Saturday, February 15, 2014

Further on domestic violence, my long comment on a comment

This post started as a comment in response to a comment on my last post. It might be overkill, and in all honesty it is not just a response to John James comment but an opportunity to clarify and expand upon points made in this post Pity the perpetrators. At 1000 words it was too long to put inside a comment box. While I feel very strongly about the points I raised, I know that John James made his own in good faith (as did Lana Hirschowitz) and I while I disagree strongly I do so respectfully. 

John James, while I appreciate your lengthy response to my post, I completely disagree with you. I read Lana Hirschowitz's piece, and while I normally agree with Lana and certainly applaud her advocacy born of personal experience for greater mental health services, in this instance I very strongly disagree with what she had to say. I did not make her piece the focus of my post because it was just one of many articles/posts taking a similar approach.

While well-intentioned, I believe that the calls from not only Lana but others in the media to call for a focus on mental health rather than family violence immediately following two brutal murders of children at the hands of their father, is dangerous for the actual victims of domestic violence.

I also come to the issue of domestic violence with both professional expertise and a personal connection. I won't bore you with the details but I assure I am well-informed on this issue.

My first response following a brutal murder of a child by his father, a father who it is well documented had been terrorising the mother of the child for 11 years and had many warrants out for his arrest, is not to express empathy, compassion or understanding for the perpetrator. It is rather to experience anger, despair and grief for the victims.

I understand the instinct to blame mental illness because who wants to believe that a parent could brutally, and with premeditation murder his own child. It is too monstrous. But without speculating on the specific details of the most recent case, it does follow a common pattern. It is, shockingly, not surprising. I would go so far to say it is a classic case, and the mindset of the perpetrator is well understood by those who work in the field of domestic violence. I do not need to empathise with the perpetrator to understand his mindset. Those who work in domestic violence, or have been victims of domestic violence, have a pretty good understanding of it already.

Domestic Violence Victoria, the peak body for domestic violence services for women and children, reports the following:

"At an individual level, the most consistent predictor of the use of violence among men is their agreement with sexist, patriarchal, and/or sexually hostile attitudes."

And for those who wish to shift the focus from family violence to mental health, consider this finding:

"Intimate partner violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than of any other well-known risk factors, including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. 59% of the health impact experience by women is anxiety and depression."

So in actual fact, it is family violence that is a leading cause of mental health issues in women (and death).

Consider how a woman currently stuck in an abusive relationship, or a woman who has 'left' but continues to be terrorised by her abuser, might receive these calls for empathy and compassion and understanding for the perpetrator following these two horrific events.

Consider that it reinforces perpetrators own self-perception, that he is in fact the victim in all this.

Consider that the many posts and articles written to this effect will make the real victims of domestic violence feel even more alone, more unsupported than they already do.

Consider that batterers, men who terrorise their families, are reading these calls for compassion and understanding and taking comfort.

Consider that while many have chosen to focus on mental health as the 'real' issue in this case, this approach is not supported by mental health experts who worry that these calls are in fact stigmatising people with mental health issues by making this connection between domestic violence and mental illness.

As @deltrimental noted: "My timeline is interesting atm: the mainstream calling for compassion for mental illness and MH advocates condemning that approach."

Consider that we do not ask for 'understanding' or empathy when talking about people who have committed other violent crimes. It is absolutely appropriate and required that criminologists, psychologists, public health experts and lawyers investigate the causes of crimes (especially violent crime) and implement both prevention and rehabilitative measures. But as a community it is just as important that we unequivocally condemn domestic violence and do not signal in any way that the perpetrators are people deserving of our sympathy. (And in saying this I am not advocating public floggings or removing judicial discretion in sentencing or other law and order measures commonly touted by the right.)

Consider that the Victorian Police Commissioner, Ken Lay, had this to say follow the brutal murder: "I find a coward present more often in a family violence issue than I do a person with a mental illness"

He also said: "It is my hope that Luke's death will be a very, very strong reminder to our community on the insidious and pervading nature of family violence."

Consider what Philip Cleary (@PhilCleary_Ind), campaigner against family violence, said on twitter 2 days ago: "The killer is not a victim. This was an act of revenge. This is not a story about depression but about a man's capacity for violence."

And: "Where were the politicians discussing family violence today? Why not a Royal Commission into family violence rather than one into unions?"

And: "Luke Batty is dead because our society and its institutions failed to deal with male violence. Seeking excuses in mental illness is foolish."

Victims/survivors of domestic violence have thanked me for writing this post. That is good enough for me.


  1. Blaming mental illness for family violence is no more helpful than blaming testosterone or alcohol for the so-called 'king hit' episodes of violence. They are on a spectrum of violence directed against women, children and other men that it is to different degrees tolerated, if not sanctioned by our culture. I reference here an article by Professor Raewyn Connell in a recent article in The Conversation ( in which she responds to the focus on young men and king hits. I quote directly from her article where she makes the salient point about domestic violence and abuse:
    "And if we are concerned with men’s violence in Australia, the half-hidden epidemics of family violence, sexual harassment and rape are much wider problems than street bashings by strangers". We need to disclose and not hide any longer the epidemic family violence.

  2. I actually think we - you, me, Lana, and others - may all be arguing the same thing, but from different perspectives (and possibly different semantics)

    I think I'm looking at this from a wider perspective than just domestic violence - I've been thinking a lot about some recent posts about Philip Seymour Hoffman and drug addiction from Edenland and Russell Brand where they have humanised the idea of who and what a drug addict is...

    I think this is what some of the articles, like Lana's that have focussed on what mental illness is like — especially in relation to recent tragic events — have been written for — to try and remind people that even the perpetrators of domestic violence need to be viewed from a human perspective as well..

    I don't think these articles have been written as "victim-blaming" (and I don't think you mean that either) but I know some other responses have been saying that - victim blaming would infer that the victims of domestic violence deserved it because they stayed with someone who had a mental illness - I don't think that for a minute.

    My perspective is still the same - no one deserves to be the victim of domestic violence - and there are no excuses for committing domestic violence - but I'm not going to "demonize" anyone either.

    I truly believe that anyone who commits an act of violence is broken in some way, and as such I will feel empathy for them - because to reach a point where you think it's OK to commit a violent act, you must either be suffering from a mental illness or have been raised in an environment where violence has been normalised in some way - that doesn't excuse the act, but I will feel empathy for you, because I am sorry for anyone who gets to a point where violence becomes "normal"...

    But my empathy for the victims will always be greater than my empathy for the perpetrators... I just don't think one needs to be exclusive to the other.

  3. I think what John James (and you) say is right! I certainly feel much more sadness and compassion for the victim than I do the perpetrator. But, like JJ, I do not believe that people act violently or in rage due to a "bad mood" or the fact that they are "violent people". I think violent behaviour is the result of an unwell mind and instead of telling the victim to leave or to be careful we should be telling the perpetrator to get help, to take appropriate steps NOT to engage in violent behaviour. To work with the underlying causes of this violent behaviour.

    I have seen (and experienced) what addiction can do to a person first hand. I myself have been hospitalised for an addiction and for psychotic behaviour. I wasn't evil, never have been but I acted in a way that was abhorrent. I was lucky to get the treatment I needed.

    I don't think I am indulging in victim blaming behaviour and if that came across I am sorry. I just think we should look at each person as a human (even the ones that we think are "evil") .

  4. Lana, with "an unwell mind" you handwave away an entire mindset of male entitlement and control over "his woman" and "his children" which comes from a patriarchal social structure. This attitude of entitlement, ownership and control is behind these deaths. Sure, legal protections like the presumption of innocence, right to legal representations, etc, are for everybody, not just people who are personable or likeable. On the other hand, we should be careful of this handwringing over The Poor Perpetrator. The MRA websites give ample evidence that these people consider themselves wronged and ill done by enough as it is. Feeding their sense of righteous anger will do no one any good.

  5. Thank you for putting this so succinctly Helen. My thought toay was that until male entitlement and misogyny are defined as mental illnesses in the DSM we need to dispense with this (for some) comforting idea that mental illness is the issue when women and children are terrorised on the home front.