The recent photos of Nigella Lawson being publicly assaulted by her husband, advertising magnate and multimillionaire art collector Charles Saatchi, hurt my heart and made me feel sick to my stomach. Seeing these images of this man’s hand wrapped around her throat, flicking her nose in obvious, familiar disrespect and degradation made so many questions come immediately to mind. Questions about how to help. Questions about why someone else didn’t help. Questions about what to do if you know and love someone going through something similar. Questions that I felt ill equipped to answer.
Photo via Google Images
Domestic violence is something that typically happens behind closed doors. It’s a hidden hurt that people often hide from the world. When something like this is so exposed – and when it happens between two such well known people – it provokes questions and sparks discussion. For answers to my questions, I turned to someone who I have trusted and respected my whole life. And appropriately, she is more than equipped to answer.
My best friend since age 11, Carys Jenkins, is the Manager of the Independent Domestic Violence Advisory (IDVA) Service at RISE UK in Brighton and Hove. For years she has worked to protect and support women, children, young people and LGBT people affected by domestic abuse in her community. She has seen what domestic violence can do, and she has helped many people free themselves from its shackles. I couldn’t think of a better person who I knew and could trust to answer some very important questions about this very public incident, with the knowledge and sensitivity required.
Before getting down to answers, Carys explained that even the terms people use to describe those involved in domestic violence situations can be problematic.
“I use the word ‘abusers’ but some people prefer ‘perpetrator’. I also use the word ‘survivor’ because the term ‘survivor’ is seen as more empowering than ‘victim’ or ‘battered woman’. Also the focus here is on intimate partner violence – where the survivor is a woman and the abuser is a man – because this is the most common form of domestic abuse and the case that we were speaking about followed this pattern. There are of course, genuine male survivors (in heterosexual relationships), LGBT survivors and abusers as well as inter-familial violence.
I believe that domestic violence is largely symptomatic of the wider inequality in power between men and women – but can also occur in other relationship types. It’s important to remember that not everyone subscribes to this theory or position.”
Afrobella – the whole world has seen these photos and my heart goes out to Nigella Lawson. I can’t imagine the pain and shame and hurt she must be feeling. If you could give her any advice, what would it be?
Carys Jenkins - That depends on if I were speaking to her as a friend or as an advocate in a professional role. And it would also depend on whether I was speaking to her as Nigella, the public figure; or Nigella the woman who is living with domestic violence. As her advocate, I would tell her that no matter what he or anyone else says – it isn’t her fault. No one deserves to be treated in that way. I would tell her that even though he’s minimizing the incident and saying it was a ‘playful tiff’ – it’s not – it’s much more than that. It’s serious and his behavior is dangerous. Strangulation is one of the main causes of death in domestic homicides in the UK and an indicator that someone is at high risk of serious harm. I would also tell her that I understand why she has not left before: that she may be worried that leaving will only make it worse, that she loves him and is scared for her future without him, that she could make it better if she only tried harder … I would say that that I understand that she may feel ashamed – but she has nothing to feel ashamed of – it was his behavior and not hers that was shameful. I would tell her that she is not alone – that one in four women in the UK have experienced very similar experiences to her own and that cuts across class, position, ethnicity, age and sexuality. There is a great TEDx talk on why survivors don’t leave.
Afrobella – People are chastising those around her at the restaurant, as well as whoever took the photos. Do you think strangers should intervene if witnessing something like this? Personally, I would be afraid that it would make things worse for the survivor…
Carys Jenkins. I get that people are worried about this – it’s difficult to know what to do for the best sometimes. However, if someone is perpetrating violence in public – they have consciously or unconsciously decided that society will collude with their abusive behavior and not intervene. Or that they are somehow not going to be held accountable for their behavior. Sadly, this was born out as no-one intervened and the police were only able to caution Charles Saatchi for assaulting his wife in public. I personally believe that people should intervene – and that does not mean stepping between a violent angry abuser and the survivor. That means calling the police. It means calling the police when you hear abuse and violence coming from the apartment downstairs and when you see it in the street. Jackson Katz looks at the impact of the ‘bystander effect’ and what happens when we tolerate abuse in our society.
Afrobella – In your line of work, you see this often I am certain. As a professional, what do you see when you look at these images? I am willing to guess she’s been through this before, if not worse. If this guy will do this in public, what does he do at home?
CJ – When I look at the images, even though I have spoken to hundreds, maybe thousands of women over the years I have been doing this work and have many mental ‘pictures’ from their stories, I still found the images shocking. I think it’s important to remember that domestic abuse is a pattern of behavior and not an event. An incident like this would almost never happen without many other incidents of psychological and emotional abuse and undoubtedly controlling behavior as well. This is unlikely to be first physical incident either, as on average, a survivor of abuse experiences 35 incidents of violence before they call the police for the first time. There is a very useful resource that I use often called the Duluth Power and Control Wheel which shows the underlying reason for domestic abuse as being the need for power on the part of the abuser and the use of control to establish and maintain that power. There are a range of behaviors on the ‘wheel’ that may be familiar to Nigella and she may experience on a daily basis. Physical or sexual abuse may be used when the other tactics are not working sufficiently to control the survivor.
Afrobella – what do you hope will be next for Nigella Lawson? And from your personal experience, what do you think will happen here?
CJ - It’s part of the pattern of abusive behavior and the very cycle of abuse that after an incident, the abuser will often apologize, promise to change and seek help and maybe even acknowledge (to varying degrees) that what they did was wrong. There may be hope instilled in the survivor that the person that they loved at the beginning of the relationship may return. If the survivor is adamant that they are going to leave or the abuser perceives that they are losing control – they may ‘up the ante’ and begin to threaten what will happen if they leave: I’ve heard: ‘No-one will want you’, ‘I’ll kill myself’, ‘I will get the children because you are an unfit mother’, ‘ I will never let you go – I’ll find you anywhere’. They may even use physical and sexual violence to force the survivor into the relationship again.
It is also part of the cycle that survivors may leave after an incident and return because of the emotional lure of the abuser and when faced with the difficult practical and emotional reality of moving on from an abusive relationship. Some research shows that on average a survivor leaves and returns 7 times before they leave ‘for good’. Some people have been critical of her for not reporting the incident to the police. I think that it may take some time for her to decide that she wants to take ‘criminal’ legal action – that’s just one option that’s open to women: some people prefer to go into a refuge or safe house, to move to another part of the country or town, to seek a civil order of protection. None of these things are easy processes or decisions. Many people believe domestic violence survivors are weak for ‘putting up’ with abuse. The truth is it takes enormous strength to survive an abusive relationship and even more to take this sort of action against someone you once loved and may still love, may even be the co-parent of your children.
Many of my clients have reported to me that they have found Lundy Bankcroft’s book ‘Why does he do that?’ very useful in their own journey.
Afrobella – what’s the best advice you can give to someone who knows someone going through something like this? What’s the best way to be a good friend to someone who’s experiencing domestic violence?
CJ - It can be frustrating and at times you may feel hopeless supporting a friend who is experiencing abuse. The abuser wants most all to control the survivor and isolation is a tool that they use to do this. They may actually prevent your friend from seeing you or manipulate them into avoiding you. Sometimes, as a survivor, it’s easier not to meet up with a friend than face the abusive consequences.
1. It can be easy to oversimplify how complex and difficult to decision to end the relationship is for your friend – so stick with them – be there to support them when they do make the brave decision to leave. Give them space to talk about their feelings but don’t pressure them to take a particular course of action. Let them know that you’ll be there for them whatever they decide.
2. Abusers like Saatchi can minimize the abuse (calling it a ‘playful tiff’) and blame the survivor for the abuse (saying it was because of something that they did or said). Through isolation of the survivor, they can create a distorted reality in which normalizes abuse. It can be your job as a friend to gently challenge that and remind your friend that they deserve a loving, equal and healthy relationship.
3. If you are friends with both the abuser and the survivor, there is often a tension between colluding with the abuser – by pretending everything is okay – and betraying the survivor’s confidence. It’s important that you don’t share any of the details of what the survivor has told you about the abuse with the abuser – even if it is to challenge them. This can put the survivor at greater risk. However, if you witness a violent incident and you are concerned for the survivor’s well-being: call the police.
4. Find out about their rights and options. But don’t be disheartened if they don’t act straightaway. Taking steps against the abuser is a difficult decision and one that needs to come from the survivor themselves. Women’s Aid have a great resource called the Survivor Handbook.
5. It is difficult to acknowledge this, but it is unlikely that the abuser will change or stop being abusive without a great deal of intervention. Drinking and drugs can make the violence worse – but they don’t make the person be abusive in the first place. In order to change, someone has to first of all, take full responsibility for all their abusive behavior and then, very often, a great deal of therapeutic work (usually in a group context which focuses on behavior change for abusive people) is needed. Anger management is never recommended as treatment for domestic abuse as the underlying control issues are never addressed in this context. Support for abusers and more information can be found at: http://www.respect.uk.net/
Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, Carys!
To learn more about RISE UK and what they do to raise awareness and help victims of domestic violence, visit RiseUK.org.uk or you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook. You can click here to support RISE UK.
I am sure Nigella Lawson wishes that the recent incident never happened. I hope she is surrounded by love and support, and I hope she’s making the right decision for herself and her children.
If you’ve got a personal story or advice to share, please share in the comments below. Let’s continue to raise awareness of this often hidden issue.