Review: Alecia Simmondson Jess Hill

Bleached Atmospheres of Dread

Myles McRae MLA was a monster of male entitlement. Any person who read the Australian newspapers in the year 1891 would have thought so. Six-foot tall, 49 years old, jowly, moustachioed and in the habit of smoking three to four pipes per day, Myles consolidated his success as a merchant and land speculator with parliamentary influence.

And as his wife Clara McRae’s petition for judicial separation revealed, he matched public power with private tyranny. Clara was 42 years old when she stood in the Divorce Court in Sydney and recounted his abuse. Its effects were written on her body: the hand that couldn’t stop shaking, the face discoloured by a chemical that once burned through her skin. A Dr Reid testified that Clara suffered from ‘delirium tremens’ and her signature on the affidavit is, frankly, heartbreaking. She can’t hold the pen still. Myles ‘dragged her about by the hair of her head,’ she said, and ‘called her vile and filthy names’. He beat her on the corners of King and George Streets in Sydney when she queried him about two ‘disreputable characters’ he had acknowledged, blackening her eyes. Myles’ abuse of Clara was such a ‘common occurrence’ that she couldn’t provide all dates or accounts of it in her affidavit.

Her staff suffered his violence too, she said. Clara once arrived home from church with her children to find the servants complaining ‘that the respondent had been walking about the house in almost a state of nudity, attempting to take indecent liberties with them.’ The Morpeth Times reported on it: ‘The wretch deserves the lash as there is any a one got it for less than he has done. It is to be hoped he will soon fall into the hands of the law.’ And sure enough he did. Clara’s petition for judicial separation on the grounds of adultery and marital cruelty went undefended in the Divorce Court. Myles resigned from his position in 1891, publicly disgraced.

I was researching Myles McRae when See What You Made Me Do, Jess Hill’s searing account of domestic violence in contemporary Australia landed on my desk. It isn’t just the stories of male brutality and female suffering that connects See What You Made Me Do to my project, it is the similar context in which it was written. The 1890s, like the present, was a moment when masculinity was publicly dissected; its pathogens exposed, and cures discussed. Marilyn Lake has described the decade as witnessing a ‘gender war’ where, according to Susan Magarey, women went on ‘strike’ against marriage: 51 per cent of Victorian women aged between 25-29 in 1900 were recorded in the census as being unmarried. Feminist publications like The Dawn and Women’s Voice discussed the problem of marital cruelty, as domestic violence was then called, and a ‘divorce boom’ saw women bringing their stories of private sorrow to the public theatre of the courts. The 1890s was a moment when public space opened up to allow for discussion of male entitlement and gendered violence.

It’s useful to remember this history when examining the current efflorescence of literature on intimate violence because it cautions us against overstating the novelty of the present, and also reminds us that it is the moments when society confronts domestic violence that are exceptional; the privacy accorded the family unit means that it is usually hidden from view. The reason why Jess Hill’s book arrived on my desk now and why it should receive the widest possible readership, is because the state and the community are once again listening.

The 1970s – when the term ‘domestic violence’ was first coined – was another such moment when legislators started to pay attention. This time around, in 2019, a critical advance, according to historian Zora Simic, is that we have vast quantities of information about domestic violence at our disposal. The palpable urgency with which Jess Hill writes about the extent of the problem in contemporary Australia is warranted because of the unfathomable cruelty which women and children are subjected to, but also because we may not have this attention for long; patriarchy has a knack for picking itself up, brushing itself off and declaring that nothing much happened. Hill’s book is not just a call to action for the present, it is part of our artillery against forgetting.

Hill writes that we are living through an ‘historic shift in power and accountability’ where ‘the Western world [has] finally started taking men’s violence against women seriously’. The turning point for Australians came in 2014 when we sat in our lounge rooms and watched Rosie Batty speak with monumental dignity about domestic abuse. If it could happen to this eminently relatable middle-class woman, we thought, it could happen to anyone. Her tragedy also coincided with a global resurgence of popular feminism; a ‘time when the world began listening to survivors’.

In 2015 the Australian federal government proclaimed that violence against women had become a national crisis and in the same year the Victorian Labor government held a Royal Commission into family violence, later vowing to implement all 227 recommendations that came out of the report at a cost of $1.9 billion over four years. These declarations were supported by a volley of statistics: police are called out to an incident every two minutes; one in four women have experienced domestic abuse; 70-90 per cent of Indigenous women have been subject to family violence; 94 per cent of women and children accessing homelessness services said that domestic abuse was the reason they’d come for help; and then the most shocking statistic: one woman is murdered each week by an intimate partner. These figures show that intimate partner violence, as Alana Piper and Ana Stevenson have recently shown in their edited collection, Gender Violence in Australia: Historical Perspectives, is significantly more prevalent in Australia than western Europe or North America.

To this extent, there has never been a better time for such a comprehensive, well-researched and exquisitely written book as Hill’s. Unlike government reports, Hill goes behind facts and figures to give us a visceral sense of the terror; she tells stories of abuse with an eye to gesture, in story after story she recreates the bleached atmospheres of dread. If historians of domestic violence are left with catalogues of pain recorded in the anaesthetised language of law then journalists like Hill, writing in the genre of narrative non-fiction can bring us closer to subjective experience. As Hill suggests:

A victim’s most frightening experiences may never be recorded by police or understood by a judge. That’s because domestic abuse is a terrifying language that develops slowly and is spoken only by the people involved. Victims may feel breathless from a sideways look, a sarcastic tone, or a stony silence, because these are the signals to which they have become hyper-attuned… After all, it’s not a crime to demand that your girlfriend no longer see her family. It’s not a crime to tell her what to wear, how to clean the house and what she’s allowed to buy at the supermarket…

It is Hill’s capacity to keep broad political structures and the minutiae of personal experience and emotion in her sights at all times that makes this such a unique and powerful contribution to a field of literature which, to our shame, is still only just emerging.

The most obvious antecedent to Hill’s book is legal scholar Jocelyn Scutt’s Even In the Best of Homes which was published in 1984 and then again in a new edition in 1990, with extra chapters on the impact of domestic violence on children. Like Hill, Scutt aimed her book at a popular audience and based it on interviews with victims, academic studies, legal cases, government reports, ethnography and newspaper commentary. The authors share an interest in policy solutions to end, rather than just reduce, domestic violence and in challenging popular stereotypes of the passive victim or psychopathic perpetrator. But unlike Scutt, Hill is not entirely convinced by structural analyses of the origins of domestic violence. Where Scutt argued that men abuse women not because they feel powerless but, quite simply, because they are powerful, Hill offers an analysis that interrogates the emotions of shame and pride as well as the family histories and the moral and social psychology of abusers. After all, not all men abuse women.

Judith Allen, one of the first historians of gender violence, issued a call for closer analysis of the ‘real problem’ of masculinity, twenty odd years ago — and now Hill has written a response. The question, Hill argues, is not why a woman stays in a violent home. We know how regimes of fear, degradation and dependence can make it difficult to leave and we know that once women do try to leave the police and courts are either unsympathetic or poorly resourced. The slashing of government funding to refuges has had catastrophic effects. A better question to ask is why a man stays. What makes him feel entitled to torture his partner?

By way of response Hill presents two warring camps offering competing explanations. On one side: feminists, who see domestic violence as a by-product of patriarchy. If patriarchy is a system based on a distribution of power that benefits men and disadvantages women, then male violence is how this system is enforced. Domestic abuse is not a question of individual pathology, social stressors or substance abuse, it stems from ‘a system in which men feel entitled to dominate, discredit and disregard women.’ On the other side are the psychologists who at their most vulgar claim that domestic violence is all rooted in mental illness, substance abuse and childhood trauma and that it has very little to do with gender or patriarchy.

Hill takes the best from both sides of the argument. We need to recognise that men are socialised into having a sense of entitlement, but that they also have ‘an inner world’ she says. According to Professor Neil Webbsdale, the ‘one recurring element’ in domestic abusers is a life history ‘steeped in shame’. Shame, Hill notes citing psychological research, is ‘not a learned emotion’ but a pre-social ‘affect’ much like disgust or surprise that has its origins in our need to survive in social groups. Shame is an affective response to an individual’s deviation from a social norm that impels us to repair the damaged relationship. For men, the primary source of shame comes in the perception of themselves as weak, which is particularly likely to arise in relationships where they may feel themselves to be dependent or emotionally vulnerable. By reacting to shame with violence they override the pain of vulnerability with a feeling of power and pride. Violence converts ‘impotence into omnipotence.’ The feelings of powerlessness which give rise to desires for dominance explain why abusers often very genuinely think of themselves as the victim. It also suggests a more complicated response to the question of origins: men are violent because they feel both powerful and powerless; they are socialised to expect to be in control yet ‘in the moment before a man takes control they can feel at their most vulnerable.’

But for anyone schooled in feminist analyses of domestic violence, Hill’s foray into the world of emotions is slightly puzzling. Taking emotions seriously was as much a feminist project as a project of psychology, with its foundations in the idea that the personal is political. After claiming that shame is a biological impulse, she then proposes at the end of the chapter that it is also ‘psychological and gendered’. This suggests that shame is therefore cultural and social, in line with the vast feminist literature on shame. The larger problem is that there has never been one feminist response to domestic violence. Certain feminists working on domestic violence do adopt psychoanalytic and psychological approaches, they always have.

Hill’s chapter on feminist explanations of domestic violence begins with the unenviable task of defining patriarchy: it’s an ‘invisible mainframe that regulates how we live’, she says. ‘It sets parameters around “acceptable” behaviour for both genders’ where men should be ‘strong, independent, unemotional, logical and confident’ and women should be ‘expressive nurturant, weak and dependent’. Combined with her analysis of shame, this gives us significant insight into the origins of abuse: ‘when men feel powerless and ashamed, it’s their entitlement to power that fuels their humiliated fury and drives them to commit twisted, violent acts’. This explains why women and men react differently to shame: women simply don’t feel entitled to be in power. I was left waiting for a discussion of the institutionalisation of male power, the extent to which the law very explicitly gave men the right to commit domestic abuse until very recently. Rape in marriage was only outlawed in the last state in Australia in 1992.

This approach distinguishes Hill’s work from studies of domestic violence in the 1970s and 1980s which placed the inequalities endemic to the nuclear family unit and the law’s institutionalisation of male power at their heart. These earlier studies showed, I think usefully, how we are the inheritors of a culture of intimacy where men’s right to ‘chastise’ women was sanctioned by law. Marriage law gave husbands the right to economically control wives, it allowed men to rewrite women’s wills, to control their wives’ social lives, to isolate them from their families and, in the absence of divorce reform, it prohibited leaving. Marriage suspended women’s identities and made women them the property of men. Marriage laws had every element that we recognise today as a system of coercive control. Law sanctioned abuse.

Obviously, this is not the marriage law we know today, but similar structures of female economic dependence and male authority reinvent themselves through unequal distributions of care in the nuclear family, through men ‘taking control of the finances’, through fantasies of marital unity and, as Hill notes, through an eroticisation of male power. The most obvious legacy of this system is in the privacy that we continue to accord the family unit and the ideology which promotes the nuclear family as harmonious, natural and timeless – something for which it is worth staying in an abusive relationship. Hill does finally mention the history of marriage laws that condoned domestic violence in one of the final chapters of the book, but only to demonstrate the unfairness of suggesting that domestic violence is part of ‘traditional’ Aboriginal society: if domestic violence is part of anyone’s culture, she says, it’s part of white culture. This is a nice point to make, but history is invoked here not to answer questions of causation but rather to expose the illogic of racism.

Hill does, however, have a keen eye for the effects of history in her chapter on domestic violence in Indigenous communities, where the problem has reached epidemic proportions (Aboriginal women are eleven times more likely to die from domestic violence injuries and 35 times more likely to be hospitalised for family violence related assaults than non-Aboriginal women.) Like scholars Judy Atkinson and Kay Saunders before her, she places this violence within a wider context of white coercion and dominance; it’s the legacy of hundreds of years of violence and interventions into Aboriginal families by white people. The intergenerational effects of trauma mean that there is no easy line between victim and perpetrator: Aboriginal boys who were abused become abusive men, and in some communities Aboriginal women cannot imagine a world without violence. If non-Aboriginal women find it difficult to leave because the police don’t take their complaints seriously, there is no funding for domestic violence refuges or they’re afraid of not being believed in court, then these issues are exacerbated ten-fold for Aboriginal women.

Hill’s excellent investigative research exposes the pattern in states like Western Australia of domestic violence victims calling the police for help and then finding themselves arrested because of a minor civil infringement, such as not having their dog registered or having unpaid parking fines. We all saw what this looks like when the footage of Ms Dhu’s last hours were released: a woman arrested for unpaid fines, slumping against the wall of a prison pleading for medical help, dying from a sceptic broken rib caused by an abusive partner, while the police patronise her. This is at its heart about the racial politics of suffering: Aboriginal bodies are expected to either be able to endure pain or to simply not feel pain. Where the scars exhibited by white bodies have been seen as proof of suffering (for instance, domestic violence traditionally required bodily traces of abuse) Aboriginal bodies – scarred, broken and visibly in pain – are still assumed to be lying.

The most powerful chapters of See What You Made Me Do are those on the effects of domestic violence on children, and anyone who has read Hill’s brilliant Walkley-award winning journalism on this topic will be familiar with the harrowing stories she uncovered. There is Sandra, who left her husband after walking in on him being indecent with her children. When she presented these allegations to the Family Court, supported by sexual assault allegations from the children, the judge decided on the basis of an expert psychological report that she had alienated the children form their father and so removed them from her custody and ordered them to live with their father. Or Alex, who was six when he was removed from the care of his mother and ordered to live with his father after she raised sexual abuse allegations in the Family Court. This order was made in spite of the Judge’s awareness that the father’s previous two partners had also raised sexual abuse allegations against him. ‘That one decision the judge made ruined my whole childhood’ said Alex, now aged fourteen.

When the Family Court was established under Whitlam in the 1970s judges were instructed to make custody decisions based on ‘the best interests of the child’ which, given the disproportionate share of parenting labour performed by women, ended up being mostly the mother. In 1995 the Keating government yielded to pressure from an active men’s rights movement and introduced legislative reforms stating that it is in the child’s best interests to be cared for by both parents, subject to the child’s best interests. If this sounds like legalese to you, it was. In essence, it meant that at the same time as shared parenting became a presumed ‘good’, family violence was also considered in assessments of parenting. The two considerations for the judge (shared parenting and protecting the child from family violence) were in contradiction. In 2005 Howard built on these reforms by reifying ‘shared parental responsibility’ as constitutive of the child’s best interests. The first primary consideration for Judges was now the ‘benefit to the child of having a meaningful relationship with both parents’ and the second primary consideration was the ‘need to protect the child from harm caused by violence, abuse or neglect.’ The two provisions were obviously in conflict and as study after study has proved, the courts were favouring shared parenting over child protection. This was partly because of the difficulties for women in mustering sufficient evidence of clandestine violence and because survivors, as Hill notes, often don’t present well in court. ‘The father looks calm and rational while she looks disoriented and anxious after years of trauma.’ And there is the persistent problem of women’s lack of credibility in court: the law has always questioned women’s ability to tell the truth and to this extent a dangerous reliance has come to be placed on the expert evidence of psychologists– often with very little training in domestic violence.

With the Family Court now assuming that shared parenting was inherently positive, any allegation of violence was likely to be viewed with suspicion. This was fuelled by the introduction of what became known as the ‘friendly parent’ provision, which required the court to consider the willingness of each parent to ‘facilitate and encourage a close and continuing relationship between the child and the other parent.’ If the mother alleged abuse then it was likely to be taken as evidence that she was ‘alienating’ or ‘hostile’, which, in certain cases, resulted in the loss of the child. Julia Gillard enacted changes to the Family Law Act in 2012 that removed the ‘friendly parent’ provisions, broadened the definition of domestic violence and prioritised protecting children from physical and psychological harm. Yet despite these changes, the same stories persist, as our family law regime remains wedded to the idea that contact with the non-residential parent is crucial to the child’s well-being. ‘For women with children,’ as Hill pithily states, ‘no system is as punishing – or as dangerous – as the family law system.’

Hill’s book is essential, if not easy reading. She also answers the question which will be in most people’s minds as they read this book: what is to be done? Unlike feminist tracts on domestic violence in the 1970s and 1980s See What You Made Me Do is not informed by utopian politics. Hill calls for revolution but offers reform: a royal commission into the family court and different models of policing. She gives two excellent examples of policing that have worked. The first is in High Point, in North Carolina, where the domestic homicide rate was halved following a community-justice style initiative that supported offenders who promised to reform but equally threatened severe punishment if they failed. The second, closer to home, is a ‘justice reinvestment’ program in Bourke where domestic violence related assaults have now dropped by 39 per cent. As with North Carolina, the trick lay in working from the ground up with communities and offering survivors an integrated network of services.

Hill’s concern that she has penned ‘yet another ‘call for action’ – one more on the teetering pile’, is unwarranted. If See What You Made Me Do is a call for action then it is unlike any that has yet been written in Australia in its accessibility, depth of research and in its capacity, unlike government or academic reports, to capture the visceral feeling of domestic terror. My hope is that this book will not only be widely read, it will be acted upon; that we may heed her call to not just reduce domestic violence, but to end it.

Works cited

Kogarah Municipal Council, ‘Photograph of Myles McRae’ Booklet for the Kogarah Municipal Jubilee 1885-1935, 1935.
Betty Goodger, ‘Presentation to Oatley Heritage and Historical Society’, May 2017:4
McRae v McRae NSW State Archives Divorce Papers Affidavit in support of petition: Clara Charlotte McRae 560/1890, shelf location 13/12395.
Jess Hill, ‘Suffer The Children: Trouble in the Family Court’, The Monthly, November 2015, pp. 36-45.
T. de Simone, ‘The Friendly Parent Provisions in Australian Family Law – How Friendly Will You Need to Be?’ Australian Journal of Family Law, vol. 22, no. 1, 2008, pp. 56-71.
Stubbs and Wangmann, ‘Competing Conceptions of Victims of Domestic Violence within Legal Processes’.