A tragedy for the perpetrator: Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do

Investigative journalist Jess Hill seeks to find an answer to a critical question: Why does he do it? It’s not easy to answer. Her book See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (Black Inc. 2019) was not an easy read. This is not an easy thing to write – my first few attempts stalled. My struggle has nothing to do with reading or writing. It concerns the perpetrators of domestic violence and what Hill wants me to know about them. 

Hill writes: ‘Domestic abuse is, first and foremost, a tragedy for the victim. But it is also a tragedy for the perpetrator.’ Perhaps understandably, I don’t want to think that the perpetrator of domestic violence is a human being who suffers. I see my abuser as a creator of destruction and pain. A burden. Something to be removed, like an abscess. But if we remove him, where will he go? How have we solved the problem?

Jess Hill. Image credit: Connie Agius

Hill believes we can dramatically reduce domestic violence, but we need to understand the motivations of the perpetrators and respond accordingly. We need, Hill writes, to believe that most perpetrators are capable of change, even before we have fixed the problem of gender inequality. It’s a radical idea, one she told me many people have doubted. “A lot of people that I spoke to when I wrote the book, [their] basic message was: there’s no evidence that we can reduce domestic violence substantially right now, so we need to work on long-term cultural change. I disagree.” Hill insists long-term cultural change is not enough on its own, and she doesn’t want to wait. “In the meantime, we’re just basically surrendering women to be assaulted and killed and dominated … [as though] one day we’ll meet a magical day where the patriarchy has been overthrown and we won’t be violent towards each other. It just seems like an almost utopian ambition, but it’s not grounded in the reality of the violence that is happening right now.”

“First and foremost,” Hill said, “shoring up the victim response centre, from legal services to the refuges to affordable housing” is the most vital thing we need to do now, to help keep women safe when they leave. It’s essential to provide increasing numbers of women with options, safety and hope. But the other thing we must do is find a circuit-breaker for the abusers. We need to work out why men are being violent at an individual level. To do this we need to get to know abusive men. 

Hill interviewed researchers and sociologists working in the field of abuse to categorise several types of abuser. I recognised some of them from my dating life: the ‘insecure reactors’ who lash out childishly at rejection, for example, and the more frightening ‘coercive controllers’ who start setting down arbitrary rules and building a system of domination. But, as Hill points out, there are no clear boundaries; they shapeshift, they cross between types. 

Something common to many abusers is a deep-seated sense of shame stemming from what family therapist and masculinity expert Terrence Real calls the ‘normal traumatisation of boys,’ the formative childhood moments where a boy is ridiculed by groups of other children for failing to live up to a masculine ideal. (A rarer type of perpetrator acts not out of shame but shamelessness. These perpetrators act without remorse, and some fascinating research is detailed in the third chapter of the book, but they need deeper attention than my understanding of them can offer right now). 

I was aware of male shame but I’d never really connected it with its symptoms before reading Hill’s chapter exploring the psychological research on it. She also interviews sociologists and perpetrators, to get a sense of how shame is created in a patriarchy and thrives in the abuser’s mind, being constantly reinforced by their own abusive behaviour. My anger was interrupted by a flickering of sympathy. It was uncomfortable, realising that many of the men who have given me a hard time are carrying a hatred that has been built into them since childhood. It is a hatred of a part of themselves that was seen as too feminine, that had to be killed off in order for them to fit in. This societally endorsed self-mutilation is the seed of misogyny: no wonder they hate me, I’m a walking reminder of a part of themselves they killed.

And yet, even knowing this, I fear that if I think of my abusive ex-partner, and men like him, as anything less than a monster, I will somehow fall victim again. After all, seeing him as a human being is how I got involved with him in the first place, so I use anger as self-protection. Similarly, since many perpetrators fear their so-called ‘feminine’ side, lest it make them vulnerable to collective power of other men, they use anger and domination as a cover. According to Hill, these men who feel entitled to power, yet also feel ‘one down’ from other men, seek to restore a lost sense of power in their intimate relationships. Men’s violence, which terrorises so many women, often stems from fear of other men. That is the double tragedy Hill writes about, patriarchy’s knife cutting both ways.

To counter this shame-driven ‘humiliated fury,’ Hill suggests we find ways to view perpetrators as ‘individuals capable of rationality and redemption.’ I bristled at the idea, but this failure to understand perpetrators as complex people susceptible to influence, rather than fixed stereotypes, is a roadblock that has stalled efforts to reduce the violence. In 2015, for example, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared ‘real men don’t hit women.’ It is this kind of political rhetoric that limits our view of perpetrators and serves to compound the effects of the masculine shaming. 

In Bourke, New South Wales, a program known as justice re-investment has reduced the domestic assault rate by thirty-nine per cent in just one year. Superintendent Greg Moore decided to take a more preventative approach to domestic violence. Under his direction, police started making house-calls to known perpetrators and victims to check they were complying with orders, and to assess what could be done to improve their lives, such as through substance abuse help, mental health treatment or job training. This last part of the strategy is key, because it draws the perpetrator out of their shame bubble and into the possibility of a better life. 

The strategy in Bourke is an offshoot of a larger community-led strategy to reduce overall crime rates. Hill is emphatic that it’s important to collect data first, that programs can’t just be “dropped like a UFO into different areas on the whim of political cycles.” In Bourke, specific work needed to be done to reconcile the Indigenous community with local authorities. The success of the justice re-investment program is dependent on the fact that it was developed by the community specifically for local problems, and it is maintained by the community with close collaboration between services and a common goal. In the same way that perpetrators need to be seen beyond the broad surface level of their behaviour, community programs need to be developed specifically for the problems unique to each community to be effective.

It also bears mentioning that in Bourke, the assistance offered is ‘balanced’ with what Hill describes as ‘an extremely swift justice response.’ The perpetrator is given a series of levels, with the consequences increasing each time there is an incident, culminating in jail. The program does not exclude punishment but rather trusts the individual to avoid it. Although the exact same program might not work everywhere, the results in Bourke give us hope that if we can find strategies which minimise shame-induced backlash from perpetrators, acknowledging the complex factors contributing to each abuser’s behaviour, we might cut through the problem now, stalling the knock-on effects of intergenerational violence and paving the way for gender equality in the future.

It’s painful to study the motivations behind horrendous acts of violence. It’s especially painful think about offering perpetrators assistance to become less violent, because the instinct is to toss them on the rubbish heap. But it is also fascinating. See What You Made Me Do gives us insight into the abusive mind and what drives it. That’s information we can use, because the question we need to ask immediately after ‘Why does he do it?’ is ‘What can we do to get him to stop?’

See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse is available now through Black Inc. Books.

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