Jess Hill, See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc 2019)
As I’m writing this blog post, allegations of men in the Australian Parliament abusing women currently and historically are dominating the news cycle, and the frighteningly inadequate responses of the powerful are on display. It’s a very difficult time for women who have survived abuse, and probably not a good time for them to read this book, which isn’t about the kind of abuse that’s in the news, but, well, I imagine it’s close enough to make the unbearable climate even worse. I finished reading it a couple of weeks ago, in happier times and without a personal history of abuse, but when I reached the acknowledgements at the end and read Jess Hill’s appreciation for her male soulmate who had backed her in the arduous four years of writing, and her delight in her witty and charismatic two-year-old daughter, I almost wept. It was like emerging from a vision of hell to be reminded that fresh air and sunshine exist, that there are decent men and happy little girls in the world.
But let me say right up front that although it gives many detailed accounts of hideous violence and abusive behaviour, this is not a book that wallows in the horrible. Hard as it is to read – and, I imagine, immeasurably harder to research and write – it’s a serious, level-headed attempt to anatomise the phenomenon of domestic abuse, to understand the perpetrators and the victims, to give an account of the way police, the courts and lawmakers have dealt with the issue, and to cast about for examples of more effective measures. In a prefatory note, Hill explains that she did her best to ‘flip’ the usual journalist–source power imbalance: where she told a survivor’s story (and there are many) as far as possible the subject/source of the story had a chance to read a draft, and suggest changes and, especially, deletions. One chapter begins with a couple of paragraphs acknowledging an extraordinary woman whose story was central to that chapter, but had to be withdrawn at the last minute because of major safety concerns.
The first chapter. ‘The Perpetrator’s Handbook’, describes the remarkable similarity of the techniques used by domestic abusers, across all locations, cultures and social status. ‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ one reformed abuser told Hill. ‘They all do it.’ Stunningly, the suite of techniques was identified by a scholar seeking to understand how US prisoners of North Korea during the Korean War had their spirits broken. In the 1950s there was talk of ‘brainwashing’, a semi-mystical process. Now it is understood to have been coercive control, a term that is explored at length in this book. The Korean War researcher, Albert Biderman,
established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s ‘Chart of Coercion’ showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.
Physical violence isn’t a necessary part of the system. Hill’s prefatory note says that as she came to understand her subject, she had to go back and change most references to ‘domestic violence’ in her text to ‘domestic abuse’. It’s not uncommon, she says, for an abuser’s first act of physical violence to result in the victim’s death.
The techniques are virtually universal, but perpetrators do exist on a spectrum. ‘It can be hard to pinpoint where garden-variety fighting ends and domestic abuse begins,’ Hill writes, but actual abusers fall into two types: insecure reactors, ‘who don’t completely subordinate their partners, but use emotional or physical violence to gain power in the relationship’; and coercive controllers, who ‘micromanage the lives of their victims, prevent them from seeing friends and family, track their movements and force them to obey a unique set of rules’.
Chapter 2, ‘The Underground’, discusses the dark and extensive world of women who are abused, behind closed doors and hidden in plain sight. It addresses the question, ‘Why do women stay in abusive relationships?’, or rather gives a brief history of victim-blaming answers that have been given given until alarmingly recently, then discusses structural and psychological difficulties in the way of leaving, and many modes of resistance.
Chapter 3 to 5 address the key question: not ‘Why does she choose to stay?’ but ‘Why does he choose to abuse her again?’ In these chapters, Jess Hill never falls into all-men-are-bastards rhetoric. Some men do monstrous things, but it’s important not to simply dismiss them as monsters. To understand everything may not mean to forgive everything. It certainly doesn’t mean anything is to be minimised. But to understand is an important step on the way to putting things right. Hill describes research that categorises coercive controllers as either cold, calculating ‘cobras’ or morbidly jealous, paranoid ‘pit bulls’, with a third type of violent man, the ‘family-only batterer’, who can be just as dangerous but needs different responses. It’s not always easy to tell which category a particular man belongs to, and there’s plenty of slippage between the categories, but the distinctions are useful – there can be no one-size-fits-all response to domestic abuse. Two superb chapters deal respectively with shame, which when linked to a sense of entitlement lies at the base of much male violence, and patriarchy, the overarching system that permeates cultures, and inhabits the minds of perpetrators, victims, responders and bystanders alike.
I’ve lived in a number of all-male environments – boarding schools and religious communities. I’ve participated in many men’s groups and workshops where we grapple with masculinity, sexism and male domination. I love my all-male book group. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a woman writing with such force and clarity, and also compassion, about male conditioning and its potential for disaster. If you’re interested but the prospect of reading all 371 pages of this book is too daunting, I recommend these three chapters.
The bone-chilling chapter 6, ‘Children’, includes a discussion of complex PTSD (which Rick Morton has just written a book about) and the ever-present tragic possibility that a son will follow in his abusive father’s footsteps. Chapter 7, on women who use violence, points to the key difference that without the backing of patriarchy and male conditioning, they are unlikely to have their partners living in fear for their lives. Chapter 8, ‘State of Emergency’, discusses the resources available to a woman trying to escape a dangerously abusive situation:
Women don’t just leave domestic abuse – they journey away from it, step by step. There is no straight path out – it’s a game of snakes and letters, and women can slip back underground just when they’re about to escape. This means that any potential escape route needs attention and support.
Speaking of these resources – police, refuges, the law, the health system – Hill says, ‘Often, the stories with the worst endings are not blockbuster horror stories, but catalogues of negligence, laziness and procedural error.’
Possibly the most distressing chapter of all is Chapter 9, which deals with the Family Court of Australia. Its title, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, tells you a lot about it. Contrary to the much lobbied argument that fathers are badly done by in the family law system, Hill argues that it is the other way around. The use of untrained ‘single experts’ to make judgements about custody, the invocation of the discredited Parental Alienation Syndrome by which a mother is held to be responsible if children are frightened of their father, and a general discounting of women’s and children’s voices make for a hideous mess. If anything the stories here of women and children being betrayed by the law are even more horrifying than the stories of actual abuse.
Since the book was published the Family Court of Australia has been abolished as a freestanding institution, and merged with the Federal Circuit Court. Sadly, it seems likely that this will only make things worse, because it will continue the erosion of resources from family law that has been steadily happening since John Howard’s prime ministership.
The penultimate chapter, ‘Dadirri’, deals with the way intergenerational trauma and grief from colonisation and genocidal policies – including the widespread disruption of families by child removals – put a rocket under issues of domestic abuse for First Nations people. The notion that violence against women is ‘cultural’ is given short and convincing shrift. Hill argues, with evidence, that domestic abuse was more prevalent and tolerated to a greater extent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England than in pre-invasion Australia. There are stories of powerful initiatives taken. For example, Indigenous women in the remote community of Yungngora in the central Kimberley made it happen that disruptive behaviour would result in expulsion from the community for three months after three warnings: ‘In twelve months, domestic violence went from six per week to none‘ (page 334).
The final chapter, ‘Fixing It’, manages to be convincingly, if guardedly, upbeat. ‘Social problems often seem insurmountable,’ Hill writes, ‘until they’re not.’ She makes the obvious point that more funding is needed by emergency services, and is scathing about the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children: it has no clear targets, and tackles domestic violence as an attitude problem’:
The mission to transform attitudes to gender inequality and violence is laudable, and will no doubt produce important cultural changes. But as a primary strategy for reducing domestic abuse, it is horribly inadequate. Why do we accept that it will take decades – possibly generations – to reduce domestic abuse? Why isn’t long-term prevention work paired with a relentless focus on doing everything possible to reduce violence today? Why do successive governments insist that reducing domestic abuse is a matter of changing attitudes – or, at best, parking the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff? How on earth did public officials decide that surveying community attitudes was the best way to measure whether their strategy to reduce violence was working?
There are places where initiatives have had substantial success in reducing domestic abuse. The High Point Initiative in North Carolina, which you can read about here, has been amazingly effective. It has clear goals, and has police cooperating with service providers to call out perpetrators publicly and make public the severe consequences of future offences. And promising things are happening in Bourke in New South Wales, where a community led program brings services together, with daily check-ins, and cooperates with the police, whose commitment to deal with domestic violence has been organised as Operation Solidarity. Without a big government spend, stunning results have been achieved:
Across the Darling River Local Area Command, domestic homicides dropped from seven in 2015–2016 … to zero for the following 18 months. By 2018, the repeat victimisation rate – which was twice the state average – was also down by a third. Victims have greater trust in police: the number who cooperated with police to pursue legal action is up, from an average of 68 per cent in 2016 to 85 per cent in 2018. And even with this increased legal action, at 75 per cent – something which [the Police Superintendent in charge of Bourke police] puts down to the fact that their prosecutor has been trained to properly understand domestic abuse.
See What You Made Me Do won the 2020 Stella Prize and has received a lot of publicity, but my sense is that it hasn’t been widely read. If I’m right, that’s a shame. It’s journalism at its best, bringing people’s stories into the light, making important research available, and demonstrating that it’s possible to think, and to hope, about a seemingly intractable subject.
A TV series his scheduled to be shown on SBS later this year, and there’s a video of Jess Hill talking at an event run by the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation at this link.
See What You Made Me Do is the fourth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.