“Fifty-one per cent of Australians believe…that most women could leave a violent relationship if they really wanted to. Some…believe that if a woman hasn’t left, she must want to stay – because maybe she secretly likes the drama, she has a victim complex, she gets off on being abused, and so on.”
Taken from Jess Hill’s book See What You Made Me Do, this quote highlights persistent attitudes that pervade not just the minds of men who use violence, but a full half of Australian society. It is the conclusion of a piece in the book that historicises beliefs towards family violence in a clear, effective way, from women enduring their abuse to the masochistic enjoyment of abuse to a more nuanced recognition of the complexity of family violence. For NTV practitioners and our members, this helps to flesh out the fragments of the stubborn victim-blaming narrative that is so common in the men with whom we engage.
Keen to explore more about how this aligns with NTV’s experience, policy and practice, staff members who read Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do held lively and informeddiscussions over two in-depth review sessions. While a diverse range of voices participated, from different NTV teams, the focus was on how the book relates to our practice and whether it accurately reflects the men we engage with in the NTV phone room.
What aligns well
The book addresses common features of coercive control, oscillating between family violence scenarios and Korean POW camps, where strikingly similar methods of control were employed on prisoners. The often unconscious but universal expression of how control takes place in family violence situations reflects our work in the phone room. Importantly, this section avoids the temptation to ‘monster’ men who use violence. Hill is clear in pointing out that, while methods of control are similar, it says little about the ‘character’ of the man or the intensity or violence of the abuse itself. Hill writes, “whether an abuser is a cunning sociopath or a ‘normal’ man afflicted by morbid jealousy, he will almost always end up using the same basic methods to dominate his partner”. It is important to our practice to separate the man from his behaviour. To facilitate change it is essential to invite men to recognise that their choice to use violence is rooted not simply as ‘the way he is’ but exists in wider social context. Addressing coercive control as a universal aspect for family violence can be useful in recognising that behaviour change is possible.
The book highlights a commonly held belief that men are discriminated against in Family Court and addresses the often-dangerous rulings that can place women and children in risky positions as a result of misinformed testimony and lack of understanding of how family violence works. Unfortunately, the court system can become an instrument for men to harass as well as a tool for reinforcing his justifications, often minimising the harm to women and children. As practitioners, inviting men to take responsibility and become accountable is at the core of what we do. When our institutions are reinforcing the opposite message, it creates a violence-supporting narrative that is antagonistic and undermines our work. NTV now has practitioners based in the Family Court in Melbourne, the Neighbourhood Justice Centre in Collingwood and we are working with the Family Court in Dandenong. Our presence ensures that our non-collusive practice is observed through these procedures.
While our presence in court is a step in the right direction, we recognise what is outlined in the book as an unofficial hierarchy of expertise in the Family Court process, with psychiatrists at the top and social workers at the bottom. This puts those with minimal expertise in family violence in powerful positions, while marginalising expert voices. As the book states, “the family law system doesn’t require single experts to do specific family violence training – being a psychiatrist is considered expertise enough”. As the experts in dealing with men who use violence, NTV’s input into safety risks for women and children can provide crucial testimony for Family Courts.
A dissection of men’s shame as it relates to family violence is rarely explored in mainstream discussions of the issue. Delineating clearly the distinction between guilt and shame, this chapter addresses the corrosive nature of shame and how the internalisation of ‘badness’ can exacerbate men’s use of violence. While it is difficult, on an initial phone call, to explore a man’s shame, as practitioners an awareness of the mechanism of men’s shame should be embedded in our work. This is an area which is open to further exploration by our members who facilitate group work. Hill is sure to point out the complexity of men’s shame, while acknowledging the potential for change: “Men who attack others when they feel shamed are not doomed to do this forever. But in order to change this pattern, they need to be able to see it.” Including the story of how Kylie Dowse facilitated a more comprehensive reflection in her group work when addressing shame is a good illustration of how this change can happen.
From an NTV point of view, as both practitioners and as communicators to men who use violence and men more broadly, the connection of patriarchy and shame is compelling. Stressing the idea that in a system of patriarchy, “men are powerful as a group, they do not necessarily feel powerful as individuals”, corresponds strongly with our practice. Individual men do not necessarily feel powerful but have a strong inclination that they are entitled to power. The complexity of squaring the enforcement of that power through violence with the feelings of shame that often accompany that violence is a common dynamic. More broadly, it is an opportunity to think about how we speak to men in wider society about violence and the possibility of change – “casting perpetrators out as ‘irrevocably tainted’ only compounds their shame, and potentially makes them all the more dangerous”.
The Bourke example provided a good indication of how communities and police can work together with an offer of support to men who use violence, followed by consequence for non-compliance. By diverting resources away from criminal justice responses and putting those resources into services and prevention, Bourke saw a dramatic transformation across the community. Crucially, it shows how this approach avoids ‘othering’ the men aligning with NTV’s core belief in the possibility of change as well as the importance of a supportive community response.
One challenge, more broadly, is about whether it is possible to scale this in large cities where communities are more atomised. The Bourke project is an example of a long-term project, initially led by Elders and with unique Police leadership built upon over years – Aboriginal communities are certainly looking to Bourke for guidance recognising that it may not work for some urban environments. It would be useful to reflect on emerging practices that are built upon true collaboration and information sharing where legislation supports wrap around case management models.
An analysis on how to approach solutions should be appropriate to different environments and guided by multitude of practice, policy and research.
What does not align
The Abusive Mind
At times, in this chapter and in other illustrative stories in the book, it doesn’t necessarily align with our experience of dealing with men. While extreme cases certainly exist, most men we speak with on the phone do not use the extreme levels of violence that are highlighted here. Although Hill does outline early in the book that coercive control can be present in cases of extreme violence and where no physical violence exists, our concern as practitioners is that highlighting these stories can create an idea that extreme violence is the norm.
Although they may act as useful in some areas, labelling devices such as ‘Cobra’ and ‘Pit Bull’ can create a typology in the minds of the public which can too easily slip into ‘monstering’ or ‘othering’ narratives particularly as it relates to ‘types’ of men. In addition, from a practitioner’s perspective, an internalisation of certain typologies in men who use violence can often naturalise the label as a part of their personality, making it difficult to explore the possibility of change, and increases the likelihood of being stuck in shame.
The Perpetrators Handbook
While we recognise it would be almost impossible to write a book like this without addressing how control is employed in the home, some NTV practitioners expressed concern about the possible utility of this chapter for men who use violence. The concern is that men could use the material as a resource to further manipulate practitioners, the system and their partners.
While points of difference exist, we believe this is key to developing further discussion. The depth and detail in which Jess Hill explored these issues facilitates further public conversation at a time when it is urgently needed. Mainstream conversations on men who use violence often tends to either minimise violence against women or ‘monster’ men who use violence. Neither of these approaches are helpful for NTV practice. See What You Made Me Do addresses this directly by pulling men into the centre of this discussion, neither vilifying them nor excusing their violence, and providing some much-needed systemic analysis.