Cameron Bray – 3rd Year English Literature Student and KCL IFemSoc Member
TW: Graphic description of domestic violence
This article is dedicated to my mum.
I am writing this article in the hopes of shining a light on domestic violence. Fortunately, most people will never experience domestic violence but this does mean that their opinions and thoughts on the issues are often not well-informed. They are often well-intentioned but, by ignoring the reality of domestic violence, they fail to come up with useful strategies to deal with it. I am not intending to speak for all victims of domestic abuse but I think my insight will help people achieve some measure of understanding. If you have also experienced domestic abuse, then I would like to hear your voice as well. We need to show people that our narratives are not as simple as they like to believe. If you are currently in an abusive relationship then know that I love you very much. You are a strong person and you will get through this, I believe in you. If there is ever anything I can do to help you, do not hesitate to contact me.
Channel 4 recently produced a show called 15,000 Kids and Counting, regarding the work of social services in finding new homes for children who have been removed from their parents. One of the young mothers, Emily, generated some backlash on my social media feeds. A lot of abuse centred on an inability to understand why someone would selfishly stay with an abuser, up to the point where they seemed prepared to lose their child. Emily really struck a chord with me because, at 18, she was almost the same age as my mum was when I was born. Emily was in an abusive relationship with an older man, Matthew, which further mirrored my mum’s experience. It was frightening to hear Matthew speak, he openly admitted to being a domestic abuser but spoke around the issue. At one point he says that he was being misjudged and that his ‘being controlling towards Emily was [him] answering Emily’s phone’ and described a barrage of 800 text messages as him expressing his ‘personal opinion’.
It is easy to suggest that children simply be removed from these situations but it won’t do anything to fix the deeper issues. One thing I pointed out to one of Emily’s detractors was that if they actually listened to her, selfish was not a word that sprung to mind. Social services told her that she was too young to cope with this situation and she accepted that because she knew it would mean her daughter was removed from her situation, saying ‘I hope she gets better GCSEs than I got… never had a job, my life’s just rubbish.’
My mum was with her abuser, my step-dad, for about 14 years. He was older than her and took advantage of the fact that she was still grieving for the loss of her father at the time they met. I toyed with the idea of giving him a pseudonym but quite frankly, he doesn’t deserve it and I have masses of proof if he ever reads this and takes umbrage.
Abusers are incredibly manipulative people. I cannot stress this enough. As I have mentioned, one of the repeated questions asked of Emily (and the millions of women like her) is why anyone would stay with someone who treats them badly. Abusers are very good at what they do, they don’t start off abusive because no-one would ever date them but it slowly starts to creep in. This is how it was with Kevin. He is a very charming man and, when he wants to be, can come off as a kind person. Abusers build up an image of themselves in their victims minds. What this means is that, as abuse starts to work its way into the relationship, the victim has a template to refer back to. They keep hoping that their partner will go back to how they used to be. At its worst, the victim can spend years of their life believing that the bad behaviour is their fault (‘Look what you made me do). By that point, the victim is pretty much completely under their abuser’s control because they’ll do anything they want if it keeps things calm.
The abuse I suffered took on many forms. I was physically abused and whilst I still have grim memories of being kicked along the floor from one side of the house to other, it was not this abuse that did the most damage. Kevin was clever in this regard and rarely hurt me enough to leave a mark. He knew exactly what he was doing and he had no wish to be caught. The guilt an abuser feels is not guilt at having hurt a person but guilt over knowing they have broken a rule and may be punished. Instead, Kevin took great delight in psychologically torturing me. Until I got to high school and was able to find out information for myself (we were too poor to afford internet in the days of dial-up), I was under the impression that the Cold War never ended. He led me to believe that we were still under threat from nuclear holocaust. He played music a lot and one of the records he played, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of The Worlds, used to terrify me. It is a marvellously crafted piece of music but when you’re five, such genius makes a story seem very real. In a sort of Pavlovian manner, he would threaten to play it if he was displeased with me or he would just lock me in a room and play it loudly. If he thought I had been inside for too long, he would just hide anything I could use to entertain myself but then when I was outside, he would lock me in the yard and pour buckets of water out of the window whenever I tried to come back inside. In an effort to toughen me up, he would push me to do things and call me a chicken (there was even a song!) if I didn’t. Years later, the sub-plot of Back to the Future 2 would trigger me slightly as, one time, I nearly died after he dared me to go down a steep hill on my push scooter without using the brake.
At the same time, he is partly responsible for good parts of my identity. He had an extensive record collection, approximately 8000 singles and 3000 albums and my ability to appreciate and understand all forms of music comes from lengthy listening sessions with him. He was a deep lover of classical music and at the birth of my brother and sister, he rang Classic FM to make requests: Jupiter from Holst’s Planet Suite for his son and Autumn from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for his daughter. To this day I have difficulty reconciling the two images of him.
My mum blames herself for what happened but I do not. The blame rest solely on his shoulders. Even if we talk about the problems in society that enable abuse, I still think we must stress that abusers are still making a choice. They choose to be cowards. On the other hand, my mum’s decision to take control of her life is perhaps the bravest thing I have ever seen a person do. It continues to be an inspiration to me. I want to work for a world where such acts are not necessary but even in that world, my mum will continue to be my hero. It does not matter to me how long it took, what matters is that the deed is done. Like Emily, my mum endured a terrible ordeal in the hope that I would go on to achieve something better. I am just about to finish my degree at one of the best universities in the world, something that would not have been possible without the tools she gave me. It is fitting, and should come as no surprise, that education was responsible for ending our oppression. I watched as my mum became strong, educating herself so that she might get a job and gain financial independence. I saw her then work hard to provide for us, no matter how selfish we were because she wanted us to be happy. She has been a teaching assistant for 6 years and you will not find kids who are better looked after anywhere in the country.
I would like to tell you that this has a happy ending but it doesn’t. Whilst it is true that my mum has not been with Kevin for about 6 years now, he still has more influence over us than I would care to admit.
Our court system regarding custody is incredibly broken; indeed our entire legal system is failing victims of domestic violence. Kevin only ended up seeking custody after 2 years of stalking and harassing my family in a misguided attempt to regain control over my mum. He sent a slew of threatening text messages, mainly promising to kill my mum to get access to his children. The police finally agreed to give him a warning but because he never answered the door/wasn’t it, the warning was never issued so did not end up on his record.
My mum married a postman called Paul. He was a childhood friend of Kevin, who did not take this news very well. One Saturday morning, Kevin went to where his friend was working and slashed all four of his car tyres. He then proceeded to ride his bike over to our house. It was only because a fellow postman spotted Kevin, en route with a knife in his hand, that we got any warning of his apparent desire to kill us. My mum wanted to be the one to confront him but I managed to convince her that she should take my little brother and sister upstairs, barricade the door and call the police. I was waiting downstairs with a baseball bat, genuinely prepared to fight to the death. It’s not a situation that one tends to be prepared for at 10am on a Saturday. Luckily (for Kevin, right?), the police showed up as he was about 100m from the house.
Despite a witness testifying to his possession of a knife and his being arrested 1m away from a knife, the lack of fingerprints on the knife meant he was only issued with a fine and a suspended sentence. The fine remains unpaid. Things quietened down for a while before Kevin started stalking my little brother and ambushing him on his way to and from school. My little brother started doing worse at school and eventually told my mum what had been happening. He had gone along with Kevin out of fear of what Kevin might do if he said no and the stress had gotten to him. My mum, out of fear of how her children might see her in the future, decided to take the issue to court so that any final outcome would be out of her hands. Indeed, a large amount of my immediate family has completely disowned us because, in their eyes, my mum has deprived her children of a dad. This is nonsense, of course, both from virtue of the fact that you do not need a certain parental set up to turn out well and the fact that she is now happily married to a wonderful man.
Due to cuts in Legal Aid, my mum was left without a lawyer because only one firm in the area offered assistance and could not take on opposing clients. I must take this opportunity to thank two of my wonderful friends, both law students, both women, who took the time to help my mum prepare her case against Kevin. Without their help, I am sure that my mum would have felt helpless in the face of a lawyer and agreed to an arrangement she did not want. Instead she felt empowered walking into the custody hearing as she knew her rights and how to best structure her case. We were told by the judge that because I was not involved in the custody case, my testimony could not be counted against Kevin as it would not be an indicator of how he would treat his biological children.
Cafcass are the agency responsible for assisting with family courts and part of their duty involves interviewing the children to see how they feel about the situation. Their techniques are quite abhorrent, in my opinion, as they essentially interrogate preteens in case they may have been coached by an unscrupulous parent. As most of the time custody cases are brought against women, this attitude reveals much about what they are prepared to assume of women. In doing so, the agency does little to allay MRAs who claim unfair treatment. They also told my mum that because the hospitalisations she had experienced were from before the birth of her child with Kevin, they would not count against him. The report they prepared based on the interviews with my brother and sister was a harrowing read. They were asked about the best memory they had of Kevin and expressed a vague recollection of going for ice cream in the park. Their worst memory continues to bring me a great deal of pain, because I wasn’t there to stop it. It makes me cry whenever I think about it so I try not to do that very often because it isn’t a good look on me.
After the separation, my mum initially agreed to let Kevin look after his children on a Friday or Saturday night at his place provided that he did not drink. My mum was genuinely hopeful that Kevin loved his children enough to refrain from alcohol for one night a week. She was also still being cajoled into the narrative that he deserved to see his children. Over the years that I knew him, I had watched Kevin’s drinking habit grow from half a litre of cider (White Lightning, if anyone remembers that) a night, to two litres, to the massive 4 litre bottles, to half a litre of vodka, until finally he was drinking one litre of vodka every night. He obviously failed to live up to his promise.
One Sunday morning, my little brother and sister get out of bed and go to try and wake up their dad because they’re hungry. They found that they were unable to wake him because you tend to sleep heavily with a litre of vodka in you. At this point, they are 7 and 5 years old. They do not know how to make anything work, they cannot find Kevin’s mobile phone and they are locked inside the flat. My little sister grows so hungry that she is in pain and starts to cry. Kevin still does not stir. The only food that is in the house and in reach is frozen microwave meals. My little brother did not know how to use the microwave so he tried to get his sister to eat frozen food because what else was he to do? I understand that Cafcass have a duty to be objective but I will never understand how someone heard that story and went on to write ‘the children benefit from knowing that they are special and unique to their parents and loved by them’ is beyond me.
My little brother, 13 at the time, asked the interviewer if he could write Kevin a letter directly. The interviewer, taking this as a positive step forwards, agreed. Part of the letter reads: ‘I remember watching you beat Cameron up and knowing you wouldn’t hit me. Anyway, Cameron is a boxer now so I would like to see you try and beat him up now but you won’t because you’re a bully.’ This is simultaneously the happiest and saddest thing I have ever had written about me.
In spite of all of this, the judge came very close to offering supervised access. This would have meant that my mum would have been held in contempt of court if she failed to bring my siblings to the supervision centre. Whilst I recognise that not every custody case involves domestic violence, those that do seem to be treated no differently. Our solution to domestic violence cases is to grant abusers further control over the lives of their victims. It was only because Kevin was unable to provide medical proof of his sobriety that the judge decided on indirect access.
A 2011 study by UCL (sorry) suggests that children who have experience of domestic violence develop the same hyperawareness as combat soldiers. From personal experience, I believe this to be true. After years living with Kevin, I became good at reading body language and interpreting verbal cues. I knew when to feel safe and when to prepare myself for the worst. As a result, I do have a somewhat uncanny ability to know if I can trust a person within a few minutes of meeting them. It’s a survival mechanism, I guess and whilst it is often met with incredulity, to this day only one person has managed to surprise me. It’s not something I believe to be worth years of abuse but as silver linings go, it’s alright.
I have gone on for a long time but hopefully my story has demonstrated the many layers of nuance that surround even a single case of domestic violence. There was so much going wrong on so many different strata that it should be clear by now that there is no easy fix to this problem. That is not what people want to hear.
So what am I asking you to do about it then? Well, there are many things that you can do. Being an intersectional feminist is a good place to start. I was so revitalised when I found the movement because it recognises that few issues have a single root cause. Fighting the patriarchy is fighting domestic violence. To campaign for an end to racism is to campaign for an end to domestic violence. To battle oppression anywhere we find it is to battle domestic violence. When we do this, we are saying: We may be victims of your oppression but that does not mean we are weak. You have underestimated us and that will be your downfall.
I realise that it is a scary thing to do (and also, your own safety is paramount) but if you ever see a situation that hints at domestic violence then confront the person or report them. I know that there is a very real fear that you may make it worse for a person but there is also an increasingly good chance that may get help. We need to talk about domestic violence more otherwise victims do not think anyone is prepared to listen. Look out for one another and be willing to speak to your friend if you notice something about their partner’s behaviour. It does not have to be accusatory and it has the two fold effect of letting your friend know that you are prepared to listen whilst signalling your role as a potential witness. The latter role is important because one of the things that silences victims is the worry that it will be their word against their abusers. If they know that you have been witness to certain events, then they may feel more comfortable in coming forward. When I was a child, I would have given anything for another grown up to challenge Kevin’s authority or to have someone ask me the right question.
This is your call to arms.
Edited 24/04/2014 15:27 to remove reference to an individual.