Behind Closed Doors
Astha Rajvanshi talks to students who have survived domestic violence.
Content Warning: this article contains experiences of domestic violence.
The students I interviewed for this article share two things in common: they are all women, and they have all endured long-term abuse, social stigma, and shame from people they loved.
I suppose if I were to try and make sense of it all, these are the 1 in 3 women across all socio-economic backgrounds who tolerate, on average, 35 assaults before telling someone about it. They are an extension of the 950,000 young Australian women who reported in 2005 that they had been sexually assaulted before the age of 15; of the one in four children who witnessed violence against their mothers or carers; the 22% of women under 20 who have experienced dating violence.
After a while, numbers get dull and stop meaning anything. It isn’t fair, either, or even easy, to reduce a human life to a statistic. These are broader reflections of the community we all live in.
Look around on Eastern Avenue—pay close attention to the women you walk past and observe their body language to see if they’re limping. Count them in threes in your tute, and then guess which one gets kicked, punched or slapped. Picture what happens the moment they leave campus and walk through the front door of their abusive home.
Maybe then it becomes a bit more relatable.
As I spoke to these women about their harrowing experiences one thing became clear: these women had luckily, miraculously, and only barely survived. There are many others who hadn’t, or won’t.
“I ran out of my room into the hallway. My dad was standing over my mum, who was collapsed on the ground. He would lift her up by her hair, punch her in the head and she would collapse again, then repeat the process over and over. I was frozen. I don’t know how long he did this for, maybe a minute, maybe ten. Then he grabbed her by the hair and smashed her head against the wall.” – Jocelyn
This wasn’t the first time Jocelyn, 21, found herself trapped in a sickening nightmare. From a young age, her father and brother instigated physical, emotional and verbal abuse. The victim was most often her mother, but they would also regularly abuse her, and each other.
“A lot of people think of very stereotypical scenarios with people of certain backgrounds,” she says. “My father was white, middle class, multiple university degrees.”
“My instinct from the start was that my mother needed protecting, and if my dad started assaulting her I would scream out and cry for him to stop,” she recalls.
For a while this worked, but over the years, small arguments between her parents escalated dramatically to a point where fights became a life and death situation, and Jocelyn would have to physically pull her father off her mum, at which point, he would turn around and hit her instead.
To this day, Jocelyn remembers the way her father looked at her when she tried to intervene. “His eyes were ice-cold, robotic. It was as if I was just a dog in the way of his objective, which must have been to kill my mother,” she says.
“I got so tired. I was a weak 15-year-old girl against a grown man. When I couldn’t stand anymore, he stepped over me and began to kick my mum. All I could muster was to crawl over and try and cover her body with mine.”
Jocelyn’s brother used and sold drugs from a young age. Growing up in a violent house, he mirrored his father’s behaviour. “He would get the same look in his eyes as my dad had when he was coming off a high. It said he was capable of killing,” she says.
Her brother never ‘seriously’ injured Jocelyn; only occasionally spitting vodka in her face, ripping off fingernails, and throwing her into a door; like his dad, he preferred their mum as his punching bag. When Jocelyn was away at a sleepover, he threw their mother on the bonnet of her car and strangled her after a weekend-long bender. Jocelyn never went to another sleepover again.
As Jocelyn got older, her father started torturing her with sexual, suggestive behaviour—tugging at her shorts, pulling down a sleeve, snapping a bra strap—a nauseating reminder that he owned her. She developed severe depression, generalised anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress. She became suicidal and had to be hospitalised.
In Jocelyn’s case, there was no intervention, and her mother never left their father—even when people found out what had been happening.
“I used to dream of the moment when people would find out what was happening and make it stop,” she says. “But when the truth did come to light, the response from family and friends was awful. One family member asked my mother and I, ‘What did you do to make him hit you?’ ” For a while, she resented her mother for not protecting her, but in these moments, she became acutely aware of the complexities underlying the agony of her family’s violence.
“I can’t ever imagine the pain my mother must have felt when my brother, her son, abused her,” she says.
“How could she defend herself? How could she call the police? How could she have her own child arrested? She never could. That’s the crippling thing about family violence. You love the people that want to hurt you.”
By sheer luck, Jocelyn’s situation stabilised when her family organically separated two years ago—her brother moved out, and her father found a new girlfriend to please himself.
Resuming normal life proved extremely difficult. On her worst days and nights, Jocelyn wakes up from nightmares in cold sweats, suffers panic attacks, and questions whether she’ll ever be capable of a relationship. She doesn’t feel any stronger, but having seen the hate, rage, desperation, depression, weariness, control and freedom, it also fills her with determination: “I will never be abused like this again. The cycle ends here.”
‘Domestic violence’ didn’t exist 40 years ago. The violent behaviour was always there, but no-one spoke about it.
“When you think about thousands of years of history and gender relations, 40 years is a relatively short time,” Professor Lesley Laing, a former Director of the Education Centre Against Violence, explains. “But naming it and saying that it is common is good news.”
Whenever someone views women as objects to own or control, domestic violence lingers around the corner, waiting to creep in. This attitude is more prevalent than one would assume—in 2013, Roy Morgan reported that the number of young men who believe a woman’s place is in the home had increased from 6.5% to 11.6%. In NSW alone, women were victims in more than two-thirds of DV related cases, with 78% of cases involving male offenders.
“In a broader socio-cultural sense, it’s not only male violence towards women, but overall it is a problem of male power over women,” says Laing. “Domestic violence isn’t just physical, it’s sexual, emotional—a whole range of tactics which are about controlling the other person and diminishing them.”
Heterosexual ideas about romantic relationships can also result in violent patterns going unnoticed. “For instance,” Laing points out, “a man texting a woman nine times a day is seen as caring and loving, but can actually be a warning sign of controlling behaviour”.
Laing also comments that the idea that women are responsible for maintaining relationships leads to a blame-and-shame culture. It’s why it’s still a grossly under-reported crime, with police estimating that they only get called out to 40-50% of domestic violence cases.
“I think we should turn it around and ask why men don’t leave if they’re hurting people they care about,” says Laing. “We tend to blame the victim, there’s very little empathy for them.”
A 2008 report prepared by the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children recognised that certain groups of women—including young women, children of domestic violence victims, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, women with disabilities, women from rural and remote areas, and LGBTI groups—are more vulnerable to experiencing violence than others. Many people find it hard to believe that women are likely to abuse each other, but violence in gay and lesbian relationships occurs at the same rate as in heterosexual relationships. Escape from these situations can be even harder, as victims face the additional fear of being “outed” or subjected to homophobia.
Nina was with her girlfriend for four years, and for three of those she endured emotional manipulation, mental torture and physical abuse.
“I’ve never been hit by a man before, and I never expected to be hit by a woman. And here was this woman who was supposed to love me,” she writes.
Nina describes her ex-girlfriend as a “classic case of domestic violence”: she isolated her from friends and family, and if Nina spoke to anyone, she was accused of being flirtatious, or lying. The only way to remedy the situation was to cut every single person out of her life.
Knowing that Nina had suffered sexual abuse as a teenager, her girlfriend would twist it around as her fault: “Every day she made me feel dirty and sickened by it to the point where I considered ending my life because I couldn’t deal with the feelings and guilt”.
In the first instances of physical abuse, her partner showed remorse. But being hit once was a catalyst, and the violence got worse. Nina would end up with bruises on her face, black eyes, and a bleeding nose. She would be thrown across the room, kicked and kneed.
She silently waited for an apology, but it never came.
“When I asked her one day if she felt guilty for doing it, she laughed and replied ‘no’. She said I deserved exactly what I got and she was in the right to do so.”
“I was even sexually assaulted once by her,” Nina confesses. “These days, I am comfortable saying to myself, ‘yes, I have been raped by a woman’”.
Professor Laing tells me that more people report domestic violence in a past relationship rather than a current one, which indicates that many victims have managed to move on by seeking help from friends and family without ever going to a formal service.
This is a positive sign, but moving on is never easy.
Firstly, leaving the relationship itself can be dangerous. “Because the partner is losing control, leaving probably needs to be done with support and safely,” says Laing. There are also good things that get left behind—children, financial independence, and attachment.
Laing notes that as the victim already feels bad about how they’ve been treated, the most helpful thing for friends and family to do when approached is to show ongoing concern rather than telling them to do ‘x-y-z’: “just let the person know that you’re there for them, you’re not going to judge them, and will stick with them,” she says.
One of the women I spoke to, agrees. “If all women want to do is laugh, let them laugh about it,” she says, “because in the end, they’ve gone through such a huge betrayal of their trust and understanding … that you can’t tell them how to deal with it.”
While none of the women I spoke to feel like they have resolved their trauma, most have seen a GP, a counsellor, or a therapist—sometimes it works, other times it backfires.
Natasha was fearful of getting in trouble for speaking her mind at university. “Realising that you are respected for your opinion and are going to be applauded for what you say, that just changed my whole self,” she reflects.
But Jocelyn, who sought help from a therapist, was told she should try and meet men at bars to overcome her depression. When she was hospitalised, she contacted the University for special consideration and considered discontinuing her subjects—one staff member accused her of “trying to hedge [her] bets and escape responsibility”.
For Jennifer, being an international student meant she was denied much formal support. Her only options were counselling on campus or insurance, neither of which she could afford.
“My dad was really crafty, he would always hit the soles of our feet so no one could see the bruises,” Jennifer recalls with a sense of calm. She doesn’t meet my eyes.
When I meet her, she’s sporting a crisp, tailored suit to match her equally crisp paralegal position at a law firm. Like any other law student, she’s bright, articulate and intelligent.
There are no visible scars or bruises to suggest that she and her younger brother have for their entire lives been the objects of their father’s anger.
“[My friends] could see us limping… I would peel back the sock and they’d say, ‘holy shit, what happened to you, you should tell the teacher!’ but I knew that if I did that my dad would blow up again, so I thought that’s probably not a good idea,” she says.
Jennifer wasn’t just enduring physical pain; she was forced to inflict it on her brother too: “My dad would make me hit him for not doing his homework […] I’d say, ‘oh, he hasn’t done one page of questions’, and he’d ask, ‘how many questions is that, six? Six times ten is what, 60? Alright, 60 lashes.’”
The beatings didn’t stop when the family moved to settle down in Sydney, but Jennifer found a way to escape her father’s temper by living at college. She knew that her brother would continue getting beaten at home.
“One time I came home and he lifted up his shirt, and there were just red welts everywhere,” she recalls. “I always told him that he could stay with me, but he never took up the offer because he knew if he did that and went home he’d be in a lot more trouble.”
“Is he at school at the moment?” I ask.
“And what does he do now?”
I don’t follow. Or maybe I’m hoping that I’ve misheard.
“So… there was an accident last May, and he died. Yeah, you can’t make this shit up, can you?” she shrugs.
Jennifer’s brother died from brain damage after slipping and hitting his head on the pavement on his way home from school one evening. He was 17, and it had been two weeks after he’d attempted to run away from home without success.
“My parents always say ‘oh, I’m sure he’s in a happy place now’, and I’m like, ‘yeah you’re right, because if he was still alive he’d still be getting bashed’.”
Currently, Sydney University’s Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) does not keep a statistical record on domestic violence. However, Dr Phil Renner, Head of CAPS, and Paul O’Donohue, a senior counsellor, tell me that ‘interpersonal relationship difficulties’ (sexual mistreatment; emotional or physical partner violence; bullying; and family violence) are the fourth most common concerns of the more than 2,500 students who present for individual appointments annually. CAPS has limited resources. In 2012, however, they ran a series of talks on ‘How to Make Relationships Work’, and are this year working with student organisations to raise awareness on sexual harassment.
But that’s about it. The University has no specific guidelines on how to deal with students who experience domestic violence, nor does it have a remit for investigating or holding to account perpetrators of domestic violence, encouraging victims to seek assistance through the NSW Police or specialist services.
Those who are impacted can receive counselling support available through CAPS, and advocacy services from the SRC and SUPRA. Dr Renner and Paul O’Donohue explain that the counsellor assesses the impact of their experiences and, “if appropriate, will refer them to services such as dedicated domestic violence services, legal services, income maintenance and accommodation services.”
The University is not compelled to proactively ensure students’ welfare or raise awareness about the issue. The onus is on students to seek out these services.
There are promising signs from the University of Melbourne, however, where a new web-based project to provide online support for domestic violence is currently being trialled. Led by Professor Kelsey Hegarty from the Department of General Practice, ‘I-DECIDE’ offers users security through self-directed survey questions. The project is described as “a safe, private, secure forum for women to assess their relationship, weigh up their priorities, and plan for a safer future for themselves and their children”. Innovative solutions like these allow for women’s preferences for non face-to-face disclosure of situations where women are afraid of their partners.
The importance of such projects cannot be understated; their absence would be devastating.
“My family was like a microcosm of dictatorship … It’s not one of those things where he doesn’t mean it or he doesn’t understand. It was very deliberate.” – Natasha.
Natasha is nervous about the interview; she takes several deep breaths before talking, and tells me not to take offence if she can’t look directly at me while she talks, “It’s just really difficult for me.”
She’s a mature-age Science student, but this semester she’s taking a break. “I was doing an Arts degree, I passed first semester, but I struggle to stick to my meds. If I can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, it’s torture,” she tells me.
Natasha suffers from acute depression, which arose from the intergenerational sexual and domestic abuse her father inflicted on their entire family. “We don’t even refer to him as dad anymore. We just refer to him as this fuckhead, because he wasn’t dad to us,” she says.
Natasha remembers how he picked her up by the shirt and threw her on the bed when she was just six. She remembers how, in a frenzy, he beat her with a rope when she was eight. She remembers how he chased her down a dirt road with a cane when she was 12. “I actually peed myself, I was so afraid,” she recalls.
“He’d be OK one day, but then he’d just change.” she says. “I remember just being happy when [he] wasn’t angry. This screws you up—you’re like, ‘I love you Daddy’, because you’re so happy they’re not mad anymore.”
She describes her father as a controlling man, who would decide what her family watched on television, where they lived, and what they did—keeping them home sometimes for fear of someone finding out. She and her siblings tried to get through the ordeal with humour. “Some of his behaviour was so bizarre that all we could do was laugh about him behind his back,” she says.
Natasha gets annoyed when people ask why her mother didn’t just leave, or why she didn’t speak up. “I thought if I say something and nothing happens, I’m fucked. He’s going to kill me,” she says. “I’m actually inclined to think that never would have happened—he would have been scared. But you just don’t know.”
Things got worse, and Natasha’s mother began sedating his coffee out of fear that he might kill her. “I’m thinking of ways to dispose of you,” he once said to her.
One day, Natasha was called to the principal’s office at school and found her mother and aunt waiting. They were finally separating. “I’d never felt that euphoria,” she says. “I was physically affected—it was like coming out of a concentration camp. I was still frightened; I guess I didn’t want to dare to dream.”
They moved into a separate, secure house where Natasha’s younger sister finally told her mother the extent of her sexual abuse. “Mum told him that he would never see us again,” she says.
“After, he went and dobbed himself in, and went to jail for six years.”
“You just think, all that time you could have stood up for yourself, this is a very weak person, but we were too young,” she says.
I can’t help but wonder if the men reading this article feel uncomfortable, or worry that they have all been categorized as violent or controlling. If this is the case, it means the onus is shifting back on them to interrogate why they feel uncomfortable. And rightfully so. They are the beneficiaries of social scripts that justify violence as masculinity and fail to recognise female thought and livelihood.
I have no clear answers for the women still living in fear. It remains astounding that someone’s frustration and insecurity is justification enough to destroy another’s sense of self. And in the current political climate, with domestic violence support services facing dramatic budget cuts, these women are viewed as disposable at best, and inconveniences at worst.
No one ever deserves or asks for it. Domestic violence is the sum of a community’s attitudes, cultures and beliefs; and its failure to take a stand against it. Without intervention, it will always continue.
* Names have been changed in this article to maintain anonymity.
** If you’re seeking support or assistance for domestic violence, please refer to the services below:
The University of Sydney Counselling and Psychological Services
Telephone: 8627 8433 or 8627 8437
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Service
Telephone: 1800 737 732