. I blamed myself – still do – for my vanity, credulity and loneliness. There were things I shouldn’t have done, things I should have. I’m not jettisoning personal agency. But I also noticed the fatigue with which friends treated this – the suspicion that it wasn’t that serious, or that it was simply a matter of having the strength to leave.
Things are rarely that simple.
I sensed that friends’ sympathies were limited – they knew it was a squalid affair, but self-wrought, and that with determination could be escaped. But this ignored the fact that I was compassionately inclined to override my intuition, and grant her the benefit of the doubt. The consequences could be macabre if I didn’t. Nor could friends appreciate my dread – unhappily played out – of a campaign of vengeance should I cut ties with her. This manipulated stasis was entrenched by depression.
In their defence, I would never have admitted as much. They are not telepathic, and I didn’t provide the fullest, clearest picture. Pride and the rotten inarticulacy of depression served that. My friends were not uncaring. But I never gave – nor was prompted to give – the whole thing. And if the complex entrapment could be lost on friends, what of strangers?
A year ago, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police gave a speech on domestic violence at a community forum. He said:
We are constantly misapprehending the nature of violence.
We do this because we want to feel safer – so we apportion complicity to those who die violently.
In our heads, we make them somehow responsible for the wickedness that befell them.
When we do this, we feel better. We feel safer.
And it’s also much, much easier to do this when the crimes are domestic – when they’re behind closed doors.When it happens we might think ‘Well, why did she marry him?’ just as we might think of a rape victim, ‘Well, why was she wearing a short skirt?’
When we imagine this sort of complicity for the victim – when we essentially blame them – we are congratulating ourselves for our superior judgement, a judgement that will ensure it never happens to us.
But when we do this we are injuring our imaginations, which is the lifeblood of our sympathy.
I thought a lot about Dorothy when I read those letters from MRAs. In their heads, anecdotes had magically become trends. Personal disturbance transformed into data. Wading through the comments on their websites, hurt and anachronistic entitlement were squeezed into a hatred masquerading as politics.
We do this. We personalise things. And we shockingly distort our perception of the world as a result. Our Weltanschauung is usually patched together with experience, and only later embroidered with philosophy. What we consider the work of rationality and intelligence is often the work of our personal history. But one thing is not everything, and those who do best in this world are the ones who can be hurt and remain unafraid of the world.
* Not her real name.