The girls are exaggerating

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Content warning: Depictions of family and domestic violence, including choking and forced home abortion. 

I spent the first six or seven years of my life spellbound by my mum’s stories of her childhood in Far North Queensland. Herstory came from warm, outback and subtropical places. She and her sisters wrote on slates at school, played in custard apple trees, kept their own bees.

Mother and daughter walking in embrace (Photo by Robert Lang Photography/Getty Images)

The milk-man delivered milk in glass bottles to your door, and my nan bought them new clothes with ‘bottle money’ — returning the bottles for money. They ate bread and dripping, like I’d read about in novels set in World War II. Scenes from a novel was pretty much how I thought of these parts of Mum’s story. It seemed worlds away and further back in time than it really was. And like a novel, the story took dark turns. A little sister myself, I was thrilled and appalled to hear of Gale* playing the mischievous big sister, sitting the younger Margaret* on a half-wild calf they’d caught, telling her You better cling on, Margaret! He’ll buck! And buck he did. She always got up though, mum says, and still laughs with each retelling.

Yes, she got up. My aunt Margaret, like my mother Gale, and my Nan, kept getting up.

How well do we know our parents? They’ve had a whole life we literally weren’t a part of — we hear it in stories, see snapshots in photo albums. And then there’s the way we choose to remember them. Mum’s stories were so colourful in my mind. I’m not sure when I overheard or was told about the violence and abuse they suffered; I only remember that violence was part of it; black and red to techni-colour tales of country life. On the last day Peter beat his wife, Margaret and Gale scrambled out a window to fetch police, who stopped him. The girls are exaggerating, he'd said to them. They escorted her and her four children to the local railway station and onto a train — away from him. He died five years later.

These were stories of being tough. Being fast enough to get away, a child being brave enough to raise her fists to an abusive adult in the vain hope she could protect her mother — being slapped aside, helpless. I heard these stories, or at least thought of them so often, it sometimes feels like they are my memories. Which might explain why I felt as if I’d been gutted when, 35 years after Peter’s death, the women of my family were silenced. By his family: cousins they’d grown up with, who knew.

How well do we know our neighbours? By all accounts, my grandfather was a good bloke. Always there when neighbours needed help on their farms, carting water during droughts. A clever, able man, offered promotions in whatever work he did. He never took them. Instead, he moved his family further and further into isolation. Do we hear the muffled gasps and cries while a man tortures a woman in unspeakably depraved sexual violence? What’s the sound of a woman being choked? How do you see a forced home-abortion being carried out behind closed windows and doors, then rebranded a 'miscarriage'?

 

'Because in Australia, we love the idea of a good bloke. The narrative of the good bloke is so strong, women are dying every week, their murderers are too often framed as good blokes pushed too far or battling mental illness, avoiding the complexity of abuse.'

 

During the COVID19 pandemic, phone help lines like Mensline and 1800RESPECT, often the first and most accurate point of contact in reporting domestic abuse, are experiencing a surge. For those of us whose homes are the safe place they should be, it’s horrifying to think of six to eight weeks locked down with your personal terrorist.

Imagine being a rural woman, who effectively lives her life in isolation, pandemic or not. Imagine for a minute that you’re part of the estimated 80 per cent of domestic abuse that goes unreported, never even becoming a statistic; the women who Jess Hill, author of Look What You Made Me Do describes as 'living underground'. Then imagine, knowing your husband or partner saves his hatred and rage for you alone — that people around you will call him a good bloke. Imagine all that happening after he murders you, and your children, if you have them. Because in Australia, we love the idea of a good bloke. The narrative of the good bloke is so strong, women are dying every week, their murderers are too often framed as good blokes pushed too far or battling mental illness, avoiding the complexity of abuse.

How well do we know an aunt, uncle, or grandparent? I didn’t know Peter at all. Dead before I was born, I know he was handsome, because I’ve seen his photo. 'Such a good-looking man,' Nan would sigh, her eyes still full of questions. He was one of the family founders commemorated at a family reunion a lifetime ago. Nan, Mum, and her sisters had not long arrived when they were silenced, warned not to bring up the past. They didn’t. They stayed quiet, styled by their extended paternal family as one-time grieving widow and daughters, keeping the dirty secret with the trauma of their past.  

Mum’s story of victimhood, helplessness, and survival is imprinted on my mind. Let him rest in peace, said my mother’s cousin. What about peace for Nan, who never repartnered? For Mum, who can’t sit still lest she plunge into depression, and for Margaret, a woman in her fifties who subconsciously takes note of good hiding places as she rides the train? These women have lived safely ever after; they’ve known happiness too. But there’s no peace. Dead since 1965, preserving the story of a good bloke was privileged over the story of survival these women were entitled to.

In recent years, the ‘good bloke’ trope is being challenged. In 2014, I felt like I awoke to a new narrative: one of questions, criticism, and a call to media for accountability.

Lockhart man Geoff Hunt, who shot his wife, each of his three children, then himself was described in the Sydney Morning Herald as 'super, super patient…You couldn’t get a better bloke. The most gentle, considerate bloke… a pillar of society'. The incongruity of his actions with this description filled me with rage: yes, the journalist was quoting people who had known Hunt — but what larger story was the journalist telling by describing a man who had murdered a vulnerable woman and three children this way? Even after police found Geoff Hunt was the perpetrator, Kim’s being difficult and sometimes hostile since an accident was used as an explanation: had she finally pushed him too far?

If this loosened the scales from my eyes, Nina Funnell’s illuminating critical analysis of the language used by media covering the murders — the systematic removal of perpetrator Geoff Hunt from the horrible scene — pulled the scales away entirely. I discovered Jane Gilmore’s Fixed It, I read Clementine Ford’s scathing op-eds in responses to gendered male-on-female reportage, and many other articles dissecting the language journalists used to tell these stories: who they were framing up, who they were leaving out, and the wider effects of gendered reportage on the consumers of media.

As recently as earlier this year, when Hannah Clarke and her two children were murdered by Hannah’s ex-partner, the public outrage over Detective Inspector Mark Thompson’s story of a man 'pushed too far' led to his being removed from the case. Australians are tired of the old tropes being recycled. But it needs to go further. The inquiry into domestic abuse set in motion after the murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children has wrapped up three months early, deemed being of 'limited value' without seeking submissions, holding hearings, or making recommendations

 

'How can we disrupt Australia’s good bloke narrative? Humans are narrative creatures. Read, tell, and listen to women’s stories and believe them.'

 

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women and Safety (AnROWS) conducts a survey every four years, with the most recent results coming from the 2017 report. 37 percent of 1761 people surveyed agreed that women exaggerate claims of abuse to gain custody of their children when separating from a partner. As reported by The Guardian, the same amount agreed that 'it is common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men' — of that cohort, 45 per cent were young men, and 29 per cent were young women.  The report showed abuse was understood to be a 'gender neutral' problem, when statistics from police and other first-responders show an overwhelmingly a different story. And, perhaps more alarmingly, 20 per cent of the men didn’t know constantly keeping track of a woman’s whereabouts is abuse — coercive control which is a precursor to violence. Eleven percent didn’t consider stalking a form of abuse. How many of these men were good blokes? How can we account for these results, when they fly in the face of facts? Psychologists say our ability to reason doesn’t hinge on facts or truth seeking, but help us justify things we already believe to others.

The good Aussie bloke is revered in popular culture. His self-depreciating humour; his masculine pursuits; he’s a farmer, a sportsman, a solider, a firefighter, a worker, he’s punching above his weight — he’s the underdog. Standing behind a firefighter or a soldier is easy, because it doesn’t disrupt a beloved cultural icon or force us to come face to face that an abuser can look and act just like any good bloke when he’s away from the things he controls: his home, his partner. Easier than reconciling with the fact that the same man who does do good things; who is likeable, fully functional — can be the same man who controls, beats, rapes, tortures, and kills his wife and children. At the time of publication, 21 women have died by violence in Australia this year.

At 41 years of age, I am still that child fascinated by the faraway-sounding stories of my Mum’s rustic youth and her survival. I still see her, Margaret, and Nan running on warm, dark streets, trying to hide, finding closed in their faces. My eyes still feel the prick of tears when the escapees meet the woman who defies her husband, who won’t have them in his house, and hides them in her shed. And I still smile as I see the country girl who purposely walked over bindi patches with her sisters, the first one to cry out in pain being called that hated name, ‘Townie’. Mum’s early life unfolded to me like a serialised novel, all of the characters well fleshed out, flawed, vulnerable — even through the cruelty.

The good bloke/nagging woman narratives have been around for so long, we mistake them as universal truths: they are not. How can we disrupt Australia’s good bloke narrative? Humans are narrative creatures. Read, tell, and listen to women’s stories and believe them. People need to face the discomfort that comes with confronting the sinister parts of a man's life, even if they are a friend, a brother, an uncle. But they also need to support their victims; to see the women, who sometimes take the most tragic of roles, as human beings, not a one-dimensional side note, and not expected collateral in a story of a good bloke pushed too far. The good bloke narrative won’t survive if we stop tearing out those pages and pages of uncomfortable truths. The girls are exaggerating… No. No, they are not.

 

 

Jennifer ZevenJennifer Zeven is a freelance writer, podcaster, and emerging author. Based in Adelaide, Jennifer enjoys oral storytelling, weightlifting, and is currently working on two creative non-fiction manuscripts.

*Not their names. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing family or domestic violence please contact 1800RESPECTor a service based in your state or territory.

Main image: Mother and daughter walking in embrace (Photo by Robert Lang Photography/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Jennifer Zeven, domestic violence, family violence, Queensland, good bloke narrative

 

 

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Existing comments

My question is: why is 'domestic' violence differentiated from other violence? Domestic animals are tame - are we to see domestic violence as tame, 'less than' violence where perpetrator and victim are unknown to each other, or at least not in intimate relationships? Language is important - time to treat all violence as unacceptable, in every situation.
Pirrial Clift | 22 May 2020


Pirrial that's an excellent point and I agree with you one hundred percent: words matter so much.
Jennifer Zeven | 22 May 2020


Thanks Jennifer. You've articulated your family's story and that is powerful. Women caught in situations of male violence (both physical and psychological) have often faced that same violence as children. In decades past and even today, it was and can be difficult, sometimes impossible, for women to have enough strength to articulate their predicament and the predicament of their children. Recently, I read an article by a female theologian titled "Kill Your Darlings" which was not advocating violence against men. Rather it was a plea to look closely at the behaviour of (some) entitled men and how insidious and subtle that behaviour can be. Too many women are dying, too many women are vulnerable: in homes, in workplaces and in sporting arenas. Women have the answers and need to be strong and articulate.
Pam | 23 May 2020


Great article.... resonates strongly with my own experience, and that of my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother.
Donna Figliomeni | 24 May 2020


Further to Pirrial Clift's comment, numbers show that all violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men. Against family members, against each other. And against themselves when they suicide. How can the community and the government better support the too few men's groups who work tirelessly to change the narrative of what it means to be a man today. Thank you for your article btw, it contributes so much to the many questions we need to address.
Catherine MacAdam | 24 May 2020


Thank-you. Added to the Domestic Violence Information Library (Australia) https://www.facebook.com/groups/440714653344343/
CJ | 24 May 2020


Thanks for your comment Catherine. It's unfortunate that the more prominent men's advocacy services seem to exist to deny the gendered nature of abuse and violence more than they actually advocate for men. I think this in itself is a problem - I would love to see funding given to legitimate groups dedicated to tackling abuse where it starts: with perpetrators. And thank you all for your comments, I really hope this piece can add to the counter narrative and move towards a better understanding of the complex layers - and the severity of this national emergency.
Jennifer Zeven | 25 May 2020


The only way to fix this is when good men DO something about it as in primitive societies. No more white ribbons and platitudes u don't go to war with white flags. As long as good men DO nothing it will continue. There is no equality when women and children live in fear.
Jill Hutt | 26 May 2020


Plenty of good men treat the females in their lives decently, Jill - mothers, spouses, daughters, girlfriends - and abhor violence to women. I doubt it's helpful for duly respectful and just relations between the sexes - or, for that matter, victims of violence - when good "blokes'' are generically categorized as potential perpetrators of domestic violence.
John RD | 26 May 2020


And while we musn't be distracted from protecting women and child victims of men's rage, might I add a plea here for the men whose rage has been triggered by their fathers' and grandfathers' maltreatment of them and their women-folk. The heart-rending problem that Jennifer properly addresses, and its longer term consequences, are also known to be multigenerationally induced, located in the various ways in which we not just develop the myth of the 'good bloke' but in the insidious nature of the multiple narratives about how those 'good blokes' have been taught to put away their feelings and buy into a patriarchal discourse that brutalises, cheapens and destroys everyone. To 'multiply reiterate': this is neither to distract from nor subtly displace, first and foremost, and as a matter of undeniable priority, the rescue, protection and safety of women and children. Thank You, Jennifer, for Speaking Up!
Michael Furtado | 26 May 2020


Jennifer a disturbing article which again highlights the divide between the sexes and the dominance many men believe is their right to inflict in a relationship. They see women as chattels, objects of gratification to be manipulated and in some cases abused. Children are pawns in the game. Discrimination against women takes many forms. For instance gender discrimination by the Church's hierarchy. Most major religions including Buddhism favor the ordination of women and Australia is a signatory to the UDOHR. Yet in a baffling act of complete stupidity, the elitist Bishops of Australia (In particular Commensoli and Coleridge) have set the clock back 20 years on womens rights by abolishing the OPW. Now this may not be violence against women but it is clear evidence of gender disdain and discrimination. The highest diocesan rank under the bishop and immediately above the chancellor is the moderator of the curia, who must be a priest and is therefore a man. On the parish level, women can serve as a parish life director (the title may vary from one diocese to another) in a parish where there is no pastor. Its time for a change of attitude toward women in this church.
Francis Armstrong | 28 May 2020


Jennifer. The great conundrum is why the abusers are not charged with the various offences against the person that would apply to you and me if we were to inflict the same injury on someone to whom we are not related or attached. For some curious reason the woman involved is often blamed for the failure of the Law to intervene when she allegedly refuses to press charges because of the fear of loss of financial security for herself and any children involved. She is already protected through women's refuge care and AVOs if necessary but these remain insufficient without removing the ongoing fear of the abuser at large. The abuser should be charged and appropriately dealt with including detention with a compulsory course of psychiatric corrective therapy regardless of the failure of the victim to formally press charges. But I suppose the civil libertarians would be aghast at such an approach, would object vociferously and win the day in deference to political correctness.
john frawley | 28 May 2020


“Plenty of good men treat the females in their lives decently….” Most policemen don’t kneel on other people’s necks but we do like know about the ones who do. Anyway, Jennifer Zeven’s post in her blog about a surname change tends to suggest that this article shouldn’t be construed as man-bashing as much as a tut-tutting to journalists who fancy themselves as depicters of truth.
roy chen yee | 08 June 2020


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