Last Thursday I sat in the Marcella Althaus-Reid Hall at New College School of Theology in Edinburgh with a group of women committed to ending violence against women and girls; I was there to launch my book WITNESS. Our group was a mixture of academics and workers in the field of VAW. My presentation was well received, as were the presentations from Lesley Orr and Katharine Gilmore, Church of Scotland VAW Development Worker. I talked about the subject of my book, Sarah, and her experience of Domestic Violence; Lesley gave here supportive response to my book in the light of her experience working in the field, and quoted some of her own research, and Katharine talked about the results of her teams work – resources, how to take the work forward, and, most importantly, continued funding, which was not certain.
In the Q&A much of the questions were directed to Katharine, who was involved in a practical task, with aims and measurable outcomes; Katharine’s answers were very helpful, but it did get me to thinking about how we can focus on tasks and outcomes as way of measuring how far forward we are moving when reflecting on the reality for women and girls is important for them, and for us as human beings. Can we move toward airing this issue in a way that helps us confront the our own values, and ways of thinking? I know my own awareness increases with each conversation I have, and I know awareness is not easily measured.
In my presentation I said that however much this crime is abhorrent, getting caught in dualistic thinking, by which I mean seeing things as right or wrong; good or evil, seems to stop a deeper level of consideration for the lived experience of victims and for others witnessing the abuse. It is clear to most people that physical violence against women and children is a form of brutality, as is coercive control (intimidating others into doing what you want). After further thought, I began to see the violence perpetrated by the abuser extends beyond the primary target -partner and children- spilling over into a wider intimidation of other members of the family and to friends.
Each chapter of WITNESS is divided into three sections. The first part is an aspect of Sarah’s experience, the second part is the view of someone involved with Sarah at the time, and the third section is a healing meditation. When interviewing the various ‘witnesses’, this fear of doing the wrong thing came through very clearly, as did the anxiety and stress they experienced.
Helen is Sarah’s sister; here is an extract from her statement:
Later that summer I was visiting again. A few days into my stay, just after lunch, Jamie was getting ready to go to work. I was in the kitchen with Sarah and the children. Jamie came through and said, “Sarah, can I see you for a minute?” Sarah went into the hallway and Jamie started shouting and then I heard the slap across her face. I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to protect her and slap him but I felt that would make it worse for Sarah when I was gone. I was also worried that Douglas would follow me and I didn’t want him to get in the middle of things. Jamie went to work and Sarah came back into the kitchen. She asked if I could see the mark on her face. Of course I could see the mark on her face! Sarah was relieved; I was furious. Neither of us knew what to do for the best, but Sarah was glad someone else could see what had happened to her because she often doubted her own experience. Jamie never acknowledged his violence; he never apologised and often belittled her. And he never apologised for his behaviour to me.
For too long, violence in the home was seen as a private matter; that has changed in law, but the culture has not changed enough. Abusers set up the situation so the victim becomes isolated from her support network; he surrounds her with invisible walls. If we as family, friends, and neighbours are not willing to continue to be available to women and children in this situation; to stick with it until she has found the strength to leave, do we become complicate in the violence? I know this is not easy, and I do not judge. The first rule in dealing with an assault is to keep yourself safe! That said, we can phone the police; contact social work; phone Domestic Abuse Helplines. We can also go deeper into ourselves and ask questions, and when we have no answers, find them outside of ourselves at Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis, and simply by searching the internet.
I’d like to share one of the meditations from WITNESS. You will see that I address God as Mother. I felt tuning into the female aspects of God were most appropriate for these meditations.
When we felt alone and unable to go on
You were there in the friends who comforted us,
And the games we played together.
You were in the doctor and therapists, who cared for us,
And in the solicitor who gave us advice.
You were there in the priest, who supported us,
And the Sangha that walked with us,
And the Women’s Groups which shared our experience.
You were there in the peace and quiet of the sea.