Sunday, 10 November 2013

Domestic Abuse: tools and talismans. 10.11.13


When I was a teeny tiny girl, I lived with my mum in a one-bedroom flat.  My mum had to take work home to make ends meet, so she would tuck me in my bed and retreat to the living room to toil late into the night.  The living room was at the opposite end of the flat, right at the end of the corridor.  The corridor was quite short during the day, but in the dark it expanded into an eternally long tunnel full of shadowy nooks and crannies.  I could see my mother’s light in the far distance, but to get to her I had to walk all the way down the terrifying corridor, where all sorts of monsters may be lying in wait.

Being a bookish child with an overactive imagination, I used to be visited by the best class of nightmares on the market.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night, scared rigid by my latest brush with horrors ranging from the post-modern to the primordial, and want my mummy.  She was just there, I knew it, yet she was maddeningly out of reach at the far end of the dark, dreadful tunnel.  Hollering for her was not allowed as it would disturb the neighbours.  I was too little to reach the light switches and make the monsters run off.  We couldn’t leave the lights on all the time, because electricity cost money.  Standing by the bedroom door, terrified by what may lie beyond, I knew I only had two choices.  I either had to face more fears to get comfort for the fears I had already endured, or suck it up and tuck myself into bed without a kiss and a cuddle.  It was harsh.

Once my mother became aware of my predicament, she tried to explain to me that dark-dwelling monsters do not exist.  I understood that she believed in what she was saying, but I simply could not trust the information she was giving me.  After all, I was brought up to believe that hell and associated devils were very real.  The existence of a class of monster made the existence of all other monsters possible, however improbable.  The fact that I could not see them with the lights on said nothing about their presence in the dark; after all, we never saw the ‘roaches in the cellar when the lights were on.  Ultimately, like a true would-be scientist, I refused to accept absence of evidence as evidence of absence.

In an unusual fit of resourcefulness, my mother took two practical steps.  Firstly she found me a glow-in-the-dark picture of an angel to put by my bed.  This was my guardian angel, she told me, who would look after me in my sleep and never ever let me down.  Secondly, she unearthed an ancient flashlight I could use to light my way down the dread tunnel, if the angel was not enough to keep nightmares at bay.  She gave me two very different things, you will notice: a talisman to make me feel better, and a tool that helped me deal with my problem.

Me being me, her second present took a slightly different connotation.  The flashlight she had found for me was so ancient that it was made entirely of metal and took eight D batteries.  It was nearly two-foot-long and extremely heavy.  Clutching it tightly with my tiny hands I thought to myself: “how sweet, mummy got me a cosh.”  I truly relished the knowledge that I could not only see the monsters hiding in the dark, but also give them a good hiding.  That’d teach them to try and scare me, or worse.  I’d show them what happens when you hide in MY closet.  I was young enough to enjoy pretending that I believed in the angel, and I believed the light when it showed me the temporary absence of dangers, but I believed in the cosh the most.  Between the tools and the talisman, happiness returned to the kingdom.

My mother never intended to give me a weapon.  She is a sweet, dear lady who is horrified at any thought of violence.  She had, however, unwillingly taken some key thinking steps that enabled me to give myself permission to defend myself from the causes of my fears.  Firstly, she had not dismissed my fears off-hand; she respected the fact that she could not talk me out of them using logic and that I was entitled to them.  Secondly, she showed me that fears can be fought by using appropriate tools.  Thirdly, she created the expectation that I should be brave enough to confront my fears, rather than succumb to them.  In my little girl’s mind, she made me responsible for managing and responding to my fears.  She would help me find solutions, but ultimately the buck stopped with me.  It is probably the most useful bit of parenting I was ever exposed to.



I found myself thinking back about my flashlight when listening to a talk about Domestic Abuse.  The organisation in questions helps women remain in their homes after a violent partner has been removed[1].  As the talk progressed, I found myself getting increasingly exercised.  Domestic Abuse is a hot-button topic with me at the best of time; to be perfectly honest, if tarring and feathering were brought into fashion as a suitable punishment for convicted abusers I’d gladly volunteer to be the one to wield the pitch.  However, this was not it.  I was getting increasingly heated about what the organisation I was there to support was doing.  They were the Good Guys, and they were making me very, very angry.  It made no sense.

I seethed quietly, rather confused, for a little while.  Then the speaker finally came out with a sentence that explained to me what was going on in my head: “We must help women feel safe.”  That was my problem.  They were dealing more with the FEELING of fear than with the cause of it.  They were not giving women tools; they were handing out talismans.  By doing so, they might have actually helped put women in greater danger.

Let’s look at the facts.  Your partner is an abuser.  S/he enjoys hurting you.  S/he does not care that hurting you is illegal, socially unacceptable or even evil.  S/he has already hurt you; s/he hurt you enough, in fact, that you have been able to get the help of the authorities.  The dark fact is that s/he could probably hurt you again, and may well want to.

You want to remain in your home and retain your life, which makes perfect sense.  However, what that means in practice is that your abuser knows when and where to get you so you are at your most vulnerable – alone, unable to get help, or with dependants whose welfare you put above yours.  Running off to Patagonia would eliminate the risk of the abuser getting to you, but you don’t want to do that, and that’s more than fine by me.  However, in order to give you real protection, firstly we need to admit that you have a real problem; one that cannot be dispelled by waving talismans at it or chanting about your “rights”.

Talismans, however, appear to be the main items on the menu, both from the legal system and from the various support groups out there.  From the legal point of view, you may be issued with a restraining order, which is a mighty piece of paper you can wave at your abuser if s/he comes too near.  If they bother you again, the law will come down upon them.  That may give you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but there is a glitch with it.  Abusing people is not precisely legal in this country.  If an abuser was already willing to break the law to indulge his/her fancies, what is to stop them breaking the terms of the order?  While I understand that fighting to get a restraining order is an important legal step to take, I can’t say that the order itself would make me feel any safer.

If you choose to access victim support groups, you’d hope you’d get more practical help.  After all, supporting victims is what these groups are all about.  Some of the suggested “solutions” are eminently practical and sensible.  For instance, you may be advised to install a door chain and door viewer so that you do not open your door without checking who is trying to get in – not that you ever should, but as a higher-risk person this is really the time to deal with this.  Provided you have a half-decent door, this actually reduces your risks of a physical confrontation by hopefully keeping your abuser outside while you call in the cavalry.  Increasing the level of security in and around your house, taking practical steps which would also protect you from all sorts of other crime, is a very good idea.

Far too many of the solutions, however, are nothing but talismans.  A prime example of them is issuing recovering victims with personal alarms which are not connected to an emergency system.  All the alarm does is make a racket.  I am rather sceptical of its practical applications.  The way I look at it, most people can make a racket by simply screaming.  If the noise you can make on your own is not going to deter the predator, then mechanically-created noise is not going to make much of a difference either[2].  However, alarms “help victims feel safer”, and that is good, isn’t it?

I’m sorry, but I disagree with that.  Yes, feeling safe is extremely important.  Unless you have been in a long-term situation when you have felt UNsafe, I can’t begin to explain to you how much that colours every aspect of your life.  However, if the feeling of safety is not accompanied by an increase in actual safety, then what we are doing is feeding victims into the meat grinder. 

This approach makes the victims feel safer without actually decreasing their danger.  While it is important to get them out of a fear-induced paralysis, this should only be a part of the process.  It is important inasmuch as it motivates them to take steps to address the problem at hand.  If they are sitting there quaking in fear, it does not matter how many tools you hand to them, because they will not have the power to use them against their abusers when the need arises.  What often gets bandied about as “empowerment”, however, is rhetoric without content, because it only addresses the feelings, not the abilities to deal with the situation.  It tells you how to feel, not what to do. 

Making the victims feel safer gives them a greater ability to enjoy their lives, to be sure.  At the same time, it may cause them to drop their guard hence putting them at greater risk.  What this approach ignores completely is the fact that the victims are not fighting shadows; they are in clear and present danger.  Their feelings of fear are both natural and justified because abusers are a very real danger, not bogeymen. 

It’s easy and comfortable to talk about “empowering victims” by making them feel better.  We can get a warm, rosy glow thinking about how we are helping all those poor little victims march bravely onwards, trusting in their talismans.  And that’s just grand - until someone gets killed, because talismans are not tools; because the feeling wasn’t connected to any actual, practical increase in the victims’ ability to protect themselves; because when you are trying to keep safe from vampires a cross may help you, but when you are in danger from a prowling tiger you might want to choose something rather more practical.  

Telling someone that a key chain alarm will stop an aggressor is the equivalent of handing them a placebo weapon; a toy gun to protect themselves from tigers.  This is particularly the case when that aggressor has already violated a restraining order.  In fact, the alarm may escalate what may have been a purely verbal confrontation into actual physical violence.  The fact is that there is no universal panacea, no magic bullet that works against all people all the time.  True, effective personal safe-protection cannot come out of a one-size-fits-all kit.  However, we are not dealing with practical solutions here.

The support system is often dealing with "empowerment" through addressing feelings rather than the actual issues.  This worries me greatly.  When did we start caring more about people’s feelings than about their physical welfare?  When did people’s rights become more important than their survival?  It’s got to be a lot easier to exercise your right to the pursuit of happiness when you are alive and breathing, and ideally out of hospital and with all major limbs and organs present and intact.  But no, we focus on “awareness” without real understanding and “empowerment” without any real power.  We are handing out victims a lot of hot air.  Some of them seem to be buying it.  Meanwhile, the scared little girl inside my head keeps reminding me that nobody seems willing to talk about handing victims a cosh.




[1] Yes, there is a gender bias.  Yes, I know that Domestic Abuse can and does also affect men.  The bias was put there by the organisation in question, not by me.  And yes, it that annoyed me greatly, too.

[2] Alarms can be louder than screams, but particularly in urban settings we can be exposed to so many artificial alarms that most people fail to respond to them.  I reckon the increase in volume is probably counterbalanced by the decrease in the perceived significance of the noise.  Furthermore, unless you have actually dealt with the victims’ fear paralysis under adrenal stress, they might never get to push the button.

1 comment:

Marc said...

Great article. So many things seem to be about emotions rather than ways to address the issue. Emotions are great for bonding but lousy for decisions that require logic as a solution. Also emotion is great for getting people fired up ie rugby games: ready for the contact. And I suppose it is of great comfort for suicide bombers who think they are off to paradise and their decision to do that act would I would say be based more on emotion rather than the logistical damage that they are doing although on a larger scale perhaps.