One of 80: A reflection on domestic violence and media reporting

Features, News

By Nour Haydar

The author with her mother

In 2015, I was shocked by the news of 17- year-old Masa Vukotic’s murder at the hands of serial sex offender Sean Price in Doncaster. A fortnight later, my mother’s picture hit the front page. 

My mum, Salwa Haydar, was murdered a month before my university graduation. I remember swearing off becoming a journalist because I resented reporters prodding for interviews with my sisters and me only hours after our dad had stabbed our mum to death. 

As I lay awake in the days after my mum’s burial, the disappearance of Leeton teacher Stephanie Scott filled the headlines. Julie Hutchinson. Daniela D’Addario. Melita Hart. Linda Locke. Seker Yildiz. Leila Alavi. Rose Maries Sheehy. Brittany Harvie. Rebecca Webb. Norma Ludlum. Tiffany Taylor. Anna Hay. Tara Brown. Karina Lock. A total of 80 women across Australia died violent deaths that year. Counting Dead Women estimates 80 per cent of those deaths were at the hands of a partner or former partner.

My siblings’  Facebook inboxes were flooded with messages from journalists, and these requests made me angry and anxious. The media intrigue in our trauma felt insensitive, and responding to journalists’ questions trivial when our mother’s body still lay in the morgue. I also feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

I questioned the role and value of the news media in our lives when incomprehensible and seemingly unpreventable acts of violence could happen without warning. But my mum was one of few people who encouraged me to pursue journalism, so after her death I reluctantly went ahead with a news producing internship I had previously lined up. At first, the job was a welcome distraction, but working in a newsroom soon proved to be anything but.

I feared how my mother’s legacy might be clumsily portrayed or how the complexity of her life, and death, would be eroded for the sake of brevity, or distorted through stereotypes and victim blaming. 

Countless police media releases about the violent deaths of women in our neighbourhoods have continued to drop into my email inbox with a faint ping. They punctuate my weekly routine and remind me of the trauma and heartache I share with an ever-growing group of Australians who have lost their mothers, sisters, daughters and friends to men’s violence. 

As I scan the emails, I am not surprised to learn that in most cases police have charged a man known to the victim. A-fucking-nother-one. I can’t help but imagine how a similar statement would have been sent out to my peers in the early hours of March 31 2015:

Police were called to a property in Bexley after reports of a stabbing. A 46-year-old woman was found with lacerations to her arms, neck and torso. She was pronounced dead at the scene. A 60-year-old man, believed to be known to the woman, has been arrested and charged after attending Kogarah police station. 

I take a deep whiff of air through my nose and exhale to ease the building tremor in my chest.

After Adrian Bailey raped and murdered Jill Meagher in 2013, her husband Tom Meagher wrote about the “danger of the monster myth”. He describes his visceral reaction to hearing Bailey speak in coherent and intelligible sentences in court as he was committed to trial. Meagher states that he had previously sought self-comfort by dismissing violent men as “psychotic or sociopathic aberrations” to avoid “the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions”. 

Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help.

As I struggled to make sense of my father’s brutal crime, I naively insisted to a constable taking my initial police statement that my dad’s actions were unforeseeable and unimaginable because I had a “normal family”. With a voice full of pity she replied, ‘That’s what most people who sit in that chair tell me’. 

The way I understood my parents’ relationship began to unravel. I was forced to confront that what I had accepted to be a “normal” marriage was a grossly unequal and abusive one. Like Meagher, I also had a distorted perception of the type of man capable of committing physical violence and murder. It was a flawed image that had allowed me to dismiss my mother’s fears and overlook the subtle controlling, belittling and manipulative behaviours exhibited by my father. I had thought men capable of such brutal crimes were inherently unlikeable and aggressive. They certainly were not personable, law abiding and university educated like my father had been. I know now that they can be both. 

The media can use its influence to inform victims of domestic and family violence to recognise the many ways in which abuse can manifest – and that it doesn’t have to be physical before it becomes fatal. Good reporting and nuanced writing can be the circuit breaker needed to empower women who have been isolated from friends and family to leave abusive relationships or seek professional help. Good reporting can teach others to identify what I learnt before it is too late. 

In fact, it can go a step further. As Rosie Batty observed, “media are uniquely placed to help stop violence before it starts.” Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step that can help encourage victims to tell and own their stories and experiences – and you cannot underestimate the liberation that comes with that. But curbing the staggering number of women being assaulted and murdered in Australia, and indeed around the world, won’t happen solely because victim blaming headlines and sensational and distasteful teases have been eradicated. 

Violence against women in all its forms is pervasive, but it’s preventable. Perpetrators of domestic violence are amongst our readers, listeners and viewers. Responsible media reporting challenges men to reconsider toxic behaviours, encourages younger readers to adopt respectful attitudes towards women, and recognises that the driving force behind violence against women is gender inequality. 

Writing and talking about all gender-based violence, including domestic violence, using appropriate, accurate and respectful language is an important first step.

For generations the media has been complicit in condoning domestic violence by remaining silent. There has been a significant shift in recent years that has seen bouts of coverage about this epidemic, but it’s often limited to individual cases, in particular those perceived to be more vicious. Given the scale and prevalence of violence against women, it deserves greater and sustained scrutiny. Flawed policies that contradict expert advice, like the Morrison government’s recent decision to fund couples counselling, should be interrogated. The government must rectify the systemic failures and underfunding that keep women, particularly those from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, in danger. 

Positive change in the industry is being made — overwhelmingly by my female peers. Our Watch and the Walkley Foundation last year established the inaugural Our Watch Fellowship. I was fortunate enough to participate in the program alongside 13 insightful and fierce journalists committed to gender equality and safe, respectful reporting on violence against women. Our Watch has also created media reporting guidelines that are designed to uphold the dignity of dead women. If followed, they can limit the retraumatisation of victims and grieving families. They are there to ensure journalists contextualise domestic violence, which is insidious and remains largely invisible.

We need to talk more about domestic violence, but when we do, we must make sure our words and actions are doing more good than harm.   

Nour Haydar is a multiplatform journalist with ABC News covering politics. She is an advocate against gender based violence and in 2019 she was awarded the inaugural Our Watch fellowship. 

FWF Q&A: Nicola Redhouse

Features, Q&A, Uncategorized

Each month we speak to an Australian writer about writing, feminism, and the connection between the two. This month we speak to Nicola Redhouse, the author of Unlike the Heart.

What does feminism mean to you?

For me feminism means a constant awareness and push against structures and systems, attitudes, biases (often unconscious) and cultures that deny women the ability to make choices for themselves, or place them in an invidious position of physical, emotional or material deprivation because of their identity. My own understanding of the ways these structures and systems are entwined with other social factors – like race and socio-economic and class status – expands constantly as I reckon with the specificity of experience.

Was there a particular moment you can pinpoint that was crucial to the development of your perspective on feminism, and what it means to be a woman writer?

Maternity brought my feminism into sharp relief. I very quickly became aware of the social structures and unconscious biases in place that set women (even women who aren’t mothers or have no intention of being mothers) on a different track, socially and economically, to their male counterparts. I watched my husband leave for work after two weeks of paternity leave and I felt the singularity of the maternal experience, and the ways I was, as Rachel Cusk once put it, cut off from civic life.

Then, when my (unpaid) maternity leave was over, I saw it in the way my male former boss dealt with my new status as a mother. He reluctantly offered me a long-overdue promotion in a part-time capacity (I had been working below the award rate for my role for years, trying many times to negotiate appropriate pay) and then rescinded the offer and offered me my previous under-paid role full-time. I began to cry, thinking about how I would afford childcare, and how I would leave my son every day, thinking about how badly I wanted to keep working as a book editor. He implored me to stop crying because it was making him feel bad. He makes a living publishing books that are very often by women, often by outspoken feminists. I now understood that my back-foot position in the office was always somehow connected to my female body, and to conscious and unconscious attitudes to what it was capable of, what it deserved, and how it could be treated.

And I saw from that experience that many men do not want to know about maternity. They do not want to know about what women feel or experience having a body that has the potential to house a baby, or a body that represents that capacity, or of actually raising babies. The maternal experience must be kept away from them. I find something similar in my work as a writer. My book brings maternity into contact with a number of fascinating topics: neuroscience, psychoanalysis, genetics. But it is as though the maternity infects it. I am rarely asked to talk about those topics. I am asked to talk about motherhood, and while I want to talk about motherhood, I don’t see motherhood as cordoned off from the big themes of life, such as war and science and technological progress, and I am disappointed that my audience is almost always all women. I sense that maternity is tainted by the domestic and the mundane. Many men struggle to recognise the immense richness and complexity and crossover with science and industry and history and pretty much the whole entire existence of everything that living is bound up with. I hope to continue to bring that complexity to the fore in my work.

In Unlike the Heart, you combine extensive research on neuroscience and psychology with your personal experiences of motherhood and anxiety. How did you approach the writing process, and where did the idea come from?

I approached the writing process like a freefalling coconut, like a terrified porcupine, like a deranged and absolutely wired starved person who has finally found food. On some days. On other days I sat, grave and frozen, with no sense of where to go with the thing. I just wrote. I have some kind of amnesia about the process now, actually. I know there were times I felt really stuck, but mostly I felt like I was running, pushed by the wind, and it was totally thrilling. But my boys are still young, and then even younger, and childcare needed to be paid for. I was only able to write like this, with abandon, when I had the time, and that came when I was able to put aside paid work as a freelance book editor, because I was fortunate enough to receive first a grant from Creative Victoria and then one from the Australia Council. 

The kernel of the book came  when I had a robust conversation with my sister about the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Our father is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and I had been very excited by his work and interested in it from a young age, and in analysis myself for years. I felt very defensive about what she was saying. I went looking in to it and discovered the work of a group of people who were looking at the brain science behind Freud’s theories (the neuro-psychoanalysts). I thought I would write a book about my own slow reckoning with scientific parameters, and the science of the mind. But quickly I realised that theoretical matter was bound up with all the questions I had been asking myself about what had happened to me postnatally, which was that I had experienced severe anxiety, a kind of dissolution. I had found myself caught up in the medical and psychological approaches to my anxiety, and that connected directly with this question of whether the talking cure had any scientific validity in the knowledge we have about the brain.

My process then was a mixture of constant reading and research (including a trip to Holland to attend a neuro-psychoanalytic congress and interview the founder, Prof. Mark Solms), and then writing, writing, writing. The real struggle for me was structure. How would I bring these strands together and move the narrative forward? I had some astute readers, and some logical input from my non-writing husband, and eventually it came together.

Writing about motherhood has often been confined by social expectations and perceptions of women, but in recent years the genre has expanded and your book is a great example – where do you see the future of this kind of writing going?

Going back to what I said earlier about motherhood being connected to big themes, I think that the genre of writing in which the maternal experience is central is opening up to those connections; perhaps taking a leap of faith in a readership that will begin to recognise motherhood as a significant human experience bound up to the biggest experiences we can know: death, war, love, survival. Eula Biss’s On Immunity brings motherhood to life in connection to disease and the history of immunisation; Jessie Greengrass’s Sight engages deeply with the capacity to investigate our internal experience in the history of medicine; Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers: essays on love and cruelty brings maternal representations right up against social fear, politics and race.

And then we also have a move toward exploring the banal, the repetitive and the ordinary terrain of motherhood as important, as worth knowing about; acknowledgment that what goes on in the house, and in the mother’s mind, is as formative of human experience as what goes on in the boardroom, so to speak. Sarah Moss’s Night Waking is a great example. Lauren Elkin, in a great piece in the Paris Review, puts it well in saying the new books on motherhood are a ‘countercanon. They read against the literary canon with its lack of interest in the interior lives of mothers.’ And perhaps what they do is what academic Petra Bueskens writes about in her essay ‘From Containing to Creating’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers: they subvert the idea of mothers as containers (drawn from the psychoanalytic theory of people like Melanie Klein) and recognise mothers’ ‘material subjectivity’. The messiness, brokenness, interruption of the maternal experience becomes interesting material; material that offers exciting ideas for writing forms, like what we see in the writing of Jenny Offill or Sarah Manguso.

How has your work as an editor impacted your work as a writer, and vice versa? Did it affect the way you wrote the book, knowing how you might edit it yourself if it came across your desk?

I don’t think a writer can ever be their own editor: to be effective, an editor must take the role of the interested outsider. A deliberate misunderstander. But my knowledge of the ecology of publishing affected the approach I took, in that I am implicitly aware of how an acquiring editor thinks (which is not terribly different to how a discerning reader reads): I know that a book needs a point of difference or a serious level of expertise or an unpassable quality of writing. As for how my work as a writer has impacted my work as an editor, writing has sort of ebbed away at my editing energies. I can’t do the two at the same time; not substantive editing, anyway, where I need to think creatively about the structure and story of a work. So my main paid work these days is as a writer, teaching writing, or proofreading.

You’ve written both fiction and nonfiction – how do you approach these two very different kinds of writing? Do they require different skills or mindsets?

Fiction has a certain freedom, but also can be more daunting because I feel less sure that I am writing anything with meaning. Often the meaning of my fiction only comes to me after I have written and reworked it and I begin to understand the symbolism of what I have put down on paper. This comes in to my nonfiction writing too (this desire to be working at a level of narrative and meaning) but at the start I feel less like I am free-falling with nonfiction, because I have research to undertake or real-life events to hang on to. I am in the same mindset for both kinds of writing: trying to loosen my mind, to get down on paper a feeling I have about what I am saying. But I think with fiction a part of my mind is engaged with thinking ‘where can I take the reader now?’, while with nonfiction a part of my mind is thinking ‘how do I bring that material in meaningfully?’

Which women or non-binary writers do you think everyone should read?

I’ll limit it to three but could list thousands: 

Sarah Knott’s Mother: an unconventional history has recently been seminal for me. It has reminded me of the richness of interruption, of broken forms, of connections in research; it has reminded me of the incredible silence and absence around the maternal experience and some of the social history to why that is so; it has drilled into me the value of knowing the vast differences of experience between mothers culturally and historically; it has reminded me of the importance of specificity. 

Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was similarly transformative in its form and lyrical quality, and in the transformative boundary-breaking motherhood it offers. 

The poet Rita Dove, whose collection Mother Love re-imagines wryly and startlingly the mother-daughter relationship via a modernised version of the myth of Demeter and Persephone.