When it comes to domestic abuse, says Kayleigh Llewellyn, we’re asking the wrong questions.
Why does she stay? It’s a question I resist the urge to ask as an adult. But as a child, it was the question I asked daily, angry and confused. “Why have we got to stay? Let’s just go. Let’s get in the car and leave.”
Blank-eyed, my mother would brush me off. “We can’t. He’s your father. Who will look after us?”
It was a funny sort of care he offered.
Through my naive eyes, I couldn’t see the chains that were holding her there. But she was chained. Her binds were real, even if they weren’t physical.
The trouble with abuse, both mental and physical, is that it doesn’t just happen overnight. It’s a systematic process of dismantling a person’s sense of self-worth over a long period of time. Like finding a castle a kid has built from Lego, with turrets and towers and a draw-bridge. Then, every day, removing a single block, until it’s just a pile of plastic rubble, with no-one really being able to recall exactly what it used to look like.
It’s no one isolated thing; not one punch in an elevator, or a shove at home. If life were a video game, and domestic violence was your adversary – it would be the most impossible foe. Its modes are constantly changing, its methods shifting, its weapons varied and endless.
Everyone’s story is different, but from my own experience, it began with degradation. Not blazing rows, but calm verbal assaults laid cooly upon my mother. “Who else would want a slut like you? Who else would feed your kids?” (Funny now when I have successes as an adult, he’s ready to claim me as his own.)
Then there’s the humiliation and isolation. One particular example is etched into my memory. My mum is sitting in the armchair. I’m playing at her feet, five years old maybe, with my favourite doll, Emma. My mum’s new friend from work, Anne, is on the sofa. They’re gossiping. They’ve got glasses of coke which is a special treat, but I’m not allowed a sip; it smells funny – there’s alcohol in it. They’re laughing and I’m loving so much being sat with the grown-ups.
Then we hear the front door open and close. I look to my mum. Her face is still smiling, but I know her stomach has flipped, her heart has frozen. I know in that way that kids do, an invisible umbilical cord connecting them to their mother’s emotions. He enters the lounge and it’s all to play for, he might be in his happy mood today.
My mum and Anne greet him, offer him a drink. He smiles and says hello; me and mum both breathe a sigh of relief. He’s happy. He has his work stuff with him; his overalls and paint cans and paint brushes. He goes to the kitchen to wash his hands. The black cloud of fear that had so quickly formed above us, rolls away.
“It’s a systematic process of dismantling a person’s sense of self-worth over a long period of time. Like finding a castle a kid has built from Lego… then, every day, removing a single block, until it’s just a pile of plastic rubble, with no-one really being able to recall exactly what it used to look like.”
Then everything happens quickly. A flash, a slap of wet liquid, I can’t see. It takes us a second to realise; he’s thrown a litre of white paint over me and my mother. He’s ruined the new carpet mum saved up for ages to buy. She’s trying to scoop paint from her eyes. Emma is ruined. I don’t cry.
This is the power play. My mum was having fun. He didn’t like that. She’d made a new friend. He didn’t like that. She invited someone to our house without his permission. He didn’t like that. So he humiliated her. Left her to say goodbye to her friend, dripping with paint. Anne didn’t visit again.
Then there’s the guilt trip. “I need you. I can’t get better if you won’t help me. If you leave me, I’ll kill myself.”
And if that isn’t working, the threats: “If you leave me, I’ll kill you.”
We were his possessions. Puppets on the end of strings, tugged and yanked and pulled taut at his will.
He cut her off from her friends, he destroyed her self-worth, he left her petrified for her own safety and the safety of her children – why did she stay? How could she have left?
It is beyond me how anyone could look at my mother, or any of the countless women in similar positions; depleted, broken, abused, and ask what she could have done to prevent it. To do so feels like asking a cancer patient what they did to deserve a tumour.
When we eventually left, we weren’t able to quietly walk away. We were survivors blown clear of a wreckage. We were alive, but torn from one another. It was painful. Undignified. My mother had to be placed in a safe house, via a stay in a mental institution, ripped from her family and friends. I left the country. My siblings scattered around the city.
I used to picture our house like a scene from Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Imagining someone looking through our kitchen window, seeing a pan of soup on the hob, a muted TV flickering, half eaten plates of food on the table – wondering what had happened to the family who lived there.
Truth is we were forced out, having to desert our worldly possessions and flee. He remained in the family home. He became a sentry, a troll, guarding a bridge. Playing his final hand in his game of power play. If he couldn’t keep us, he was determined he would at least keep everything we knew and loved, forcing us out like refugees.
My mother didn’t become one of the statistics, the two women who are murdered every week in the UK as a result of a domestic violence. But I know only too well how close she came.
And he’s not a monster. To describe him as such would suggest he isn’t just a regular man that lives a pretty regular life, as is always the case. We need to understand that this happens all the time, to people we know. Abusive men aren’t bogey men that exist in fairytales. They’re the guy who whistles while he’s painting your fence, the man who smiles when he serves you at a shop, someone who holds the door for you. With a hot violence bubbling just under the surface, ready to blow, and with no one trying to understand what we can do to prevent that.
As an adult, I don’t ask what made my mother stay. I ask what made him abuse?
If you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can call the 24-hour National Domestic Violence Freephone Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247.
Find out how you can help Women’s Aid at http://www.womensaid.org.uk/landing_page.asp?section=000100010007§ionTitle=How+you+can+help+us
Or you can donate online to Refuge at http://www.refuge.org.uk/get-involved/
Domestic violence: the hidden crime which is everywhere
The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales, published in March 2014, reported that more than 1.1 million or 7% of women and 720,000 or 4% of men had been victims of some form of domestic abuse during the previous 12 months.
The same report found almost five million women (around 30% of the adult female population of the UK) have experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16.
Another study commissioned from HM Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) – which criticised the overall police response to victims of domestic abuse – found:
• Three women a fortnight were being killed by a partner or former partner
• A third of all assaults recorded by the police relate to domestic violence
• Almost 58,000 victims – the vast majority of them women – of domestic abuse, were at risk of serious harm or murder.
In 2009, study The Cost of Domestic Violence by S. Walby found the total cost of domestic abuse to public services in England and Wales (the criminal justice system, health, social services, housing and legal aid) to be £3.8 billion per year, while the loss to the economy is £1.9 billion through victims taking time off work.
In the report, the emotional and human cost was estimated to be around £10 billion a year.
The NSPCC’s 2011 report Child abuse and neglect in the UK today found children who experience severe maltreatment by a parent or guardian are almost three times more likely to have witnessed family violence.
In March 2013, the Government widened the definition of domestic violence and abuse to include young people aged 16 to 17 who exhibited coercive control – a pattern of controlling behaviour.
Under the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme an individual can now ask the police to check whether a new or existing partner has a violent past, and disclose this information if they are considered to be at risk.
Details of the government’s Ending Violence Against Women and Girls in the UK policy can be found here.
Kayleigh Llewellyn is a comedy writer and performer working across TV and radio. She runs the blog, My So Called Life in a Box.