“It Belongs To All Of Us”: Sarah Ferguson’s New Doco Will Change How You Think About Domestic Violence
'Hitting Home' premieres on ABC tonight. Seriously. Don't miss it.
Last month we held our first youth unconference, JUNKET. This piece features an interview with Melissa Brooks following on from a session she ran about the ways Australia can better address domestic violence. This post also contains detailed discussion of domestic violence.
Over the past year especially, Australia has been full of conversations about domestic violence. Calling it our “national shame”, the Prime Minister has announced a $100 million funding boost for crisis management. Our federal government denounced convicted offender Chris Brown. Some state governments are fighting it in the classroom with new “respectful relationship” classes. The media are regularly demanding further action and invoking responses from politicians, and survivors like Rosie Batty and Tara Brown are now household names.
— vaar-rum-pa-pum-pum (@alanvaarwerk) September 10, 2015
These names, figures and headlines give us an unprecedented look at the scope of the problem — one which is now quite rightly being referred to as an “epidemic”. But they’re also just a glimpse at something much larger and more personal.
For every one of these 78 women murdered by an intimate partner, there are plenty more who get away. For every one who gets away, there are many who regularly suffer less severe injuries. For every one who takes those injuries to the police, there are countless others who don’t.
It’s time to bring these conversations back to the start of the problem, before there are any names, figures or headlines to talk about.
Hitting Home: A Documentary That Tracks Violence To Its Cause
Premiering on the ABC tonight, Hitting Home is the result of two years of research and six months of on-the-ground reportage from Walkley Award-winning journalist Sarah Ferguson. The two-hour special, which will be aired over two nights, sees her riding with cops, speaking to forensic medical experts, sitting in on prison rehabilitation programs and court proceedings, and listening to recent victims’ stories inside their homes and refuge shelters.
As complicated as all that sounds, Ferguson tells me it was driven by one simple question: “What is domestic violence?”
“I didn’t know how it works, I didn’t know how it starts, I didn’t know why [the perpetrators] do it,” she says. “I had ideas around those questions, but I didn’t really know. I didn’t even know the thing that everyone who knows anything about domestic violence knows: that it’s all about control. These people, because of their own inadequacies, try and control other people.”
Whether the victims are from lower socio-economic regional areas or Sydney’s Northern Beaches, this is the common thread of all the stories featured in the documentary. One woman partially crushes her skull after being forced to jump from her partner’s moving car. Another is repeatedly punched in the face with her young son in the room. But both have suffered under oppressive behaviours for years beforehand: their partners would constantly check their text messages and Facebook accounts, they’d control the money, talk down to them, they’d tell each woman when they could and could not leave the house.
“I look at teenagers — my kids are teenagers — and I think, ‘Do they know?’ Do they know that some of the worst domestic violence that ends in a death starts on Facebook?” Ferguson tells me. “It starts with a guy — it’s more often guys — telling you not to dress like that because they don’t like the way guys look at you when you dress like that. They ask, ‘Who texted you? What did you say? Have you been talking about me?’ They say, ‘It’s because I love you so much, I don’t want other people around you so much’.
“They’re things which can seem quite alarming at first because it’s all in the name of love. Those — the really fickle things that sound like they could come out of a teen magazine — can end in death.”
Importantly, the stories featured in Hitting Home aren’t indicative of the full scope of domestic and family violence. Each victim featured is an otherwise fully-abled cis woman in a heterosexual relationship who has suffered at the hands of a male partner — a demographic which doesn’t account for the violence experienced by children, those in LGBTIQ relationships, men, or those with pre-existing disability (women with disability are in fact the most at-risk group, a fact which came to a head over the weekend in a dispute between disability advocates and Destroy The Joint).
Ferguson tells me this weighting was “not a conscious decision”. “What we showed was what we saw,” she says. “In all of that time, in all the days going through the courts, we saw one man who was hit by his dad because he was gay. Because our story was about intimate partner violence, we couldn’t include him.”
Though she expresses regret that they didn’t cross paths with another male victim in the system, Ferguson remains resolute statistics reflect what the show reflects. “By huge, huge proportions it’s the women that are the victims.”
The Ongoing Problems With Policy And Public Knowledge
Though Hitting Home takes a much more personal focus on people’s stories, it’s all inevitably set against a backdrop of evolving policy and policing. Some women win cases off the back of new video technology from the assault scene; in some states, women can testify via video link rather face their attacker in person; some find life-saving refuge in local shelters, others are turned away; some stay home with panic rooms and government-funded CCTV technology set up around the house.
“I didn’t know we had panic rooms,” Ferguson says. “I didn’t know there was a mother and baby in Lake Macquarie with a camera trained on the perimeter. All of us on the film were taken aback. We didn’t know that’s how people were living.”
Housing is in fact one of the major problems women face when fleeing domestic violence — with many of Australia’s 200 refuges overflowing, they’re often faced with the alternative of returning home to violence or becoming homeless.
Even from within her CCTV-covered house, the featured woman from Lake Macquarie told Sarah Ferguson she felt more at risk than ever, unable to predict her partner’s moves from a distance. She ended up fleeing her home (thankfully to stay with family) and her partner was spotted at the house breaking his AVO just hours later.
This isn’t an uncommon situation. Melissa Brooks, who’s worked in the NSW government domestic violence sector for the past five years, fills me in on the full problem.
“We really need to remove the fear of becoming homeless as it’s a reason women might not seek to leave a violent relationship,” she says. “Housing in Australia, and in capital cities particularly, is so unaffordable that it really does create a barrier for women to leave [their abusive partners]. It creates a barrier to women building independent, fulfilling and happy lives when they’re free from violence.”
To address this, Brooks runs a state-sponsored community short/mid-term housing provider called Address Housing specifically for women and kids who’ve experienced domestic violence — another welcome alternative to staying at home or heading to a refuge.
“Different women and families will need different things,” she says. “There are programs out there that do help families stay safe in their homes, and remove the perpetrator [for instance] … I think there is still a real gap in people knowing what kind of support is available and how to access it, remembering that the point you might need to access that support might be the hardest time to find out how.”
When speaking about much of this at Junket last month, Brooks said this knowledge was the real key in getting people out of danger: “What do I do if I’m worried about my safety at home is the kind of thing people need to learn about in the same way they learn how to change a tyre or boil an egg.”
(If you’d ever like to know more at any time, call 1800 RESPECT. They’re on the phones 24 hours a day and happy to chat about short- and long-term options.)
What We Can All Do Now
“The most important thing people need to know is this: if someone you know discloses to you that they’re experiencing domestic violence, you need to believe them,” Brooks tells me. “If you’re experiencing the violence, the most important thing I can say is that this is not your fault. You deserve to live a life free from fear and violence.” (As she later points out, that includes any type of violence: “controlling behaviours that can see people experience emotional, mental and financial abuse as well as better-understood physical and sexual violence.”)
And really, in lieu of a long-term shift in men’s treatment of women, those words are what’s most important. We all need to be there for victims — vigilant and prepared for when they’re in need — and those in danger need to know their options. In the first episode of Hitting Home, the woman who fractured her skull jumping out of a car said she didn’t even think there was refuge available to her. Now, sitting down for dinner with her two children in a women’s shelter with provided food, clothing and bedding, she tells the camera she would have left a long time ago.
There’s a clear message in this and it’s an important one: every woman Ferguson speaks to in the show now has help. They get out. It can be done. But when speaking to her before the series release, her message is for the wider audience.
“[Domestic violence] belongs to all of us,” she says. “We have to keep talking about it; talk to each other and talk to our children. Now, I see it everywhere. I see those slightly creepy behaviours that I never did before. When you know what it is, you can tell people that those small pieces of controlling behaviours are potentially very dangerous … We need to know that this behaviour — whether it’s right at the beginning or right at the end with some hands around your throat — shouldn’t be tolerated.”
This never hits harder than in the series’ final sequence: a woman in her early-30s who’s been killed by her partner in an apartment in Mosman. Here, Ferguson speaks to the victim’s mum and her close friends and recounts the relationship that led to her death (and the killer’s eventual suicide).
“It was one of the most moving stories I’ve ever seen,” Ferguson says. “Imagine your best friend is dating this complete dickhead and you’re saying ‘get away’, so she does, she leaves him, he’s never hurt her, and then a few weeks later she ends up dead … Every single time I see it, it moves me to tears.”
In fact, this story marked the third or fourth time I cried during the series, and I spent a long time trying to decipher exactly why.
The first reason is obviously the tragedy. The women featured in this series have suffered unbelievable hardship for no reason: they’ve been controlled and manipulated by abusive men, made to feel worthless and small, and eventually brutally assaulted. Because of this, many have been forced to uproot their lives, go out on a limb for their children, and/or go through the trauma of testifying — reliving the experience in front of the man who’s caused them pain. It’s unimaginable to think this is the horrendous detail behind every single headline that’s been stacking up in the news.
But the other, much more startling, reason I cried was that it wasn’t unimaginable at all. I saw remnants of these stories all through my life. There was the friend who was hounded with demanding texts and calls from their partner when out for drinks; the family member who was regularly scowled at and called names in her own house; the couple who sometimes fight in the apartments next to me. These are all the stories before the headline.
They deserve tears not because they’re traumatic or shocking, but because they’re painfully ordinary.
Hitting Home runs on ABC tonight and tomorrow from 8.30pm. Tomorrow’s instalment will be followed by a special episode of Q&A on domestic violence hosted by Virginia Trioli.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Men can access anonymous confidential telephone counselling to help to stop using violent and controlling behaviour through the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491.