How do you become an agony aunt? Do you have to take a test? Should certain texts be required reading, when it comes to advising strangers on some of the most painful things in their life?
My answer to that last question would be a firm “Yes”, after reading Mariella Frostrup’s Dear Mariella column in Sunday’s Observer magazine. Because, while a “pull your socks up love and get on with it” approach might be a suitable response to heartbreak or family feuds, that same response to a woman who has experienced domestic violence and abuse is nothing short of wildly irresponsible.
This week’s “dilemma” involved a woman who, as she writes, “dated my sister’s husband’s best friend 12 years ago. At the end of the relationship he became physically, verbally and emotionally abusive”. Lo and behold, 12 years on, this man is still making her life difficult and she’s being blamed for the antagonism by her sister and brother-in-law.
Frostrup concedes “What a creep” and momentarily recognises what might be happening in terms with her ex’s relationship with her sister and brother-in-law. “It's one of the reasons so many serial abusers get away with their dysfunctional deeds,” she writes, “because they are able to cover up their real characters with a tsunami of charm.”
Does Frostrup know, I wonder, that it takes the average woman 35 experiences of violence before she calls the police?
However, what follows is a serious gear change and the focus dramatically shifts from the violent ex to the victim. If people really do spit out their tea in shock, like they do on TV, here’s that moment.
“But the word abuse is a loaded one today,” Frostrup continues. “So I have to ask you to be honest with yourself and decide whether we are talking about real abuse here, or a short-lived aberration a very long time ago?” (Is beating your girlfriend ever definable as “a short-lived aberration”?) From this point on, Frostrup does everything she can to undermine this woman’s concern that her abusive ex is still in her life. She tells her to move on “emotionally as well as literally” and that the two of them are “in a tussle for social supremacy”. She should stop making “this ex a topic of conversation”. According to Frostrup, “you had a bad affair and if the only punishment he deserves is banishment from your sister and brother-in-laws’ lives, then I have to conclude he’s not a monster”. Finally, she advises: “Simply stop allowing him to aggravate you.”
Frostrup's response is the epitome of what survivors continually battle against when trying to flee a partner or seek justice. It points neatly to how society responds to their plight. The accusations are always doubted or reduced to a “bad affair”. Yet I’m pretty sure if a man was repeatedly violent and verbally abusive to another man, a stranger in the street, we wouldn’t call it a bad affair and tell him to talk about something else for a change. “If his behaviour was serious,” Frostrup continues, go to the law. But does Frostrup know, I wonder, that it takes the average woman 35 experiences of violence before she calls the police or that, in family courts, abusers can cross-examine their former partners or that a record number of cases aren’t making it to the CPS? Yet according to Frostrup, if she hasn’t gone to the police, then it’s not serious and, therefore, “he’s not a monster”. It’s the same old refrain with women who are raped: if it was serious, why didn’t you tell anyone at the time?
There also seems to be a total lack of understanding of how domestic violence works; how it is an exercise in control and power. Any methods are used to control a victim – violence, fear, belittlement, manipulation. Twelve years later, this man is still controlling her. Punishment, I would venture a guess, for leaving him. And it is working: he controls social situations by refusing to allow her to come; he is trying to isolate her from her family (which seems to be working). These are classic, textbook moves. The abuse is still happening. Yet to Frostrup the answer is easy: “Simply stop allowing him to aggravate you.” The problem, says Frostrup, is with you. And this is the most dangerous message of all: you are culpable in your own abuse.
When it comes to violence against women, in any capacity, it’s always up for debate. Just like the producers who wanted to debate the #MeToo movement on political shows, as if there’s another side to the crime – “two sides to every single story”, as Frostrup puts it. Women are drunk or wearing short skirts or provoking a man for leaving him. There's no debate around knife crime or homicide or fraud. Yet with women, there’s always a hesitation, a slight disbelief, a suggestion that the woman has done something to attract and deserve the behaviour – if the behaviour even exists as she says it does. People are always asking: “But is this real abuse?”
It takes mountains of strength to walk away from abuse. My heart breaks for the woman who wrote the letter and every woman reading that column who might have been gathering the courage, climbing that mountain, and suddenly a nice-looking middle-class woman told them to think again – to doubt themselves, to get over it, to change the record. To those women, I say: this is abuse and be very careful who you listen to.