BIG READ: Murder is not ‘out there’ but often much closer to home
Narratives of violence are, in many ways, as important as the reality of it. They shape our understanding of the world we live in, where we do and don’t feel safe, where we do and don’t feel afraid.
Outside my parents’ occasional shouting matches, I had little understanding of the violence that happened between adults. I did not know anyone whose father regularly beat their mother (in retrospect there most certainly would have been instances of this in our school, and our suburb, but wherever it was, it was kept very quiet).
If I read about women being abused it would have been primarily through the lens of cases that involved child abuse. Perhaps I also didn’t understand it at the time because my earliest introduction to men who committed violence were men who were not interested in grown women.
As I grew older, I learnt about violence against women from television; also Hollywood movies, and from novels. I cannot recall that I read or noticed very much about violence against women in the news — at least, not violence that was committed by the women’s partners. Strange men, strangers, were strongly put forward as the candidates for all evils, despite me already knowing better in this regard.
My earliest understanding of abusive marriages or romantic partnerships was (and I admit this freely, in the interest of transparency and frankness) a movie that Julia Roberts starred in, in 1991, called Sleeping with the Enemy, in which she played a woman who had to fake her own death to escape an abusive and controlling husband.
Having learnt substantially more about domestic violence, I recognise that the plot is perhaps less far-fetched than I might have imagined at the time. Several years later I got my first journalism job as an editorial assistant at Marie Claire magazine, which is where, in the stories we published, in the interviews I conducted, in the pages I wrote and read, I gained more insight into the violence women experienced at the hands of men.
(I don’t think we often enough acknowledge the important role that women’s magazines played in writing about and drawing attention to the issue during the 1980s and 90s; this was mostly done in a serious and thorough manner, despite women’s mags frequently being brushed off as lightweight.)
The older I got the more distant child abuse became (this would change when I became a parent and had my own children to worry about), and the more relevant other kinds of problems became. I had a boyfriend who, after I broke up with him, would drive past my house in the middle of the night, and who once smashed my phone and damaged my car. I didn’t think of this as abusive; it was just jealousy and a bad temper. I knew a couple more women who had had similarly “jealous” boyfriends at one point or another. We would joke about it, be openly relieved that we had left, and that they had gone from our lives (except for when they reappeared out of the blue). But we only really spoke about it after it was over.
Sometimes we would hear about cases far worse than our own, but mostly they were removed by enough degrees to keep us feeling secure in our bubble of lucky-escape/it-wasn’t that-bad-really. The normalisation of so much of this was what I think surprised some people during the recent waves of the#MeToo protests — that it was so common, so everyday, almost to the point of being unremarkable except when we paused for a moment to think about how absurd it really was. It amazed me how little most men knew of these kinds of things, and how much almost every woman knew.
Slowly left behind
In writing Domestic Terror, I realised that there was some part of me that somehow imagined at least some part of this “forever” story of violence against women had changed over time, that at the very least its invisibility, its social acceptability, its inevitability had been slowly left behind, with other vestigial violence such as apartheid and the old SA flag.
Statistically I knew this wasn’t the case (because I had been writing about femicide since at least 2013), but narratively there was a part of me that said, surely this must be a little different now? We have all these remarkable laws in place, and we actually have words for the things that happen; we can describe gender-based violence. We don’t let men behave this way any more. We believe women now. Don’t we?
I was sitting having breakfast with Glynnis Breytenbach, a former state prosecutor who is now a MP (I had the great fortune to work with her on her book, Rule of Law), when our conversation turned to a court matter involving a woman who had allegedly killed her abusive partner and who was facing a charge of murder. (This is not one of the cases in this book, and was still being prepared for court at the time.)
We talked about domestic abuse and intimate partner killings in general, and Breytenbach shared a phrase from SA law reports that I had never heard before, but which captured my attention: it was the notion of “murder by instalment”. In a legal context it represented a specific set of ideas about the rights of abused women to defend themselves even when they were not literally being attacked at that moment — that is that expecting an abused woman to wait for a deadly assault before she could legally defend herself was tantamount to sentencing her to murder in instalments.
The concept had an unpleasant resonance with a slightly different case I had been contacted about a year or two before, in which a woman had been killed by a partner who everybody knew was abusive, and who had been beating her for years, and in which the woman was last seen alive by friends while her partner was beating her and nobody had intervened. She had died from this kind of murder, these thousand blows delivered over time, the final one being the killing blow — but really it could have been one of so many blows before then.
I also knew what these “instalments” looked like on the bodies of women, because colleagues of mine at the forensic medicine and pathology department of the University of the Witwatersrand had written about a case of deadly domestic violence, analysing what felt like an entire library of cruelty etched onto a dead woman’s bones. These latter two cases are included in this book.
When I started to research the topic in more detail, I went back to the important work that was done in the early 2000s under the Justice for Women project (spearheaded by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation), and the major court cases that followed on from the project’s work (S v Ferreira and S v Engelbrecht), and which changed or set new legal precedents for women who killed their abusers.
I also went back through news archives, to see what I could discover about previous cases that had similar features — in which women had killed violent partners (several of these are discussed in this book).
While I was searching past and present court reports and news reports, it appeared that there had been a positive shift in the judiciary regarding dealing with and understanding the causes, effects and outcomes of violence against women, in line with the changes made to SA laws after 1994. Though this also may have been more extensive on paper than in the real world.
As one legal expert (who shall remain anonymous) sarcastically commented to me about the appeal hearing of murderer Oscar Pistorius: “I’ve never seen so many judges who love abused women and murdered women. In the judiciary, nobody ever voted for the National Party and nobody has ever been sexist.”
What also became clear through this search and exploration — and this was the part that challenged my imagined narrative — was that while the courts had perhaps become more progressive and more considerate (overall, not that there aren’t exceptions) of women who killed their abusers, there seemed to be no similar interruption to the continued killing of women by these same types of men.
Worse, was that when I started to document some more recent intimate partner killings, it became apparent that many of them continued to involve substantial and sustained abuse (physical, emotional, financial) before the women’s murders, and that in many cases the women had been killed by their partners while there was a domestic violence protection order in place.
Why were women still being murdered “in instalments”? Based on our current crime figures more than three women, on average, are murdered by their intimate partners every single day in SA. This figure is dwarfed by the number of men who are killed — but these deaths are not usually caused by the person sleeping next to them, sharing a bed, a house, a life, children.
In domestic violence, the fatal act is also usually not the first time that violence has been used against a partner; it is just the last. And what that speaks to is an unimaginable period before then when the violence builds, accumulates. When the perpetrator deliberately creates fear and terror in his victim.
This is what this book explores — not necessarily to offer easy answers or solutions, but to demonstrate, in disturbing terms, what domestic terror looks like in SA, then and now, and to show that it is still very much a part of now, despite supposedly living in a progressive, democratic society in which women have equal rights.
It is, I should say, an unpleasant book. Halfway through writing, I nearly decided that I could not finish it. The content was too depressing, the terror far too real and too close to home, literally. Often the nexus of my own distress would, again, be linked to the children who were caught up in these cases: how must Vicki Terblanche’s son feel, knowing that his mother died on his bed that her body was rolled up in his own duvet?
I imagined the cold fear that would have crept into the chest and limbs of Nazreen Fakier’s children when they saw their mother covered in blood and had to go and ask a neighbour for help, saying that they thought their mother was not feeling well. I read case after case in which women, and children, had asked for help, and had not received it.
Violence against women is often referred to as a disease. In part this is because it is a huge public health problem — it causes uncountable loss of life, injury, and a loss of productivity, it consumes vast quantities of health and other social support resources.
People like to think of violence as a pathogen, even though it doesn’t technically behave like one. We want to think of it as a problem that can be treated or prevented in the same way as boiling water sterilises dirty things, or vaccines teach our body how to manufacture immunity without literally being in a state of mortal peril. But this creates the mistaken belief that violence is something that comes from outside us, which is foreign. And we need to start acknowledging that this violence is in our own homes.
Brodie is a veteran journalist and best-selling author of six books. She holds a PhD in journalism from the University of the Witwatersrand, and specialises in the research of violent crime and femicide in SA.
• “Domestic Terror: Intimate Partner Violence in SA” is published by NB Publishers.
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