It makes for uncomfortable listening but Angela Barnes, for one, is grateful to The Archers for bringing the issue of coercive control to the airwaves.
So, who the bejeezus is Helen Titchener?
She’s a character on BBC Radio 4’s 65-year-long-running drama The Archers but please don’t let that stop you reading on.
I am a fan of The Archers – and there are millions of us. And right now, we are soldiering through a storyline that may just be the most accurate portrayal of a villain that there has been in British drama.
Rob Titchener is an outwardly charming gentleman of good breeding, who arrived in the fictional village of Ambridge in 2013 as a herd manager at Berrow Farm. There were some alarm bells. He had a wife, Jess, who “didn’t understand him”. Ah, that old chestnut.
Helen Archer, an unlucky-in-love, 30-something single mother (she had her son Henry via sperm donation) fell in love with him and they began an affair.
In the intervening three years, the narcissistic Rob has divorced his wife, married Helen and begun systematically undermining her confidence and subjecting her to sustained emotional abuse, while appearing to outsiders to be the perfect gentleman, looking after his now-pregnant wife.
He controls what she wears, he stops her spending time with her son, even neglecting to wake her to watch Henry open his Christmas presents. He has ingratiated himself within her family, becoming an integral part of the family business. He has stopped her from driving her car and has repeatedly gaslighted her, that is allowing her to believe that she has made stupid mistakes, doubting her own memory and sanity. The abuse has also involved an incident of marital rape.
“Titchener wasn’t a particularly vulnerable woman. Nor were the women I know who this has happened to.”
As a listener, it is harrowing to go through this with Helen and to witness the slow erosion of her support network as Rob drives wedges through her relationships and engineers fallings out between her and her closest friends.
But it’s just a soap opera. Just another storyline, right?
No, this is something different and something I am pleased to see playing out in a drama. For this kind of abuse is happening more than you would think.
A BBC spokesperson for the show told me, “The Archers has a rich history of tackling difficult issues and doesn’t shy away from those that affect people in real life. While The Archers is a drama, the team behind the show is being advised by professional bodies and charities on the development of this story.”
I know personally, and through my previous career in social care, an alarming number of people, mostly women, who have been in this situation. But it certainly affects men too. It affects educated, intelligent people; people in positions of power and responsibility.
But how does the narcissist turn a strong, independent person into a victim?
There are usually three phases to abuse of this kind and they are known as the idealisation phase, the devaluation phase and the discard phase.
When you begin a relationship with this kind of abuser, they will make you feel like a million dollars, shower you with compliments, put you on a pedestal and make you feel like the centre of the world.
But then the devaluation phase begins. They’ll do you down with passive aggressive remarks (for passive aggression is the great tool of the narcissist), comparing you to others and blowing hot and cold emotionally.
Eventually comes the discard phase. Your worth to the abuser has reached an end: they may have an affair, seek to humiliate you publicly, or even become physically aggressive.
“I think often of the conversations I had with somebody going through this ordeal, while it was going on. We’d chat on the phone and they’d tell me they were fine. I had a niggly feeling that fine didn’t mean fine.”
Other behaviours may include gaslighting: making you feel that your perception of what they are doing is inaccurate, that you’re “too sensitive”, or they may even lie to make you think that the events didn’t take place. Abusers of this kind often have very different selves, the false self that they portray to the outside world, and the true self that comes out in private.
So why don’t the victims just leave?
The abuse happens gradually over a long period. The victim will always have in mind the charming person that won them over and seeks to return to that phase. When your self-worth has been eroded and you have been convinced that you are not capable, how are you going to get the strength and confidence to leave? Who is going to believe that the person who swept you off your feet and who demonstrates such affection and kindness in public could be behaving this way? Maybe, just maybe it is all in your head. And besides, if you are that worthless, nobody else is going to want you.
I think often of the conversations I had with somebody going through this ordeal, while it was going on. We’d chat on the phone and they’d tell me they were fine. I had a niggly feeling that fine didn’t mean fine. Her tone of voice, the feeling that she was overcompensating, making excuses for not being able to visit etc. But we were close. She would tell me if there was a problem, right?
How I wish I had asked more questions, made more time for them, spent more time with them and not assumed that everything was rosy. It is difficult, because other people’s relationships aren’t our business. Would I have ignored my feelings about the situation if she had had bruises, or evidence of physical abuse? Probably not.
The frightening thing about this storyline is that it could happen to anybody. Helen Titchener wasn’t a particularly vulnerable woman. Nor were the women I know who this has happened to. If this storyline makes just one person question a relationship that they feel may be harmful to somebody they know, it is a powerful thing. If it means one friend makes that extra effort to reach out to someone they are concerned about, then I, for one, am glad it’s happening.
Thankfully, as of December 2015, new legislation will enable the Crown Prosecution Service to bring charges where there is evidence of repeated, or continuous, controlling or coercive behaviour within an intimate or family relationship. Perpetrators could face a fine or up to five years in prison.
Last week, an Archers fan started a JustGiving page inspired by Helen’s storyline. The proceeds all go to Refuge to support real-life Helens and Henries. At time of writing it has raised more than £40,000, so there is something tangibly positive to come out of this.
I hope that there is justice for all the men and women that lose years of their lives to this kind of abuse. Je suis Helen.
To donate to the JustGiving campaign visit https://www.justgiving.com/helentitchener
If you feel you are affected by any of the issues written about, please get help:5043 Views
Angela Barnes is an award-winning standup comedian. She is sometimes on TV and the radio and is often in a comedy club near you. @AngelaBarnes