• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

'Why doesn't he stop hurting her?'

Sophie Elliott.

We've seen the high-profile murder cases and we've had the anti-violence campaigns, yet we're still facing the grim reality that one in three women will experience domestic violence at some time in her life. What will it take to break this country's cycle of violence?

The epitome of evil. That was Sophie Elliott's father's verdict on Clayton Weatherston, who last month was sentenced to 18 years for her brutal murder. He might be the "epitome of evil" but, says Jane Drumm, Weatherston is no different from many of the men she hears about on a weekly, if not daily, basis in her role as director of Shine (formerly Preventing Violence in the Home).

Throughout the trial, Weatherston grandstanded, scoffed, even winked on the stand - never showing remorse until his sentencing when, through his lawyer, he said, "They don't see me at two in the morning when I think about the horrendous thing that occurred." He blamed Elliott, claiming she'd goaded and belittled him and even that she'd provoked his attack.

As with Weatherston, Nai Yin Xue's defence for the 2007 murder of his wife, An An Liu, rested on what had happened to him in the relationship - he alleged Liu had been unfaithful, even asserting that she could have died sustaining injuries through a sex game. Yet the prosecution showed a violent, jealous man who was convinced of his superiority to his wife, and even resented their daughter's gender.

Weatherston and Xue show that domestic violence knows no boundaries - academic, social or economic - yet Drumm says the pair demonstrate many of the traits common to abusive men (see below): jealousy, possession, externalising the violence - that thing that happened - and painting themselves as the victim.

Weatherston, as an educated, privileged abuser, was hardly unusual. In 1992, John Tanner, another New Zealand academic, standing trial for the murder of his girlfriend, told the jury that losing Rachel McLean to another man "was like having someone else jump in my car and drive it away". McLean's mother, Joan, told the Listener at the time "that's something he will have to work on". Tanner, then studying at the University of Nottingham, killed 19-year-old McLean in 1991, strangling her before hiding her body under the stairs of her flat. He told police he "flew into a rage" when she told him she wanted to end the relationship.

The story of domestic violence is too often told through the perpetrator's warped view, yet every year there are countless affected women who rarely get to tell their side of the story. Police were called to 86,000 domestic violence incidents last year. Half of all homicides in this country are women who have died at the hands of partners or ex-partners.

And while victims are still struggling with the judgment levelled against them - Did she ask for it? Why doesn't she just leave? - it's those characteristics, the jealousy, the control, the outward charm, that make it hard for them to break free.

Although Weatherston and Xue were reviled for blaming their victims on the stand, Heather Henare, chief executive of Women's Refuge, says social research recently commissioned by her organisation delivered disturbing results. The focus groups - men and women - "wanted women to be nice victims. They didn't want them to have any baggage or have a drug and alcohol problem, or that this was her third violent relationship."

There's a resistance to facing the reality of domestic violence. But whether we're ready for a more graphic campaign that depicts domestic violence as vividly as, say, drink-driving or negotiating an intersection incorrectly is another matter. A recent ad for UK charity Women's Aid starred actress Keira Knightly leaving the set after a day's work and returning home to a brutal encounter with her boyfriend. Despite the ad making it clear that this also took place on a stage set, the company responsible for censoring ads in the UK said it was too violent and would allow it to screen only if the violent scenes were removed.

This collective squeamishness about domestic violence is also a factor in keeping women trapped in these relationships.

Henare believes that although the "It's not OK" campaign was what was needed then - "a gentle approach to a sensitive issue" - it now needs to be stepped up. "We've worked really hard to make it a non-specific gender issue to keep everyone happy," she says, "but the reality is it's not a non-specific gender issue. The reality is our men are choosing to beat our women and children. We are still lacking in women's voices and women's stories."

She adds, "A lot of women are saying, 'It's not OK, that's good, but I actually live it every day - where's my bloody story? When do I get to talk about what's happened to me?' It's been put away in the background because it's too ugly, it's too yuck. But we sometimes need to hear a bit of the ugliness so we can move on."

Ann Smith* says Weatherston's attitude on the stand "reminded me of my ex" - whom she has been trying to leave for the past 14 years. "Before it happened to me," Smith says, "I used to think that if a man hits you, you walk. It's as simple as that."

For women who've never experienced it, and for men, that is the question - if it's so bad, why doesn't she walk? But that's the wrong question, Drumm points out. "It's not, 'Why doesn't she leave?' - it's, 'Why doesn't he stop hurting her?'" Neither question is easy to answer. The first, Drumm says, is because it's rarely as simple as one hit and you're gone.

"It's like they are very gradually covered over with a spider's web until they can't get out any longer. They get absolutely entrapped. Often, violence and the really overtly controlling stuff doesn't happen until they've made quite a commitment to the relationship - they've moved in together, got married and had a baby - so it's not straightforward any longer."

Smith was about six months' pregnant to "one of the most romantic men I'd ever been with" when he changed "overnight, just like that". Since then, she's been trying to leave, but in 14 years he's never strayed far. The only time she really feels her personal freedom is when he's in prison. "When we've had an incident and he's been arrested, I don't want to deal with it. I can sit outside, I can open the windows, I don't have to look over my shoulder. My personal freedom is amazing and I don't want to talk about it. When he's locked up, it's great."

Smith is slightly built and buzzes with nervous energy. Her ex's hands "are huge", she muses, tracing an outline beyond the margins of her own, "but my advantage is that I can run fast". She's had to, at the mercy of a quixotic person who could decide for no reason that she'd wronged him and mete out punishment.

Yet as bruising as the physical encounters were, it's the psychological effects she dwells on. It was embarrassing, she says. "You don't want to say, 'I had no sleep last night because my partner stood all night with his boot on my head ranting and raving at me.' You go to work the next day and carry on as if everything is normal."

The first time she left was shockingly hard. She'd lost her business after her ex bled her dry. "I wasn't happy. I kept moving houses and I'd lost my business; it was the first time I'd had to go on a benefit; I felt a bit scuzzy, not having any resources. I went from having a business and working hard to living on a benefit and being bankrupt and having two kids on my own."

Now, she says, she would rather live broke on a benefit than have anything to do with him - "although that, in turn, becomes 'you're just a broke-arse beneficiary', all the rest of it. But that's what he made me, in a way. I didn't have confidence to go out to work and when I did there'd always be a drama. I ended up not being reliable."

Yet, being broke and living away from him means he's almost more unpredictable. "I've broken up with him lots and lots of times, and had quite a decent break from him, but if he sees that I'm starting to get on my feet, getting my confidence back, got a new car or just about to go to work, he'll come along and destroy it all; sabotage my car.

"I got a new car and I was driving down the motorway and the motor just cooked and blew up. He'd jabbed it with a knife through the grille because I wouldn't let him borrow it. Burgled me I don't know how many times; destroyed anything that means anything to me. My father died when I was quite young; [my ex took] all my special things from him."

He has even kidnapped their kids - a threat that Drumm says is common.

It was a Shine programme that firmed Smith's resolve to throw him out two years ago - although police and other agencies had suggested counseling, she'd resisted.

When she learnt her ex had been paroled less that a year into an almost three-year sentence, she says it was too soon for her to have completely healed - she'd only just started feeling she was ready. "You shut down the parts of your personality that get you into trouble. I've always been the type of person that if I come up with an idea, I'll carry it through - if I want something, I'll save up and buy it - but you shut down parts of your personality so you don't get into trouble. The way I dress - I used to love dressing up, I was up with fashion - but dressing up so you look nice attracts attention. If I put make-up and a skirt and high heels on, men talk to me - and it's not that simple any more."

His last prison sentence was drug related - although police had been called for a domestic incident, Smith's ex had P in his pocket when they showed up.

Despite his violation of four protection orders, the drugs were the means to get him a sentence.

At the time of her death, An An Liu had a protection order against Xue; his trial led principal Family Court judge Peter Boshier to say the orders are simply not enough without additional safety plans. "It is insufficient to merely make an order without a carefully negotiated safety plan. If we can create plans, we may be able to save lives."

Research has also shown that violent men who don't attract attention from the authorities only get more violent; according to Shine, of the men who have had legal intervention, still up to three-quarters will reoffend. It is possible to learn to control that behaviour through anti-violence programmes, they say, but making lasting changes can take years.

The finances needed to address the issue are hard to come by. Jill Proudfoot, Shine's client services director, says "the past five years have been pretty good, really, with the money relatively free-flowing, but this year and next year are going to be very tight".

Drumm adds, "It's quite a worry for organisations like this, because with the economic recession, and also simply with the increasing awareness from the 'It's not OK' campaign, far more people come to the notice of police and the hospitals and get in touch with organisations like us, so every year the numbers greatly increase - by about 10,000 or so.

"Economic stress does not cause domestic violence, but it can exacerbate the pressures on people."

And economic pressure makes it even harder for women to leave, especially when they've been affected by their partners' manipulative techniques. "Some men use threats of suicide," Proudfoot says, whereas others use scare tactics.

Drumm remembers one woman who came home to find her house seemingly untouched except for the carving knife lying on her pillow.

Proudfoot remembers trying to help a woman whose husband had threatened to harm her sister if she left him. "Their child said she was so frightened she felt as though she had ants crawling under her skin. We would have had to put the whole clan into safety to get away from him. She stayed. She couldn't consider any other possibility and CYF thought they didn't have enough evidence. It was terrible. I had sleepless nights over that for months. Dear little girl. She'd been putting up with that all her life and probably still is."

"The people who have the best luck, the quickest," she says of women who leave, "are people who are well-educated, know how systems work, understand how they've got to talk and ask questions, and who have maybe got friends and relatives who know people who can help. They've got networks."

Proudfoot adds that an important part of that is being able to articulate their difficulties and ask for help. "They can advocate on their own behalf."

"And," Drumm says, "they've got family and friends who've got spare bedrooms, who want to support them, who can afford to feed them and their children - can have people arrive and stay for some months - they've maybe got their own cars, a job; all those sorts of things make a huge difference. The major barrier they've got to get through is the huge embarrassment of having to talk to a whole lot of people and ask for help, having to explain the situation, and the humiliation."

Drumm says it's a privilege to work with people going through some of the lowest lows, when they've got major psychological trauma and possibly post-traumatic stress, and their kids might be bouncing off the walls. "A lot of those kids are hell on earth for their parents at that time. They've been so traumatised they're waking every night, wetting the bed, screaming in their sleep; they're naughty, they're hitting their brothers and sisters, they're not doing their schoolwork, and they're yelling at their mum. Or they're too quiet, too good. It's sort of like a war zone, but it's happening in your own home.

"How do you go from that to thinking, 'I'll look in the paper for a job and queue up at Winz and deal with the kids?' It's just really hard. Just really hard to do all that stuff by yourself, even in normal circumstances, but you're standing there, maybe with a black eye ..."

But, she says, lots of people get through it, even if it takes several tries. Which leaves us with the question, "Why doesn't he stop?"

"What do we do with our boys to stop this happening? So many of these guys are lonely. It's a terrible waste; it's awful for them. I feel so sorry for them, too."

Now that Smith is out if it, she says she finds herself contemplating the only way she knows to really be free. "Hopefully, he'll meet someone. I always think, I hope he doesn't have any more kids, because I've watched him with our kids and it's heartbreaking; people like him shouldn't have kids," though she worries about the "innocent, naive" woman he'd pick. "But now I think, he should have another baby, because then he'd totally forget about me.

"I do spend a lot of time worrying that I might just disappear a few years down the track, 'cos that would be so him. I've given the police my DNA so that if I do go missing, it's a lot easier to find me."

===What to look for===

Violence is deeply ingrained in abusers. Without legal intervention, the behaviour of violent men will likely worsen, yet even with it, up to 75% will reoffend. It is possible for anti-violence programmes to get them to stop, but real change takes years. An abuser can come from any walk of life or cultural background, but many of them share some common traits.

RIGID GENDER ROLES: The abuser has a strong belief in sex-role stereotypes, often expecting his partner to serve him. He believes women are inferior to men and only suited to menial work.

CONTROLLING BEHAVIOUR: He may believe utterly that his wants and needs are more important than his partner's.

QUICK INVOLVEMENT: He may pressure her to commit to the relationship before she's ready - often, women will be involved for less than six months before he advances to marriage.

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS: He may expect his partner to meet all his needs, emotionally and domestically. He may also expect children to perform beyond their capabilities and punish them excessively.

JEALOUS AND POSSESSIVE: He may accuse her of flirting and having affairs, or become jealous of her time spent with others, reacting with violence to any suggestion that she might leave him.

USE OF THREATS AND MIND GAMES: He may threaten his partner with violence, taking the children, or suicide, with real potential for follow-through. He may say things that are cruel, but then be loving, which leaves her confused and torn.

USE OF FORCE OR COERCION FOR SEX: An abuser will often restrain his partner against her will during sex; act out fantasies in which the partner is helpless; force sex on a partner who is asleep; or demand sex when the partner is ill or tired.

DISPLAY OF FORCE AND CRUELTY TO ANIMALS: An abuser may demonstrate his potential for violence by breaking household items, by punching or kicking walls and doors or by physically abusing pets or other animals.

PERSUASIVE AND LOGICAL: An abuser is often a very reasonable, persuasive character to others whom he wants to take him at face value. The abuser sometimes presents a charming face to the world outside the home and strategises to ¬conceal the abuse from outsiders.

CONVINCED HE IS A VICTIM: Historically, abusive men were protected by traditions of privacy and the sanctity of marriage. Social values have changed and abusive men feel that they've had something taken away.

BLAMING HIS PARTNER: An abusive man will often blame his partner for his own shortcomings and his violence. He will use this to justify the violence by telling himself his partner is at fault.

OBSESSIVE BEHAVIOUR LIKE STALKING AFTER A BREAK-UP: An abuser often stalks and harasses his ex. He may make annoying and/or threatening phone calls, vandalise her property, assault her, breach court orders, follow her and appear at her workplace, the children's school or her home.

FAMILY HISTORY OF VIOLENCE: Abusive men are likely to have been exposed to violence in their family. They are also likely to have a history of abusing previous partners.

MINIMISING HIS VIOLENCE: He will often refuse to acknowledge he has a problem or take responsibility for his actions. He will often deny there is violence, acknowledging only that there are "communication problems" between him and his partner.

MANIPULATION OF THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: He may apply for a protection order in retaliation to one taken out against him. He may ask for continuances to delay court hearings and add to his partner's financial hardship. He may defend himself so that he can directly question her on the witness stand. He may make false accusations to government agencies about his partner committing crimes such as child abuse.