By Stephen Acott
This is a story about a woman we can’t identify, for reasons which will soon become apparent. It is also about an issue we can – and must – identify, for reasons which will also soon become apparent.
We’re going to call her Veronica and we are going to start this story on Sunday, 8 July, 2018. It is about 10am. Veronica will never forget this day and time, for reasons which will soon become apparent.
Veronica’s life is about to take a turn for the worse. It will be a seismic shift – one that will irretrievably alter the trajectory of her life – but she doesn’t know that yet, even though it’s less than a minute away.
Right now, it’s a typical Sunday morning. She’s home with her husband and baby, sorting out the laundry. She and her husband, we’ll call him Michael, are upstairs enjoying some well-earned peace while their baby rests downstairs.
The mood is calm and convivial as they chat about nothing in particular. And then Veronica asks Michael a question. Anyone eavesdropping wouldn’t recognise the question as anything other than harmless.
“Do you mind helping me while we chat?” Veronica says, picking up a sheet. Michael smiles and ignores the question.
“No, really, could you give me a hand,” she says again. Michael is still smiling and continues the conversation they were having, without addressing the pile of laundry in the basket.
“C’mon Michael, it will be all done in a minute if we do it together.”
As far as Michael is concerned, that’s three strikes.
He’s no longer smiling.
In fact, his face has turned red with rage. In a flurry of intense activity he clenches his fist as tight as he can, raises it above his head and swings it hard and straight – straight to where Veronica’s head was.
She manages to move her head out of the way and Michael’s fist goes through the wall.
Peace to piece-of-wall-missing in about 30 seconds.
Stunned and petrified, Veronica’s instinct is to run. She goes downstairs, grabs the baby and tells Michael she’s calling the police.
Michael follows her down, but he no longer seems angry. If anything he looks apologetic, ashamed even. He doesn’t say anything, but Veronica can see remorse written all over his face.
She feels sorry for him and puts down the phone. Yes, you read that right. Veronica feels sorry for the man who moments earlier almost knocked her senseless.
Veronica is in an abusive relationship and this is what often happens when you are in an abusive relationship. You don’t see sense, you just see normal. Michael flying into an instant rage is Veronica’s normal. He’s never put his fist through a wall before, that’s a first, but it’s always been on the cards
It wasn’t always like this. Fifteen years earlier, Veronica and Michael were two travellers from different parts of the world who simultaneously found themselves in San Sebastian, Spain. Their paths first crossed in a cafe. Veronica thought Michael was “very nice, very charming” and they kept in touch for the next two years.
Fast forward another three years and the couple are now just that, a couple, living together in London. Veronica has landed herself a good job – her “dream job” in fact – but Michael is keen to return to Australia. Veronica would like to stay in London a little longer, but Michael is having none of it.
“He was extremely pushy about getting me to move to Australia,” Veronica says.
“He basically said ‘you move or we’re done’. I had a really good job that I loved, I was with my family and I was hoping he’d change his mind, but he wouldn’t back down. I was madly in love, so I quit, hopped on a plane and landed in Melbourne.
“That was in late 2012. Fourteeen months later we were married.”
It’s perfectly understandable why Veronica didn’t hear any alarm bells at this point – not many would have. But that’s how insidious family violence is – all too often it’s not writ large for all to see, victims included, instead it takes a piecemeal approach, slowly entrapping its target without them realising.
“I didn’t sense that there was anything wrong until about three weeks before we got married,” Veronica says.
“One day he pushed me and snatched my phone from me. I said ‘why did you do that?’ and he said ‘you’re making a big deal out of nothing, I just wanted to check something on your phone’.
“I let that one slide. I was very excited about getting married.”
If you need a poster girl for family violence, Veronica would be it. Her story ticks every box, as you will see.
Wendy Austin has spent the past 40 years working in the family violence sphere and is now a consultant focused on raising awareness and the role of the community. The Manningham Uniting Church member was also a founder and long-time board member of peak advocacy and research body Domestic Violence Victoria. When asked to paint a typical picture of family violence, Wendy draws a portrait that is unmistakably Veronica. Veronica gets no comfort from this, other than she hopes her story will help others to recognise family violence earlier than she did, and act.
“Often people’s experiences are their ‘normal’,” Wendy says in response to the imperceptive question: “Why don’t people recognise they are being abused?”
“If you are in a relationship where you are largely controlled and you haven’t had a previous experience that’s enabled you to understand you have a right to be safe, then you’re not going to claim that right. You are not going to recognise that you are in an abusive relationship and therefore you are not going to speak up.”
Control. Or, more precisely, an imbalance of control. If you asked Wendy to distil family violence down to its core essence, this is what she would show you. And this is also what frames Veronica’s story.
“Some men have an issue with being vulnerable, feeling shame, feeling soft or anything associated with femininity and therefore resort to violence or control of their partner,” Veronica says. “Control was what Michael wanted.”
Before we go much further, it would be prudent to define family violence because the name does not spell it out. Thanks to Rosie Batty, the subject is no longer whispered in hushed tones. In 2016, a Royal Commission was convened in Victoria to formulate a plan of concerted action. This is how it defined family violence:
“Behaviour by a person towards a family member of that person if that behaviour:
- is physically or sexually abusive
- is emotionally or psychologically abusive
- is economically abusive
- is threatening
- is coercive
- in any other way controls or dominates the family member and causes that family member to feel fear for the safety or wellbeing of that family member or another person
- behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear or witness, or otherwise be exposed to the effects of, behaviour referred to above.”
Talking to Veronica, what strikes you first and foremost is her strength and resilience. She doesn’t want to be a victim and she doesn’t want family violence to define her or her child. But it so easily could.
Above are the “boxes” the Royal Commission listed to encapsulate family violence and here’s how Veronica ticks them. When she was telling her story to Crosslight, she didn’t realise how stereotypical it was. She was simply listing examples, but the list was long and varied.
Physically or sexually abusive.
“He’d insist on having sex even if I didn’t want to. He’d say it was how he could express his love, but I would think ‘I don’t want to have sex with you because you’ve been screaming at me all day’.”
Emotionally or psychologically abusive.
“After our baby was born he suddenly started getting migraines and his behavior got a lot worse. He would complain about something every single day. He used his headaches, if in fact they were real, as an excuse to be angry.”
“When we started going out I had my own bank account, but when I got to Australia Michael suggested we open a joint account – except it wasn’t a joint account, my name wasn’t on it. And most of the money had come from my account. I didn’t do anything about it because I trusted him.
“Everything we had was under his name. The car, our phones, the internet, everything. He just said ‘I’ll take care of all that, you just do the cleaning’. When I say that it sounds ridiculous, especially because he wasn’t really contributing anything financially. But it happened slowly. I was with him for 12 years. I didn’t realise I was getting done over.”
“Another big incident that made me afraid was when we went on holiday. We caught up with some old friends and one night I’d put the baby to bed and then I went to bed and Michael stayed up with our friends drinking. When he came into the room at about 5am he woke the baby up so, because I was still breastfeeding, I brought the baby into bed with me and started feeding it. Michael told me to put the baby back in its bed because he didn’t like the baby sleeping in our bed. I told Michael if I did that the baby would wake up and not go back to sleep. But he kept insisting. It ended up with him ripping the bed covers off us, him standing over me with his face right in front of me screaming at me to get out of the bed. I was shaking. I felt scared and highly vulnerable. I thought if I said anything he would hit me.”
“Because he was doing all the ‘internet chores’ such as paying the bills, he said I had to do all the physical chores. I’d come home after a full day of work and I’d be doing the dishes and I’d say ‘could you put the rice in the rice cooker and get dinner started?’ and he’d say ‘oh, no, I need to pay the phone bill and there’s a few other internet-based chores I need to do so how about I go on the computer upstairs while you sort dinner out’. It took me a while to realise that I was doing everything. He had me completely bamboozled. And I think the reason was his yelling. I’m only now starting to learn about it. It’s called coercive control which is when someone controls you by creating an atmosphere of fear and threat. This means they don’t have to physically hit you, the threat of violence is enough to keep the victim in check.”
Violence is a relatively new term, but the issue, regrettably, is not a recent phenomenon. It used to be called domestic violence, but no matter what label you put on it, it’s happening more than you realise. In fact, the stats make for sober reading. Family violence is, largely, a hidden epidemic. As Wendy says: “It sounds terrible to say, but most perpetrators don’t choose physical control because they know they’ll get found out.”
In other words, no bruises doesn’t mean nothing to see here.
“This issue has been bubbling away for decades, like a volcano waiting to erupt, and Rosie Batty was the one who caused it to erupt when she so bravely spoke about her situation,” Wendy says.
“The Royal Commission into Family Violence has also brought it into focus and we have to step up and be part of it. We have an opportunity we can’t deny.”
Education has a major role to play, as does awareness. The more we speak about it, the more familiar and alert we become. Religious organisations have a duty to familiarise themselves with family violence, and it’s a duty the Uniting Church is acting on.
Sharon Hollis, the Vic/Tas Synod’s former Moderator, is now its Culture of Safety Resource Development Minister. One of her first jobs after putting her feet under her new desk was to implement a trial education program to help people understand what is family violence, what are the key drivers and what faith leaders and pastoral carers can do in response. She expects the trial program to be rolled out mid-year.
“The program will be evaluated by the Migrant Women’s Health Centre and Melbourne University and, if the evaluation says the program is worthwhile, we will then look at ways to offer it more widely,” she says.
The program is not all the church is doing, however. Uniting, it’s community services agency, has for many years been actively involved in this space, particularly in regard to counselling and educating male perpetrators.
But the Church is not without its skeletons in this particular closet. Royal Commission chair Marcia Neave found there were some faith communities that had unhelpful teachings that discouraged women from seeking help. Anyone familiar with the Bible will know there are passages that make you wince. Indeed, in December 2019, Crosslight published a column written by Denisse Sandoval, that held the Bible to account.
“I encourage all people to think about why men abuse women, and how our interpretation of scripture might be perpetuating a system and hierarchy that is not conducive to equity and justice,” she wrote, quoting 1 Peter 3:1-7.
Others have referenced Ephesians 5: 22-23: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.”
Or 1 Timothy 2: 11-12: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; rather, she is to remain silent.”
Veronica is aware of these verses, but says her faith remains strong. “Passages like that don’t affect my faith because I’m aware it is very old scripture and some of the people who have helped me the most have been ministers,” she says.
“I’ve never prayed so hard in my life than I have recently. I’ve been praying for protection, for help.”
Wendy also doesn’t take these scriptures too seriously, but says the Uniting Church is not blameless when it comes to fostering family violence.
“In some church communities the church does replicate patriarchy and gender inequity,” she says.
“As a structural institution, the Uniting Church has consciously evolved and doesn’t do this now, but as a bunch of people from all walks of life and experiences then yes, it does.
“That’s not the church’s fault, that’s just who people are. The Church used to encourage people to remain in relationships.
“We as a church have to be really clear with ourselves and say we were part of the problem. Family violence has happened just as much in churches as it has anywhere else.”
In a previous life, Uniting Church president Deidre Palmer was a social worker and is very familiar with this topic. As a former moderator of the SA Synod and now Assembly president, she is also very familiar with what is contained in the Bible and the Church’s position on some of its scripture.
“The Bible can be ambivalent for women experiencing domestic violence because it depends on the lens through which you view it,” she says.
“There are liberating streams in the Bible, but there are also ways the Bible can be used to oppress women.
“The Uniting Church believes in scholarly interpretation as well and understanding the historical context in which it was written.
“If a woman came to me and said ‘I need to be submissive’ I would point her to the ministry and practice of Jesus. His praxis was liberating for women, he encouraged them in leadership, one of them was the first apostle who witnessed the resurrection and proclaimed it.
“In the Gospels, women are prophets, evangelists, teachers, proclaimers of Jesus’s liberating Gospel. Jesus breaks down the patriarchal boundaries.
“Following Jesus and his ministry is at the core of Christianity.”
Deidre says the Uniting Church steadfastly promotes gender equality. She doesn’t say it, but the fact she is a woman and head of the Church, is testament to that.
“The Uniting Church is in a good position to encourage mutual respectful relationships, as our understanding of Scripture and our theological foundations embrace the equality of women and men,” she says.
“Wherever you have a theology that promotes inequality, for example gender inequality, then you leave open the possibility of violence against women and children.”
Deidre also notes that in 2018 the Church’s Assembly passed a resolution on family violence which said, in part:
“It is important for the Church to be clear:
- in repudiating all forms of Domestic and Family Violence;
- to express God’s desire for life-giving mutually respectful relationships, homes and communities, where all people can flourish;
- to educate our members about the reality of the situation and how they can respond;
- to develop safe practices and safe spaces within all our congregations, agencies, schools, groups and communities.”
Research shows women in religious communities are less likely to leave violent marriages, to do so would mean they have failed as wives.
Further, Annette Gillespie, CEO of Safe Steps Family Violence Centre, was quoted in 2018 as saying in her 20 years of experience it was “extremely common” that women would be “encouraged by the church to stay in an abusive relationship”.
Wendy says her experience mirrors Annette’s. “We’ve been taught to stay and make (the marriage) work,” she says.
“The church requires you to honour your marriage vows. A lot of women have stayed in abusive relationships because of the influence of the church, but that is shifting.”
Deidre is eager to address this topic. “Marriage is a covenant relationship blessed by God,” she says.
“However, it’s an ongoing relationship which we all need to work on and be sensitive to where God is leading us.
“The marriage relationship is a mutual, loving, respectful relationship free of violence. If someone in that partnership is perpetrating violence against their partner, then they have broken that covenant.”
Indeed, the Uniting Church has a statement on divorce, which says sometimes it is the right course of action.
Sharon points out that Marcia Neave found many faith communities can be “foundational” in supporting people who’ve lived through family violence to rebuild their lives after they leave violent situations.
Veronica is also witness to this, saying she has received great support from two Uniting Church ministers.
“One of them has a deep understanding of the psychology behind abusers and he’s been really good to talk to,” she says.
Understandably, Veronica has become a bit of an amateur psychologist specialising in what is it about some men that drives them to abuse their partner.
“Michael felt inadequate,” she says. “If we were going to a BBQ he would say ‘don’t talk too much about your job’ because he would feel embarrassed that I had a job that paid more than his. Because he felt inadequate he had to control me.”
So, with all of this in mind, what’s the first thing someone experiencing family violence should do?
The simple answer is, no, not leave – because leaving can be dangerous – instead, seek help and information. By all means aim to leave, but have a plan.
“Leaving is possibly the most dangerous time, so is pregnancy,” Wendy says. “If your circumstances are severe you should head straight to the police or a family violence service, but if you’re just wondering what’s going on, you could identify five people around you who you can trust and have a conversation with one or two of them.
“You can also go to any number of websites which will describe what controlling behaviour looks like and what you could choose to do.
“The best circumstance is if you can plan it. It’s important to have a safety plan in place and do it your way, particularly if children are involved.
“But, whatever you decide, you have control. Sometimes people want to remain in the relationship, but with renewed strength and try to work it out.”
Veronica says it took three years for her to leave Michael.
“I used to say to myself ‘he treats me really badly, but I won’t leave until he hits me’,” she says.
“I started to see a counsellor for post-partum depression and she told me I was in an abusive relationship. That was the first time I thought ‘maybe I should leave’.
“I eventually told a friend about Michael’s behaviour and she also said I was in an abusive relationship and sent me some YouTube videos about coercive control and psychological and emotional abuse. I asked Michael to leave the next day.
“It was a very calm conversation. I said ‘I think we need a break and you should go and stay with your parents for a few weeks’.
“He said he agreed we needed a break, but that I should be the one to move out and that he would look for a place for me to move into.
“He eventually agreed to move in with his parents for a few days while he looked for a serviced apartment, which I was supposed to pay for. Once he was at his parents I emailed him saying I wasn’t going to pay for a serviced apartment. I said the separation wasn’t temporary, he couldn’t come back and the locks had been changed.
“My landlord had seen the hole in the wall so he was happy to change the lease into my name. In the end it was quite easy.”
Veronica has received no support from Michael’s family. “His mum came over a few days later and said ‘everyone yells sometimes, you guys just need to sort it out’,” she says.
“She said the hole in the wall was just a normal way of venting.
“Michael has now started yelling at our toddler and his mum says everyone yells at babies from time to time.
“I rang his father to say this is the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life, I’m kind of falling apart and he said ‘bye’ and hung up on me.”
Veronica says some friends have also been unhelpful. “People say ‘oh, but he’s such a nice guy, I can’t see it’ or ‘can’t you work it out?’,” she says.
And there’s a lesson in this for all of us, particularly ministers who may be confronted with someone looking for solace and advice.
“I like to call it ‘early noticing’,” Wendy says. “It’s between prevention and early intervention. Early intervention is where something must be done or that family is not going to be safe. Early noticing is where we, as a broader community, have an obligation to be aware of our friends and family and colleagues and look to see if they are OK.
“For example, you may have a friend who, all of a sudden, doesn’t want to meet up for your regular coffee catch up. The best thing to do in that situation is simply to say ‘you don’t seem yourself today, is everything OK?’. You may get ‘I’m fine’ for an answer, but you have opened the door for that person to recognise that they are worth checking in on.
“Ministers especially need to be aware of family violence in all its forms, much of which is invisible. The first thing they need to do is believe the person and listen.
“People don’t seek help for no reason. Most people who live with family violence are used to not being believed.
“Another thing would be to ask them what would they like them to do? ‘Do you want me to offer some suggestions for support, or do you simply want to chat?’ Put the victim in control.”
Family violence is invisible and insidious. It’s also an epidemic. One in three women will experience it. Its tentacles spread to all corners of society and its sting is hard to eradicate.
Veronica has been out of her relationship for eight months, but a good night’s sleep can be hard to come by.
She’s no longer being mistreated by Michael, and yet in some way she still is.
“I’m having nightmares around losing my child, of being raped – really, deep, dark nightmares. The torment doesn’t end just because you leave.”
- One in three women experience physical violence
- One in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence
- One in four Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, many before the age of 15
- Two woman a week is killed in an act of family violence
- Male intimate partner abuse is the leading cause of death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15-44
- Indigenous women are up to 45 times more likely to experience violence and 10 times more likely to die as a result
- The effects of family violence also have a cumulative impact on women and children’s mental health resulting in a range of illnesses up to attempted suicide
- 90 per cent of family violence is perpetrated by men against women
- 85 per cent of Australian women who report family violence also report pet abuse