This week two controversial pieces of writing caught my eye, and then stayed in my mind because, despite inhabiting different ends of the publicity spectrum (one being local and domestic, the other international and celebrity-driven), they actually had a lot of common ground. In certain respects the second of these two articles almost perfectly answered the question posed by the first. The first article was in the Birmingham Mail, it was written by Maureen Messent and it was entitled ‘Our ‘holy cows’ are own worst enemies’. The second article was in the Guardian, it was written by David Smith and was entitled ‘Oscar Pistorius’s emotional apology to Reeva Steenkamp’s unmoved mother’.
The Birmingham Mail piece was the most unapologetic piece of victim-blaming that I have read in a long time, based on the premise that women who are victims of domestic violence ‘allow themselves to be used as punchbags’ and are ultimately responsible for their own fates. Even the ones who have died as a result of domestic assault are not let off the hook, as we are ‘never told how many of the dead refused police advice to leave their attackers once and for all’. It might seem extreme to blame a murder victim for their own fate, but it is a surprisingly common reaction to domestic abuse: ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ There are many reasons of course, and most of them are practical and physical, like how to escape, how to look after any children involved, where to go, how to survive financially and how to stop him following you. Women who report violent partners only do so after an average of thirty five assaults. Most deaths from domestic assaults occur during or after the act of leaving.
However, before you even get to the practical difficulties, you have the emotional and psychological barriers to surmount, and these can be just as difficult as the physical ones, if not more so. Perpetrators of domestic violence usually have form: violent men are often controlling men, and will have displayed traits such as anger, jealousy and manipulative behaviour even before the first physical assault. Then, after the assault there will often be remorse and regret, declarations of love and promises not to do it again. This is a common pattern, and the reason it is so difficult to disentangle yourself from these abusers, is that they are emotionally believable; and who doesn’t want to believe they are loved rather than hated? Manipulative behaviour is just that: it manipulates. It makes you believe that remorse is genuine, it makes you believe you have a relationship worth fighting for, it can even make you believe the perpetrator deserves sympathy. And if somebody can evoke your sympathy they also by default evoke your guilt: how could you have been so over-sensitive/lacking in understanding/mistrustful/demanding/selfish (delete where not applicable) as to believe he really meant you harm? He REALLY didn’t mean it! Enough treatment like this (and it usually is repeated) leaves the victim with a lack of trust in her own perceptions and a corresponding lack of confidence in her own feelings and her own agency.
This is where the Oscar Pistorius article comes in. This is a man who has killed his girlfriend: that is an indisputable fact. His trial is attempting to determine the extent of his culpability: whether it was murder or an accident; but the identity of the victim is clear: it is Reeva Steenkamp, and by extension her family: her mother. So why, in this Guardian article, does the victim appear to be Oscar Pistorius? The emotive language used is one factor. The reporter says that Pistorius’s voice ‘quivered, cracked and trailed off…’ the voice is described as ‘tremulous, almost boyish’ and he is said to be ‘fighting back tears, jaw trembling and tissue in hand’. There is obviously a degree of sympathy in this choice of language, sympathy which is not shown to the ‘impassive’ mother of the victim. She is portrayed as emotionless, ‘unmoved’; there is no flowery language used to describe her grief: all the creative language is reserved for him. The reporter shows himself to be fully immersed in the drama of Oscar Pistorius, you might almost say identified with him: seeing things from his point of view. The BBC’s reporter, Andrew Harding, on the News at Ten, was similarly overwhelmed by this man’s tragedy, telling us that, whatever we thought about the emoting of Pistorius in court, it would be difficult for anyone to say this was ‘playacting’.
Well, I’m sorry, but I thought it was playacting.
And here’s the answer to Maureen Messent in the Birmingham Mail: a big reason women don’t leave abusive partners is because EVERYONE believes in their partner’s playacting. Friends, family and strangers see the side which is projected, and the victim is often the only one who sees the other side. If women are to be seen as weak, and culpable in their own abuse for not leaving, then you should look at the effect Oscar Pistorius has had on two men: David Smith and Andrew Harding. These journalists, who are not dependent on Pistorius for anything: housing, financial support or childcare, and have not invested their future in him or have a sometimes-loving relationship with him, are still reluctant to see any blame in him, or to call him out for what he is. They believe in him. If they can be so gullible and easily seduced by this over-emoting in a man who, let’s not forget, has KILLED HIS GIRLFRIEND, then what chance does a woman stand, within a relationship, with all its complications, when faced with the same kind of emotional manipulation?
For all those people who, when hearing of another death through domestic violence, have the knee jerk reaction of ‘Why didn’t she just leave him?’ I urge you to look at the reporting of the Oscar Pistorius trial. The answer to your question is being played out in the Pretoria courthouse in South Africa right now, in the full glare of the spotlight, for everyone to see.