Diagnosing Domestic Abuse – it’s Time to Try Harder


We hear a lot about domestic abuse these days – the statistics, the ad campaigns – but numbers are just numbers and the effect of a great ad campaign, even harder to grasp.

Victims of abuse do not stumble upon a ‘revelation’ that they are in an abusive relationship. A victim of abuse does not watch a TV ad, stand up, pack their bags and leave. There is, unfortunately, no Oprah’s ‘ah-hah’ moment, just a thousand slow, tiny little ones. The best any campaign can hope for is the same as any friend or family member – that they’ve planted another little seed of doubt and that the victim knows, should they ever try to get out, that the support they need is always ready.

Who knows if the stats and debates or the clever campaigns work. I imagine every case is different and I’m certainly not going to debate it. However I find it pretty hard to believe this default idea of a list of ‘signs you’re in an abusive relationship’ on every campaign or website is the ‘one-size-fits-all’ fix. i also do not want to talk about how the necessary support simply is NOT here in Ireland… because it is not and that is a tragic simple Fact. What I do want to talk about is the Pistorius case and what is for me, the real ‘revelation’ of domestic abuse.

While watching the media circus unfold over the last few days I’ve come to the realisation that despite all our statistics, despite the ‘it could happen to anyone’ lessons of recent celeb stories, despite the checklist of ‘symptoms’ to be found on every site that deals with victims or concerned others… we still don’t know how to ‘diagnose the disease’.

And I’ve the feeling it is because we are not using the right doctors.

As probably alluded to earlier, being in an abusive relationship is a lot like alcoholism or other addictions. Impossible to reach in your current state and painfully slow to rationalise with, you stumble through a haze of semi-conscious isolation. But somehow (over a very very long period of time) you come out the other end sharper, stronger and with a developed heightened ability to spot the signs of abuse and abusers in other people. Maybe it’s because you have had to spend a certain period of time becoming hypersensitive to the signs in your own partner (preparing for them to fly of the handle any moment), or perhaps you simply become expert at spotting one certain type of human behaviour the way certain criminal psychologists are adept at spotting true psychopaths… Either way the end result, I believe, is that there is no longer a ‘grey area’ for ex-victims when it comes to abuse. Signs that are subtle, or even invisible to others, stick out obtrusively like knives. They say ‘DANGER. KEEP AWAY!’ and even though they can bring the unwelcome past back to life for a second, they also are your friend – ensuring you avoid similar situations in the future.

Yet the rest of the world seems to amble passed these warning signs, without notice.

Take, for example, this case. It seems that to any normal person (read: most reporters, newsreaders, journalists and most of their audience) the tell-tale signs that Reeva Steenkamp was in a relationship that wasn’t ‘picture perfect’ (as the BBC just called it) have primarily been three points:
1) her death (one of the less subtle clues)
2) his trigger happy tendencies and
3) her admittance via text that she was scared of him sometimes.

To an ex-victim however, the real signs – the ones that make your blood turn cold – are completely different.

The first time I noticed this was a few days ago, when a Sky newsreader casually mentioned that Pistorius was so upset at the bathroom scene, that he declared he would ‘give his and her life to God’ should she survive. This was used in testament to his deep regret of his actions.
I felt sick.
Here was, in my mind, a clear sign of abuse. He had just killed (accidentally or otherwise) his girlfriend and was now offering up HER life to God should she survive his terrible actions.

But the newsreader continued without comment. Those watching the news with me, continued to look on without comment. The next day, the newspapers were also without comment. The subtleties of control in the relationship, the belief of total ownership over her life, the immediate rejection of full responsibility for his actions… All the signs were there in his declaration but nobody seemed to take notice.

The second time I noticed was this evening, reading the texts that went back and forth between the couple in the lead up to her death. Again, the media has completely honed in on the wrong message, literally. The most quoted phrase, the ‘tell-tale’ sign that things weren’t ‘picture perfect’, (as the BBC describes it) was Reeva’s admittance that he scared her sometimes when, actually all the big flashing red neon signs are contained within the lengthy text that serves as the image supporting these news stories. Not being ‘allowed’ to stay at social gatherings, being picked on, the excuses for his bad behaviour, the angry and obsessive jealousy (suggesting the Reeva was ‘flirting’ with others after an argument), the childish fits and the quick changing temper… Then yes, all the other signs. But in this instance, actually admitting being afraid him, I feel, has a greater meaning than just ‘an unhappy relationship’. It was in fact a sign of great personal strength that she would stand up to this person she clearly loved but feared and pointed out that his behaviour was in any way abnormal. It all paints a picture to me not of a victim, but of a woman fighting back. A woman, who maybe could have been saved…

The signs were there before in her Twitter feed but the media seems to keep missing them. So too, I would argue, does perhaps even the Steenkamp lawyer.

I guess the point I am trying to make (badly) is that if everyone knows the symptoms of abuse ‘on paper’ but keep missing them or misreading them, when it comes to actually tackling domestic abuse, perhaps we need a lot more ex-victims on the front line.

In support groups, in call centres, in media and yes, coming up with those marketing campaigns. People who do know the signs, even when (as in most cases) the victim doesn’t themselves, who can quickly spot a possible abusive relationship and knows to investigate further, who know how to talk to victims, sympathise and support them. But most of all, who are willing to share their own experiences and learnings. I keep thinking, for instance, that maybe if texts like Reeva’s are seen by victims, they may see more similarities between that real-life relationship and theirs than some black and white list of symptoms on a website…

Perhaps it would be good for those ex-victims too. It’s a long road back to normality after all and you can never be the same person again, but at least some good could come of all of it. There’s an annoying phrase clients use about advertising that every creative hates “How can we make it work harder?”. Well in this instance we really do all need to work harder, particularly here in Ireland.

[end rant]

*Please note. In my discussion of the Pistorius trial I am only speculating on the nature of the relationship and not on the specific circumstances relating to her death, nor on the guilt or innocence of Oscar Pistorius.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Eadaoin says:

    Very insightful commentary, a lot for thought on the seemingly myopic view of abuse prevalent in society.



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