Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

I took me a long time to read Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella award-winning See what you make me do, partly because I bought the e-book version which I read in fits and starts and partly because of its content. As the Aussies among you will know, Hill’s book is an intense, thorough discussion of domestic abuse. It’s not an easy topic but it is a critical one because if statistics tell us anything it’s that the situation in Australia is not improving.

There’s no way I can share the wealth of information or fully convey the impressive depth of research Hill has done. However, I’ll do my best to give a sense of what this book does, and how Hill does it. She starts on definition, explaining that wherever possible, she replaced the term “domestic violence” with “domestic abuse” because “in some of the worse abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present”. “Domestic abuse” is the term now used by UK police because it undercuts the assumption that abuse is only serious if it’s physical.

Those of you versed in trauma will appreciate a fundamental challenge Hill faced, which, as she describes it, is that “power imbalance built into the journalist–source relationship: the journalist usually has ultimate power over what gets published”. For survivors of abuse, who have suffered at the hands of power, this could effectively mean abusing them all over again. So, Hill “wanted to flip that and give the power back to them. If this process was not a positive experience for them, there was no point in doing it”. So, she gave “them the chance, wherever possible, to review their story, suggest revisions or ask for things to be deleted – especially if there were safety concerns”.

In her Introduction she lays out the road map:

In the chapters that follow, we will travel through an extraordinary landscape, from the confounding psychology of perpetrators and victims to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the family law system.

And so, in eleven chapters, Hill traverses domestic abuse from multiple angles, grounding it in case studies – usually with names changed – which force us to put a face on the accompanying theories and statistics.

Hill starts by establishing coercive control as a fundamental aspect of domestic abuse. Our understanding of its techniques, she writes, come from the Cold War and US Air Force social scientist Albert Biderman’s recognition of how the tools of coercive control had been used on American POWs in North Korean camps. From here she analyses how the same techniques are used by intimate partners – almost always male, though there is a chapter on women who abuse – to create a threatening atmosphere that will convince the victim of the perpetrator’s omnipotence, the futility of resistance, and the necessity of compliance. The aim is total dominion (which is exactly what Wemyss’ wanted over Lucy in the prescient Vera). Hill describes the techniques in detail, and it’s chilling.

The best word for this book is forensic, because Hill burrows deep. She confronts us with our uncertainties – why did she stay, for example – and makes us see just how deep the degradation goes. She explains how a concussed women can look drunk and so be missed by the police as the victim. She shows how a traumatised woman can come across as irrational and erratic in court versus her cool, calm, well-presented abuser. She interrogates the role of patriarchy, and how it damages men, as well as women. Feminists, as many of us know, were the first to recognise this.

She looks at disabled women. She looks at children and the way they are used and treated by abusers in power plays. Indeed, her chapter on children and the courts is horrifying. She details the gradual weakening of the Gough-Whitlam-established family court system through successive, mostly conservative, governments. She shows how some of this weakening has been underpinned by a particularly egregious theory called Parent Alienation Syndrome. She reveals the perfect storm created for children caught up in a family court softened by law and bolstered by such spurious theory.

And, she devotes a chapter to First Nations women, who are at significantly greater risk of abuse than their non-Indigenous peers. The stories just keep on piling up as you read, stories that you can barely countenance, except that anyone with any semblance of awareness will know they are true.

It’s tough going but it’s valuable reading, because for all I thought I knew, there were details I didn’t know or appreciate. Hill asks some pertinent questions, like:

In the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve found that it’s the questions we don’t ask that are the most confounding: Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place? It’s not enough to say that perpetrators abuse because they want power and control. Why do they want that?

Or, as “Survivor Queensland” put it, ‘I want people to stop asking “Why does she stay?” and start asking “Why does he do that?”‘

Some of the answers lie in “traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement” which are at “the core of men’s violence against women”. But Hill identifies more questions, such as “what are the different reasons men have for needing to dominate their partners?” and what is going on in their minds that makes them “sabotage the lives of their partners and children – to the point where they destroy even their own lives?” These are “critical parts of the puzzle” that are “missing from our public conversations about domestic abuse”. 

Hill titles her final chapter “Fixing it”. She notes Australia’s excellent record in tackling public health problems. “From thwarting the tobacco industry to criminalising drink-driving, Australian governments have shown they are willing to burn political capital to save lives”, she says, and have achieved results. She then shares some of the actions currently being taken – but, of course, this was just before the pandemic so I suspect some of them have fallen by the roadside.

In 2017, she writes, a KPMG report concluded that although “significant progress” had been made against the “National Outcomes”, not only was there no evidence of reduction in “domestic violence”, in fact, the evidence suggested that “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence” was increasing. However, lest we close the book feeling completely hopeless, Hill concludes with examples of two recent programs that have worked. We just need government will and support to back more such targeted programs. It can be done.

Janine (Resident Judge) also reviewed it.

Jess Hill
See what you made me do: Power, control and domestic abuse
Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc, 2019
416pp.
ISBN: 9781743820865 (eBook)

16 thoughts on “Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

  1. Actually, I felt a bit hesitant about ‘liking’ this…
    By coincidence I’ve just read an historical novel which is framed around a ‘see what you made me do’ situation. His sentence of death is commuted to transportation because of ‘her provocation’, and in the course of writing my review I discovered that while most Australian states have abolished provocation as a defence to murder, three haven’t. It came as no surprise to me that Queensland and Tasmania hadn’t, but I was astonished to see that the ACT with its highly education and sophisticated polity, hasn’t…

  2. Yes, I know what Lisa means about “Liking” this post! I am glad this book has been written and that you have shared it. Back in the day, I did my Library and Information Studies Masters dissertation on sources of information for women experiencing domestic violence (as it was called then) and one of my only regrets in life is that I didn’t get to finish and write it up, as I ran out of funding and had to get a job. I read so much then but there’s been so much published since and such great work, so even if the law and justice systems are still so very flawed, at least more is being spoken about now.

    • Thanks Liz … what a shame you didn’t finish that work. For my major librarianship degree piece I did somehting on adolescent literature! Anyhow, as you say, there’s more awreness now and that’s something. We just need more effective action, don’t we?

      • We do. I do feel awful about not having finished it. What I worked out was that info on the backs of women’s toilet doors and in soap operas and women’s magazines would help most – so I was pleased to see when they started putting stuff about forced marriages and human trafficking on the back of airport toilet doors and also it is just talked about more generally. But we’ve had to fight for refuges to keep having funding, etc, so it’s not there yet, at all.

        • Interesting Liz … I’ve seen signs on toilet doors for public health messaging here for a while now (starting back with the condoms and AIDS and safe sex days) and followed by rape messaging and more recenlty for domestic violence. I often wondered how effective they are. (I haven’t seen human trafficking ones here.)

  3. I’ve recently obtained the audio version of this book and like you need to summon the emotional fibre to tackle it. However I’ve seen interviews with Jess Hill and the SBS series and must applaud her work. So needed. Thanks for this thoughtful review; it has spurred me to get listening!

    • Thanks Denise. I wonder whether it will be easier to listen to than read. I look frowad, anyhow, to hearing your thoughts. Like you I’ve seen interviews with Jess Hill. She’s impressive and committed isn’t she. Then, how could you not be after hearing the stories she’s heard.

  4. When I reviewed Hill’s book I wrote that I thought it the definitive book on the subject. My opinion still stands. Back in the day we feminists opened the lid on domestic violence as it was then called and in my public service role we were able to establish federal funding for refuges. In all my exposure to the issue I’d never come across such a forensic (as you say) examination of the issue. So much to come to grips with still. For all my knowledge and experience as a policymaker, Hill’s chapter on the family court and children caught up in the custody battles was a revelation to me. Well-deserving of the Stella Prize. Thanks for your thoughts on it too, WG.

    • Thanks Sara … yes, Hill as you know, pays fair due to the role of refuges. It was such a significant step in recognition of the problem (as well as a practical step).

      Much of her analysis of the family court and children picks up what has happened in the decades since you left the policy arena, so I’m not surprised it was new to you. It’s a horrifying story of what happens when the ball gets dropped and/or the “wrong” lobby groups get sway. That chapter was so distressing, wasn’t it. Those poor kids.

      I think there is concern in some quarters that the Stella Prize is not being true to the “literary” idea BUT I think they’ve been honest from the start about their criteria being broader. If their shortlists and winners err towards diversity, experimentation and/or social justice issues then that can only be positive in the long run. The writing and thinking needs to be “good” (however, we describe that) but it doesn’t have to be what we have traditionally described as “literary”.

  5. So many problems today come back to policing. Racism and Sexism are systemic in police forces and with all the will in the world we don’t seem to have a way around that. Providing them with military level armour, but also with ‘training’, our go-to solutions, are not the way.

    I read US left-wing newsletters – I won’t bore you with links – but the way forward it seems to me is for the first port of call in family violence situations to be community funded not-police, and definitely not armed.

    • Thanks Bill. The fundamental point Hill makes is that to eradicate domestic abuse we “need too change community attitudes, as well as behaviour”. This takes time, meanwhile … she points to an example in High Point, North Carolina, where “a dedicated coalition of police community members and federal agencies” made stopping perpetrators top priority. Using a strategy “typically deployed against gang violence and gun crime in just 6 years” they more than halved the city’s domestic homicides, in a city where the rate was twice the national average”. They laid out a very clear process, making it clear that domestic violence would NOT be tolerated, that men could not longer abuse with impunity. But they also told men they wanted to help them. It was police focused (but they worked closely with other service providers).

      In Bourke, which had the highest rate of various crimes in Australia, they tried justice reinvestment which involves directing money away from spending on prisons to prevention. Now that’s an idea! She details how it’s working. With support from a group called Just Reinvest NSW, they created a hub called Maranguka (a local word for “caring for others”). This group comes from within the community rather than being imposed, and it targets and tries to correct underlying causes of youth crime etc. The Bourke police, in 2016, inspired by this model and, in a process somewhat similar to High Point, started tackling domestic abuse through talking to known offenders and victims, asking what help they needed (like re jobs, substance abuse, mental health etc). They called it Operation Solidarity. The police superintendent had first to educate his own staff. The overall message, like the American one, is “we don’t want to punish you, we want to protect you”. By 2017, due to this project and the broader Maranguka program, many crime statistics in Bourke had dropped significantly (eg domestic violence assaults by 39%) AND other things, like completion of year 12 increased by a similar rate. (In 2015/16 there were 7 domestic homicides in the Bourke area. There were none over the next 18 months!) They are progressing to looking at other measures – hospitalisation rates, child removals. etc.

      One of Hill’s complaints is that the federal strategy, at the time she was writing had no meaningful measurable targets. I mean, after all, if you have a measurable target, your inaction will show up! The point about these programs is that they involved collaboration AND they didn’t cost more money. Indeed it’s estimated that overall the the work of Maranguka and Operation Solidarity has saved significant money as well as made Bourke a safer community. Stories like this are exciting. They are not impossible, they just require will, commitment and a real understanding of the issues.

  6. This sounds similar to the U.S. book No Visible Bruises. Although it was grim, as you might imagine, the author discovered that when social services and police work together to help victims, not only is the outcome better and easier for everyone (victim, children, grandparents, police, hospitals, etc.), but they can actually chart and predict with great success if a victim is in danger of being killed and remove that person from progression to the point. The author also noted that it is much worse to send a victim and her children to a shelter than it is to remove the perpetrator. For instance, many women and children shelters won’t take teen boys. Or, they’re moved away from the woman’s job and the children’s school. Etc. Here is my review: https://grabthelapels.com/2019/06/28/no-visible-bruises/

    • Oh, I’ll check your review of that Melanie. Sounds like it came out around the same time Hill’s did. She also talks about shelters and the teen boys problem. She also noted that shelters, paradoxically, seem to have saved more men from dying than women.

      And yes, as I responded to Bill, outcomes are best when there’s collaboration. Hill uses an example from High Point, North Carolina, to show this. As well as one from an outback Aussie town.

  7. These books are hard to read. I’ve seen a lot of it over years. In different capacities. It never gets any easier to witness. I will leave this book to you in this instance. (Though I do appreciate its importance). BTW My new web page is almost up. Shouldn’t be long.

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