IT LOOKED LIKE beer o’clock in a city pub on a Friday afternoon. Suits, noise, movement. But it wasn’t. It was 9 am in a suburban courthouse on a crisp April morning. So many men in suits, blokeing around, smiling, shaking hands, patting backs. Solicitors, prosecutors, perpetrators. I couldn’t tell the difference. They were lit by the sun shining through the large round skylight above. Some suits were broader than the shoulders under them; others were worn like a second skin. My ex-husband looked comfortable in his, talking to his lawyer, ‘I can’t believe it…there’s no grounds…mental problems.’ I felt the muscles in my body tighten, snapping back into familiar places.
I moved to where a police officer sat locked inside a glass booth, a ticket seller for an exclusive show. Without eye contact she repeated my name, louder than I would have liked and turned to the second page of her list. She ticked my name off, then pointed with her pen to the glass purpose-built room behind her. Another police officer, solid and focused on the men pacing outside, punched a code that opened the double-glazed door. No one looked up as I entered. It closed automatically behind me and my ears found it hard to adjust to the instant silence.
A different police officer checked the details of my case in the police report and asked me to take a seat inside the glass dome with the other women. On the bench circling the room sat women of all ages and walks of life. Most were alone. Some younger women had their mothers with them, or a friend. I didn’t see any brothers, fathers or male friends. I wondered if they had come to support their sisters, daughters or friends, whether they would be allowed inside or be asked to sit outside with the other men.
At the centre of the circle, littering the floor, were hardcover children’s books, a truck without wheels and some wooden blocks. One of the books I recognised – Guess How Much I Love You?. Toddlers quietly held the toys, babies quietly held their mothers, mothers quietly held cardboard cups filled with coffee. We could be mistaken for a very dull playgroup. I was glad my children were at school.
THE COURTHOUSE WAS a giant snow dome composed of local families that had been vigorously shaken – the women and children motionless figures set in the middle, the men swirling around the outside. A microcosm of family life: children in the middle, women in an inner dome, men on the outside. No reporters or law students in the courthouse on these days, Domestic Violence Tuesday and Domestic Violence Thursday – twice a week, every week, except for Christmas Day.
Domestic violence, family violence, or as the police say, ‘domestics’ – the euphemisms are endless. Intimate partner violence. ‘Intimate’? Like lacy underwear from the intimate apparel department in David Jones, or the intimates setting on a washing machine? And ‘partner’ implies complicity, something agreed upon between two people.
How could we know the words ‘domestic violence’ mean more than one death each week, every week? How could we know the word ‘domestics’ means the biggest crime story in Australia? The softness of words like ‘intimate partner violence’ do not inform us that falling in love with a man could be the riskiest behaviour a woman can engage in: according to the United Nations, gender-based violence creates a greater risk of death and physical harm than cancer, motor accidents, war and malaria combined for women aged under forty-four. In Victoria it is the leading cause of preventable death, illness and disability in women under forty-four – more than smoking or obesity or illicit drugs or alcohol. How could we know that ‘family violence’ means the leading cause of homelessness for women and children? The financial cost approximately $14.7 billion each year, 1.1 per cent of GDP. Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, family violence, domestics – hermetically sealed within this private, silent dome.
I scanned the room. Some women were wearing suits and some were wearing bruises. Some were clearly wearing what they fled the house in the night before. I was wearing a grey suit; I’d deliberately powered up. I felt conscious of how I was dressed when a woman in baggy track pants and a dirty T-shirt moved along the bench to create a space for me. I could feel her bony hip at the top of her leg, which jerked up and down from the ball of her foot like a jackhammer. Her movement took my focus, the speed of it, updownupdownupdownupdown. I wanted to offer her solace, but I was getting drawn into her nervous rhythm, updownupdownupdownupdown, and I couldn’t afford to do that. I breathed out long, slow barely audible sighs and didn’t make eye contact and I didn’t look at the children on the floor and I didn’t look at the women in bruises and I resisted that rhythm and I took hold of my feelings and I squeezed them all back inside my grey suit.
‘Hastings’, ‘Azapardi’ and ‘Tran’ were called by a police officer, and they silently left our circle through the heavily glazed door as a fresh-looking social worker and some older volunteers entered. Volunteers were a feature of the court on Tuesdays and Thursdays, offering support to the women and helping with the children when the women entered the courtroom. The young social worker was not there for that role. I knew she was a social worker because she held a thick blue diary, like the one I used to carry. The social worker was talking one-on-one with each woman. She spoke in a high, positive tone, the only person speaking. She looked and sounded familiar. Then I realised I knew her professionally. I hoped that she didn’t recognise me. I looked at the floor and felt my chest rise and fall and wished for my name to be called, but not too loudly.
None of my social-work roles focused on domestic violence. In reality though, most social work intersects with domestic violence. I had gone to court as a support for women in these cases a number of times. Some women had limited English and didn’t understand what was happening in court – women who, without help, would have little power over the outcome. When I was a manager in a community health service I had fearlessly driven women and their children to shelters. In the silence of the car I’d felt the palpable rhythm of the little heartbeats and the big heartbeats, like the doof doof vibration from a revhead’s subwoofer. It wasn’t really part of our role to drive women and children to shelters, so the Department of Health cars were not equipped with children’s seats. But it being against the law to drive without one, I was once delayed in driving a mother and her three-year-old to a refuge. At such a moment, I thought the risk of a car accident to be the least likely risk to the child’s health, but even when it seemed that society’s laws had broken down, some laws had to be followed. I borrowed a car seat from a colleague who had children and drove quickly, knowing that one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner, but not knowing, as I navigated traffic, if that partner or former partner was following us with his gun or his knife or his extended family.
Controlled emotional involvement – that’s what we were taught as social workers. To keep a distance, to not to get caught up in the emotion of people’s lives, to retain objectivity, wielding our thick blue diaries like a shield against emotions. Back then I would have reassured these women by saying that it could have happened to anyone. I didn’t think for a minute that ‘anyone’ might include me. Social workers were meant to be skilled at assessing personality, and it was this oversight that was hard for me to accept. I spent way too long trying to understand how I had got it so wrong. I was an educated, middle-class professional. He was an educated, middle-class professional. He was well read, he was articulate. He vacuumed. He looked after the children. He wore a ribbon on White Ribbon Day.
GROWING UP, I would have said that I never heard of domestic violence. But that wouldn’t be completely true. When I was a child my family lived in a semi-detached brick house that shared a wall with the neighbours; sometimes I’d hear yelling and screaming next door and then there’d be a thud against the common wall. I remember this because my sister and I had our delicate figurines in a shadow box on our side of the wall. Our Pop made the shadow box to hold and display these trinkets – the sort of presents girls gave to each other for birthdays. In the largest wooden box was a family of glass deer: a mother and her two fawns. We had watched a glass blower create them. A glass dome formed from his breath, and then from that dome the glass blower magically pulled out fragile transparent creatures using just a flame and a steady hand. When the thud forced these harmless animals to the floor, a head was damaged once, another time a leg. Because we were upset our parents quickly glued the deer back together, but the reason for the thud was never explained. So from a young age I guess I had heard domestic violence, I just hadn’t heard its name.
The impact of domestic violence on children witnessing or hearing it is often forgotten, although a summary of the issues submitted to Parliament in 2011 said that depression, anxiety, increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, low self-esteem, pervasive fear, mood changes, impaired thinking and an increased likelihood of drug or alcohol abuse are some of the documented impacts on children who grow up in a house with domestic violence. Even the health of family pets has been shown to suffer in houses where there is violence. The glass dome of silence surrounding this violence, and its effects on families, makes it difficult for these children to receive appropriate support and understanding.
Fortunately our daughters were not home when the police came to our apartment. We lived for a while in Los Angeles, having moved there for his work. With his promises of improved behaviour, a new life and a new country, I’d left my own job in Australia. Our time overseas started out well, but soon the irony of setting up house on the San Andreas Fault as a way to stabilise our marriage became apparent. It was clear it had to end, but I wasn’t working and he wouldn’t give us money to live on or funds to fly home.
‘You won’t get a cent,’ he said. Pushing and shoving. I threatened to call the police. ‘Go ahead, I want to see you do it.’ I picked up the phone and dialled 911, hands shaking, while he stood over me. Then I hung up without speaking and f led to the bedroom. Within minutes the police stormed the lounge room, guns pulled, shouting, ‘Does he have a weapon? Does he have a weapon?’ They interviewed us separately. I told them I needed a way to go back to Australia. He told them that I’d been abusing him. They told me they would take him for ‘a drive around the block’. I worried then for his safety. He behaved after that, as if all that was needed was a bully to bully the bully.
Not long after that I’d been out with friends, a couple who offered me a lift home and then came in for coffee. They realised I was in trouble when my car was not in the garage and he wouldn’t tell me where it was. I needed to collect my children from school. The couple saw my distress and drove me to collect them. The next week they invited me to dinner. Without any questions or discussion they slid an envelope across the table with enough money in it to fly us back to Australia.
‘Fardoulis, Flint, Lafute.’ Three women stood and vacated their seats. There was a shuffling along the bench. The social worker moved closer. I wished for my name to be called. I kept my eyes down so she wouldn’t recognise me and kept breathing deeply, in and out, in and out. The social worker made a little space for her tailor-trousered bottom on the bench. I overheard her explaining her purpose. She had a draft version of a pamphlet that outlined the cycle of violence and she wanted ‘feedback’ from the women in the room about the appropriateness of the colours, the pictures and the language. I wanted her to piss off! How dare she want something from these women at this moment! I was once like her: young, compassionate, well-intentioned. What I now knew was that no matter how well designed that pamphlet was, it wasn’t going to change anything.
IN THE PAST, I’d made informative pamphlets for women and training manuals for social workers and other health workers about the cycle of violence. I was a newly graduated social worker in the late 1980s, when domestic violence was being excavated from under the thick-pile carpets in suburban homes to become a significant social issue. The NSW Task Force on Domestic Violence had been established in 1981 in response to perceived failings of the existing law, and Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (ADVOs) were created. In his speech to parliament announcing the reforms, then Premier Neville Wran spoke of the government’s determination to eliminate the ‘scourge’ of domestic violence. I attended training run by a legal centre in order to help clients who might need ADVOs. We watched a movie titled Guns and Roses, which explained the cycle of violence. An animation showed a build up of tension on one side of the circle leading to violence, hence the guns; then the tension dissipated on the other side of the circle leading to remorse, hence the roses. Tension, explosion, honeymoon. Then actors portrayed characters in vignettes to illustrate the theory. The men in the vignettes, I seem to recall, were large men with tattoos and missing teeth, or something of that nature, so they should have been easy to spot and avoid marrying.
In my case, I never saw a cycle. We were not arguing, there was no tension: we were watching The Piano on television. We had seen it before, but during the scene where Sam Neil cuts off Holly Hunter’s finger, I found myself thrown across the lounge room against the brick wall. There should have been a thwack or a bang. But there was no sound. The children didn’t wake. No one came running. No siren approached. No build up of tension, no remorse. No roses.
‘That never happened,’ he’d say if I tried to discuss it.
But once it had happened it didn’t matter if it never happened again, he had shown that it could happen. ‘Get out the first time it happens’ was the mantra in my head. The adrenaline pumped – fight or flight? But I was paralysed, a deer and fawn caught in the headlights.
After that I ghosted through the house, knowing that my husband was not the man I thought he was and at any moment everything could change. An impotent rage festered inside me, like a parasite, eating away at me and the vision I had for my family.
Sometimes he could make me believe that nothing had happened, but I remember trying to cover up for a bruised eye, saying I’d been painting the wall and a ladder fell, or that I was over zealous with my make-up when it turned purple. I found myself one day just staring at the back of the classroom when I was teaching the theory of the cycle of violence to a class of students. I remember one of the student’s faces. The way she looked at me, I knew she knew. I stopped teaching after that.
If I tried to talk about it, he’d say, ‘I never hit you’, and he would be technically correct. Apart from throwing me across the room that time, there was mostly a grabbing of both arms, a push or a shove. It first happened when I was six months pregnant with our second child. We were moving house and I was wearing a light blue cotton maternity dress with white flowers on it. Some of our furniture was strewn across the front lawn. The sun reflected off the large oval mirror on the antique wardrobe and into our eyes as we passed it on the lawn carrying boxes to our cars. There was furniture still in the house, and some in the removal van, when the removalists announced they didn’t think it was all going to fit. As I walked into the house, he was walking out empty-handed and he grabbed me in the doorway. I felt the heat from his palms on my arms, high up near my shoulders. He came in close to my face as I prepared for a kiss. But with gritted teeth said, ‘Fix this mess!’ Then he pushed me. ‘Fix it.’ I didn’t feel the squeeze that left marks later, I just felt the motion of being pushed backwards. ‘Fix it.’ The surprise of not being stable. I wasn’t scared – he was my husband – but I was shocked. ‘Fix it.’ I didn’t throw my arms out to try to stabilise or grab on to something, which might be a natural thing to do. I just tried to stay standing, adjusting my feet as my centre of gravity moved. He would have seen my mouth open in confusion. He would have seen my wide eyes searching his for answers, but he kept pushing me and telling me to sort it out. When he barged past me, I instinctively placed my hands around the baby inside me, like a bandage – holding the baby tightly within my floral maternity dress and whispering, ‘Don’t worry, it will be alright.’ If the removalists saw anything, they didn’t mention it. He never mentioned it because, I figured, he was ashamed of his behaviour, so I never mentioned it either. I didn’t know then, but violence towards women by their partner often begins, or worsens, when a woman is pregnant.
What I hadn’t anticipated was that leaving the house, returning to Australia and ending the marriage did not end the violence. The last time it happened, what lay behind me when he started pushing was two flights of stairs. It was at his apartment where I was to collect the children from their weekend with him and he was refusing to give them back. As the family court process took four years, parenting orders were still being tossed in a game between our lawyers, there were no rules. It was a situation that allowed for bullying. My children were inside looking on. They didn’t move or make a sound. A neighbour heard me screaming at him to stop pushing me; she came out and invited me into her apartment. She gave me water and let me rest. I called the police and we started the process for court.
NOW WE SIT separately at our children’s performances and school presentation nights, and we stay on opposite sides of the soccer field during their games. My children could not attend a certain school because their entry procedures required parents to be interviewed together in the same room. People have often said to me, ‘Can’t you just get on for the sake of the kids?’ I’d wanted to respond, ‘Would you want to sit next to the man who smashed your head into a brick wall and then pretended it never happened?’ But of course, I said nothing.
People preferred that I said nothing. A common response to my story, if I shared it – and I rarely did – was a look of disbelief. Some friends and family were immobilised by the information, like cartoon characters I had sprayed with a giant glue gun. I needed their help, but once said, it was never said again. On the other hand, there were friends who did help immeasurably. What I hadn’t expected was the number of strangers who helped. Women whom I randomly came across, who didn’t doubt a word of my story because it was also their story. Like an underground movement, these women were even prepared to break rules in their jobs to help. The teller at the bank who helped me to secure some money from the joint bank account had been in the same situation. And there was the secretary at the removalist company who switched the delivery address for our possessions on leaving America to return to us rather than his new address because she, too, had been in my situation. So many women I came across had been in my situation that it didn’t surprise me that the State of the World’s Fathers report 2015 – the first report to provide a global view of men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving – found that approximately one in three women globally experience violence at the hands of a male partner.
THE OCULUS IN the ceiling of the courthouse was, I hoped, for the purpose of a benevolent force to keep an eye on things, occasionally shaking the snow dome to remove the debris and reveal the beauty of its central figures. If it was, I didn’t understand why this benevolent force wouldn’t rearrange the dome so that the women and children were on the outside. The children would be free to dance and swirl as glittery flakes of snow, the women able to move and talk, and those men would be locked in the middle, silent and reflective.
I expected to enter the courtroom when my name was called, but I found myself sitting in a smaller square room with no windows and four suits pressing in on me to drop the case and settle for a Temporary Protection Order, rather than an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order. ‘The courtroom will not be a pleasant experience,’ they said. ‘The magistrate will think you’re making it up to get a better deal in the family court,’ they said. ‘He may lose his job because of this, so he won’t be able to financially support your children,’ they said. The suits continued until I agreed to just apply for a Temporary Protection Order. I’d get temporary protection without having to fight his lawyer in court. I was clothed in a grey suit, but my undergarments – my intimates – were humiliation and exhaustion.
I left the court with a Temporary Protection Order and a police frisk, only to find him waiting outside, pale and livid.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.