When Amanda Prowse set out to write a novel about an abusive marriage, she spoke to women who had experienced violent relationships. The number of women who came forward to talk to her confirms how widespread domestic violence is
It probably isn’t news that there are an estimated one million or more female victims of domestic violence each year, accounting for almost one in five of all assaults, but it is a figure so huge and with such horrific connotations that it is worth repeating. On the up side, the number of prosecutions and the conviction rate has increased – this has to be a start.
These mind blowing statistics were at the forefront of my mind when I started writing my new novel What Have I Done? It tells the story of an abusive marriage and Kathryn’s struggle to rebuild her life and reconnect with her children after incarceration for her husband’s murder.
I was in my mid-twenties when I jumped from the first rungs of a ladder that was taking me further into an abusive relationship. I was close enough to the ground not to get broken. Many of the women I spoke to when researching my book were not so fortunate, because once you take those first steps into an abusive relationship, it’s very difficult to turn back.
In order to understand my subject fully, I intended to put out a request over the internet, appealing for women to come forward who were willing to share their experiences. However, a shock came when I casually mentioned the idea to a couple of friends and they instantly put me in touch with women they knew with personal experiences. It made me start to think just how widespread this is.
One woman, Fiona*, who holds a senior role in a well-known financial institution, broke down and confessed that what I was describing in my book was how she lived. Fiona’s story was one of the worst: her abuse ranged from name calling and derision to rape. I listened as she painted a portrait of an average day, frequently going from holding court in the boardroom to lying on the kitchen floor, crying on the lino, within a matter of hours.
With a quiver to her lip and a tremor of her hand, she recalled what it felt like to hear his car pull up and the sound of his key in the door. She said she has toyed with the idea of reporting her husband, but was figuring out how this would affect their children and what the mechanics of it might look like; she was, naturally, afraid.
The women I met in coffee shops and sushi bars did not arrive stooped or outwardly bruised, but were instead suited, booted, and coiffed. They were all smart, beautiful women who to the outside world were leading successful, high-achieving lives. And my first question to each and every one was, “Why put up with it?”
I had read the quotes and looked at the statistics, but it wasn’t until I started speaking to these women and listened to heartbreaking tales of control and fear that I began to see a different picture. Through my novel, I want to explode the myth that domestic violence occurs solely in the top of a tower block, and I hope that by doing so, it becomes a problem that the whole of society has to deal with and not a topic that seems so far removed from privileged people’s lives that it can be swept under the carpet, along with anything else apparently too distasteful to disturb the status quo.
Ippo Panteloudakis, a representative from Respect, the membership association for domestic violence perpetrator programmes and associated support services, which is unique in offering help to those committing abuse but seeking to change, says, “We encounter perpetrators from all social classes, including, frequently, the middle classes. In the last few months we have heard from an investment analyst, a Rabbi, a teacher, and an accountant, amongst many other similar professions; it is a myth that this social group is immune to mental and physical abuse in the home, and, in fact, their numbers are rising.”
But where have all these controlling men come from? Respect have case studies like Robert*, a successful barrister, with a seemingly perfect life, a pleasant home and beautiful children. Yet he sought advice after being unable to communicate with his wife without “resorting to anger or violence to get his point across”. His emotional life had been reduced to anger and he allowed the situation to develop over years; when seeking help, his sentiment was that he needed support for himself, that he was also partly a victim.
Robert’s and Fiona’s stories are far from unique. I have listened to bankers, interior designers, managers and homemakers, who told me how they live under the cloud of control, coercion and abuse. They know in their hearts that to be subjected to this humiliation is wrong but their heads do all they can to keep the status quo, due to being too emotionally and physically drained to challenge it. Respect’s callers, reporting on this domestic abuse, come from across the country, in every enclave: Hesketh Bath (a comfortable town in Lancashire), Glasgow, Liverpool, Birmingham, Southampton, Bournemouth, Swansea and the small, rural town of Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Domestic abuse happens in the suburbs, it happens behind net curtains, it happens in country farmhouses and in expensive cars. It happens everywhere and no postcode or social group is immune.
The recent government changes in the definition of domestic violence to include “controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour”, as well as “psychological abuse”, which apply to anyone “regardless of gender or sexuality” are long overdue. These changes crucially highlight the fact that domestic abuse does not have to mean a punch or a kick. It can be a word or a measure of control; just as any victim will tell you, fear comes in all shapes and sizes.
This move will mean that domineering partners who torment their victims, but do not assault them physically, can be brought to justice for the first time. As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “These changes are about government taking a lead to help expose the true face of domestic violence, which is much more complex and much more widespread than people often realise.” The key to its success will be empowering victims to have the courage to report the crime, and the engagement and education of the legal system to ensure adequate deterrents are utilised.
One victim, whom I interviewed at length, told me that she wished she’d had a crystal ball to see what her abuser was going to turn into. My suggestion was that the perpetrator did not ‘turn into’ an abuser, but merely modified their behaviour until the process of isolation and true vulnerability had set in to allow for abuse. I suggested that if on a first date the victim had experienced the removal of their phone and bank account, the criticism of their appearance and the implicit instruction not to talk to or look at anyone, they might have run a mile. Yet horrifyingly, it took a further six years from that first encounter before they found courage to run that mile. They are still running.
If one good thing comes out of my book, I hope it is that women tell their daughters, daughters tell their mothers and friends tell their friends to trust the instinct that something is not right, to report the offender, to walk away and find someone who will treat them how they deserve to be treated. Violence – physical or mental is not to be tolerated.
*Names changed to protect anonymity
Amanda Prowse, www.amandaprowse.org
What Have I Done?, published by Head of Zeus
For further information and support please contact Respect: Flickr user CWGL. Second image of a domestic violence awareness mural: “A Survivor’s Journey” (2010) by Joel Bergner, uploaded by Flickr user Elvert Barnes.