Sunday, 28 February 2010

speaking the overwhelm

Joan Kelly on serial rapist-murderers, hatred and 'protecting' girls. not a cheery read but i get so much from the way joan writes from the gut, linking it all together. she writes the kinds of thoughts and feelings that i can't articulate because i can't bear to dwell on them, and i'm grateful to her for that.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

relapse and rewards

i have been very skeptical about ideas that say abuse is an addiction. you can find a lot of 'science' that will tell you that abused women are 'addicted' to the violent relationship, to the abuser, even to endorphins or something, that are released after a beating. this is all, in my opinion, total bience (my friend's term for the application of bollocks to science). not least because domestic violence has precious little to do with beatings anyway, for goodness sake, physical violence being an optional extra following psychological abuse and control that form the basis.

there are also lots of ideas to do with an abuser being 'addicted' to his own endorphin rush, or to the thrill of power, or to his negative behaviours in some other way. i am very suspicious of these explanations as they serve to take away responsibility for his actions. most explanations of domestic abuse are desperate to look for any reason to avoid making men responsible for their own actions.

however, recently i was describing a case that i found particularly upsetting to a counsellor. in this case a perpetrator had gone further towards 'Changing' than anyone else i've ever known through work. he said all the right things and was on best behaviour for months. then it got too hard and he gave it up. for some reason i'd got emotionally involved in this case and felt devastated, as, of course, did his partner. anyhow the counsellor said something about how his abusive behaviour was like an addiction and his return to it was like a relapse.

at first i cringed, thinking stop talking in cliches, DV is not addiction. but then that started to make a bit of sense. how we are 'addicted' to behaviours that we know are bad for us, they can be comforting when we start to feel too much out on a limb.

there's no point pretending that giving up abusive behaviour, its rewards and its habits, is not an intensely challenging and scary thing to do. you are also going against a culture that supports and rewards male entitlement and that denies and minimises abuse. i do not for one minute condone or excuse his return to abuse. he had all the resources this culture can throw at a perpetrator who is trying to change, supporting him in his effort. but in some ways, he was on his own. i watched him challenge social workers who placed blame on other factors, saying "no, no, you have to remember, i chose to abuse her, it wasn't the fault of anything else".

and at some point it felt too hard. he gave up, 'relapsed', perhaps. i'm sure there are loads of theories around this in terms of substance use, i don't know much about it. he retreated into behaviours that he knew were bad for him and those around him because it felt easier, familiar, comforting.

i retreat to certain behaviours that i know are bad for me: smoking, drinking, overeating, when i can't face the hard work of dealing responsibly with my feelings. it feels comforting and familiar. it makes sense to me that if you are used to being in control and abusing then this behaviour will feel good to retreat to when not-doing it gets too hard.

but. in the past those behaviours were not bad for him. they used to get him exactly what he wanted, at the expense of his partner. and it was worth seeing if that could happen again. there are so many more rewards to abusing than to purely self-destructive bad behaviours. my misuse of alcohol, cigarettes and food only makes me ill. if i was prepared to bully other people instead or as well when i was feeling rubbish then i might get some results that i experience as positive. such as people doing what i want and not challenging me because they're scared to. so part of the decision to 'relapse' into abusive behaviour involves wanting to see whether you can get away with that old behaviour - maybe it might get some of the same results as before. i wish i had been able to articulate to the counsellor how abuse is functional to the perpetrator, how oppressing others makes your life easier. there are short and long-term gains far exceeding, for example, the relief of having a cigarette.

right? i'm aware that i'm rambling away with next to no knowledge of substance use and models used to explain it. if anyone knows that stuff i'd be really interested to hear.

years of your life

speaking of burnout, what's really dragging on me at the moment is the gradual realisation of the real slowness of this work. i know that it takes women on average seven years to leave an abusive relationship and i've not even (quite) done this job for that long. and i have seen so many successes and amazing new starts and people finding their choices and options and confidence and starting to live life on their own terms, not those of their ex/partner. and i'm fully, acutely aware that whether i'm doing my job well has sod all to do with whether women i'm supporting 'leave', and i'm happy with that:
"One of the biggest mistakes made by people who wish to help an abused woman is to measure success by whether or not she leaves her abusive partner... A better measure of success for the person helping is how well you have respected the woman's right to run her own life - which the abusive man does not do - and how well you have helped her to think of strategies to increase her safety."

there are now a fair few people that i've been supporting for two, three years or more. a few of them have started recently for the first time to extricate themselves from abusive situations. others, of course, haven't. and, just very recently, i've started to feel frustrated. i was shocked to find myself irritated one week, while supporting a couple of people. i was a bit grossed out at myself: it's such a fundamental principle of the work, the 'unconditional positive regard' and not something i'd ever even had to think about before. but i found myself preoccupied with the phrase wasting years of your life. speaking with someone who, after two years of contact with the service, will not admit to herself that her partner has any kind of agenda to control or trap her and thus will not take any action to pre-empt him or protect herself. i'm pretty ashamed to admit i felt irritated with her.

within a couple of days i realised that i'm not irritated with the women i support, that was just my brain's defence against something harder. and as soon as i realised this my irritation (rage, actually) started being turned where it belonged. i can't stand that women i speak to every week, who are working so hard and so consciously, fighting every day to build their self-esteem and strength, are knocked back and re-trapped by all the other, stronger messages coming at them: give it up, you're not worth it, you can't do it, you'll end up alone, know your place, it's not safe, no one else will protect you. the culture colludes with what the perpetrator has told her. the perpetrator will have studied which social messages weigh heaviest on his partner and used these as his most powerful lever to make leaving him seem too scary - perhaps it's you're not beautiful enough for anyone to care, perhaps it's single motherhood is harmful to children, perhaps it's uppity women get killed. these messages play on all of us and take so very much energy to fight in our own minds for those of us who are not in an abusive relationship. how do you fight all this at the same time as practical obstacles to leaving and the fact that leaving massively increases the likelihood of you being seriously injured or killed?

yeah, so i'm not mad at the women, at all. i'm just almost unbearably sad and angry that these individuals who i've come to know and care about, and millions like them, are trapped not only by their controlling, abusive partners, but moreso and worse, by their controlling, abusive and neglectful culture.

the side of silence

Cara at The Curvature keeps on writing amazing things...
"When you say that abuse has nothing to do with you, what you’re actually saying is that abuse has everything to do with you. By deciding to turn away from abuse, to not comment, to not stand up against it, to say that you want to stay out of it, you are taking a side. The side of silence is the side of the abuser. The side of apathy is the side of abuse."
Read the whole post.

Monday, 22 February 2010


argh. back to work after a little time off and i can feel the unhealthy symptoms in me already. this is fucked up! it's like i can get on a roll when i'm working hard for weeks on end and don't notice so much but returning after (not enough) time off feels awful.

is there a healthy way to do this work? is the idea of there being certain people whose role it is to support survivors of domestic abuse just inherently fucked up?

i can feel that this is doing some damage, that i'm slowly burning out, that when i finally grind to a halt i'm going to need to do some work on myself to unpick what it's done to my mind and habits and by extension my health. i don't have the same energy for the work at all any more, and as soon as i started to admit this to myself the tiredness came on worse. we can ask for a few counselling sessions when things really get a bit much (clinical/therapeutic supervision really needs to be part of our work, but it ain't) and i did so recently. the counsellor pointed out to me that when i started doing this i was six years younger and full of youthful (and naive) feminist drive which has almost run dry. she said that every woman i'd supported had "taken a little bit" of energy from me and, obviously, not given it back. hmm. a strange model, a strange thing to do. is there any other way?

yes, communities should have this knowledge. it's not rocket science. i have got a really good understanding of this stuff after six years but to believe in 'experts' in this field, especially non-survivor 'experts' like myself, is pretty Wrong. to return to the quote that i started this blog with:
"I am not proposing that sexual violence and domestic violence will no longer exist. i am proposing that we create a world where so many people are walking around with the skills and knowledge to support someone that there is no longer a need for anonymous hotlines..."

and what's more, and bearing in mind that voluntary sector DV work is emphatically not activism, it is nonetheless supposedly about creating change: 
"The 'activist' is a specialist or an expert in social change - yet the harder we cling to this role and notion of what we are, the more we actually impede the change we desire. A real revolution will involve the breaking out of all preconceived roles and the destruction of all specialism - the reclamation of our lives. The seizing control over our own destinies which is the act of revolution will involve the creation of new selves and new forms of interaction and community. 'Experts' in anything can only hinder this."
From Give Up Activism zine.

Thursday, 18 February 2010


i've just watched the film Precious.

(this is full of spoilers..)

"For precious girls everywhere" said the dedication at the end. acknowledging the millions of young women who have been abused. a shout-out to say: i know you are everywhere, we know this isn't just fiction. i thought that was a really important part of the film: i feel the film really honours abuse survivors, shows a lot of compassion in many big and small ways: i felt there were half-hidden messages in the film to survivors. it wasn't a film about abuse, the way so many are: fiction that exploits abuse as a device, while forgetting/choosing not to believe that it is such a common lived experience, that survivors will be watching. this film kept that fact at the forefront the whole time: i thought it acknowledged and honoured the experience of family abuse, and the experience of having survived it.

i felt relief at how it had a good shot at trying to tell the truth of abuse: its degrading inaneness (Precious' mother making her eat the dinner and then cook it over again: this was a realistic example of abuse that is non-violent and difficult and humiliating to describe) as well as its brutality and cruelty, and that it can combine with other bullying, and with bad many films show abuse in terms of cliches and 'nasty' incidents that in no way do justice to the banal horror of domestic violence.

the film also portrayed the difficulty of telling the experience of abuse (Precious at first mutters the facts to the social worker person and then takes it back), and the consequences of telling, so the viewer is invited to think about how near-impossible it is to tell such things, let alone to professionals. it also had a good go at showing the ineptness and sickening cheque-wielding too-much-power of professionals.

later the film showed Precious being believed and supported by her teacher and classmates after telling them, which i felt was a whisper to survivors: tell the truth, it will bring you freedom and friendship. this was a feel-good moment for me: a part in the movie that felt too-good-to-be-true, but that gave the character a break, a relief from the harshness of the rest.

immediately after the film, though, i was was riled, feeling that the film had followed so many discourses of abuse in blaming someone other than the perpetrator and the structures of oppression around all of the characters. like so many discourses, i thought, it blames the mother, ignoring her own abuse and curtailed choices at the hands of Precious' father. the mother is judged by the white social worker type near the end, for having "allowed the abuse to happen", and media discussion of the film seems to have leapt to demonise the dysfunctional, abusive, black single mother. nowhere in the film is the abusive father actually blamed for the abuse, or the mother's own situation described as abuse. this film handles child abuse so well in so many ways, yet manages ultimately to make it a woman's fault??

while i realise it happens in social care offices and law courts everywhere, to me it absolutely beggars belief that any viewer (or social worker character) could blame a female character for the fact that her male partner abused their three year old child on a pillow next to her. the man is responsible for his actions. a man is responsible for his actions. right? no one else. and he was also in control of that situation. what if the mother had fought him? what if she had run away as soon as possible? these may not have been realistic choices. i am not saying the mother bears no responsiblity at all for this 'failure to protect' (as it would be called in uk law), and the mother is wholly responsible for her own physical and emotional abuse of Precious, but the pain of her situation as a mother must be acknowledged, and i initially thought that the film brushed over this, painting the mother as the primary abuser, as if it was too painful for this survivor-focussed film to also look at the ways in which the mother was also surviving. the father wasn't given a voice in the film, to sound as outrageous as the mother does, as defensive, as much living in a self-justifying fantasy world. it bothers me that the mum is given so much space in the film to be crazy and hateful, while the father is only glimpsed in a flashback, and somehow escapes responsibility in the eyes of the social worker type who passes judgement, and thus potentially in the judgement of the viewer.

i don't necessarily think that the mother was portrayed as a monster in the film, she was human and realistic according to descriptions of abusive mothers i've heard, rather she was portrayed in a way that was too easy for reviewers/journalists to demonise in the absence of anyone else being judged in the film. i hope that blaming the older generation of women for the abuse of this generation is not the only way forward. i hope that some people can look at the bad choices mothers made and allow that their choices were so often so much more limited than those of fathers. setting daughters against mothers is the ultimate divide-and-rule and reviewers of this film seem to have fallen for this tactic. abusers are responsible for their abuse. Precious' mother is responsible for her own abuse of Precious but not her partner's. only he is responsible for that.

what didn't sink in til later, though, was the fact that Precious herself rejects the social worker's judgement at the end, standing up to tell her "you can't handle any of this", takes her children and leaves smiling. i think now that this is an acknowledgement of the complexities that can't be spelled out and fixed in a two hour film, that the social worker and her judgement are useless. Precious has to leave her mother and step away from the toxic pain of her family but we don't know who, if anyone, she blames. Precious has the last word.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

abuse, oppression, addiction and community responsibility

Meanwhile, a psychiatrist type who actually has wise, caring, link-making words to say: talking about abuse and addiction on Democracy Now:
DR. GABOR MATÉ: The hardcore drug addicts that I treat, but according to all studies in the States, as well, are, without exception, people who have had extraordinarily difficult lives. And the commonality is childhood abuse. In other words, these people all enter life under extremely adverse circumstances. Not only did they not get what they need for healthy development, they actually got negative circumstances of neglect. I don’t have a single female patient in the Downtown Eastside who wasn’t sexually abused, for example, as were many of the men, or abused, neglected and abandoned serially, over and over again. And that’s what sets up the brain biology of addiction. In other words, the addiction is related both psychologically, in terms of emotional pain relief, and neurobiological development to early adversity.


Unfortunately, my profession, the medical profession, puts all the emphasis on genetics rather than on the environment, which, of course, is a simple explanation. It also takes everybody off the hook.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, it takes people off the hook?

DR. GABOR MATÉ: Well, if people’s behaviors and dysfunctions are regulated, controlled and determined by genes, we don’t have to look at child welfare policies, we don’t have to look at the kind of support that we give to pregnant women, we don’t have to look at the kind of non-support that we give to families... And so, if it’s all caused by genetics, we don’t have to look at those social policies; we don’t have to look at our politics that disadvantage certain minority groups, so cause them more stress, cause them more pain, in other words, more predisposition for addictions; we don’t have to look at economic inequalities. If it’s all genes, it’s all—we’re all innocent, and society doesn’t have to take a hard look at its own attitudes and policies.


If people who become severe addicts, as shown by all the studies, were for the most part abused children, then we realize that the war on drugs is actually waged against people that were abused from the moment they were born, or from an early age on. In other words, we’re punishing people for having been abused.
And...this incredible post by BFP at Flip Flopping Joy, more to the point:
As I’ve worked through this [sugar] addiction, I’ve kept asking myself over and over again. Why do we expect individual responses to what are ultimately the vestiges of (slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, nationalism, heteroviolence, etc)?

What is addiction, but a reaction to racism, to sexism, to heteroviolence, etc?


Is it possible to take better care of yourself when living under such extraordinary violence? Is it possible to survive alone under the burden of structural violence?

~The personal is political~
...and so much more, in that post...

I want to write lots more about addiction, forms of "self-harm", responses to abuse and oppression... Today though I only seem to be able to scrap-book other people's thoughts here.

gender policing

ah, refreshing to wake up to a good bit of swearing. Queers Against Obama has something to say about proposed changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and its 'classification' of transgender people, check it out.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

on gossip

my friend and i were talking about a 'healthy level of gossip'. we felt that a community in which there is zero gossip is unhealthy. people need to be able to talk to one another about each other to avoid the 'divide-and-rule' tactic of isolation used by all controlling people. outside of the context of countering abuse and control, people also talk about one another out of care. my friend and i were comparing notes on someone who had cut off contact. i wasn't sure if the person was being rude or if i had upset them, but by speaking to my friend i realised the person was having other difficulties and i should keep trying to contact them.

i remember when someone who had been emotionally abusive to another person in my community within a relationship, plus controlling of things within our community organising, left for another city. we talked about whether to warn the equivalent communities in the city where they were going to end up. at the time we decided not to. we felt it was unfair to deny someone the chance of a new start, unfair to slur their name before they'd even arrived.

when that person arrived in the new city they enacted the same patterns of control over methods of community organising, but on a larger scale. i have no idea whether the person also continued to be abusive in relationships. in later conversations we felt that we should have warned people in the new city so that they could have seen the early signs and prevented the person from gaining so much control. when, further down the line, i was talking with people in the new city about this person's behaviour, some also identified patterns of control, while others said things like 'they've been perfectly alright with me. i don't want to hear anything. i'll make up my own mind'.

i think as part of a community i'm responsible for more than just how someone is with me. i think it perpetuates abuse and control to ignore what other people say about their experiences of someone. in a domestic abuse context, the most powerful abusers are those who are the most charming to the outside world, as the victim is all the more likely to be disbelieved if they tell the truth. in any context, successfully controlling people will display reasonable behaviour most of the time, and ensure the silencing of anyone who has seen the twisted behaviour.

i find that the people most anti-'gossip' are those who are afraid of people comparing notes on their behaviour. someone in my community feels entitled to send cleverly worded emails to others, requesting them to "work on your behaviour" and proceeding to list life-advice in the form of apparently-caring-and-concerned questions that are in fact stunningly manipulative (example below). i perceive this to be a very subtle but immensely controlling thing to do. i have been called out by this person, who chooses to interpret my talking about their behaviour with others in our community as malicious gossip. i fervently disagree. and i see this calling-out as an attempt to silence and isolate me as someone who understands this behaviour as controlling. furthermore i think it is essential to talk with people around you about difficulties you are having, including receiving an angry-but-'compassionately-concerned' email requesting you to "work on your behaviour", and when i received one, i did so. when it turns out that other people have also received such emails, and been put in a position by the sender that they cannot talk about it to others, it becomes all the more important to break the silence.

it was receiving one particularly charming question in a list of 'compassionately-concerned'-questions-to-consider that led me to decide i could have no more to do with this person despite our shared history of community organising and friendships: "Do you have a tendency to turn around challenging situations so that you are the victim?".

what do you think? do you think i'm overreacting? i see this as an incredibly manipulative thing to write. it is impossible to challenge this statement in any way without confirming it. in objecting to that question, either by replying to the person's email, or here in blogging about it, i am portraying myself at the victim: and their 'insightful' point is proven. also, like many tactics of control/abuse, it is almost indescribably subtle. it is very difficult to object to, and perhaps anyone reading this will think i'm overreacting.

this person demanded a response to their email and made it clear that it would be incredibly offensive and disrespectful not to reply. i.e. here on in i must operate on their terms. so the only option left open to me is to agree, to go "oh wow, thank you for that insight, i do really need to think carefully about my behaviour and my tendency to manipulate things to play the victim". at the time i started writing a reply similar to that. partly because so many things in the email did strike chords (talking about our shared history), to the extent that i wanted to engage, and almost missed the manipulation. also, i knew that in doing anything other than agreeing with this person would cause difficulties for some mutual friends who would be asked (indirectly, subtly) to take sides. so even after realising the sheer unacceptableness of that statement and the premise of the entire email correspondence, i still wanted to reply in a way that would placate the person and maintain some possibility of a relationship between us. the more i thought about it though, i realised that i cannot operate on the terms of someone who thinks it's acceptable to use such techniques of control.

so that relationship has ended. the person let me know that my disengaging is disrespectful and regretful.
any relationship ending means losses and it has hurt. but i couldn't see any other way out. and it has been a massive lesson in the use of 'divide-and-rule' and how incredibly difficult it is to counter and resist those tactics. i am interested in anyone else's thoughts on dealing with controlling people in communities: problems you've had and especially if you've managed to overcome it more successfully. i'd be really happy to publish some guest posts here (on any relevant topic in fact).

Thursday, 4 February 2010

cosy opposition

i was writing the other day about a social work manager's use of assumed shared racism to distract from the fact that she was trying to deport a mother experiencing domestic violence. i have just read exactly what i was trying to say:
"“We” ostensibly embraces all true-born, good-hearted native folk, rich and poor, in thrilling yet cosy opposition to the alien menace. Even the humblest citizen may join this noble project. Or face the consequences. Such is the magic of populist politics, and the road to fascism."
The quote is from a remarkable article that my friend alerted me to: Too Many of Whom and Too Much of What by the folks at No One is Illegal. i love them, just feel relief at reading bang up to date, well-researched analysis of what is happening in UK political discourse at the moment. please read it.

reproductive coercion

Just wanted to alert you to a marvellous post by Cara at The Curvature: Reproductive Coercion is Sexual Violence.

protecting whom?

This has blown my mind recently:
"Law enforcement approaches to violence against women MAY deter some acts of violence in the short term. However, as an overall strategy for ending violence, criminalization has not worked. In fact, the overall impact of mandatory arrests laws for domestic violence have led to decreases in the number of battered women who kill their partners in self-defense, but they have not led to a decrease in the number of batterers who kill their partners. Thus, the law protects batterers more than it protects survivors."

I don't know the details of 'mandatory arrest laws' in the US and don't have time to research it just now. I'm irritated at how much more easily i'm finding analysis/critiques of US domestic abuse legislation as opposed to stuff from over here. I really want to know what impact the new legislation in the UK has had - and whether it's keeping men safer over and above keeping women safer!