“There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside of you.”
These are the words of Maya Angelou, a celebrated author who rose to prominence after she chronicled her struggles with physical and sexual abuse in her home as a child in the 1930’s and 40’s.
In Australia decades later violence against women remains the largest cause of injury or death in women aged 18 to 45. 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime and sadly one woman per week will be killed by her partner. Arguably, this is a vitally relevant public health issue, in part because violence is the biggest predictor of poor health, disability and early death for women under 45, (more so than smoking and obesity). And partly because, in many cases, these women are raising children who are likely to be traumatised by what they witness happening to their mothers. Tragically, some of these children also suffer at the hands of their mother’s abuser, and some are killed. Most of their stories remain pitifully untold.
Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) is an issue that affects all Australians – including men. Men who are able to bring about cultural change. Men who can influence the attitudes of other men. Boys who will become men, who are living with violence. Who are watching their mothers being physically and verbally assaulted.
Over the last few weeks I have had the honour of speaking to a number of women that have escaped from abusive relationships. Some were very young, some were older. Some were mothers, some were not. They came from all different races, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common.
They were alone in the silence.
Often we ask the question – why don’t you just leave? I’ve asked it myself, not as a judgement but out of genuine concern for women and their families who are suffering in silence. To me, it seems clear cut. If someone is hurting you, you get away from them. Out of harm’s way and to somewhere safe. I understand now, utterly and completely, why that question is a gross simplification of a set of circumstances I could never fully comprehend.
The answer is complex and not one dimensional, but in honour of the women that have so bravely beared the agony of their untold stories, I will attempt to explain it. Because they deserve a voice.
The most complete answer one simple word.
After reading the accounts and speaking with the victims of IPV one over-riding similarity was clear. The abuser was in absolute and conclusive control. He orchestrated it so. Knowingly or otherwise, he manipulated the playing field so that it was anything but level. Slowly and progressively, piece by piece, he worked to gain control.
In almost every case the abuser began with subtle manipulation. As the relationship became more intertwined, backhanded put downs graduated to cutting insults. Slowly but oh so surely, the victim-to-be was losing self-esteem, confidence and a sense of self. At this point there was often a fork in the road, maybe a chance to leave. But they didn’t – they stuck at it and tried harder. Maybe you or I would not have made the same choices, but these women all had one other thing in common.
They were vulnerable.
In each story, there was an element of exposure making them susceptible to their abuser, and making it that much harder to leave before things became violent. The specific circumstances varied. They were living overseas, away from everything and everyone familiar. They were pregnant with their abuser’s child. They were financially dependent on him. They were incredibly young, or it was a first boyfriend. They had suffered at the hands of their own parent’s poor choices. Or even if they were surrounded by their family and friends, they were conditioned to not speak out. Not make waves. To sort their troubles between themselves. It was almost as if they were being groomed by their abuser. Of course, they weren’t yet aware of that.
Slowly, the verbal abuse became more virulent, more aggressive and often more blatant. Then the abuser employed a vice grip on every aspect of his victim’s life. He read their emails, checked their phone messages, tracked their movements and insulted their family and friends. He became their stalker. Became angry, jealous and paranoid. The victim became isolated from any family or friends she had in an attempt to placate him, to keep the peace. Because she was vulnerable, and more and more he was all she had.
The physical abuse hasn’t begun yet, but already he has made her a victim.
When the physical abuse does start it is nothing like what we believe it to be. These men are not flying off the handle. They aren’t unable to contain their rage. They are methodically and systematically tightening their grip through violence and verbal barbs. They know exactly what they are doing. They are meticulous in their callousness.
I have read accounts of abusers punching their victims in hard to find places like the thighs or the back of the head. Pushing them down stairs, sometimes when the victim is pregnant, so it might look like an accident. Choking the victim in front of their baby, and threatening to do the same to the child. This is not one punch violence. This is not something a victim can simply walk away from. This envelopes her life. IPV is psychological warfare. The actions of these men are an addiction, not a reaction. The shame, the silence, the fear all work to his advantage and make him stronger. Because, monsters live in the dark. More than that, they flourish. The untold agony is the monster’s best friend.
In almost every case there was some level of sexual abuse, adding to the shame the victims felt, the fear they lived every day and the further demolition of their self-esteem. Imagine being raped every day. Threatened. Told you are worthless. Told it would be so easy for me to find you. And kill you. To be comprehensively dominated. Controlled. Imagine experiencing that and knowing, still, it is safer to stay.
When we ask ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ we as outsiders try to compare our own experiences to the victims’ but there is no comparison. If someone threatens us, even if we imagine what it might feel like to be threatened, we instantly picture escape routes. If someone threatens a person who is carefully conditioned to verbal abuse, physical assault, even rape, they have no escape route. So they find a different solution. Walking away from violence when it is perpetrated by a stranger may be frightening, but it is usually a singular event, and often there are witnesses. For a victim of IPV there are no allies or witnesses, and it happens over and over again – that’s how the abuser has planned it.
The solution takes time to arrange. There are processes that must be followed. As methodical as the abuse is, the response must be more so. It takes diligence, courage and fortitude to leave your entire life in a heartbeat – sometimes it takes days, weeks or months.
I asked them all what made them leave. The responses almost always came down to a painfully simple idea – ‘I started to realise that his life was not more important than mine. I didn’t want to die.” But surprisingly, they often made the conscious decision to stay, knowing they would eventually leave, waiting for the safest window of opportunity. They stayed there, in that prison of abuse and fear, physical pain and emotional manipulation and waited for their moment. He was on a business trip. I waited until after our daughter’s birthday – he would be less furious then. He was visiting family for a day.
Because it is not as simple as packing a bag. AVO’s must be served. Children’s safety must be ensured. Allies and resources must be located. Timing must be considered, for the safety of both mother and sometimes children. And courage must be extracted from the deepest, darkest pit of the soul – a soul that has repeatedly been told it is worthless, stupid, and to blame for everything. To find courage through multi-level abuse, emotional manipulation and direct threats is not a simple thing. At those moments these women are empty. They have been stripped of many things we take for granted that makes up part of their self-identity. And yet they managed to escape.
They were the lucky ones.
Asking ‘why didn’t you just leave?’ is akin to asking why David didn’t pick a fight with Goliath. Sure, David had it in him to win, but who could have known that? Certainly not David. All the tiny pieces of these victims that have been shattered are slowly taken away and absorbed by their abuser until he becomes a towering behemoth. They stay despite this, knowing it will mean bruises, concussions, whirling insults; knowing that it is the safest long term play.
I asked ‘have you ever considered going back? Are you afraid you might get sucked in again?’ and the answer was a resounding, unanimous no. If I had to guess at what had changed I would say perspective. They can see their situation through the eyes of an observer, rather than a prison of fear, hate and pain.
There are other factors – access to resources being the biggest. To plan an escape these women need help. They need somewhere to go, far away from the reach of their abuser. Even now, years later some of them live in fear that their oppressor will return to harm them, or will take their children away through the courts. Because in the silence, the monster has power, and the effects of that are forever imprinted in the minds of those he has oppressed.
If you ever are inclined to ask a woman “why don’t you leave?” do it with kindness and without judgement.
But the better question is ‘how can I help?’
Again, the answer is complicated. We need to change the culture that sweeps IPV under the carpet and into the too hard basket. We need to be outraged that there are women and children imprisoned by fear in this country right now. We need to be openly disgusted at the power these men wilfully yield over their partners, and at the torture they inflict.
I mentioned earlier that men can be part of the solution. In recent years an advertising campaign targeted young men who speed by focussing on the reactions of passers-by. The passers-by wiggled their little fingers implying that speeding is symbolic of men with a small manhood. This effected a cultural change. Speeding was no longer cool, it was something to be embarrassed about.
We need to shift the shame from the victims of IPV to their abusers. We need to make it unacceptable, pathetic, and a symbol of emasculation to hit a partner. Non-violent men are instrumental in changing the opinions of violent men. We need to listen to the untold stories, and appease some of the agony. We need to turn the light on, slay the silence and shout at the top of our lungs that violence, abuse, sexual assault, is never, ever okay. It is shameful. It is pathetic and deviant. Only then will we triumph over a monster that feeds on silence.