The Blame Game: Domestic Violence and ‘Bad Mothers’

Stairs

I am eternally distracted by words; by what you can do to them, and with them. I delight in nuances of syntax, inversions of word formation, and just plain old beautiful imagery. For, behind all of the noise, selflessly propping up the social consciousness and gender indignation, lies a Book Person. And I have read a lot of books. If you once substituted paperbacks for meals (the chunk your life now cordoned off as the meaningless bit where you did nothing but wait for something) you end up ingesting a lot of beautiful writing. You end up, in some senses (but probably not in the sense Milton intended), ‘nourished’ by it. And I could say so much about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s descriptions of emptiness and wealth in The Great Gatsby; the resignation and desolation of the last paragraph to The End of the Affair; every paragraph of The Grapes of Wrath. But, never having been American, or spoilt by wealth, blighted by poverty or tortured by the duties of Catholicism, their power for me lies in their ability to articulate the unimagined, the not-lived.

On the opposite side of this coin lie those accounts unfettered by lyricism; those that just plain old tell the truth without regard to artifice or construction. And these mean more to, and remain solidly within, the reader to whom they speak. I think particularly, and recently, of Patrick Stewart’s interview in last Sunday’s Independent. Patrick Stewart is a patron of the domestic violence charity Refuge and has spoken frequently and at length about growing up with a violent father. I never tire of his interviews on this subject and after reading, feel a visceral urge to give him a hug, and say thank you: the type of tighter than usual hug you give to someone – someone else – who knows. Reading this:

I became an expert at judging the heat of an argument…as the temperature rose I would get out of bed and on to the landing, and, if it rose further, I would go down the stairs, sitting on the stone steps so as to be as close as possible to the door if something bad happened”

left me, for the remainder of the day, weakened. There I was too, my childhood self, sitting, hovering on those stairs, not always knowing the content but understanding the tone, waiting for it to spill over and with clumsy hands and slight body weave my way into the danger. I am moved again as I write this – not because I am upset or triggered by those words – but because it sometimes feels so freeing, seems so essential, to have someone say the words for you. Your frame of reference tightens so much that you think you’re the only one and the shame and stigma that can surround coming from a violent home often stops you in the telling. I get used to the diatribes on ‘bad mothers’ that are swiftly abbreviated, hastily backtracked, when I point out the very clear and practical reasons my mother did not leave (for even the ill-informed can be pragmatists). I get used to the startled ‘but you seem so normal‘ looks and the underlying assumption that all children who witness domestic violence themselves become absuers, or drug addicts, or underachievers or in some other way become invaluable and invisible to polite society. Of course this can happen, and the possible effects of domestic violence on children should be prominent and continue to form part of the wider narrative of protection, awareness and eradication. Yet stereotypes – as always – are limiting and unhelpful. Someone, who in all other ways elicited a huge amount of empathy and reasoned reaction, ended our conversation on this topic with ‘well, thank goodness you weren’t a boy’. As if to say it was only by accident of gender that I was prevented from turning into a virulent, alcoholic, woman- abusing mess of a human being. This ‘cycle of violence’ explanation is too deterministic and seeks to absolve the perpetrator of responsibility. If there is such a solid reason why someone becomes an abuser then they are stripped of any responsibility for their actions; they are not acting by choice but on instinct, on socially and psychologically conditioned behaviour. And so if we can’t blame the perpetrator, who is there left to blame? And aside from all of that I just found the comment vaguely offensive. Part of a lineage of mother-blaming. There was an intrinsic assumption: an assumption that were it not for the random, chance occurrences during fertilisation my mother would have, by not leaving, by not seeking help, laid the conditions and foundations within which a monster could grow. Mother-blaming, along with victim blaming, forms part of the culture within which domestic violence sits. The ‘why doesn’t she leave’ argument, in itself a flagrant misunderstanding of the nature of abusive relationships and barriers to help seeking, increases in weight and volume when children are involved. In some respects it suddenly becomes an issue of choice or of obligation. If you are childless, it’s up to you if you don’t want to leave. It’s your choice, a free-will thing. Yeah, if you like getting hit and harassed and emotionally tormented, go right ahead and stay seated. This alters if there are children in the home. It is no longer a choice; it becomes an obligation, an obligation to do the best by those children, to protect them from further harm and from an adult life which echoes with sounds and acts of violence. If you don’t do this you are a bad mother, a selfish mother who has blighted forever the lives of your children. This entirely shifts the focus away from how resourceful and prepared and actively engaged in protection many mothers are. It heaps unnecessary blame and coercion onto women who are already suffering enough of this as it is.

Of course I am not saying that child protection is not important, and I would balk at  misinterpretation of what I am saying as a ‘mothers first’ argument. I am saying that opposing a woman’s experience of abuse against her ability to function as a mother can create an environment that impedes help-seeking. Judgements such as this are the shadowy obstacles that lurk between suffering in silence and speaking out. If we are focusing, as we should, on early intervention and prevention, shutting down routes to assistance by perpetuating false ideals of motherhood is something that needs to be tackled. The focus should not be on motherhood, but on safety, protection and routes to assistance. We need to steer away from creating monsters by way of the mothers who nurtured them. Excessive mothering created the draft dodgers and the Peter Sutcliffes; neglectful mothering created the Charles Mansons; abusive, warped mothering created the cartoonish yet murderous rage of Stephen King’s Carrie and selfish mothering creates the next generation of domestic abusers. I think I always hear this narrative, even if it is absent. Part of the legacy I am left with is a constant need to defend my mother, now with an adult’s words rather than a child’s hands, and tell people how goddamn normal I am and that look! I’m completely anti violence and really quite placid and sweet. I may have suffered in some ways as a result of my childhood, but I may just as easily have suffered had my childhood been one long uninterrupted dance of wonder. In any event there would only be one person to blame in all of this. And it wouldn’t be my mother.

This is why I think we need more Patrick Stewarts, more visibility for children who have lived in a violent home. We need to be thankful for Jahmene Douglas, who uses his X Factor fame to increase awareness of domestic violence, and who never fails to highlight how brave and loving and important his mother was when he was growing up. I want to hear more people speak out and articulate the realities of living with violence. But I want it done in a way that increases the prominence of routes to help seeking, and increases that sense of ‘I’m not aloneness’ for both mother and child. I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, nor do I have any other academic validity with which I can garnish or conclude those sentiments or this piece. I write about what I see, and feel and think. My credentials lie with literature, with linguistics. I make sense of things through the process of writing. So, whilst I do not know what it is to renounce one’s faith because it robbed you of the only person you truly loved, I can take Maurice Bendrix’s lines from The End of the Affair – ‘you’ve done enough, you’ve robbed me of enough’ – and make them plain, make them stark, make them mean to me that which I want them to. They resonate as a message to those misguided perceptions, and to the past.

Say It Like You Mean It

If the XFactor hadn’t descended up it’s own backside several years ago it would have been more profitable than it is to open this post with a string of searing barbs, at least in part to mitigate the pain I felt through the show’s exposure of Gary Barlow as, well, a bit pissy. A certified exercise in redundancy, but I want to ensure I relieve myself of the majority of my XFactor acidity before I commence with the heart of this.

Oh! the vitriol I could pour onto my TV set every Saturday (if I didn’t know a bit about science, and know that this may cause a fire). There are a plethora of irksome XFactor factors: the booming, elongated annunciation of the voiceover guy; the fact every post judge’s house makeover seems to rely heavily on PVC, stratospheric level backcombing and three sticks of eyeliner; the Village of the Damned style dead eyed repetition of the phrase ‘you made it your own’; the way Tulisa pronounces her name ‘Tulisaw’ (which can also, presumably, be found in isle three of B&Q). Yet only one XFactor trope has the ability to inflame: the culture of poormeism. That is, the coldly cynical way the producers stretch and contort any vaguely disconcerting aspect of a contestant’s life into a grotesque parody of sorrow, into minutely engineered pageantry played out by unwitting pop puppets who see only the swiftly receding light of transient fame, not the manipulation and exploitation of their private lives. These tales have ranged from the insultingly innocuous (the cross Andy in series one had to bear was his employment as a bin man) to the punchy yet overstated (Rachel in series five was a former crack addict and petty criminal and also, as it turned out, not particularly nice). Yet, as with everything that continues to exist in it’s current form, there is the potential for someone to come along and scrawl all over your preconceptions.

Despite my seeming infinitesimal knowledge of the XFactor I haven’t, for years, watched it for longer than it takes to count a few cliches and wince at a few bum notes. So, it took a while for one of this year’s finalists, Jahmene Douglas, to filter into my consciousness. And then he seemed to be everywhere. Jahmene, for the uninitiated, has spoken out about living with an violent and abusive father and the subsequent, far-reaching aftermath. This daily torment culminated in a sustained and torturous attack on his mother, Mandy. She was imprisoned in her own home and abused for days with a blow torch; with fists; with knives. Then followed a series of refuge stays, of aliases and of trying to bear the seemingly unbearable. Coming to terms with a life lived in the shadow of abuse proved too much for Jahmene’s brother Daniel who took his own life. Yet this sequence of events has been imparted without sensation, without the vaguest whiff of self pity. It is hard to imagine Jahmene’s heartfelt words accompanied by the obligatory pre-performance ‘vote for me I’ve had a hard time’ piano refrain of a Coldplay or a Take That song. I hope I am not wrong.

Whilst the publicity generated by all of this has surely not hindered Jahmene’s progress in the competition, I think to focus on this is to miss the point. I have before seen contestants use their fleeting fame merely as a springboard to vacuity: entry into trashy celeb hangouts;  dubiously rendered carol concerts in shopping centres; posing and pouting in mens’ magazines. Never before have I witnessed an XFactor contestant use the temporary platform granted by the show to do something worthwhile. Yet here we have Asda selling ‘Vote Jahmene’ T-shirts and donating the profits to the national domestic violence charity Women’s Aid; The Sun donating to Women’s Aid following an interview with Jahmene; the XFactor’s own website providing a link to a site about domestic violence; Women’s Aid and Jahmene retweeting each other on the subject of Domestic Violence Awareness. We also have #raiseawarenessofdomesticviolence trending on Twitter, at Jahmene’s behest. We have his young followers opening up about their experiences of domestic violence and giving money to help support services. One follower had proudly told Jahmene she had donated £10 to Women’s Aid, as that was all she had, but was worried that this was not enough. I am not a sucker for a sob story and can root out the coldly cynical at ten paces. I am also aware that the ubiquitous hash tag alone does nothing to reduce the statistic that two women every week die at the hands of a violent partner. I do, however, think that all of this has brought further into public consciousness a very trenchant point. With regards to the reporting and awareness of domestic violence, and to quote Mandy Douglas, “everything at the moment focuses on the aftermath”. The story of Jahmene and Mandy played out in the popular press and on social media websites is surely that indictment writ large. We hear them in retrospect, we hear them reach back painfully into the past and recall how – somehow – they managed to survive. The focus needs to stretch, to incorporate and give equal weight to prevention, to early intervention, to increasing routes to help-seeking and to eradicate the shame that is so attached to all of this.

And I know from whence I speak. I have been – I am – that aftermath. I know what it is to cower and to fear, to listen to the anger and see the pain, to be a child and to not know how to make it stop, to be conditioned to see your suffering as shameful, as wrong. Reading Jahmene say that “the thing that stays with you is hearing your mother scream and not being able to do anything about it” made me feel, for that moment, that he was the bravest person alive. I have worked for a women’s refuge service and seen women time and again feel that no one is listening, and that to fight to be heard, and to fight to be given the right options is a battle too far. I know that teens and young adults are at most risk of suffering violence at the hands of a partner, I know that there are ‘worrying levels of acceptance of abuse’* in teen relationships. This increasing normalisation of abuse needs to be tackled at the earliest opportunity, through education, and the services need to be there for people to come forward. Crippling cuts to refuge services need to stop, for we cannot continue to live in a world where 230 women were turned away by Women’s Aid in one day as there was not enough refuge space to accommodate them**.

If young people are talking about the destructive nature of domestic violence on Twitter, or during XFactor advert breaks, it is surely a start.

http://www.womensaid.org.uk 

http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/education

*Home Office 2004; **Women’s Aid 2011