For many women like me, going through the distressing decision of whether to speak out or report abuse in relationships, it’s common for us to encounter that all too familiar line:
“What will people say?”
They’ll say you’re out to get revenge; they’ll say you’re bitter; they’ll say you haven’t moved on; they’ll say you’re making it up; they’ll tell others not to marry you; it will tarnish your name, your reputation.
So it’s easier to say nothing at all – it’s easier to stay silent………..isn’t it?
For the most part, I’m not easily affected by what other people think; I have a strong moral code and abide by the basic values of human decency and kindness. So it’s ironic that when it comes to seeking kindness or redress for myself I was profoundly affected by what others would think or say. The idea of others talking about my personal life, the impact it would have on my family, how I would be perceived in the community – all played a critical role in preventing me from speaking out.
Of course I wouldn’t wish this on anyone but if you tell me that it would never happen to you then I will politely tell you that you are ill informed. I told myself that lie once: if he ever did that to me, then I would leave. But what you won’t understand, unless you’ve been through it and what I never understood until many years after it ended, is that domestic violence doesn’t really care how strong you are.
It’s a patient process – it doesn’t happen overnight. By the time it starts, you’ve been broken such that the most valuable thing you own – your self-worth – has been cruelly taken from you. Those who know you to be a strong, smart and able woman, assume that something like this could never happen to you. I was complacent to think the same……………..until it did ofcourse.
On average, a woman will leave an abusive relationship seven times before she leaves for good. I have a lot of admiration for those individuals that have the courage to walk out; it’s a courage I never had. For me, a separate incident led to the breakdown of my marriage. It took three months of being separated for me to acknowledge that I had been in a violent relationship. It took me a further two years before I mentioned anything to my family. Three more years would pass before I actively addressed the issues I’d been left with by engaging in trauma therapy which has led me here – to be able to talk about it.
My family for the most part don’t really know the right way to approach it. We’ve never spoken about it except from the time I brought it up; there was no real discussion. Emotionally, it’s too difficult a conversation for both sides and on my part, I feel there’s an expectation to relay every incident which I don’t want to do. The ones I’ve been able to share, I feel, are enough.
The conversation about whether I should report him or have him charged never came up because………….because it’s not seen as a real crime? Or maybe because that chapter should be closed?
But if you’ve never reported the abuse, I’m not entirely convinced that chapter ever does close. There’s a palpable sense of guilt and anxiety that someone else will now be reliving that same cycle of violence with your ex-partner. We often hear victims of abuse told: “if you let him get away with it then he’ll do it again, to someone else”. That pressure, that guilt falling onto the victim – not the abuser……..it was their actions remember, not ours.
I’ve been on a journey stemming from this guilt, prompted to reach out and warn the next person, deep down knowing how I would be portrayed – the bitter ex. And I was. I tried again however to absolve myself, researching different ways I could ensure future partners were kept safe. I discovered a database held by police through which you could inform them, anonymously, of crimes – if the accused showed up on their radar again with suspicion towards the same crime then it would be enough to arrest him.
I pursued this route via a friend who worked for a women’s organisation hoping this would be my salvation. She took a few incidents which I had recounted to her but was told they couldn’t hold it on their database. The incidents were too serious and enough to have him charged. I backed off in response to my parents’ fears for my safety.
I recently listened to an interview by Katie Johnston, a rape victim who had decided to wave her right to anonymity and speak out about her experience. It got me thinking about the ‘shame shit storm’ victims can end up in. Whilst I was in awe of Katie’s courage in speaking out, I felt somewhat frustrated that she avoided that word even though I fully understood why. Most of us don’t wish to be defined by the negative events of our lives and so we adapt our language to something more palatable, rather than calling it what it is.
You see, much like Katie, I have mostly skirted around the word victim; for years, repeating the mantra: “I will not be a victim, I will not be broken by this”. Had I been robbed, I would easily refer to myself as the victim of a crime. So, what makes this different?
The answer to the question is undoubtedly all about shame. A violation, something which you have no control over occurs making you feel the weakest you ever have. All of a sudden, that word which you’ve never particularly noticed, starts to taunt you. To regain some control, you refuse to bow down to it – acknowledging it, in your mind, feels like an admission of weakness. Much of the research uses the word “survivor” which if I’m honest makes me gag a little. The same gag effect when you’re told to talk to your inner child, no thanks.
I was a victim. I was a victim of a crime. I was a victim of a crime that went unreported. That actually wasn’t too difficult to say – try it. I’m know there’s plenty of you out there, who like me, haven’t pursued justice. Those who thought they could keep it a secret, never realising how unbearable a burden it actually becomes. Because secrets can consume you. And the silence of secrets cement a belief that you do have something to be ashamed of.
Ultimately I realise it has to be my decision if I want to go forward and take action. Family fear over my safety, reputation or a potential community circus isn’t what stops me anymore. Before I tell you what does however, humour me for a little longer.
A high profile detective talks about the Levi Bellfield case which he led; that of a serial killer attacking women in England. His breakthrough in the case comes when he decides to look at a file he laughingly named “The Women Scorned” file. It was made up of exes who had told the police their ex boyfriends/husbands etc had violent tendencies and may be the ones responsible for the attacks against these women.
“Women Scorned”. That’s what telling their story had boiled down to – being entered into a brown folder with a not so clever name. A not so clever name which implied they were jilted lovers and not abused women.
And that, for me, is the crux of it:
What is the likelihood of being believed in a court of law?
Attempting to gain justice in the face of those who will regard me as nothing more than a women scorned. Reading about Councillor Mckenzie’s experiences in court only served to solidify my own feeling that the system is “stacked against victims”. The pursuit for justice comes at the expense of opening up my private life, unrelated to my relationship, in a court room and that feels unfair.
And what actual evidence is there for them to ever believe me? I doubt many of us have footage of abuse taking place. A few scars in my case for which there is no proof and my memory (or atleast the memories I haven’t blocked). I’m acutely aware if it was between us, I would never come across as the more likeable character. Many abusers are notoriously and frustratingly charming – I on the other hand have never been described as charming in my life.
And if the flippant words of a high-profile detective are anything to go by, it’s not too hard to imagine with an already shocking statistic of almost 60,000 reported cases a year of domestic violence in Scotland; there will be another shocking statistic for those of us that made the agonising decision to forego justice.