When the state government of Victoria first flagged the idea of holding its ground-breaking Royal Commission into Family Violence four years ago, domestic abuse experts around the country practically tripped over themselves in their rush to support it.
Finally, here was an opportunity to crack open the festering, deadly problem and chart a clear path to fixing it. Others, though, began battening down the hatches, preparing for all hell to break loose.
Annette Gillespie, then head of Safe Steps, Victoria’s 24-hour family violence support service, warned government ministers that shining a spotlight on the underbelly of abuse would trigger a fierce backlash from perpetrators, who would react angrily to the idea that their behaviour could be exposed, that they’d have to change.
Family and domestic violence support services:
It was a dangerous time, Ms Gillespie told investigative reporter Jess Hill, because men had never had less control in society, and many would seek to reclaim some of that lost power in their intimate relationships: “It’s the only place they can safely have control, where they can be king of the castle.”
Which is exactly what happened.
By 2017, the number of calls to Safe Steps had shot up dramatically, along with the severity of abuse women were reporting: counsellors were logging more accounts of strangulation, stalking, sexual assault and threats to kill — all red flags showing that, far from being fixed, domestic violence was actually getting worse.
Women, Ms Gillespie said, were suddenly calling in to say that awareness campaigns were making their abusers more volatile: “Can you get them to stop the ad on TV”, they’d beg, “Can you ask them to stop talking about family violence? Because every time he sees that ad he goes nuts.”
Are we asking the wrong questions about domestic abuse?
And that, Hill says, is the predicament — the “cruel twist” — we now face in 2019.
“The increased attention on men’s violence” — once again amplified, this time by the #MeToo movement — “may actually be making perpetrators more dangerous,” she writes in See What You Made Me Do, her gripping new book about power, control and domestic abuse.
“In homes across Australia, abusive men — furious that women are getting all the attention while their suffering is ignored — are taking out their humiliated fury on their girlfriends, wives and children.”
Compounding the problem, she says, is the fact that services are ill-equipped to handle the influx. The refuge system is in crisis, groaning under the weight of women needing somewhere safe to flee. Police are stretched, too, with some state forces reporting almost half their time is taken up by family violence matters.
Courts across the country are also clogged, and women and children are falling through the cracks, with at least one woman each week murdered by her current or former partner.
But all the while, Hill told ABC News, we’ve continued to ask the wrong questions about domestic violence, a “confusing” and “frightening” phenomenon she’s spent more than four years researching.
We keep asking, “Why doesn’t she just leave?”, she said, but the more confounding question is, “Why does he stay? Why do these men who seem to have so much hatred for their partners not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place?”
This became the central aim of Hill’s investigation, she said: to go deep inside the minds of abusers; to understand the complex factors that fuel their abuse and, importantly, to find out why, if domestic violence is a “national emergency”, do we keep prioritising long-term strategies for tackling gender inequality over more immediate interventions that will stop men abusing and murdering women right now?
Why the ‘stock feminist answer’ falls short
When she first began writing, Hill said, she estimated she would need just six months and that she’d focus mostly on the experiences of women who’d survived domestic abuse.
“But as time wore on, I realised that where the conversation needed to go was not just about understanding what was happening with women, but what was happening with men. And the classic line, ‘men do it for power and control’, always just had this full-stop after it, and there was not much else to say about what was driving them.”
She found that answering those questions meant wading in to an “intellectual turf war” between proponents of a psychopathology model, who argue domestic abuse is a result of mental illness, childhood trauma and substance abuse, and supporters of a feminist model, who see men’s violence as a “by-product of patriarchy: a system in which men feel entitled to dominate, discredit and disregard women”.
The “stock feminist answer”, Hill says — the idea that men’s violence occurs because “society” permits and encourages it — had previously shaped her own views towards abuse.
It also currently dominates the public discussion of violence against women to the point where, after Melbourne woman Courtney Herron was found brutally murdered last month, police and politicians directly linked the attack to “toxic masculinity“, and men’s “attitudes” towards women and not, as some commentators were quick to highlight, the alleged perpetrator’s mental health issues.
Where she landed, however, was somewhere in the middle.
“We can’t have this conversation as though abusive men are just these faceless foot soldiers of the patriarchy, who are imprinted on by culture and whose behaviour is [influenced] by porn and outdated modes of masculinity,” Hill said.
“Yes, men are shaped by those things. But to really understand why they [commit domestic violence], we have to look at what kind of emotional landscape an abuser occupies … and that means looking at things like shame and humiliated fury,” and, for some, even their use of drugs and alcohol.
‘Men who are shame-ridden can be like a tinderbox’
Having combed through decades of research and conducted dozens of interviews with local and overseas experts and abusive men themselves, Hill argues many abusers harbour a deep desire for intimacy and belonging, which is being warped into violence by powerful feelings of shame.
“For the vast majority of abusers, shame is a really important [emotion] for us to understand,” she said.
“Men who are shame-ridden can be like a tinderbox in their relationship because if they … choose to try and dispel that unbearable feeling of shame — [which might be triggered] when they’re being challenged, or when they are not getting whatever it is they think they are due from their intimate relationship, or when they just feel like they’re being exposed for being a vulnerable, emotional human being with frailties and flaws — if they choose to replace that feeling of shame with a feeling of power, by attacking, they [can be] a very dangerous individual.”
Importantly, Hill said, many men in relationships who struggle with feelings of shame would “sooner kill themselves than kill their partner”.
“So it’s not like, because a guy has deep shame he will necessarily become an abuser. But if he chooses to take the path of least resistance and attack other people as a way of making himself feel powerful, or at least make him feel like he is obeying the laws of masculinity” — to be strong and in control, to avoid showing weakness or vulnerability — “then that’s a really bad situation.”
‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them’
That doesn’t mean patriarchy is off the hook. We need to talk about patriarchy’s role in driving men’s humiliation, Hill writes, how it “shames them into rejecting their own so-called ‘feminine’ traits, like empathy, compassion, intuition and emotional intelligence”.
But we also need to talk about the ways this “system” is upheld — and policed — by other men, she said, to everyone’s detriment.
“We talk about men needing to respect other women, but we don’t talk about [the idea] that men need to respect other men, too. Men need to allow each other to live emotional, embodied lives.”
Instead, she said, “the way men defend against the power and control of other men is to pull on the uniform of misogyny, as the novelist Tim Winton puts it, to prove they’re not a girl … or [gay].”
A popular phrase by the novelist Margaret Atwood, Hill said, sums up this dilemma perfectly: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them,” Atwood famously wrote, “and women are afraid men will kill them.”
“I would bring up that quote in virtually every interview I did for a year, trying to unpick it,” Hill said.
“I [wanted to know] what was happening beneath men’s fear of women laughing at them, because when we dismiss this fear, and call men ‘snowflakes’ for being afraid of women laughing at them … we are objectifying men in the same way men objectify women when they say all women are masochists and really want to be abused.”
As for why men are scared of women laughing at them? “Because they’re scared of other men,” Hill said. “And if they are emasculated in the presence of other men, they’re at risk [of violence from those men].”
The need to address this “destructive force” of male shame, she said, “is stark and urgent — for women and men.”
We don’t have decades to fix ‘attitudes’: Women are dying now
Yet for all the urgency, despite the fact domestic violence is regularly identified by politicians and women’s advocates in Australia as a “national emergency”, our key strategy for fixing it is to strive for gender equality and “shift attitudes towards women” — a preventative plan that is widely expected to take decades.
For Hill, this is a frustrating proposition.
“In the long term, I don’t doubt the efficacy of the gender equality and behaviour-change approach,” she said. “I think we’ll probably look back and see that … we did a really radical thing to try and change conditions that were not working for any of us. But the thing I struggle with is, why are we okay with women continuing to be killed this year, and next year, and the year after that … and children’s lives being ruined, and men continuing to go to jail?”
What’s even more perplexing, she writes, is that this softly-softly approach is “totally out of character” for a nation known for addressing public health problems with “courageous responses” — for example, efforts in the 1980s to reduce high numbers of fatal road accidents by introducing random breath testing.
Communities should be setting hard targets for reducing domestic violence, Hill argues — especially domestic violence-related homicides — and working closely, deliberately with individual men to help them stop their abuse.
To that end, she has become a fierce advocate for a “beautiful strategy” known as focused deterrence, a policing approach that was first introduced in Boston in the 1990s to reduce youth gun violence and was later used to curb domestic abuse and homicide in the city of High Point in North Carolina.
The idea behind it was simple: first, identify seriously violent perpetrators who were at risk of killing their partner by looking at their criminal records and victims’ attempts to seek help. And second, confront them with a strong message: if they didn’t stop abusing their partner, police would pursue them relentlessly and impose severe penalties, including long prison sentences.
But this message also came with a genuine offer to help the men with whatever they needed to help turn their lives around: counselling, employment, treatment for addiction.
“It’s about saying, ‘You change, or we will change you for you’,” Hill said. “The idea is not to land all violent men in jail … but to say, ‘Let us help you, you don’t want to be like this’. It’s an invitation to change with a very strong, backed-up threat: if you choose to continue making other people’s lives miserable … we will come after you.”
This is in stark contrast to the current approach being taken against men who use domestic violence in Australia, Hill said: “They’re all being referred to a one-size-fits-all men’s behaviour change program” — of which there a relatively few adequately funded groups, and a lack of conclusive evidence that they are effective.
How working with men in Bourke is saving lives
Still, there’s at least one community in Australia already embracing a similar model known as justice reinvestment: Bourke, a disadvantaged town in north-western New South Wales known for its high rates of unemployment, crime and family violence.
In 2013, local Aboriginal elder Alistair Ferguson, having read about similar initiatives in the United States, brought together dozens of local Indigenous community leaders, police and support services to help men and young people at risk of offending fix the underlying problems causing them to commit crime or family violence. The collaboration is designed to “problem-solve”, and work closely with victims, rather than simply arresting people.
This involved, for example, checking in on men known to police for being abusive and basically asking what they could do to help them improve their lives.
For some, it meant enrolling in drug and alcohol programs or trauma counselling. Others were matched up with a mentor who could firmly but lovingly inspire different behaviour by saying: “You’ve gotta stop belting up [your wife] because it’s not on.”
Several years on, this “revolutionary shift” is paying off: between 2015 and 2017, domestic violence-related assaults dropped by a whopping 39 per cent — in addition to significant decreases in a long list of other crimes.
“These programs work,” Hill said, “because they are community-led [and] they foster deep collaboration.” Crucially, she added, they also see perpetrators “as individuals capable of rationality and redemption.”
‘I was crying or feeling deep-seated rage every day’
For all its focus on perpetrators, See What You Made Me Do is also a window into the lives of victims and survivors, a catalogue of women and children who’ve been brutalised and stripped of self-worth in the one place they should have been most safe.
Of women being dragged across living rooms, and through the Family Court, where the violence should end but doesn’t. Of women whose hair has been ripped out by the fistful; women who’ve been smothered and strangled and tortured and mocked.
Of women, like one survivor Hill interviewed, wanting just to die quickly, for the pain to be over fast. Of Indigenous women, who cop it worst of all.
“Living in that underground has been profound,” Hill said. “I was regularly crying or feeling deep-seated rage every single day. And then figuring out how to best translate that so it could be as close to the surface as possible, [whilst] also caring for the reader, so that I wasn’t [just exposing] them to unadulterated horror, and just shoving it in their face.”
But her four-year trek through the trenches of abuse has also taken a personal toll on Hill, who still doesn’t feel as if she’s fully emerged yet. “I can’t go back and pretend this isn’t happening,” she said.
“At least one in four women have experienced physical violence from a partner since the age of 15 … it’s everywhere. And I still find it difficult to believe that what I have written about is as common as it is. So there is maybe a loss of innocence or naivety.”
However, she said, “I prefer to have that knowledge. Instead of being blissfully ignorant, I now have a much deeper sense of how we best relate and how to make that sustainable … and that, I think, is far more valuable than pretending it’s not happening.”
As for whether she’s optimistic for the future — that the domestic violence “emergency” can be turned around?
“I am incredibly hopeful, partly because I’ve seen what is possible, but also because my own views [about domestic violence] have been changed. I used to think it couldn’t be fixed, but it absolutely can be,” Hill said.
“Seeing what Victoria has done [as a result of the Royal Commission] — in terms of just taking it by the horns and committing to [taking action], they’ve set an example. And that is always what you need, an example to follow.”
See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill, published by Black Inc., is available from 24th June, 2019.