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Family violence and The Slap

Moira Rayner |  24 November 2011

Jimmy Barnes, White Ribbon DayToday is national White Ribbon Day, a day when good men and true are asked to make their stand against domestic violence — particularly affecting women — heartfelt, public and unconditional.

It needs to be more than a theoretical commitment. As anyone who has read Christos Tsiolkos' novel The Slap (or watched the serialisation on ABC television) would know, violence is intimately connected with power, ego, frustration and sex, and isn't easily abhorred, or even seen for what it is.

Earlier this week the chief justice of Western Australia, a contemporary of mine at law school and a champion of White Ribbon Day (as of many progressive and small 'l' liberal causes, bless) bemoaned as the major obstacle to eliminating domestic violence, women's reluctance to report it.

There is always, he said, a personal risk for any woman who protests, outside the inner family network, about being slapped, humiliated, micro-controlled or beaten up. The family power grid usually grills the protestor, the traitor, the persecutor, and further relationships fracture.

That's why so many Indigenous women do not complain to police about the thumpings they endure; to avoid family feuds, or police arresting and jailing or maybe even killing their men, leaving them even more impoverished and marginalised.

The Slap is a rather nasty, long and lascivious book, whose eight major characters — who drive the story in chapters of their own — are mostly self-focused, unempathetic and shallow. They reveal little or no insight into the childishness of their own supposedly mature attitudes and choices, yet seem to have focused their adult identities on children.

Far from addressing the issue of whether or not it is ever right for an adult to strike an obnoxious and disruptive toddler, the characters are by and large tellers of their own stories and preoccupations. The novelist and his characters are not in the least interested in the experience, feelings, confusion and furious humiliation of the three-year-old slap-ee, Hugo, with his entirely inappropriate sense of entitlement. They are solely concerned with their own aspirations and compulsive interests.

There is even some unpleasant sado-masochistic domestic violence in the sexual couplings of the principal characters, and a little wife-beating. The wives, sadly, are presented as collaborators in their own submission, and in Hugo's parents' case, committed to nearly heroic, non-interventionist, laissez-faire parenting. Hugo wiill grow up with no survival skills, and a lot of bruises.

This nation first really noticed that violence to smaller, more physically and emotionally vulnerable human beings in a domestic setting was a serious matter in the mid 1980s.

It was 1985 when I attended my first domestic violence conference, hosted by the Australian Institute of Criminology in Canberra, but flooded with articulate and sometimes determinedly angry women from refuges, grassroots organisations and community groups who were vociferously committed to make the conference the fulcrum for a massive national swing to protecting all Australian women, rather than leaving intervention to individual police officers' discretion.

It changed my awareness ('consciousness raising' in the corridors; impromptu tutorials in 'protective behaviours'; ad hoc consultative groups and marchers on Parliament; barrackers at the back of the hall, willing to challenge the ways experts told their research conclusions to an audience that included actual rape victims as well as academics) and inspired my subsequent activity in the belief the law itself should change, rather than society expecting violent men to change their attitudes.

In the end, a common approach by men and women, and the institutions of the law, is essential. Police do get involved in domestic violence, and women still withdraw their evidence if their families get involved. Parents still do not see that witnessing domestic violence permanently damages children.  Personal violence intervention orders have been used effectively and misused between family members using them to score points.

And the vast majority of sexual assaults, in particular intra-familial and 'date rape' assaults, are still not raised. Only sexual assault centres know about those who have to go somewhere. The victims know that the sympathetic officers in Channel 10's Law and Order: SVU bear no relation to the land of the blue heeler.

The most sympathetic characters in The Slap are the Indigenous Muslim convert, and the gay teenage boy, who are prepared to take on an adult world of subtlety and complication, on honest terms.

So let it be with violence in our homes.

Men need to show their mates that violence against women and children is disgraceful. Women need to learn better ways to teach their children self-discipline and survival skills than smacking them. Mothers need to leave any home that has become a place of fear.

Domestic violence will only ever shrivel away when we acknowledge both the woundedness of our inner child, and our inner capacity to defer the urge immediately to gratify our rawest needs, and to look for find more lasting gratification than the giving and reception of a slap. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. 




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Submitted comments

I agree with every word Moira has written. The book is atractive as it tackles an experience not tackled before. However the TV production is 'in your face' family violence. I it is what happens to some.It is what happens!It is well done- but will anything improve for the women AND the men, from all walks of life, who are subject to it and usually are silent?

Bev Smith 25 November 2011

Thanks for referring to the Slap in an article about violence against women. It has made me think differently about the message of the book but it is a depressing one nonetheless. Apart from being a saucy soap opera, I found this book one of the most obnoxious things I have ever read. It was extremely misogynistic. The view of humanity referred to by the author was a grotesque one and either I live a complete bubble or am part of a dying breed, but it did not gel with my experiences of human beings nor with my hope for the human kind. What a pity that this book has been praised as much as it has.

Great piece 25 November 2011

The only way to stop men, women and children acting badly towards each other is to submit to the Social Reign of Jesus Christ, The King, by means of becoming true Catholics who adhere completely to the true Catholic Faith as it has been revealed to us by God and the Natural Law He implants in our hearts. Most Catholics today do not know their Faith because of Modernism, that pernicious heresy, which is prevalent at all levels in Our Holy Mother The Church. Both women and men instigate violence towards each other. It is not just men. Lesbians and homosexual men are found in many studies to have a higher incidence of domestic violence than heterosexual couples and couples who are married suffer less than those in de facto relationships. If every person lived their lives faithfully in the true Catholic Faith as Christ has asked us to do, there would be no violence, waars and injustices. We must continually restore all things in Christ as without Him all things will fall into chaos, violence and barbarism and all souls will be lost except those who love God and stick loyally to the true Catholic Faith and God with true love.

Trent 25 November 2011

Well said. Great Piece. I agree fully that the book has been over-praised.

Cliched, stereotyped characters with no depth: the selfish Greeks, the randy businessman, the professional woman, the soapie star, the writer, the drunken Aussie, the teenage angst, all taken from the shelf of literature's central casting. And oh yes, we have to have an Aborigine somewhere. The only one not found in a dozen other books is Hugo's mother.

I found it difficult to finish.

Frank 25 November 2011

White Ribbon Day is a worthy cause but this year the gods of irony have caused it to coincide with a furore over an incident where a doctor accidentally aborted the "wrong" twin, ie the disabled one. "Oops" doesn't seem to really cover it. Yes, that's right, Australia, we don't tolerate violence against children under any circumstances!!!!

Rod Blaine 25 November 2011

"Men need to show their mates that violence against women and children is disgraceful"

I would rather the message was a little broader - I doubt you can dismiss men against men violence, and then convince men that only violence against women and children is bad.

Russell 25 November 2011

Trent, what are these (hopefully peer-reviewed scholarly) studies you mention? You will need to provide more information to support your comments about gay and lesbian relationships being more violent than heterosexual relationships.

Madeleine Hamilton 25 November 2011

TRENT - are you a comedian? You must realise Jesus wasn't Catholic, and neither was he married. Put down your weapon, mate.

AURELIUS 25 November 2011

Moira seems to be suggesting that the book fails by not moralising about the situations presented. Several of the commentators explicitly criticise the book for not moralising. Perhaps the book has more impact by presenting the ugly situation in it's stark reality than it would by filtering it through our moral filters.

Pat Lynch 25 November 2011

I can offer some stats for you Madeleine. Some little time ago I was Chair of the Anti-violence Sub-Committee of the more widely embracing Trauma Committee of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. These committees were, amongst other things, responsible for compulsory seat belts, various traffic control measures and for a major part of the advice to the Howard government on gun control. My sub-committee adressed domestic violence in a number of different areas through seminars with interested persons, victims, community services organisations of various sorts and government representatives. The following are some indications of the problems of domestic violence in Sydney unearted in these seminars. Victims of domestic violence inflicted by a live-in partner requiring admission to the Emergency Department in St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney came from a homosexual partnership in 80% of cases. (Ref. Social Work Dept stats) Of street kids ministered to by Fr Chris Riley's "Youth Off The Streets " programs, 90% had left their own homes because of physical and psychological violence and in some 90% of those cases also because of incestuous and other deviant forms of sexual abuse. The children simply felt safer in the streets than in their own homes. (Ref. Fr Chris Riley) In aboriginal communities, the trial of "work for the dole" in five communities had over time almost completely eliminated alcohol abuse and domestic violence in those communities. (work undertaken involved community cleanups, maintenance, repairs etc). (Ref. NSW Commissioner for Aboriginal Affairs) Violent childhood death (from neglect and murder) occurred in defacto relationships in over 90% of cases. (Ref. NSW Police Deputy Commissioner) Women seeking help in womens refuges because of domestic violence in a heterosexual relationship represented less than 10% of women in those situations. The high rate (over 90%) of women who did not seek refuge or did not report abuse was attributed to loss of support and children if they left the relationship. (Ref. Director of Womens Refuges) While this is shocking and very sad no government agencies seem to take advice unless there are votes in it.(probably te reason why my committee's work was acted on by government only in relation to the gun laws. There are no votes in taking on the domestic community of voters or improving the lot of the indigenous people through things like "work for the dole". Too racist, they cry! Rather, we have rushed to recognise homosexual and defacto relationships and accuse street kids of being drug addicted bludgers, having babies as a means of making money!!! In the light of the true picture of domestic violence in this country, THE SLAP is a minnow and a lot of gratuitous claptrap, not worth any attention at all.

john frawley 25 November 2011

Thank you, Moira. As usual you write with great clarity and you raise important issues. I forced myself to finish the novel, but simply could not watch more than one episode of the telemovie.
I wish your article could be read by a wider audience.

Maryrose Dennehy 25 November 2011

John Frawley, regarding your statement: "Victims of domestic violence inflicted by a live-in partner requiring admission to the Emergency Department in St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney came from a homosexual partnership in 80% of cases. (Ref. Social Work Dept stats)". This seems an extraordinarily high figure, even taking into account the relatively large number of gay people living in the suburbs around St Vincent's. I have not been able to verify this statistic on the St Vincent's website or elsewhere. Would you please provide a more precise reference than "Social Work Dept stats". Thank you.

Mike 26 November 2011

THE ISSUE NOT ADDRESSED: Thanks to John Frawley and to Russell too for broadening this discussion from violence against women - an all too common crime in Australia - to violence within our society as a whole. The other issue that remains to be tackled is what constitutes good parenting - clearly the spoilt child Hugo will never learn to take responsibility for his actions. This is a problem for society to face as much as a personal one for the child who is likely to grow into a 'little monster.'

Ern Azzopardi 26 November 2011

Another good article! The real issue here is that domestic violence is a symptom that women are not treated equally in our society. Physical domestic violence is common in working class families and psychological domestic violence is common in middle class families. Most of our government, business, religious, education and sporting institutions have a culture which discourages a feminine philosophy. The role of women in most families has not changed in the last 40 years and women continue to do most of the work in the home, but have very say in decision making. In my opinion the characters in the novel 'The Slap' were narcissistic people and probably an indication of our contemporary society. The TV show was crap.

Mark Doyle 27 November 2011

Violence against women, in particular, can only eliminated if the women of Australia are truly liberated. So far this is not the case, judging by the number of women (professional or otherwise) who don't approve of our first woman PM. The vitriol that has been directed towards Julia is synonymous to some women's acceptance of the role given to them by their male companions (or males generally).

It's not the women's fault that we're a country of rising misogynists. But silent acquiescence on their part often exacerbate the situation. More recently Michelle Grattan's commentary on Gillard (AGE 15 11 11) proves the point that Australian women have yet to liberate themselves. This is not to say that rape victims are to be blamed for being raped. Rather it's a cry for women to be supportive of other women. It's interesting to note that women in the public domain, celebrities etc. who are listened to by other women of certain age group are guilty of this, Ita Buttrose, Dawn Fraser et al loathe Julia's ascendency to prime ministerial heights. The chains that bind women can only be broken by a more strident effort on their part in all matters that concern their sex. Notwithstanding that violence against a child, Hugo in The Slap, is an abhorrence, his parents should also be held responsible for what he is.

Alex Njoo 27 November 2011

I have lived with domestic violence and have separated when the children were young,tried to get help, been open and transparent and have endured living in this nightmare just to be there for my children.I feel it is better to be around when a fearful,controlling man has sole access to his children.

I live in the house separately, but I'm here.My son has been able to finish school with my support. Now it's time to go.

I am exhausted, worried about our futures.The damage is long lasting and I don't know if I did the right thing -prolonging something so insidiously evil.If I left I would be abandoning them to his modelling because my husband has so much control.

All I know is children come first and as a mother I could not walk away.

Catherine 28 November 2011

to JOHN FRAWLEY: "Isn't it a great pity that God created us human. We could expect him to have known better!!! So many problems (human ones) could have been avoided and we would have had no difficulty in attaining that life that God would deem to be ideal according to those who administer His earthly domain. "

It's a pity not to recognise humanity in others when discussing a political issue that's uncomfortable for you.

AURELIUS 28 November 2011

I have read with interest the comments on this article and how an underlying sense of violence is pervasive in the attack and defend style of prose used between respondents. It saddens me to see the violence in our claim to be right - most of the comments did not seek to 'understand' the other's point of view but 'standover' with their own strident views. We indeed live in a violent society, and it begins in the most subtlest of ways.

Hey Preston 30 November 2011

John Frawley, what bothers me most about your email is that it is not tempered by compassion.

About "The Slap": I haven't seen the TV series because I'm in China and the ABC won't allow streaming of programmes to Australian citizens offshore; however, I did appreciate the book and was struck by Tsiolkas's deep, compassionate and critical treatment of the issues.

Pat Lynch 02 December 2011

It's a Novel people! It is a powerfully written character and relationship piece. I don't think the writer intended to deliver some moralistic, goodies and baddies polemic that Moira seems to be looking for. I think the characters are all flawed and thus very human. The beauty of the story is that each persons view is so much their own, and engrossed in their own limited view, flawed frustrating, but true of our own subjectivity.
Each character is written with equal parts compassion and stupidity, both vulnerable and infuriating. Viva difficulty, discomfort and tenderness in a powerful story, well written. Look, it got people talking about important realities, but please, relationships are freakin' complex and I thank Christos for writing a contemporary story that draws out difficult emotions and dynamics. Secrets & mistruths, making things look 'nice' when really someone is deeply hurt, fearful etc can make violence even more harmful. Each of the Slap peeps were struggling with their own pain and trauma by partly trying to blame somone else. Can't wait for the next tale from Mr Tsiolkas, another Melbourne classic to make us reflect, squirm and feel deeply? Eureka Street needs diverse voices I reckon...Cheers

Scott 08 February 2012

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