It’s a sparkling Saturday afternoon in Bella Vista, in Sydney’s Bible belt. The people who live here have faith and money: the streets are immaculate and the houses are huge. Outside one house, a pile of household items is all that blights the row of manicured lawns. As is typical in suburbs like this, there are signs of life, but nobody on the street.
Nobody except for a slight man in an oversized white singlet, leaning into a car. As I approach, he waves. “My son’s selling his car, so I’m taking off the most valuable part of it,” laughs Rob Sanasi, triumphantly waving an eTag above his head.
We walk into the house at the bottom of the drive to find a tall, elegant blonde woman and two twenty-somethings milling around the kitchen, joking and making plans for the weekend. This is the house Rob shares with his wife, Deb, and their two adult children.
Deb puts on the kettle and Rob brings out the biscuits, one of which has already been partially enjoyed. “Oh, nice,” he says apologetically. “Someone graciously put that one back there.”
Deb guffaws from behind the kitchen counter. “You don’t want to feel the guilt of taking a whole one!”
Rob shrugs, smiling. “Yeah, it’s the quirk in this family.”
As the kids wave their goodbyes, new biscuits are found and tea is poured. Then we sit down together at the kitchen table to talk about Rob and Deb’s history of domestic abuse.
Rob begins his story in 2006. It was a bad time: his business was failing, his family life was falling apart. “Deb and I were … well, when I say Deb and I were fighting, I was fighting more, but it looked like we were fighting. I remember driving along on the M2 and I was in a bad way. Actually, that day, I thought: this is probably going to be my last day.”
Rob, a devout Christian, thought about driving his car into a tree. Then he put on a recording of a church minister addressing a large auditorium. “And he just said something … It was, ‘Do you love your children?’ And I answered in the car, ‘Yeah, of course I do.’ And then he said, ‘Would you die for them?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I would.’ And he said, ‘Well, this is Australia, and you’ll probably never have to die for your children, but if you’re willing to die for them, why won’t you change for them?’ And when I heard that, I just thought, ‘Wow’.” At that moment, Rob says, he realised he had to seek counselling.
Deb shakes her head. “Can I interject? The reason that Rob went into counselling was I went into the workforce. The control had been very strong in our relationship, but actually neither of us really realised to what degree Rob was controlling me, until I did something that he couldn’t control. Within three weeks of me starting that job, Rob had a nervous breakdown. He lost 15 kilos, he was having anxiety and panic attacks, he became addicted to Xanax, he was suicidal. That’s what drove him into counselling. He was a mess.” Rob nods quietly.
During their first session, Rob says his counsellor asked him a series of questions. “Do you raise your voice, do you yell, do you throw things, do you call your wife names, do you swear, do you bash things – not her, but things – and it was kind of tick, tick, tick,” Rob remembers. “And then he went to a filing cabinet in his office, and pulled out an A4 piece of paper with a preprinted ‘Cycle of Violence’ on it, and he whacked that on the table and he said, ‘That’s what you do. This is what we call domestic violence.’
“So that was the first session. And he said, ‘Take that with you and discuss it with your wife.’ So I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s a very good idea, right?’”
Rob wasn’t physically violent, but he behaved like a typical perpetrator: he constantly criticised and bullied his wife, tried to stop her from working, made it hard for her to see family and friends, and kept total control over their bank accounts. The bullying and criticism wasn’t always overt; sometimes Rob would use humour to demean Deb. But it was always sending the same message: he was more important than her, and she was there to serve him. The only thing that wasn’t typical about Rob was that he had sought counselling without being forced.
At first, Rob kept the piece of paper to himself. “And then eventually I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just bring it out casually’, you know. But when I brought it out, things got a lot worse. Because then Deb realised what was going on. It’s kind of like the scales fell off our eyes – both of us.”
I ask Deb what it was like for her to see that piece of paper. “I remember actually what Rob said to me. He said, ‘What’s going on in our relationship is domestic violence, and the type of violence that I’m using on you is called emotional abuse, which means I don’t bash you with my fists, I bash you with my emotions, to keep you under control.’”
That shocked Deb. As she understood it, domestic violence was “the guy that goes down the pub on a Friday night and comes home and beats up his wife … it doesn’t happen in suburbs like where I’m from.” (As Deb has since discovered, she wasn’t the only anomaly in her suburb – or even her street. Later she told me that the items I’d seen on the lawn next door belonged to her neighbour, who had dumped them there before fleeing her violent husband.)
Now, after almost 10 years and much intense counselling, Rob and Deb are happily married, and both counsel domestic abuse victims and perpetrators: Deb in private practice, and Rob more informally, with abusive men who seek him out for advice.
Deb says one thing stands out about abusers: it’s as if they’ve studied some kind of domestic abuse handbook. “They all have the same tactics. So, for example, they may not come out and say, ‘I don’t want you seeing your friends, or having hobbies, or being around your parents,’ but they’ll just make it hard. Like, ‘What do you want to see them for? I don’t think they’re good for you.’ And eventually women go it’s just all too hard, because they don’t want the fight. So that’s how it starts over time … And then your world gets smaller. And then if the perpetrator becomes your main frame of reference, which is what happens, it’s very much like a cult. Because you’re essentially getting your main input from him.’”
“It’s like you go to abuse school,” Rob says. “They all do it.”
Speak to anyone who’s worked with survivors or perpetrators and they’ll tell you the same thing: domestic abuse almost always follows the same script. It’s a truly confounding phenomenon: how is it that men from vastly different cultures know to use the same basic techniques of oppression?
That’s something we’ve only recently begun to investigate. Domestic abuse may be as old as intimacy, but we only really started to understand it after the first women’s refuges opened in the 1970s. When women in their thousands fled to these makeshift shelters, they weren’t just complaining about black eyes and raging tempers. They told stories of unfathomable cruelty and violence, and what sounded like orchestrated campaigns of control. It became clear that, although each woman’s story was individual, the overarching narratives were uncannily alike. As one shelter worker said at the time, “It got so I could finish a woman’s story halfway through it. There was this absolutely eerie feeling that these guys were sitting together and deciding what to say and do.”
In the early 1980s, researchers noticed something else extraordinary: not only were the stories of victims uncannily alike, they also resembled the accounts of a seemingly unrelated group of survivors: returned prisoners of war. It may seem odd to start a book about domestic abuse with a story from the cold war. But this is where our modern understanding of domestic abuse really begins: in a small town on the border of North and South Korea.
A sophisticated new weapon called ‘brainwashing’
On 24 September 1953, the Korean war was officially over, and Operation Big Switch was underway. In the back of open-built Russian trucks, 23 American POWs were being driven to a prisoner exchange complex in the village of Panmunjom, on the North–South Korean border. The atmosphere at the complex had been electric with anger for months, as American prisoners returned from North Korean camps with shocking stories of cruelty. But on this day, as the trucks drew closer, American observers noticed that something about these prisoners was different. They looked tanned and healthy, and were dressed in padded blue Chinese uniforms, each pinned with Pablo Picasso’s dove of peace.
As the trucks screeched to a halt, the prisoners laughed and shook hands with their captors. “See you in Peiping, old man,” said one, as they climbed down off the trucks. Turning to the shocked crowd who had gathered to greet them, the POWs clenched their fists and shouted, “Tomorrow, the international Soviet unites the human race!” Then, instead of walking over to their countrymen, they turned the other way and defected to communist China.
These shocking defections were just the tip of the iceberg. In the North Korean camps, American POWs had cooperated with the enemy to an unprecedented extent. Not only did they inform on their fellow prisoners; hundreds of POWs gave false confessions to atrocities, and made radio broadcasts extolling the virtues of communism and condemning western capitalism. Never before had captured soldiers betrayed their country so flagrantly.
For America, this was the stuff of nightmares. What could have driven their men to align with this diabolical creed? Frantic newspaper reports described how the communists had bewitched the American POWs with a sophisticated new weapon called “brainwashing”: a method of mind control that could render a man’s brain a blank slate and implant new thoughts, memories and beliefs. This wasn’t a fringe conspiracy theory: it was the earnest belief of people in the highest positions of government, including the head of the CIA. By the mid-1950s, hysteria over brainwashing was at fever pitch.
Albert Biderman, a social scientist with the US Air Force, was not convinced. He thought “brainwashing” sounded like a lot of propaganda, and not much science. As paranoia peaked in Washington, the air force – similarly unpersuaded – despatched Biderman to uncover the real reason so many well-trained American airmen had cooperated with the communists.
The chart of coercion
After extensive interviews with returned POWs, Biderman’s suspicions were confirmed: their compliance was not won using an esoteric new technique; instead, the Chinese communists who ran the North Korean camps had used age-old methods of coercive control. These methods were based “primarily on simple, easily understandable ideas of how an individual’s physical and moral strength can be undermined”. There was nothing new about them, but nobody had ever seen them used in war before. That’s why the American soldiers were so unprepared to resist.
Biderman established that three primary elements were at the heart of coercive control: dependency, debility and dread. To achieve this effect, the captors used eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands. Biderman’s “Chart of Coercion” showed that acts of cruelty that appeared at first to be isolated were actually intricately connected. It was only when these acts were seen together that the full picture of coercive control became clear.
In Biderman’s chart, there was no category for physical abuse. Though it was frequently used, actual violence wasn’t “a necessary nor particularly effective method” to gain compliance, and the more skilled and experienced interrogators avoided it. They only needed to instil the fear of violence, which they did with “vague threats, and the implication that they were prepared to do drastic things”. The Chinese communists were not like the Germans or the Japanese – they didn’t want to just brutalise their prisoners or work them to death. They wanted to control their hearts and minds.
When Biderman released his findings, people were incredulous. Could people really be manipulated so easily? Was he sure there was not something he had failed to detect? But Biderman was adamant: “Probably no other aspect of Communism reveals more thoroughly its disrespect for truth and the individuals,” he wrote, “than its resort to these techniques.”
In the 1970s, when women began fleeing to newly opened shelters, they spoke about being isolated from friends and family, instructed on how to behave, degraded, manipulated, sexually violated and threatened with death. Physical violence was common, and could be sadistic in its extremes, but survivors insisted it was not the worst part of the abuse – and some were not physically abused at all. In her groundbreaking book Rape in Marriage, Diana Russell presented two lists side by side: Biderman’s Chart of Coercion, and the common techniques of domestic perpetrators. The lists were virtually identical. The only difference was that whereas captors in North Korea deployed the techniques tactically, husbands appeared to be replicating the system of coercive control unconsciously.
In 1973, Amnesty International included Biderman’s Chart of Coercion in its report on torture, declaring these techniques the universal tools of torture and coercion. As Harvard psychiatrist and trauma specialist Judith Herman would later write, “The [coercive] methods that enable one human being to enslave another are remarkably consistent.” In situations of domestic abuse, the effect of coercive control is the same: the perpetrator becomes “the most powerful person” in the victim’s life, and their psychology is “shaped by the [perpetrator’s] actions and beliefs”. Domestic perpetrators don’t need physical violence to maintain their power – they only have to make their victims believe they are capable of it. This threat is particularly effective, wrote Herman, when it is directed towards loved ones: “Battered women, for example, frequently report that their abuser has threatened to kill their children, their parents, or any friends who harbor them, should they attempt to escape.” This atmosphere of threat is enough to “convince the victim that the perpetrator is omnipotent, that resistance is futile, and that her life depends upon winning his indulgence through absolute compliance”.
Today, we know that that the techniques common to domestic abuse match those used by practically anyone who trades in captivity: kidnappers, hostage-takers, pimps, cult leaders. What this reveals is that there is nothing uniquely weak, helpless or masochistic about victims of domestic abuse. Faced with the universal methods of coercive control, their responses are no different from those of trained soldiers.
This is an edited extract from See What You Made Me Do, by Jess Hill, published by Black Inc.
Original Article from the Guardian alailable here: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jun/24/its-like-you-go-to-abuse-school-how-domestic-violence-always-follows-the-same-script