FWF Q&A: Jess Hill

Jess Hill is the author of See What You Made Me Do

What does feminism mean to you?

To me, feminism is about sustainability. It’s not just about gaining equality in a patriarchal world – it’s about exposing the patriarchy as a destructive and ridiculous system, not just for women and men, but for the entire planet. It’s about overhauling that system -– which is all about power-over and control – to a system of power-with that centres compassion, responsiveness and harmony.

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?

I can’t point to a particular moment – it’s been a cumulative effect. But even before I understood what feminism was, I was driven to change the way the media addresses and exploits women. I was 15 when I first started working on an intelligent alternative to women’s magazines, and went so close to making it a reality. I didn’t even know that what I was doing was ‘feminism’ back then – the discussion just wasn’t live in the surfing culture I grew up in (surprise, surprise!).  

Your book shifts the focus to perpetrators – why did you choose this approach?

I was sick of seeing victims foregrounded in the crimes committed against them: ‘A woman was raped, and she was murdered.’ Who was doing the raping and the murdering? Why were they so often invisible? And when we did make them visible, why were we so content with pat explanations for why they did it?

As I read research from across the world and spoke to countless women and men, I wasn’t satisfied with the stock-standard answer for men’s abuse: he does it for power and control, he does it because he can. Why were these men – many of whom were not monsters – behaving so monstrously? Why did men who showed no other symptoms of mental illness or psychosis act psychotically in their relationships, and with their children? It’s like with all our focus on the victim and her choices, we’d forgotten to really ask: but why does he do it? Why does this man – who appears to despise this woman so much, who degrades her, threatens her, and violates her – refuse to let her leave? That was a question that really did my head in. 

How did you find the women you wrote about in your book, and how did you approach the telling of their stories – and ensuring their safety?

Unfortunately there is no shortage of women who’ve been through domestic abuse, so finding people to tell their stories was not difficult. I was also helped by women like Sherele Moody, the journalist who runs the Red Heart Campaign, who assisted me in finding women from various backgrounds. But I already had so many women contacting me with their stories, particularly women who’d been through the family law system, because I’d spent a year reporting on domestic abuse before I started writing the book.

To tell their stories, I would spend many hours on the phone with them, or in person, and let them lead the conversation. Many of the women in the book I came to know over the years I spent writing it, and their safety was something I always kept tabs on. One woman had to pull her story at the last minute because she had received security threats so grave she couldn’t have her story appear in public. That was years after she had escaped her abuser. So we pulled the story – no ifs, no buts. I also sent the final draft to each person I interviewed – they had final say over what did or didn’t go in. It was important to me that we tell these stories together – they are not my stories, they are theirs. I am just the messenger. 

How did you practise self-care during the writing of your book, having to navigate such difficult, traumatic topics?

Does having a baby count? No, seriously, self-care was a bit of a controversial topic during the writing process. Why family kept begging me to take better care of myself, but in a strange, subconscious way, I felt that in order to really excavate this heart of darkness I was exploring, I had to deny myself any privileges or pleasures. My self-care was to write in a cafe, and get coffee brought to me. That was my treat, and the thing that stopped me from becoming entirely isolated. Having a baby is not a recommended form of self-care, especially when you’re on a deadline, but in a way, my daughter was the best kind of self-care I could get, because it wasn’t about caring for me – I had to reconnect to my heart to care for her. I had to step out of the underground every time she woke up and needed me to be there for her. I really believe the sunshine she brought into our lives prevented me from going down a deep hole that might have proved hard to climb out of, even once the book was finished. 

What do you think is missing from the conversation around domestic violence, and what steps are necessary to take next?

Hoo boy, so much! I think we need to understand that at the core of domestic abuse is humiliation – that physical violence is just a tool of control and humiliation, it’s not the main event. We need to understand that in situations of coercive control, the system of abuse is replicated time and time again – it’s recognisable, but we need to be asking the right questions (and when I say we, I mean all of us: friends, family, doctors, police, lawyers, judges). I think we need to stop talking about perpetrators as two-dimensional monsters, and start recognising that they have inner worlds, and that they are capable of acting rationally, given the right deterrents/assistance. I think we need to look to the evidence around the world – and right here – of what works to stop the violence now, not in 20 years. We need to believe that perpetrators can, and should, be stopped. First and foremost for the sake of their victims, but also for their own sakes. 

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

I’m a huge fan of Charlotte Wood – her book, The Natural Way of Things, framed reality for me in a shocking and unforgettable way. I love Melissa Lucashenko – I cite her writing throughout the book, and am set alight by her brave, hilarious, no-bullshit approach. And Rebecca Solnit – what a mind. She really gets it.

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