New voices make themselves heard in an old conversation about violence

Society
Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media
Jane Gilmore
Viking, $34.99
See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse
Jess Hill
Black Inc., $32.99

It’s 2014. A farmer in Lockhart in southern NSW, murders his wife and children, then kills himself. The news coverage – almost in its entirety – blames the drought.

Elissa Ratliff was furious. She was only 21, from a small country town called Barraba, and was just getting her start in journalism in the big city. Ratliff wrote an article for her employer, Mamamia, acknowledging the drought was tough; and that the conditions in the country triggered mental illness in some.

Is domestic violence a result of inequality or the patriarchy? Jess Hill and Jane Gilmore address the question in their books.Credit:Shutterstock

But, she wrote, the drought should not “be blamed for one man’s decision to allegedly murder his entire family before taking his own life”. At publication, she experienced relentless trolling, abuse and harassment – except from those who lived in rural Australia. Ratliff remembers the near universal response from those she knew back home: “We have been dealing with that for 40 years and we haven’t shot our wives.”

Months earlier that year, Australians had been forced to re-evaluate their own ideas about family violence. Luke Batty, a skinny little kid at cricket practice, had been killed by his father in public. From that moment on, no one could deny Australia had a problem.

Five years later, the conversation about how we write and talk about men’s violence against women and their children has sharply shifted. Rosie Batty has acknowledged that her experience made this possible – because Luke was murdered in the public eye, no one could deny what happened. It’s now rare to read stories from established news organisations in which murdered women are blamed for their own deaths or the deaths of their children – they were unfaithful, unkind, plotting to leave – although sometimes those themes emerge in the harrowing court cases which follow these murders.

Two new books on violence and gender in Australia will become part of our national conversation: Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do and Jane Gilmore’s Fixed It. Each makes a solid attempt to identify the construction of violence against women in different ways, each for different audiences. Is it inequality? Is it the patriarchy? Can we fix it? These are questions Hill and Gilmore attempt to address.

Domestic violence has been a focus for Australian journalists and authors for decades but its foregrounding began with Anne Summers’ groundbreaking 1975 book, Damned Whores and God’s Police, where it is unnamed but omnipresent. Summers describes what happened in the first nine months of Elsie Women’s Refuge when more than 600 women and children spent at least one night there because until the establishment of the refuge, “these women had been imprisoned in homes with husbands whom they wanted to leave . . . unless the woman had been able to save a little money or unless the man was so violent that she just waited for him to go to work, picked up her children and ran, escape was very difficult.”

Escape was difficult from an unnamed threat. Just as Damned Whores was published so too were the findings of Whitlam’s Royal Commission into Human Relationships where it became clear family violence was endemic. The threat was finally named. While the phrase “domestic violence” was prevalent in academic work – it hadn’t yet entered the everyday although even then, journalists were alive to its existence.

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I was just a cadet reporter when I read a compelling 1982 story in The National Times, Kristin Williamson revealed the terror in which women lived. Williamson is on the beat with a police officer who has been called out to what was then called a “domestic” when coppers were still turning a blind eye. The woman, who Williamson describes as having blood on her face, a closed eye from bruising, a broken nose, is asked by the police officer how the incident started.

“I heard him coming back in a taxi. He was arguing with the driver about something. When he got inside . . . he goes crazy and starts belting me around the room.”

More than 30 years later, I still remember that story and its influence on me as a young reporter. A year later, Jocelynne Scutt, now a barrister, academic, politician, wrote Even in the Best of Homes: Violence in the Family and the phrase became common usage. The book Family Violence in Australia, edited by Carol O’Donnell and Jan Craney, gave journalists both a more theoretical view grounded in personal stories.

This body of work made it possible for journalists to write about family violence. It didn't stop editors from saying that it didn’t happen among their readers – in fact, I haven’t had a conversation like that for 20 years. But there is still much to do if we want to make women safe.

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See What You Made Me Do is Hill’s attempt to change the way we talk about violence against women and she begins with an explanation of why she has replaced the term domestic violence with domestic abuse. She thinks it more clearly encompasses all the acts that men take to control women. More than telling us about all those actions, Hill introduces us to women and men and their shocking experiences of family violence. Her experience as a reporter is obvious and Hill is able to draw out both the poignant and the terrifying. As she says herself, “I’ve examined some of the most shocking cases imaginable”.

It is these interviews that make the book compelling. The shared stories of coercion and control, the way in which Hill draws out the intimate and the personal to provide a picture of what happens in our country today should be compulsory reading for politicians at every level. She writes: “I’ve agonised how to make these words fierce and definitive enough to convince every politician, judge and police officer that they must do everything in their power now to make sure no perpetrator ever feels comfortable again.”

And mostly, Hill has achieved that aim with her book although I have some concerns that her chapter on Shame, which she wrote with her life partner David Hollier, gives some licence to those who make excuses for male behaviour. It’s a psychoanalytic approach that looks at the concept of shame that in men, Hill writes, is built around one “unbreakable rule: do not be weak”. The stories of violent men in this chapter are chilling even for someone like me who reads about family violence daily but in this book, the strong link between shame, gendered violence and patriarchy is not made entirely clear. I fear that the concept of shame will be used as an excuse for men instead of a starting point to a much longer conversation.

The parts of See What You Made Me Do  that rely on Hill’s journalistic experience are excellent yet the parts where she makes proposals for new theories and new understandings are not as cogent and I hope Hill goes on to take an academic approach to her thesis to make her analysis even more convincing. In this book, she relies on the research of others to make her case and I look forward to her relying on her own groundbreaking work in this area. To this reader, there is a reliance on US researchers despite Australian academics leading in the field of family violence.

Fixed It should be required reading for school students. It makes its arguments clearly and concisely and asks the reader to consider the influence of language on our consciousness. The parts of the book that focus on the Fixed It project, in which Gilmore amends headlines that make excuses for perpetrators and then shares them on social media, are engaging and instructive and will make the casual reader think more seriously about the impact language has on our understanding of violence against women. Like Gilmore, I loathe the fact that most perpetrators are invisible. She uses the example “Woman found dead” and offers the alternative “Man murders woman” but although one hopes no journalist will ever take that advice until long after any legal processes are over.

The project itself is hugely worthy and it provides a strong moral ground for future activism. In great detail, it explains to readers why it’s important to change not only the conversation but the language. However, the race through the woes of journalism, the gendered nature of the newsroom and the challenges in pop culture, sport and political representation have been covered elsewhere and in greater depth. Fixed It is not a book for those already familiar with the ideas and concepts around sexism and misogyny and, in particular, it’s unlikely to bring any insight to those who have a solid understanding of the issues around domestic violence. Yet it’s a book we need for generations who think the war between the sexes is over.

Jane Gilmore is a guest at Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf.com.au

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald. She has been writing about family violence since 1979.

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