Jess Hill is an investigative journalist, and she has been writing about domestic abuse since 2014. See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse (2019) is the culmination of that work and represents a new way of thinking about and acting on domestic abuse in Australia. It is also an example of exceptional research and the power of storytelling in non-fiction.
Jess's reporting has received two Walkley awards, an Amnesty International award and three Our Watch awards. She is also a former Middle East correspondent and producer for ABC Radio.
ASTRID: Jess Hill is an investigative journalist who has been writing about domestic violence and abuse since 2014. Her reporting has earned her two Walkley Awards, an Amnesty International Award and three Our Watch awards. She was previously a Middle East correspondent and a producer for ABC Radio. See What You Made Me Do: Power, control and domestic abuse is a culmination of her work to date. Tell me about the title ‘See what you made me do.’
JESS: So, the title I actually I really agonized over it for a long time and nothing would come up. You know the working title for the book was ‘power and control’ like bleh. But it was the only thing that came to me sort of when I was first pitching it. So a number of ideas had come to me since but they all felt wrong. So I put it out to my group of Facebook friends and I just asked for help. And there was an incredibly long thread of really excellent insights. I mean some were better than others I've got to say. I think because domestic abuse, domestic violence conjures up so many clichéd images and ideas, unfortunately it's very hard to just get in behind all of that and get something that's going to get to the real, visceral nature of it or that's going to make people go whoa, okay. And one of my friends Nikki Stevens, who's a documentary editor, she just posted a titled Look what You Made Me Do and immediately all these people were like ‘oh my god! Yes oh yes! That's exactly what was said to me,’ you know. So much conversation came off that title. Another title that was suggested was In Plain Sight and I liked that there was another one, that had a lot of a lot of support too but we kept on coming back to Look What You Made Me Do. And this one over a period of many days was like my own little focus group and then somebody pointed out to me that this was a title of Taylor Swift song and I was like I had no idea. I am too old and too unhip and so we were sort of talking about, well does it matter? And someone said well Taylor Swift is quite litigious. So for a while we thought we're going to have to shelve this and come up with something else. But I'd already suggested it to the publisher and they are very keen and they wouldn't let it go. And then some genius at Black Ink just went, ‘we'll just call it See What You Made Me Do instead.’ There was also another book on a woman's individual experience of domestic abuse which was called Look What She Made Me Do, so we thought look you know let's just change the title, See What You Made Me Do. It's basically the same idea.
And interestingly when we did actually sort of finalize it, the publisher Chris Feik who is the amazing publisher at Viking, he said to me, ‘do you think it's right to put the perpetrator's words on the cover?’ And I said, ‘yeah absolutely it's right. In fact I think it's really the only appropriate thing to do because it's actually the perpetrator that we want to foreground.’ And it really… I think what I really resonate with title, because I decided to as the first chapter in the book, really focus on the behaviour of men who use abuse and violence, rather than put the victims’ stories right up front. I mean it starts with the story of a husband and a wife. So the experience of the victim is upfront but that's not the focus. The focus is what does it look like and how does it feel. And that to me, when I did that… I swap the chapters around because I originally had the victim upfront and that felt like a political act. It was like an act of resistance against the dominant narrative of always foregrounding the victim. So I feel like when I go out with the book now, and say the title it almost always generates a response from someone; be it that they personally had been told that by someone who used violence against them or that they just can tell that this is like at the heart of the abuse, that victim blaming, that pushing the responsibility on the other person. So yeah, I think it's worked really well for us.
ASTRID: Language matters and before we go into how you have really foregrounded the actions of the perpetrators, which is what is the main difference I think in your work pattern, the exceptional and forensic style research that you've used to put it together.
On the cover and you also use throughout the book, you use ‘domestic abuse’ instead of ‘domestic violence.’ Can you explain the terminology and why that's important?
JESS: Yeah, so that was a decision that was made very late in the piece when there was already quite a long manuscript that had used domestic violence as a terminology and I was, I will confess, walking down the street pushing a pram and reading my phone at the same time—terrible, don't ever do that. So I was reading an op-ed in women's agenda that was written by Yasmin Khan who's a head of Eidfest Community Services in Brisbane, and she'd just come back from a world tour looking at solutions—possible solutions—to domestic violence. And she had met with police in the UK who had changed the term to domestic abuse, and it made total sense to her because in her services, especially a lot of women from the subcontinent, particularly Muslim women who in their relationships wouldn't necessarily experience particularly extreme physical abuse; it would be a cup of tea in the face, it might be a slap but it wasn't even something that necessarily registered with them. But the worst part of what they experienced was the total restriction of autonomy and the degrading abuse, the humiliation and control. So these women would come into the service or would be approached by the service, and they would say, ‘well it wasn't really domestic violence because he never hit me.’ And Yasmin just realised that this language needs to change because we're not capturing what happens to women in these scenarios. We're not capturing the most important part, which for a lot of women is actually the humiliation, and the degradation and the ongoing psychological violence, even where the physical violence is present and may even be sadistic in its extremes. It's not necessarily the part that is the most difficult to overcome, like when the relationship ends or when conditions change.
So for me I just decided, as I was walking down that street, I had this moment where I'm like I've got to make a decision real quick because we’re like going to print in a few weeks and something about this… there's two schools of thought: one is that to make it domestic abuse is it making it sound even more benign than domestic violence? Domestic violence already doesn't capture really the seriousness of what goes on. But on the other hand, I want this to speak to all those women who would say to me at panels, events or who would contact me saying, ‘how are you going to explain that the physical violence is not necessarily the worst of it?’ And I never had a good enough answer as I was like, ‘well this is this is the answer.’ So, you know we don't call it child violence we call it child abuse and that's because we include things like neglect. We shouldn't, I think, call it domestic violence but domestic abuse because fundamentally the array of behaviours especially in coercive control may not include physical violence at all, but the believable threat of violence. So for me it was fundamental and I don't regret it.
ASTRID: You also explain the argument against using just the word ‘violence.’ Can you… as we kind of set this up in terms of how you're really seeking to argue against a stereotype and how we as a society deal with this type of horror?
JESS: Yeah, so I think you know in the public mind and I won't say all of the public but let's just say the people who are paying somewhat some attention, there's an understanding that there's more to domestic abuse than physical violence. So they might understand that there's psychological abuse or there might be sexual violence but there might be all sorts of other things like stalking et cetera. However, we do still centre physical violence as like the pointy end of this arm, and that's partly because of the way our criminal justice system is set up as an incident based system where there are criminalized incidents that occur within domestic abuse but actually domestic abuse itself is not a crime. When people would say like, ‘well we should just refer to domestic violence for what it is, it's assault or it's violence.’ For me actually what domestic abuse is is quite different. It's actually an assault on the person's sense of self-worth. And at the heart I think lot of this abuse is humiliation and degradation. That's actually, I think, the locust point around which a lot of these sort of techniques, behaviours, tactics, however consciously the abuser is using them or unconsciously, that actually the physical violence is just a way of keeping the system in place. Or if it's like… I mean in cases where maybe it's instigated by alcohol or there's situational violence and the hit or the shove or whatever has come as a reaction to… that's different, not talking about that so much. But where there's a system of control and domination in place, that we call coercive control; really at the heart of that is humiliation.
The fact is that actually what is happening in these relationships, is that love and intimacy and sharing and exposing oneself as one does when one meets someone one wants to be intimate with, that is actually what is used and utilized and becomes part of a blueprint for the perpetrator's abuse. So I think that domestic abuse is actually unlike any other crime. It's not like an assault on the street. It's not even like a rape on the street. You know there's nothing that matches up to being in a situation with someone, in a reasonably captive situation with someone, who you think you know better than anybody else. Who you love who is systematically undermining you. That's a crime that we don't yet have a crime for.
And I think that while I understand people wanting to use more pointy words, things like intimate terrorism, more these sorts of things, I understand them wanting to use these words, but I even still think that those terms don't get to the heart of it. I don't think we have a good word for it to be honest.
ASTRID: This is not a book that sets out to raise awareness. You go well beyond that. Explicit throughout the work is the idea that we as a society and we as individuals shouldn't be asking the question, ‘why didn't she leave?’ We should be asking, ‘why did he do it? why did he do it again?’ As a writer and a researcher, and you conducted so many interviews how did you essentially focus your argument in that way? To the best of my knowledge no other writer has produced a work of this length focused in that direction.
JESS: Yeah, so I guess what's unusual or different about this book compared to maybe other books like ‘why does he do that?’ Or you know there are other books particularly aimed at people who've experienced this, so this is obviously towards a general audience.
I think what's different is that, I've really decided after, and may I say, it was not the first inclination I had to grapple with the humanity of the abuser. They really did not feel like doing that. I've actually felt like telling them all to jump off a cliff for a long time, especially for the first year of writing the book. I was very angry, getting angrier by the day especially as I started to really educate myself on… and really went back to basics—a history of patriarchy, like back to the primordial ooze… like how did this all start occurring? And the more that I learnt about that, the more I related it to my own life certain things that I'd experienced, then of course #MeToo happened and everyone's angry.
So, I actually started it being very angry and feeling that I had a certain loyalty to the women and children that I was writing about primarily, and that to look at the humanity of the abuser would be to portray that. It would be to portray the sector and I felt very nervous about it, but you know my partner is a psychotherapist, not that he was psyching me, [laughs] but maybe he was, I don't know. But we talked incessantly about this and he really brought me across to really acknowledging that not only do we need to have a better sense of who these men are, and that they are human beings like the rest of us with their own needs, desires, vulnerabilities and pain, but that actually there's no point in writing a book that just speaks to women. And that just speaks to women's experience because actually we've got quite a lot on that. And to be honest trying to grapple with women's choices, women's behaviour, and the way that women are affected that didn't take very long. That was like a few months. And I learnt lots and it was very interesting and I think that the chapters that deal with that in the book are quite revealing but it's not as confounding to me as it is to grapple with the idea of a man who's not psychopathic, who's not sociopathic, who acts in ways in his life that are otherwise completely normal, but who is either incredibly controlling in his relationship or even sadistic in his violence and seemingly psychotic.
So, what I was grappling with is, that idea, that real idea of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—how do you get that when there's not maybe mental disorder present? So to, I guess, to really unpack that, I felt like I did have to go more to overseas research. That’s not to say that research on that doesn't exist here, but actually the research on perpetrators is pretty limited compared to the research on victims. There's a good reason for that, perpetrators don't often offer themselves up to be studied. Judith Herman talks about that in her book on trauma and recovery. And she doesn't really actually address perpetrators from that… from their internal view at all for that reason. So you know the perpetrators or the men who view violence or control that I've talked to in the book, I mean they're not the coercive controllers, they're men who have used their violence in situations, who may have used controlling violence but didn't actually sort of orchestrate a system of control. They're men who have a chance of getting that amount of self insight necessary to actually have something interesting to say about their motivations rather than just covering it up and denying it.
And so by connecting with those guys and understanding a bit about how not to social conditioning but how their own individual conditioning sort of like contributed. And just getting a sense of where they sit with it and who they are and hearing them and just being in contact with them, it just took the monster mask off for me and enabled me to sort of like go down a track where I could better grapple with these people as human and really afford them the same humane respect and compassion that I would afford victims. Which is to say not that, I understand why you use violence, you poor thing you are conditioned by patriarchy or you had a terrible childhood but to say that inside you is a soul that wants what every human wants: it wants love, it wants connection unvarnished and undamaged by society and upbringing or whatever it is. That's what it originally wanted. So what happened to that? You know because we can't just shove all these guys in a prison cell or push them off a cliff, that's not going to work. And actually we have to believe that it's possible to speak back to that inner humanity and find something on the other side that is not violent.
ASTRID: We can't stop it if we can't understand it.
I can think of a variety of ways that you will receive or may have received pushback for this work just in terms of this exploration of trying to find the humanity in these men not the coercive controllers, but men who have perpetrated domestic abuse, what responses have you been getting from individuals, institutions, the police?
JESS: Overall I would say it's been phenomenally positive. You know the number of conversations that have been opened up and I have been talking to police, to judiciary, to the sector. Just by looking at for example, looking at the issue of shame and its attachment to rage and control, humiliated fury, by looking at the ways in which patriarchy institutes a conditioning of boys across the board and shuts down and dead ends, sometimes, dead ends their compassion to the point where they are closed hearted and have to create quite an unnatural identity disconnected from the naturalness that they had as little boys.
It's actually just opened up incredible conversations too as to how it might be that we reach these people if this is what's going on internally. Not to mention everything else that might go on for an individual man. Instead of just coming at it from this quiet, sort of two dimensional view of he does it for power and control, or he does it because he can or all of that sort of an ideological approach where like men are just seen as products of culture, like they're imprinted by porn and they're imprinted by you know beliefs about gender inequality, but by actually going back to the subjectivity of these guys and what happens in their inner worlds, it's opened up so much possibility and you know I've really made it clear in all of my discussions around this, that at no point do you recognize the inner woundedness of men and lose sight of the accountability lens.
So, Carol Gilligan—I bring up this quite a lot—it was actually just in a book review that she wrote and it's so right. And it's that you know the 1970s saw the women's movement push for the accountability of violent men. The 1990s saw the mythic poetic men's movement recognize the inner woundedness in men and tell them all to go off into the forest and how like wolves and you know engage with their inner warrior and all this sort of thing. Neither of them have worked alone. And what I think and what Carol Gilligan says is that you need both approaches simultaneously in order to really get to the truth of this experience.
Now I was worried that it might be seen as trying to let men off the hook or that I'm sort of tiptoeing around guys, treating them like poor petals et cetera et cetera. But I really did go to a lot of trouble in the book to make sure that that was not the case, that that was not the impression left. And thus far, whether it's that they haven't engaged with it but I have not seen it exploited or taken advantage of by people who would use it for their own ends; I'm thinking of Mark Latham's or men's rights groups saying that like, I have proved that you know men are victims too. So there's probably only been a couple… like there was a review in The Age, actually by my friend Jenna Price, who said that she was afraid that the chapters on men's abuse would lead to men being excused—I’m badly paraphrasing this—but basically lead to it men being let off the hook and excused, rather than starting a longer conversation. That was really disappointing to me because that review came only a couple of weeks ago, which is a couple of months after the book was launched and that hasn't happened and I've seen no evidence of that. And I worked extremely hard and have worked extremely hard in the publicity of the book to make sure that that does not come across like that.
But generally speaking what's been amazing is that there's been an openness from the sector but also openness from men reading it. Like where men who've used violence in the past or men who've just you know been married a number of times because they can't quite get the intimacy thing. You know they've come to me and said that the writing on patriarchy, the writing on shame spoke to them in a way that they have never heard before. And for some of these men it started them on a process of reassessing their relationships with their families, entering into counselling process, like it validated an experience for them but also revealed to them how what they just thought was their responses and their needs was actually causing harm especially to their children and to themselves and to their partners. It's been phenomenal hearing that response. And that's what this book had to do. It had to speak to men and to women and hopefully also to children, you know, who with the guidance can engage with the chapter on their experience which, you know, is based on the interviews I did with children.
ASTRID: I do want to talk to you about the interviews that you did including with children and I am fascinated about how children could read sections of this book. But I guess before we go there, you just revealed that you know you did consider there might be that men's rights activists would essentially take your words and twist them in public. Was there anything else that you kind of braced yourself for before publication? Anything that you're particularly concerned about?
JESS: So, a number of things. One in particular—so I was very concerned about putting the sector offside given that I was questioning or challenging some common wisdom, some old approaches. But I think by making it very clear in the book just how much respect I have for the sector and how much respect I have for the people who've worked for decades in it, hopefully that sort of overwhelmed any of those types of reactionary responses and so far so good. But that I was incredibly nervous about that for months and months; not because of a reputational issue but because I love a lot of the people who work in this sector and I would hate for them to think that I was doing anything to undermine their work.
The other response that I was very concerned about was safety for the people who I'd interviewed particularly… not just the people who I'd named but where there was clear to anyone who had read the book would know that that was this person's story. So the only way I could get around that was really to work very collaboratively with the people I interviewed. To go back to them and say this is the story that I've written based on the interviews that we conducted and we did talk for a long time. Most of the interviews were very long and some two or three times—and what do you think of this? Is there anything that endangers you? Is there anything that you feel is not true to your experience? So we actually collaborated because the last thing I wanted to do was to replicate the power dynamic by which I come in, take their story and do what I want with it. But that makes them feel like they're subjected to something that they don't have any power over. So I did not want to replicate the power dynamic of their abusive relationships, and some of them have had terrible experiences with journalists. So everything that went in there was 100% ticked off and approved by the people I interviewed. These weren't accountability interviews. They were interviews of people whose stories are theirs. They're not mine. I'm just communicating them. So I saw no ethical problems in doing that. I didn't go back to authorities who I'm doing an accountability interview, neither would any journalist you know that's not our obligation. And there's no way to be 100% sure because the victims themselves or the victim survivor can't be 100% sure that their best efforts to protect themselves will work. So that's always a concern and it remains in the back of my head as a concern. One person did have to pull out just before publication. And I write a dedication to her at the start of the chapter on First Nations.
She had been out of a relationship for seven years. It was one of their most incredibly violent, controlling relationships I've ever heard of. Her way of making herself and her child safe was like… should be a movie. I mean just her stories. It's just incredible. And it was such a shame to lose it because her strength was exactly what I wanted to really open that First Nations chapter up with to show the incredible resilience of a lot of these indigenous women. But you know she got threats and it was clear that by putting her story in, that was a risk. So very, very soon, before we pressed print I just took it out. There was no questions. And so that's really if anyone had come back to me and said that then being included in this book was negative for , had caused them stress then I would say the book was a fail but I haven't had that.
ASTRID: I'm so glad you haven't had that. You have spoken about how you collaborated with those you interviewed, particularly those who had experienced domestic abuse but going into those interviews, so before you'd done them, how did you prepare? And I also want to talk about the ethics of journalism—you mentioned that several people who you interviewed have had poor experiences with journalists in the past. And as I was reading your book when I was kind of overwhelmed and deliberately trying to think about something else because your book can be overwhelming, often found myself thinking actually of the middle of Leigh Sales’ book Any Ordinary Day, where she questions interviews that she has done with survivors of mental disasters and the fact that she probably traumatized them by interviewing at that point. Now that was me compartmentalizing and trying to think of other things but I'm still fascinated. So, when you go into these interviews how do you prepare and look after both yourself and the interviewee?
JESS: So, I don't look after myself at all really [laughs] that is one thing. Yeah two, I did not use the techniques of self care that other journalists should use. And I say ‘should’ but I don't even know necessarily whether writing this book, self care would have been possible for me or a priority.
It's a strange sort of thing because, you know, in a way… I mean I didn't think that I had any direct experience with domestic abuse but actually after writing the book and having my family read parts of it they're like, ‘Oh yeah, well you know about so-and-so in the family and you know about this and actually my stepfather…’ like it's everywhere. But it was not a direct experience of mine. So I didn't have any visceral experience to tap back into to really go to the heart and the internal feeling of how this felt. So I had to get there intellectually or get there vicariously through these other people. So for me I almost subjected myself to an austerity program by which I pretty much isolated myself from friends, in heart and mind I think I isolated myself from family except for when I had a kid halfway through that sort of… you don't really have a choice you know that kept my heart alive I think to a large extent. I didn't buy anything for myself; I actually for three and a half four years didn't feel like there was I did not have the right to go out and have a good time. There was more important things at hand and I needed to live in this space, almost like I described in the book, ‘this space that victims occupy as a type of underground’, because it's like this… it's sort of like in Stranger Things, you have this upside down where you are in the world; it looks kind of like the world but it's very different. And no one else can see you in there and you're trapped right. And in a way I sort of artificially placed myself in a type of underground, that is nothing nearly as terrible as what they'd been through, but just to kind of get… try to isolate myself with their experiences to try to take it into my soul so I could churn it up in there and put it back out as writing. So, in terms of preparing myself? Like nada. I actually just went fully into their experience. The only thing I'd say is that I think after writing about the family law system for quite a long time I learnt about giving certain expectations or basically about setting certain boundaries around what I am or aren't able to do as a journalist. That's probably the best amount of self care I did.
So going into an interview I would have a list of questions that I'd want to use and all that I'd want to have answered at some point but, and I'm not even sure if this is really the best way to go about things but it seemed to work, is that we'd go in, we'd start the conversation just chatting and then we start talking about things and I'd let them know that I'm recording. So I'd let them know when that starts and I would let them know that they would have total veto on anything that they said. So there's no need to feel like you need to be policing yourself in the interview right now speak up entirely freely. And then we would just… I would just follow their trail. So what we know about trauma is that it interrupts chronological memory. Now that's very difficult when you trying to write chronologically but I wasn't going to try to impose some sort of arbitrary system on them to say you need to answer all these questions in order if that's emotionally not how they recalled the things that had happened to them. I wanted to follow their sort of emotional, what Judy Atkinson calls in a different context, like a trauma trial. So, I want to follow that trial because I wanted to get their feeling, the sense of feeling that comes through different things that had happened to them but also coming back to like — what is it like? What was it like to be in love with this person and what was it like? So I didn't want to come at it through like, I need to know this, this, this and this as I go along, and things would be sort of addressed it sort of just quietly cross them off my list and then often at the end maybe of like literally sometimes like an hour and a half, two hours, I might go in and just ask them to tick off a couple of things, by then often it would just be okay let's chat again and then we'll go a bit more directly to some of my questions because by that stage they feel they've told their story; and I remember reading in a PhD thesis; they deconstruct their methodology and this sort of feminist way of researching which is not to come in a power over way with your set of questions that they need to fit into, it's to come together with the person you're interviewing and say, ‘I'm fitting into your schema, into your world and then we'll come back to the things that I need later because they're the things that your story needs too, so it's actually in service to what you're trying to say. But we can come back to that later when you're ready.’ And by that stage then we're just ticking off details and it just seemed to work. And I think there was an element of trust and a and a building of rapport and you know in a lot of these cases friendship, that occurred in these conversations where we were able to get to the sorts of details that are not just gratuitous, not true crime-y in like, how long was the blade? And all that sort of rubbish but actually — what was the feeling? Can you go back into that feeling? And they could trust me enough to go back into that space. I'd always say to them at the end, ‘do you have someone there? Is this someone who you can be with? Is there something you can do to care for yourself after this?’ There's only so much I can do to supervise that because that's in their hands. But I just sort of make it explicit that obviously this may have a very traumatizing effect on you. Most of the time even though some of the women would say, ‘yeah, it was difficult. Yeah it brought up a lot of stuff,’ but most time I'd say overall it was good. You know it was good to talk about, it was good to get that out.
And interestingly the children, when I interviewed the children you know they have seen, survived, strategized against such adversity that they've been absolutely trapped in and we have a very low expectation of what they're able to cope with. Actually these children have code for the law, and been totally, sometimes isolated in what they've had to cope with and when they're actually asked questions about it it's like someone gives a shit and someone actually thinks your opinion is valid which a lot of the children don't get any evidence of you know. And so I found them to be so candid. And I'd say the same thing to them like you know, ‘this is really hard stuff to talk about. If you feel upset that's totally normal and stuff.’ But like generally the feedback I got from the parents was that it was overall really positive for them to be heard. And one you know 18 year old who'd been through the Family Law system, who'd been handed back to her abusive father and had been raped repeatedly as a result; you know prior to us engaging in this sort of interview process she'd been suicidal, her relationship with her mother was in the toilet cause she blamed her mother for not being out to protect her, and her mother told me months later that actually as a result of her story being and of being listened to as no one else had done, not police, not the courts, that the suicidality had ended and their relationship was like starting again. So I believe in the transformative power of interviewing and storytelling and that if you do it with care it can help people who are very young to very old.
ASTRID: Once you have conducted these interviews and you know you have hours of tape and I guess handwritten notes, what do you do with it all?
JESS: Well I would put all the transcripts for a certain chapter in one file. I'd go through and highlight the quotes that I thought were strong and then I'd go back and do it all again and do it over. I, at one stage like I was trying to think, what is my system here? Do I have a system? Well sometimes my system really I think was to try to get to know the transcript really well so that when I was writing the story I could almost just do it off the top of my head and just reach for the bits that I needed you know. But really have a good sense of where the story was going in my head as I was writing it. Because it's part of the difficulties you crew all of this research and it's like at what point can I start writing? Like at what point do I know enough?
And actually after my daughter was born… I think that ‘at what point’ started a bit earlier and actually I became much more comfortable with the idea of like writing almost off the top of my head to say these are the points that feel strong and then going back to the research and filling in the blanks and saying okay here's the bits, instead of waiting for that perfect moment of equilibrium where I have enough research in my head, enough quotes, enough stories to bring it all together and then agonize over every frickin’ sentence to make sure it's a work of like poetic genius. So many days before I gave birth to my daughter I would spend a day working on a paragraph or after I gave birth that did not happen. I thought that would result in sloppy writing or not sloppy, but like just more boring, you know, unadorned et cetera... but actually I think I just became a lot more direct and I had less time for sort of dancing about the issue or being pretty and actually much more about—what is the story? Let's tell it direct, strong.
I think that I look back on the stuff I wrote after she was born and why it's better because I wasn't agonizing and rewriting and rewriting. That said some of the really difficult stuff that I did before she was born which was about half the book; there are sections that I know I did agonize over that I know I couldn't have just written off top of my head. So there's a bit of both that I think that goes into a book and probably even if she hadn't been born, I think that once you get to a certain halfway mark there's a level of confidence that you now have having a manuscript of sorts that's sitting in your computer, you can feel more confident about being able to write whereas I think in the beginning it's just a shit show.
ASTRID: I have no doubt. How did you structure the work? The work is divided up into chapters and you've previously mentioned the second to last chapter Dadirri, apologies if that's not the correct pronunciation but you have all this research, you have a very strong argument as a writer how do you break it down? And did you envisage different audiences for some of the chapters?
JESS: Yeah, well I'm like you know so many writers and like everyone will read this book but essentially the audience, so yes, different audiences for different chapters but in my mind I guess the overall audience was the most learned person with the most experience on this subject and the person who has no idea. So they were both in my head at all times which meant that direct writing, simplifying but having sophisticated concepts and deep research, such that I'm trying to get to places that maybe we haven't excavated so much… haven't excavated recently; not necessarily new ideas but maybe ideas that have gone underground. Then yet different ways of coming at things not just for the point of being different but because it felt right, felt like now is the time for us to have these different conversations or expand on the path that we've been on. So in the Dadirri chapter that… I mean I had people like Judy Atkinson, who I first learned about the concept of dead from, which is an indigenous word for deep listening. So I had people like her, I had people like Marcia Langton in my head, I had the women who had been through violence and then I also had the men who had been victim perpetrators—who had grown up with violence and had gone on to perpetrate violence had them in my head as well. So often each chapter I guess I had — who am I accountable to? Who are the people that I need to persuade with this? And who are the people that I need to engage? And who are the people I need to help understand? So a lot of people—there is quite a crowd in my head but I think that in doing that it made me work extremely hard. And overall I mean that line that in the last chapter which says, ‘the thought of penning another call to action to add to the teetering pile was nauseating’, and I had to battle a sense of ongoing futility and nausea — quite literally — throughout the writing of the book. Each time there'd be a homicide and there were many through the writing in the book, probably about over 150 statistically. Each time I'd see that, and I’d see the op-eds that would follow and I'd see the inaction and it was just like — how do I get around this? I need this prose to activate. It needs to be something that just gets through the defences, gets through the boredom, gets through the monotony and the repetition it needs to get to the heart of where people live. So that overarching… that was the drive. And it's probably why agonized over paragraphs, not just because I want to be like a good writer and I want the writing to be persuasive and lovely, but I wanted it to speak to people in a way that maybe they felt like they were reading it for the first time.
ASTRID: A review in The Conversation stated that your book and I quote, ‘vividly conjures the scale of the problem with fresh terror.’ How do you feel about that?
JESS: I did want to vividly… can't really conjure the whole thing with fresh terror but it was incredibly important that people not just feel terror, that people feel hope, that people feel optimism, that people feel fascinated. And first of all fascinated because, actually I couldn't have continued writing on this subject for over four years and ongoing if I wasn't fascinated. And I wanted people to come on this journey of like, ‘this is not just about love, power and abuse’ as I say in the introduction, it's actually about human nature and about the way that we love each other, the way that we govern, the way that we interact—history of social conditioning. I mean like this is just the stuff of us and I wanted people to engage with it on a level that meant that they were looking back at their own life and their own interactions regardless of whether they'd experienced domestic abuse and reassessing their own behaviour and their own beliefs. So, the “fresh terror” yes, I think in some parts I do want them to feel that. I want them to feel like they can imagine being in that person's shoes who's being abused so that they… to try to overwhelm the idea of an us and them dichotomy to try to say, this could be you or it could be a friend. Just try to imagine if you take out the victim from the foreground where we blame her and her choices and what she attracts and we look more at the perpetrator and how he goes into or the man who uses violence and how he goes into a woman's life and uses her trust and her intimacy unfortunately, unconsciously or consciously, to then subject her to forms of abuse. I wanted it to be like this is something that really could happen to anyone no matter how smart, strong, poor, rich. That was very important.
So yes, terror was important to strike at certain moments, but actually what I did is peel back terror. I was very careful and with you know advice from my partner as well, who was my reader for a lot of it to say, ‘look that's enough. The readers had enough now. You need to come out of that terror and that horror and come back into fascination, understanding et cetera.’ So I think that in books like this you absolutely have to centre care for the reader. If you don't centre that then it's exploitative I think.
So that was a very big… I think that sometimes the most beautiful e-mails I've had and letters come in from people who've read it have said, that they feel like this book has compassion at its core. And my mom said the same thing when she first read it, she said, ‘this is a kind book.’ And that's what I wanted. I wanted kindness because that's what I feel like we need to model more of. If this is a book that's trying to model an alternative form of how we interact and what we centre as strength, kindness, harmony, intimacy, that's what I wanted to model in the book not, you know, torture, torment et cetera. That's just a way of getting to understand what this looks like it's not the core focus.
ASTRID: As we said before this is not a book about awareness raising. You do at the end give clear suggestions for different actions that can be taken, that have worked in small areas elsewhere. So for example, in a police station is run by women or you know in small community justice style interventions. They're practical suggestions. They're also very big. No one person can go and just set that up. What has been the response to those practical suggestions that you raise?
JESS: Yeah, I actually think that having those… I mean part of it was I needed to feel hope you know, like being immersed in this for so long, so much longer than I thought I would be, I needed to see like what is being done? Is there a way to interrupt this, if not, what's the point? Well what's the point of writing about it? And yes, of course there's a point I mean understanding is key, but we need to feel like there's a place you can move forward.
So the response to that has been incredibly positive. I mean you know whether we're going to see women's police stations in Australia? We'll see. I think Professor Kerry Carrington, who's been doing work in Argentina, looking at the potential application here in Australia I back her work to the hilt. I think it's really interesting and I think that even if say for example, here in Victoria there's been efforts to reform Victoria Police and look at their history of misogynistic culture, predatory behaviour, sexual discrimination, it's all wonderful and very important but it takes too long for me. So I was like yes, some of these solutions are big in there. They seem radical. But what I think is radical is that we just keep doing what we're doing and it keeps not being effective and that there are incremental increases in effectiveness over time. That's radical to me because it's like, why would we do that when we can see these other… why not pivot when we can see that there are evidence based strategies that have had such incredible impact elsewhere?
The final chapter that looks at the two solutions, they do take in a whole of sector sort of approach but they start with one person. Both of them start with one person who decides that what they're doing is not good enough. One is a deputy police chief and another is a community elder in Bourke in New South Wales. And it starts with them being not only unsatisfied with what's happening and with the response, but absolutely committed and believing that they can do something different and it will have a different result. And that's what, you know, the only thing that's ever worked is someone deciding to do something different and to change instead of pushing the same barrow, seeing the same result over and over again and just sort of surrendering to the fact that well maybe nothing works. Well maybe what you're doing doesn't work but that doesn't mean nothing works. So I actually think that the hope and optimism in this book, is that actually through the actions of individuals once they are teamed up with other people that that is what works. And any one of us may be the person that decides to do that. You know I think about the climate activist Greta Thunberg—she says, ‘activism works, so act’ and that is at the core of the book, act.
ASTRID: That is a fantastic place to leave it. Thank you so much Jess.