Maria Roberts explains why she bypassed writing about the experience of domestic violence, to craft a play about two women pulling themselves together after their escape
To be honest I probably fit into that ‘pramface’ category: the antithesis of a yummy mummy. I got pregnant at 19. My son’s father has served time in prison. I often have greasy hair. I live on a council estate. I’m a single mum. I have a low income. I hid in a women’s refuge. Sometimes I drink too much and sometimes I smoke. We holiday in Wales. I always look exhausted.
I also have five A-levels, a BA (Hons) degree in English and Spanish from the University of Manchester, an MA in Creative Writing, I’m taking a post-graduate course in Pedagological Studies, I freelance as a theatre critic and arts journalist and I’m managing editor of a diversity arts quarterly. I am 29, I look 23, (on a good day 19) and have a nine year-old boy. In the scheme of things I’m not sure where I fit in.
To be honest, I think I have an inferiority complex.
When I first met my son’s father he was 20 and I was 19, his mother was dying and he spent his afternoons in the pub with his dad. Not drunk or rowdy, but motionless as he awaited the inevitable bad news. I worked behind the bar. I wore plastic flowers in my hair: a big white daisy, or a bright yellow sunflower and smiled at him in some vain bid for him to smile back. He rewarded me with the odd 20p tip when he bought a round of drinks. It was 1997, the year Diana died. It was 10 years ago this summer. Peculiar almost, that this August my first full length play will premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe, based in part on my experiences in a women’s refuge. Based in part on the vicious abuse I was subjected to by him. The play, Coitophobia, has been nominated for an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award.
I was not one of these brave women who took the abuser to court and secured a conviction. I was too scared. I backed off. I wanted to just get on with my life. Finish my degree. Get a job. I was petrified. In many ways, I still am. The play opens old wounds. He isn’t the kind of man to listen quietly and walk away. The last time we sat on the sofa and talked he had dragged me by my hair, down the stairs and strangled me repeatedly for hours. He was crying because he wanted to kill me, this is what he said. But I’m still here.
But that’s by the by now. I shan’t go into the horror of it all. There are plenty of horror stories out there. Just pick up Bella or Best.
I knew I wanted to write about domestic violence but I didn’t want to write about the graphic details. We’ve seen all that before in Eastenders and The Woman Who Walked into Doors. I don’t think I am undermining those works by saying that 30 years ago domestic violence was an abuse kept behind doors, only recently has it become a criminal offence. Writers in all their guises have brought the subject out into the open: TV, novels, magazines and the stage have all documented domestic violence, which is commendable. I just knew I didn’t want to present domestic violence in that way. I didn’t want to show scenes where a woman is beaten. My concern, as a woman and a writer, is that wounds can become fetishized. There are women behind those scars, not just sensational stories and pictures of broken bones. Battered women had a life before the trauma and they go on to have a much better life after it. I know this from the women I met in the refuge and who I see from place to place.
I wanted to document this ‘afterlife’. So Coitophobia spans 10 years and follows the story of Gemma and Katie, best friends and mothers who met in a women’s refuge and want to get on with their lives: they remarry, they have careers, their children grow into adults and make bad choices of their own. I wanted to create a bigger picture. I wanted to raise discussions about what happens to women following abuse. How does it affect their sense of self? Their identity? Their health and sexuality? I thought about how years of fear had affected me (I went a little crazy at one point) and thought how generations of women in other parts of the world, like the Congo, have no choice but to live in a persistent state of what we call post-traumatic stress disorder, but for them must simply be hell. As I wrote the play this was at the back of my mind, but it never quite worked its way explicitly into the writing. My next play will look at how sex is used as a weapon in war. It will look at the situation in Darfur, but be set in the UK.
Women who leave refuges go on to become incredibly resilient and ambitious. As though they’ve been given another chance. I know women who set up their own businesses, opened a shop, even one who worked as a bouncer at a VIP bar where Justin Timberlake goes when he’s on tour here. You wouldn’t mess with her now. That’s not to say escaping isn’t painful. A woman is at the most risk for her life when she leaves a violent partner. Two women a week are murdered in this way. But I think there is a sense of ‘nothing can ever be as bad as…’ I have different parameters of concern. I have less fear of, say, unemployment, because I think ‘it will not be as awful as being stalked, being homeless, being afraid’.
I think we’re all a little coitophobic. Society relishes in sex yet at the same time is petrified by the damage it can do. It can create life, yet destroy it too. Infidelity can tear families apart; it can drive people to insanity. Violent partners are often extremely jealous. Sex becomes a possession for them. In controlling relationships there is often this ‘you are mine’ territorial way of thinking. It starts off sounding like love but becomes dangerous. When you are in a relationship like that, sex is no longer a free choice. It is something you dare not refuse. Of course in a literal sense it is consensual, but how can sex with a man who threatens to kill you ever be consensual? In many ways it is a very silent, legal, rape. I wanted to write a play where the woman frees herself of these shackles. Katie, the character, around which the story spins, takes control of regaining her own sexuality, no matter how much it hurts. She enters an open relationship, she has lots of sex, she plays games. All this is masochistic, in some respects, as she purposely retreads old emotional hurt in order to find herself again. So to sum it up: I ended up writing a play about domestic violence and a woman who enjoys sex and uses it medicinally. Not your usual depiction.
Multiple Sclerosis is just one of many disabling conditions which affects more women than men. There is no proven link between MS and trauma but there is debate amongst medical professionals. MS has been proven in a court of law to have been triggered by whiplash following a car crash. Gemma, Katie’s best friend, is not so far fetched in believing a former abusive relationship is to blame for the onset of MS. Couple a disabling condition with post-traumatic stress disorder and the result is volcanic. It is one thing moving on, quite another to find yourself quite suddenly debilitated and jobless.
The whole mania for the misery memoir concerns me. Not just because, as a writer, market driven publishing is depressing, but also because there is a competition to publish the most vile account of abuse possible. Readers get hooked on these books. Victims get lured in with publishing deals. Last Christmas, everywhere I looked there were misery memoirs on coffee tables, in the kitchen, or by the bed. What about escapism? What about dreams? I am not suggesting we don’t out abuse, I just don’t believe social welfare is the publisher and bookseller’s number one concern: I think a number one bestseller is their number one concern.
Tales of child rape, violence and abandonment have become national bedside reading. Don’t you find that worrying? I find this voyeuristic consumption of abuse worrying. In the play Katie sets out to be a writer but falls into the trap of writing a misery memoir, at the expense of her friends and family. I wanted to write about my experiences but leave out the misery. There’s plenty of lewd comedy. Something I found helped me get over the bad memories and start making the new.
Coitophobia is produced by Blue Masque Theatre
For tickets see www.edfringe.com, or call the Edinburgh Fringe Box Office on 0131 226 0000