The myth of Heracles and Megara goes that Heracles killed their children and in some versions also Megara. When I was about 16 years old me and my schoolmates were translating these brutal stories, wondering whether there was nothing more peaceful or joyful for us to work with. I also found most of the mythology quite outdated.
Nowadays I feel enriched to have learned about Roman and Greek mythology and the themes of violent relationships turn out to be rather current and hence relevant. I also noticed how myths are all around us and not something from a faraway past.
On the 30th of November I had the honour to speak on a symposium about violence against women, organized by Shantie Singh, who I had met as a guest on my poetry festival Poetry at Sea, and Carrie Jansen in the Kunsthal in Rotterdam.
First speaker was Tessel ten Zweege, who read from her new book Femicide. I was immediately triggered by her questioning the meaning of this term as ‘murder of a woman because she is a woman’. She quoted South African feminist Diana Russells definition ‘motivated by the feeling to be entitled to or superior to women, or stemming from pleasure, from sadistic desires against women, or from the supposition to own women.’ I agree with Ten Zweege that Russelss definition does more justice to reality.
Systems therapist, Gerda de Groot, talked about what often precedes femicide: intimate terrorism. Pointing out the importance of another approach to domestic violence.
Quite often she meets women that report that when they expect terror because something has gone wrong, nothing happens while at times they feel quite safe because everything seems to be going well, all of a sudden outbreaks of terror occur. It is this unpredictability that enlarges feelings of unsafety and indicating invalid assumptions about dynamics, more about that later on.
She also states that ending a relationship with a perpetrator of intimate terror involves the risk of femicide and that when abusers don’t kill their victim they often choose other ways to keep on terrorising, like stalking or years of going to court.
Another interesting talk was from Jan Veldkamp who focused on why abusers behave the way they do. Using Martha Nussbaums theory about objectification of women, by, among others, trying to erase what women feel, think, want or do. However abusers also are very demanding in terms of attention, admiration, love and/or sex.
Listening to all of their contributions I was astounded by the discrepancy between the amount of knowledge and insight, and the way we deal with domestic violence in everyday life. Despite all this knowledge and wisdom we can’t seem to solve the problem of domestic abuse and prevent femicide in many cases. To me it is clear that this is because myths about domestic violence make it almost impossible to change this. In my contribution to the symposium I shared seven myths that seem pivotal to me.
First the biggest myth of all: ‘It’s not my problem’. Many people don’t know how to respond, thinking that as long as it’s not in their lives, it’s not their problem. With 1.2 million victims in The Netherlands of 16 years and older chances are real that one day someone you love falls victim to domestic abuse either already is, without you knowing because they are simply to scared to talk about it and tell you. Especially since it’s rather taboo and the abuser forbids them to tell anyone what’s going on.
The costs for society as a whole are high so let's stop ignoring it. It is your problem.
Second: the idea that women fall for violent men. Of course this is nonsense and it is a way to blame women for the abuse. Women fall for men because they are gentle, witty, fun or interesting in some other way. After a while some men turn out to be violent as well. As the numbers show us, domestic abuse is very widespread, chances are big that you fall in love with someone wonderful who, after a while, turns out to be an abuser.
Linked to this myth is the idea that domestic abuse only happens to certain women, in certain cultures, with certain backgrounds which is also not true. Like it or not, it can happen to anyone. After a first romantic period things turn dark but by that time it’s not easy to leave.
This is related to the third myth - notice how all myths are connected - that only physical violence is real violence. Very often women are asked whether 'he also hits them' or whether 'he hits the kids too'. While there is a lot more to physical violence than mere hitting, like strangling or sexual violence, this question also implies that all other sorts of violence are not that serious. An idea that many abusers are eager to exploit. Most of the time physical abuse doesn’t come without emotional, verbal or mental abuse. Moreover, many victims report that the non physical violence is what traumatised them most. Terror has many faces and it is important to be aware of all of them.
Closely related to this third myth is the fourth, being that domestic violence is not as bad as other types of violent. Being raped, abused or physically abused by someone who is supposed to love you, would be less serious than by a random stranger. If you think about it, it is quite the opposite. Being hurt by someone who should protect you creates the utmost unsafety. In addition, as you live in the same house and are at the mercy of someone for years, the violence is often structural and you lack a safe space.
This fable of domestic violence being a mild kind of violence is related to the myth that ‘dynamics’ in the relationship are responsible for the violence. In fact in many cases there is no dynamics at all and the abuser finds reason in literally anything to legitimise his abusive behaviour, no matter what the other person, wife or child, does. It’s a thin line to victim blaming and very harmful. It’s the Look-what-you-made-me-do-myth.
In fact it’s an illusion you can do anything or react in a certain way to stop intimate terrorism. Actually the only thing you can do, is leave.
If it weren’t for the sixth myth: you can always leave. Some people say that domestic abuse is an invisible prison. There are practical obstacles like many women being financially dependent from their abuser they can’t just go somewhere and women shelters are overcrowded. It will take a while before you have arranged things and as many friends and family know nothing they usually can’t help. Another and not so practical reason is that, being threatened for years in many ways, women are scared and the consequences are incalculable, like having to watch your children visit their father, the man who abused their mother (and quite often them as well) simply because as a father he has the right to see his kids, or endless procedures that you can hardly pay for. Last but not least: leaving increases the risk of femicide tremendously. There is a serious risk you won’t survive.
As a seventh myth we pretend that there are all kinds of institutions and social workers to help victims and that we have a legal system that will support them. It couldn’t be further from the truth. In many cases women get victim blamed, are doubted, being held responsible for the violence and the unsafety at home and last but not least endless confrontations with the abuser who is not amused that she left and things are out in the open. It’s not really clear what you can expect and caregivers find it important to stress they are ‘neutral’ or don’t do ‘fact finding’. It sounds reasonable but as professor of social psychology Roos Vonk once said: ‘being neutral in situations of aggression means standing with the abuser.’ And as most abusers deny or blame the victims, it's a though job if you don't do fact finding.
In addition legal procedures are extremely expensive and last for years, causing lots of stress and financial trouble. It’s just another form of the same terror, but now with everyone watching and fully legal.
Mediation and communication are often seen as a solution while in reality it’s simply impossible to communicate with an abuser while they have their own reality and see mediation as a way to continue their power over and intimidation of the victim. Mediation will do more harm than good.
That mediation can solve things clearly is another myth. For the ones still counting, this eighth myth indicates that it’s a myth too there are only seven myths when it comes to domestic abuse. Sadly, the number of myths is endless.
If we want to stop domestic abuse and femicide we have to get rid of these myths. Each of them needs to be replaced by a better story in order to solve this problem that effects all of us, men, women and children. Domestic abuse doesn’t stop itself, we have to do that and we have reason to. We do so by, as a start, talking about it and by truly listening to the victims who understand better than anyone else what needs to change, as Leslie Morgan Steiner says: ‘Abuse thrives only in silence.’