Content warning: domestic abuse and violence. Domestic abuse is not just something that happens to other people—it is the story of all of us. But before we can fix it, we need to see it for what it really is. We have to understand The Trap. Features: social workers from the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service, Geraldine Bilston, Dr Torna Pitman, Dr Janja Lalich, Karina Hogan, Lisa Aronson Fontes, and a number of victim-survivors whose identities are protected.
Content warning: violence. If this raises any issues for you, contact:
Host & writer Jess Hill
Creative producer Georgina Savage
Producers Mary Crooks AO, Ally Oliver-Perham, Maria Chetcuti, Lucy Ballantyne
Production managers Ally Oliver-Perham, Maria Chetcuti
Sound design & mix Romy Sher, Pariya Taherzadeh-Desovski
Research Leah McPherson
Transcription Max Favetti, Amanda Barbour
Production assistance Sanduni Hewa Katupothage, Esther Davies-Brown, Alexandra Collins, Georgia Lazarakis, Georgia Shepherd, Aaryn Melzer, Lily Mooney
Art direction Aimee Carruthers
Video The Social Parade
Animation Mari Frith
Photography Saskia Wilson
With thanks to the entire team at VWT
The Trap is a harm prevention podcast, created by the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls (of which the Victorian Women’s Trust is Trustee). This project has been made possible thanks to the support of donors. Special thanks to the Phyllis Connor Memorial Trust of Equity Trustees Limited, Jo Baevski, a private donor, and The Bokhara Foundation.
© The Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls 2021
We are indebted to everyone who courageously shared their stories and wisdom with us. Thank you all.
Sound of van door opening.
Sound of footsteps, car door opening.
00:07 JESS: Oh yeah, this is the full soccer mum fit-out, love it!
Background voice: I'll sit in the back. Here, have the front Jess.
JESS: Okay, oh thank you.
00:18 NARRATION: I’m in the carpark of the Brisbane Domestic Violence Service with Ash and Sophie. They’re loading boxes of supplies, like food and water, into a white van. It’s like a big people mover.
We’ve just come on to the night shift, and we’re heading out to see women and kids who are being protected in motels across the city.
But first, we’re going to pick up a woman who’s waiting for us at a police station.
00:42 ASH: Yep, so we’re coming out to get you from the ah police station shortly, and we’re gonna take you to a motel. We shouldn’t be too much longer. We’ve got a researcher and author with us tonight, her name is Jess and I'm wondering if it would be ok if she could just observe and maybe have a little chat to you tonight?
Oh okay great. Alright, thank you and we'll see you soon. Yep.
ANDREA: Hey this is Andrea here.
ASH: Hi Andrea, (Andrea comes on speaker)
ANDREA: He’s produced a knife and threatened to kill her, so I just wanted to update you guys with that, because obviously when I first spoke to you I just stated that she was just living there which was in breach of the order…so we've taken a statement from her and umm
ASH Alright great thank you for the update, Andrea.
01:28 ANDREA: That's alright, thanks for calling.
ASH: Okay, we'll be there shortly. Okay thanks, Bye.
01:32 ANDREA: Bye.
ASH: Threatened her with a knife on the..
01:34 SOPHIE: Do you want to go there first? I think we should just because she's been waiting in there forever, dude - that’s a long time to be waiting. And we’ve got the motel room and everything so...all good.
NARRATION: Every night, domestic violence workers like Ash and Sophie visit at least 20 women and kids in the Brisbane area who’ve fled domestic abuse, often with little but the clothes on their back. They’ll stay in a motel for about four nights before they can get into a refuge – and they may actually have to drive across Queensland to reach the nearest available one. There just aren’t enough beds available.
02:10 JESS: Does it just feel to you sometimes like the prevalence of this is just overwhelming?
ELLA: Mmm - yep. Yep. And even like in your everyday life you’re like, mm! Red flag. Perpetrator! Ahaha. Yeah, nah, it’s pretty relentless, hey.
JESS: I think it’s you know, often being out, especially night trips like these, you just start to think ‘how many of these guys are there? Because we know basically, or we know at least how many women self report that they've experienced physical or sexual violence for example, like we know its 1 in 4 since the age of 16 but we don’t know how many guys have perpetrated it. But if you’ve got 2.3 million women who have self-reported that, then you’re looking at at least hundreds of thousands of guys - like if you look at on average maybe each guy will have 2 or 3 people who he subjects that to, you know - so at least hundreds of thousands. Which is really confronting.
03:22 SOPHIE: Isn't It. You don't know. You can't look at them and tell. That's the scary part, hey. And often like we know that perpetrators do come across as very charming and charismatic and very good at image management, people you know are the people you would never suspect, that's the scary part yeah.
JESS: And I think when people think of charming and charismatic they think of those like those really high-grade narcissistic personalities that are really gregarious, but that image management doesn’t necessarily need to be about being gregarious and outgoing, it can be quite meek even, and mild-mannered.
ELLA: Yeah, like guy next door sort of thing. Yeah, they can come across as really shy and timid as well. So, huge, huge diversity. Every perpetrator’s different.
Pull up to the police station Maybe a bit of what goes on at the police station just in the background?
04:19 NARRATION: We’ve pulled up at the police station and as I walk in, I can see the woman we’ve come to pick up. She’s sitting with her shoulders slumped, a mask loosely hanging around her face. She looks like she hasn’t slept in weeks and when she speaks, she’s so quiet we can barely hear her.
04:37 Background discussions continue
NARRATION: This is Janet, as we’ll call her. Janet called her bank to ask them to block access to her account, because she thought her partner was stealing from her. Suspecting domestic violence, the bank called the police. When the cops came to Janet’s front door, they discovered that she had been kept as a virtual prisoner inside her partner’s house for two months.
05:01 SOPHIE: Did you speak to the officers about the time that he’s kept you inside?
JANET: Yeah, nah, I don’t think I did - I think I forgot to mention that.
SOPHIE: Because that is deprivation of liberty, and it is a criminal offence, if you wanted to press charges.
JANET: Yeah, that’s like a hostage, isn’t it, really? I could only go out when he’d take me.. He told me not to leave the house.
JESS: Did he ever say why?
JANET: Yeah, he just said he didn’t want anybody to… it’s just safer if you stay in the house. I think he just didn’t want anyone to know, you know what I mean? CUT TO
05:41 NARRATION: Forbidden from leaving the house, Janet was treated like a slave. She had to cook every meal, agree to sex whenever he wanted it, and no matter what he’d just said or done to her. He turned off the gas so she couldn’t have a hot shower, and took all the towels out of the apartment so she couldn’t dry herself. She told us that her only other company during those two months was the sound of the television. She was terrified, but she couldn’t imagine how she would escape.
06:14 JANET: You know, it just got to that point where what's the point, I’m stuck in a house with a person who’s just going me all the time, yelling at me and hitting me, you know what I mean? You just get to that point where you think am I going to die? Am I going to end up dead, and that’s the only way I’m gonna get out of here? It’s like I said to the police lady, I said I was gonna call that night, and then he kept watching me. So he must have been watching me in case I recorded, so I couldn’t get a hold of the police, so he kept his eye on me at all times. So it kinda made it hard. That's what I said to them. You just get that way, is it better to stay so he doesn’t go off at me, or doesn’t make him more angry, you know, that’s how you are when you’re in that situation… Will it make him worse, or will it, if he finds out that I called them, will he do something before they get there? Kinda makes it hard…
NARRATION: As a nation, we’re just now coming to terms with what domestic abuse really looks like. That this is not just about violent men and bad tempers, but also individuals – and even extended families – who are running campaigns of abuse and entrapment.
OPENING THEME MUSIC BEGINS
And it’s not just happening behind closed doors. This is happening in public too, where perpetrators are often enabled by our systems: by police, the courts, child protection, family law – you name it. Everywhere, in every way, our systems are perpetuating coercive control.
The time is now to change this.
THEME MUSIC RISES TO CLIMAX AND CUTS
NARRATION: My name is Jess Hill, and this is The Trap.
We’re gonna go on a real trip on this podcast - we’re going deep into people’s most intimate moments, and their most terrifying. We’re getting right inside the minds of men who use coercive control. We’re investigating the systems that too often collude with perpetrators, and we’ll be wrestling with what will work to stop this.
It sounds grim, but I promise you, this is the stuff we all need to know. You might hear your own relationships reflected in this series, you’ll almost certainly hear part of yourself that maybe you don’t want to acknowledge. At least, that’s how it’s been for me.
09:01 NARRATION: We started making this series in 2020, as the Covid 19 pandemic trapped so many victim survivors inside their homes with their abusers. You will hear their voices, and the voices of people at the frontline, recorded with whatever tools we could get our hands on.
The story of domestic abuse – and of racism, of prejudice, of cruelty of power over - it's not just what happens to other people but something that is inside all of us, that affects all of us .
I’ve spent the better part of a decade speaking to hundreds of victim survivors, perpetrators, policy makers, advocates, lawyers, police, judges and abolitionists, and I’m still grappling with how to get this right.
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I believe we can fix this. But to do that, we need to look not just at the individuals who abuse, but the very structure of our society – the fact that we are socialised into hierarchies of power and control, into patriarchy. Most importantly, we have to see family violence and coercive control for what it is.
We have to understand The Trap.
So let’s get started.
GERALDINE: We met at a time in my life where we were both working in the mining industry. It was a really male dominated industry that I didn't really think about at the time. But now, reflecting back on it, I see how little women were valued in those workplaces.
NARRATION: This is Geraldine Bilston. She lives in Melbourne with her daughter, Katie. Over the past couple of years, Geraldine’s become a close friend - but it wasn’t until I interviewed her that I really understood what she’d been subjected to.
When we met, I think I had fairly low self-esteem. He really built me up, really quickly, and made me feel really safe. It was exciting and all that kind of stuff. We moved in together really quickly.
NARRATION: What Geraldine is describing - especially the rush to move in together - is straight out of the perpetrator’s handbook.
It’s what’s called love-bombing.
I feel like a Grinch putting this sinister lens on passionate romance, but love- bombing can be a big red flag.
What I'm talking about here is not just seduction, but often a whirlwind of quick, bold declarations of love and commitment, extravagant gifts and romantic surprises. The abusive person often starts the relationship with their partner on a pedestal - they sweep them off their feet, they make them feel the most loved, and the most respected they’ve ever felt. Often these relationships get serious very quickly - moving in together in the first couple of months, getting engaged or falling pregnant. There’s a lot of excitement for the future, and all the radical hope that accompanies this electric type of love.
Now this could be just a regular honeymoon period, or it could be the start of something terrible. So how do you tell the difference? Well, the basic goal in coercive control is to restrict your independence, and override your sense of autonomy. So you’re looking out for things like: how do they react when you try to set personal boundaries? Are they coercing you into making commitments that you’re not ready to make? Do you feel a bit smothered? Or just like it’s all too good to be true?
These are the questions we need to be asking when we’re falling in love with someone. Because once that love is locked in, it can be very hard to see things clearly.
12:59 GERALDINE: Looking back, there were some red flags. He had a really bad temper, but it wasn't directed at me. So I kind of separated it quite easily and just continued on with the relationship.
In those first few years, there were only a few incidents where I started to see that come across into our relationship. I woke up once and he was on my phone texting male colleagues, pretending to be me. Trying to have a conversation with them and stuff like that.
There was one time at a work Christmas party, he had been drinking and he got really fiery. He was yelling so badly at me that when we got back to the hotel room, somebody else had called hotel security and he got kicked out. There were a few incidents like that, but it wasn't constant.
SUBTLE BACKGROUND MUSIC BEGINS
I guess all of those incidents started to get closer and closer together. The first time we had a big fight, the first time I realized things were pretty bad was when I had refused to have sex and he kicked me out. Saying that there was something wrong with me. I don't know, I can't even remember all the details.
But anyway, we made up. I just thought, "Shit." I think back now, and I think that I would never have refused again because I was scared of how quickly that blew up.
The way that it creeps in, it doesn't really make sense to me now to say that because I would never allow that to happen in my current relationship. And yet, it just did. It just kind of crept in, and then all of a sudden you were in a position where you never got to refuse sex. I know that that's not okay. But at the time, that's what I was living in.
NARRATION: Geraldine knew she wasn’t happy. She tried to break up with him, and even went to stay for a while with her parents. When he realised she was planning to leave, he threatened to post intimate photos and videos of her online.
15:07 GERALDINE: I freaked out and told my parents. My mum took me down to the police station, and that was the very first time I'd really said anything to anyone about anything to do with our relationship. So, it's really humiliating. Like, I've got to say, is it such a deeply disturbing and humiliating thing to have going on.
NARRATION: When Geraldine went to police, it was before there were any laws prohibiting image-based abuse, or ‘revenge porn’ as some people call it. The police told her there was nothing they could do.
15:46 GERALDINE: I guess I just felt let down at the time, but I didn't invest a lot of feelings into it. When I look back now, I think about all the things that happened from that moment, because I went back to him. Stupidly.
SUBTLE MUSIC BEGINS AND PLAYS UNDERNEATH NARRATION.
NARRATION: You hear this so often from victim survivors: I can’t believe I went back to him. I can’t believe I let him do that. I would never stand for that now.
TORNA: I don't talk about abuse so much as I talk about control.
NARRATION: This is Dr Torna Pitman – she did her phd on coercive control back in 2005, before many people had even heard of the term. She’s a social worker, educator and counsellor who works specifically with victim survivors of coercive control.
16:42 TORNA: But the woman won't know how to articulate it, because it's subtle, perhaps outside of her consciousness; bearing in mind that she's been gradually groomed and indoctrinated over a period of time in a fairly, under the radar type of manner, it's not all obvious.
Lundy Bancroft talks about one style of coercive control as the 'water torturer'.
17:05 NARRATION: Lundy Bancroft is a counselor who works especially with abusive men. In his landmark book ‘Why Does He Do That’?, he outlines ten different styles of perpetrator. I don’t love the way this reduces abusive men to caricatures, but it does seem to help victim survivors get some clarity around what they experienced. So, back to the style Bancroft calls the Water Torturer.
TORNA: Now the 'water torturer' has a drip, drip, drip, drip effect. They use a very calm, very relentless pattern of emotional abuse. And that isn't easily recognisable emotional abuse, it may not include verbal abuse, which is where they you know use words to literally put you down and swear at you and yell at you. It's very calm. It's very psychologically assaulting, not physically assaulting, but psychologically assaulting. And so a woman won't be able to make sense of that, that's not something that we're taught or that society teaches us. And it's not something that we see role modelled as being inappropriate, either, in our society.
18:16 TORNA: And then there's another form of coercive control, another style which is called 'Mr. Sensitive'. Mr. Sensitive is a psycho babbler. He's an analyser, he's awfully sensitive, easily wounded, loves all the jargon of psychological development, but he's just going to psychologically assault you, too. He is going to assault you, and then he's going to analyse your response to that assault. Oh, you respond like that to me because of your childhood, because of the way you were brought up. When actually no, the woman responds because they were psychologically assaulted.
And there's another one called 'The Victim', who where you know, everyone's done me wrong, so if you do me wrong too and if you don't kind of do it my way, then you're also going to be doing me wrong. Then I'm going to have to blame you. And then I'm going to have to call myself a victim of you.
19:08 NARRATION: Other styles Lundy Bancroft describes including Demand Man - who needs you to look after his every whim; Mr Right, who of course can never be wrong; the Drill Sergeant, who micromanages his partner within an inch of her life; the Terrorist, who thrives on the fear of his partner; and Rambo, who’s basically aggressive nature extends to his partner when she needs to be put back in her place or protected. There’s a whole list he goes through - but they’re not types, necessarily. Abusive men are complex, and some will be a combination of styles.
TORNA: These styles are... really it's just different agendas, of coercive controllers, it's like, their favorite ways, their favorite set of tools.
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19:57 NARRATION: I think what we’ve failed to grasp about domestic abuse - and particularly coercive control - is that it changes the minds of the people subjected to it. The best term I’ve come across to describe this is ‘perspecticide’. I first heard it from the American psychologist, Lisa Aronson Fontes, who defines it as ‘the incapacity to know what you know’.
Coercive control works because the abuser is able to virtually overwhelm their partner’s perspective. So as Fontes puts it: the abuser defines what love is, what is appropriate behaviour, and of course, what is wrong with their partner, and what they must do to fix themselves.
This is a type of thought reform process that can lead victim survivors to act completely out of character: from giving up friends and quitting jobs, to becoming cruel to loved ones, and even committing criminal acts. As they become more isolated and disoriented, they will often blame themselves - and most won’t even know they’re being abused.
Over time, their own needs, thoughts and feelings fade into the background, and are overwhelmed by those of their abuser. As so many victim survivors say afterwards, it’s like you lose yourself. That’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a symptom of coercive control.
So how does this happen?
JESS: Well as we’ve seen, it starts with establishing love and trust - and establishing an intense romance.
LISA ARONSON FONTES: It's almost like this big sunshine is shining on the person who becomes the target or the victim, and they feel like they can do no wrong. The abuser is so empathic, so supportive, so loving, gives them advice, wants to have time alone with them all the time, and they feel very well loved, maybe as never before.
21:54 NARRATION: Here’s Lisa Aronson Fontes explaining how that initial period of lovebombing evolves into coercive control - and why it’s so hard for victim survivors, or ‘targets’, to realise they’re being abused.
LISA ARONSIN FONTES: But over time, that big sunshine gets narrower and narrower till... It's like a little spotlight. The target, is trying to re-capture that feeling of love again, and they find that they have to dance around, they have to do this, they can't do that. They have to please, they seem to always be doing something wrong, and so they bend themselves into a pretzel trying to recapture that glow of love.
Maybe once in a while it does come their way. And that keeps them hooked.
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22:41 NARRATION: Coercive control follows a plotline that is eerily predictable.
Once love or trust is established, coercive controllers dominate their victims by isolating them, micro-managing their behaviour, intimidating and belittling them, abusing or restricting them financially, abusing or threatening to abuse their children and/or pets, humiliating and degrading them, monitoring their movements, gaslighting them and creating an environment of confusion, contradiction and extreme threat.
Each of these behaviours or tactics has the effect of killing off the victim’s perspective, and literally reforming the way they think and behave. So, for example, when the abuser is micro-managing their partner, setting rules, making demands. There are consequences for disobeying - it could be that the perpetrator goes silent for days, or there may be this implicit threat that if they do not comply they or their family or their friends or even pets will be in danger. And by the way, leaving the relationship is very much a form of non-compliance.
Now these rules and conditions can be arbitrary and ever-changing, so the person being subjected to them has to be in a constant state of hypervigilance, their attention trained on how to anticipate and comply both with the existing demands, and the ones that haven’t even been made yet. To avoid punishment, or just keep things on an even keel, to keep things safe it makes more sense for the victim survivor to adopt their partner’s perspective - to learn to see the world, and themselves, through their partner’s eyes. So they end up actually internalising their partner’s perspective to the point where, when they wake up in the morning, when they look in the mirror, they are hearing their partner’s voice and opinions in their head, almost before their own. This incredible mental effort - which is really about protection - draws the victim survivor further away from their own needs and wants, and deeper into their partner’s web of abuse.
For the system to work, the victim has to be isolated in some way.
LISA ARONSON FONTES: So separating from friends, family and co-workers, and that can happen in a lot of different ways, getting drunk every time the friends come over, well, the friends are gonna stop coming over, or the person is victimized is gonna stop asking friends to come over 'cause it's too embarrassing.
Or making such a fuss every time she goes to see her sister that she just decides not to see her sister and limits herself.
25:35 LISA ARONSON FONTES: And sometimes that isolation is packaged like caring like, Honey, I don't want you to go running because we're trying to get pregnant and that might interfere with that, so you just stay home with me, we can do some exercise together, or I'll go pick you up from work, and that way you wanna have to take public transportation, I'll go with you to the supermarket, so increasingly the person becomes isolated, not able to see other people are not able to see them alone.
NARRATION: As the victim survivor becomes more isolated, they become more dependent on their abuser.
Geraldine was isolated gradually.
26:11 GERALDINE:...It never looked to me like you're not allowed to see your family and friends. But then the way that he would behave if we socialized, or particularly when we got home, it just wasn't worth it. Just dealing with that backlash of having to recall all the things that I spoke about that night. Or, why I was speaking to this person for that long?
Also, it was humiliating. So we would go to socialize with my friends and he would tell my friends what a bad cook I was. Or, what a bad house cleaner I was. House cleaning was a big thing. This was one of those massive things that was always held over me. When I left, people told me, "Oh my god, your house was so clean it smelled like a hospital." And it stressed me out so bad.
It wasn't like I got beat up every night. That wasn't what it looked like for me.
27:15 TORNA: And women will often say the physical abuse was bad, but wasn't the problem. I can name that I can describe it. I can say what happened and what the harms were, what the injuries were. That helps a lot. And I can take medication or have an operation, you know what I mean?
NARRATION: Here’s Torna Pitman again.
I don't mean to dismiss, and nor are they, the horror of physical violence, but it was the all the other stuff, the things that go under the headings of emotional/psychological abuse, conversational control, and really, colonizing behaviors that they just could not articulate. That was what was worse, because they were forced to reshape their personality, their inner self, and, you know, to lose themselves to actually give themselves up; relinquish themselves.
And that is a frightening experience, but who knows how to describe that who even knows that they're going through it, it's frightening.
It's like being in a cult where you have to relinquish your identity, your old identity and take on the cult identity, in order to survive
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28:26 JESS:…When you've been sort of studying the history of coercive control and how it appears in other contexts, what kind of parallels do you see with cultic groups compared to coercive control relationships?
28:37 TORNA: The same. If there is like, you know, there's the same mechanics of oppression, I think, are used in the colonizing process, are used in cults, especially cults that don't allow you to leave, you know, like, there are cults and cults but the ones that we, you know, if you leave, or if you try to kind of take yourself back up again and pack up and move on, there'll be consequences.
It’s those same mechanics of oppression. A lot of women say, or when you say to them, it feels like, you know, say the person's name was Sam. It feels like, you know, it was the Sam cult. And they're like, yeah, it didn't really matter what I thought needed wanted, said, or anything, it was definitely about him… It was his cult. And I made the mistake of being coerced or recruited into it. And now I'm reclaiming myself from it. And I might have to go through a little de - deprogramming process.
NARRATION: What we’ve been discovering since the 1950s is that coercive control is used in practically any situation in which individuals, groups or even nation states want to gain control over others. Terrorist groups, cults, hostage situations, some prisoner-of-war camps and homes across the world.
In fact, so widespread is this form of abuse, or ‘thought reform’, that Amnesty International in the 1970s declared the techniques of coercive control to be the ‘universal tools of torture and coercion’. Later, in her writing about trauma and captivity Harvard psychiatrist Judith Herman observed that ‘the coercive methods that enable one human being to enslave another are remarkably consistent.’ No matter what context coercive control is deployed in, Herman says the effect 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.’
Someone who’s been studying how this works in cults and in intimate relationships is one of the world’s foremost experts on cults and power relations, Dr Janja Lalich.
30:53 DR LALICH: Domestic violence is and the coercive influence and control in those relationships is better understood than in cults. I think in cults, they still blame the victim. I think in domestic violence, there are still people who say, Well, why does she leave him? Cult members, especially adult cult members are far more likely to be blamed and say, Well, you know, you joined, it's your fault. You know, why didn't you leave? Blah blah blah.[*]
NARRATION: Janja Lalich knows what this feels like: she was in a destructive political cult for 10 years.. She says the thought reform process can be boiled down to two elements: control and influence.
DR LALICH: In looking at cults,… the coercive control is, is fairly obvious in, … in the cult, it's the rules and the regulations and the the language and the things you can and can't do, and, you know, the very overt kind of indoctrination that goes on and, you know, learning how you're supposed to behave and all the do's and don'ts.
And so it might have to do with, you know, what you can wear, how many children you can have, and you know, where you should live all these things, you know, and it's going to be different in every cult, obviously.
… the influence mechanisms are, are generally far more subtle.
NARRATION: It's these subtle techniques what leads smart, independent people to lose themselves in a cult - or with an abusive partner.
DR LALICH: The importance of of seeing the more subtle influence techniques, I think they are more effective in getting you to think that you've chosen to do the things you do. I mean, the control mechanisms do that too. But it but it's much more aggressive. Right? It's so it's so much more obvious.
I mean, he's beating you, right? But if he's gaslighting you, it's a little harder to see what's happening right? And you're putting it on yourself. Part of going through that whole mind shift is, I think, believing that, well, it's that illusion of choice. It's what it's, it's what bounded choice is about, it's like, it's an illusion of choice, you don't really have a choice, but they make you think you have choice. And so somehow I think the influence techniques are more effective than that.
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NARRATION: So now we’ve really established how coercive control works, it probably won’t surprise you that much of it starts or escalates around three major risk periods: marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth.
33:21 GERALDINE: I fell pregnant and then while I was pregnant things really got worse. It then become picking on how I looked, my appearance. I wasn't working anymore. Or, I was working for him and wasn't being paid. I had no income, I was just at home all the time.
NARRATION: This is Geraldine again. She fell pregnant to her partner after she returned to him, and the control just got progressively worse. When she gave birth to their daughter, complications kept her in hospital for over a week. A social worker offered to organise some home care.
33:59 GERALDINE: He had a really, really strong reaction to that and was like, "No, we don't have anybody in our house. Not interested. Not having it."
She just packed up her stuff and left, but came back to my room later when he wasn't there. She asked me, "Are you safe at home?" That was the first person in my entire life to ever just ask me directly, "Are you safe at home?" Even though I responded and said, "Yes, I'm fine."
And I stayed in the relationship for another two and a half years after that, it did really really plant a seed in my mind. That somebody had recognized it, somebody could see what's going on and it's not okay. That was really, really powerful. I didn't forget it then and I still remember it now. I want to be clear with people that if they're trying to assist someone, there might be a frustration that they're not acting on it, but you don't know what effect you've had on someone just by doing that.
35:00 NARRATION: With little help allowed, and certainly no help from her partner, Geraldine did everything: every feed, every nappy, the cooking, the shopping, the cleaning. And still, no matter how hard she worked, she was always doing something wrong.
GERALDINE: Sometimes I had spent too much money and gotten too many expensive items. Then other times, it was like, "Why do you always buy the shit food?" Whatever I had done, wasn't right.
When we talk about coercive control, it didn't look like, "Well, you can't go to the supermarket." Or, "Oh, you always spend too much money." It looked like whatever I did was wrong. It was just like this constant, my head was just so mixed up
NARRATION: Geraldine felt confused and disoriented. Even though she didn’t know it, she was constantly running risk assessments in her head.
GERALDINE: If he came home grumpy, I would think, "Okay, is it better for me to take Katie out and go for a walk for an hour or two? Let him cool off and give him some space? Or, if I go out is he going to get angry that I've been out? That I'm not at home?" Constantly thinking about it in my head, making a decision and then navigating around it. When people talk about walking on eggshells, that's what it looks like. That constant trying to evaluate and work out what the best option for the least harm is really really intense.
36:33 JESS: And so exhausting!
GERALDINE: Oh my god, exhausting. Like, so exhausting and no joy. When I think of those years, I think of no joy.
MUSIC PLAYING SOFTLY UNDERNEATH DIALOGUE
GERALDINE: I had forgotten what a joyous, happy life would look like. There were times when he would verbally abuse me, and I would go to the bathroom and just cry. Have a really, really big cry. I'd just say to myself I just want to be happy but it just felt so far away or unachievable or not meant for me. Things like that.
That was also really reflected in my daughter. She was really afraid of the world. Very quiet, she didn't speak. She was nonverbal, she just didn't speak. Had a huge obsession with her dummy. Such a good toddler, such a good little girl for me, but scared of the world. Especially men. She had a massive fear of men.
MUSIC PLAYS OUT AND THEN CUTS TO:
LIAM: A lot of people out there don't quite understand how children go through family violence. And I feel like if people can understand then people won't have to go through the hell that I went through.
38:18 NARRATION: This is Liam, and he’s sitting in his lounge room with his little sister, Lily. They want you to understand what it’s like for kids to live with coercive control.
38:27 LIAM…Kids experience domestic violence vastly different to adults. And even between me and my sister here, we both lived in the same situation in terms of the family violence, but we both interpreted in different ways and handled it in different ways and process it different ways.
JESS: Tell me a bit and you know, come in here too Lily about how you had different experiences at this. What were your different roles?
What was your relationship like with him with, with was it your father Lily?
39:04 LILY: Yep, he was my father.
Well, then, I would I'd constantly try and hug him and his cos your relationship with me and him used to be really good we'd play cricket together and he'd call you his trailer because you followed him around everywhere asking him questions. And I love him and but then he started drinking a lot.
And he started getting really grumpy and taking it out on Liam and that was really upsetting. I'd try and cheer him up by giving him presents and he just -and say I love him, and he and try to give him hugs, but he'd just push me away and say, Yeah, right. And I remember on Father's Day, what happened was I wrote this thing on a piece of paper that said, I love you dad, and gave it to him. And he said, Yeah, right while he was outside, and I walked away crying.
39:57 LIAM: Yeah, I think she just really wanted him to love her. But for me as a stepchild, um, I didn't really feel that way.
I didn't like him at all. And this was because I guess, he started drinking a lot. There would be cans, everywhere. Um, he was like, do a lot of bad stuff. And I hated him for it. I saw and heard some stuff that was really unpleasant. Um, I saw, I heard through my bedroom wall thuds and thumps and like him doing horrible stuff. I saw my mum getting bashed violently. Um, which was really hard for a young kid to try and watch. And then, the morning after the or like the day after all this had happened.
He would be calm about it and then, but almost pretend that nothing had happened. And that angered me a lot. I feel like anger was a big part in my relationship with him. I just hated him. And he would make me scared when he would trump down the corridor outside my bedroom screaming racial abuse calling me a C word, and just yelling derogatory terms at me. Um, I often found it hard to sleep and I still do.
41:47 NARRATION: This is not the first time Liam has talked about this abuse.
JESS: I've read in some of your writing that you really felt it was your job to protect Lily like, you know, first and foremost if it felt like there was like it was escalating that you would have to find her and take her somewhere safe.
42:04 LIAM: 100% I felt that I guess it was my job to protect her because what we had this thing in place called the safety plan. So it was if we saw the, I saw that bad stuff was happening, we had to like, find each other and then just leave as fast as possible. So I guess I interpreted that as I just have to look out for my little sister as much as I could. I have to protect and I also just didn't want her to get hurt.
SUBTLE MUSIC PLAYS UNDER THE NARRATION.
NARRATION: Liam and Lily were taking different roles of protection. Lily’s approach was to try and soften her dad, to get him to remember his love for her, and Liams was to be hyper-vigilant, and do whatever he could to shield his mother and sister from his stepfather’s violence.
JESS: Did you feel isolated from your friends and family?
42:58 LIAM: 100% definitely, you feel so so so desperately alone. It's really bad. You feel like you can't tell anyone. I had really good mates at school. And I felt that I couldn't tell them any anything.
He played a role in separating us from our, like, closest friends. He wouldn't let people come over to the house or playdates. He wouldn't like when I wanted to go hang out with my mates. He wouldn't like when I would just try and be a normal kid.
He would always play king of the house. While he was in ultimate control, which is I guess, why we were in such fear. Because he had that ultimate control, we didn't know what he was going to do. I remember sometimes when we were turning into the street, to the front of our house, you'd get this very sick feeling in your stomach. Because you wouldn't know what he was going to do this night.
LILY: And um he'd constantly, um, hit me and and what he would do is I'd be so scared that I would wet myself in bed, and he'd get me in massive trouble for doing that. So I would get - so because I'd get in massive trouble I would go out of my bed to go toilet and he'd get me in trouble for coming out of my bed. So, and uh so how am I supposed to not wet the bed if I'm not allowed to actually come out of bed?
SUBTLE MUSIC BEGINS
44:45 JESS: did you ever feel like he was trying to win you back? You know, like trying to be nice again trying to make things okay? Was that, did that happen very often?
44:57 LILY: Yeah. Uh, he'd, he did it most to mum like he'd attack her than then make her a coffee.
LIAM: Yeah, if there was a, I guess vastly different sides to him. So you would see you would see him attack her and just do bad stuff. And then next day, I love you sweetheart, oh here I'll make you a cup of coffee. Mum would like, try to cover up the marks. I knew that they were there. And I could see them. Yeah.
BREAK IN DIALOG AS MUSIC INCREASES IN VOLUME
46:00 KARINA: So I come from a really big, Aboriginal South Sea Islander family on my mother's side. And on my dad's side, white Australian.
NARRATION: This is Karina Hogan. Karina is a journalist with ABC Radio Brisbane, and a board director with the Childrens Hospital Queensland, and Sisters Inside.
Karina has long been an ally and an advocate for incarcerated women, the vast majority of whom have been subject to domestic abuse and family violence. But this is the first time she’s shared her own story.
KARINA: We grew up in a fairly tight knit community park right in the middle of our Housing Commission estate. It was so tight knit that, you know, it was almost like whose house are you sleeping at tonight kind of thing? Is it Jay's? Is it? Is it Auntie Quilla's? Or is it my mum's? My mum used to constantly make food for all the kids to come and eat all the food all the time. That was her medicine for everything. And one older brother, an older sister and a younger sister. And I loved my upbringing, I didn't know anything different. But what I did know and what I did love was the big extended family that I was part of.
But unfortunately, the men that came into our lives were not very good at times. And that includes my dad, I love my dad to death. It's been three years since we buried him and and I know now as an adult that that his role to play in a lot of the violence that occurred.
NARRATION: The men that came into the lives of Karina, her family and her friends too often brought violence and oppression with them
47:37 KARINA: I think it's incredibly important to acknowledge that within our community, we have men that are violent, absolutely. And so it's important not to, to pretend that that doesn't exist. But I think, from my experience, and from what I've seen, and in my own mother's experience, it was a white man. And it was the same for my neighbor as well.
And so for me, I've been very much exposed to white men being very violent towards Aboriginal women and using language... like, I remember mum being called a black slut.
48:10 KARINA:I remember my mum being called all sorts of names to do with where she's from, and her and the color of her skin. The N word she was called a lot. … upon reflection it feels like white patronizing men that kind of come into their lives and think that they're kind of a cut above the rest in a sense like, oh, you're just this you know, black woman and I can do what I want with you, you know? And I don't know if that is how they think. But that's certainly how it comes across to me being an adult.
NARRATION: As an adult, Karina had children with a man who ended up subjecting her to coercive control. But unlike a lot of victim survivors, while she was in the relationship, she could see that it was abuse, and she called him out on it, right to his face.
48:53 KARINA: With my, my children's father. I ended up actually putting signs up around the house around coercive control and gaslighting and, and when he would do certain things, I would say you are literally doing what is written on this I'm like, What is here, you're telling me that I'm doing something that I'm literally not doing that you have literally just done two minutes ago. And you're doing that. And it would frustrate the absolute crap out of him. Because I was I was identifying his behaviors.
And he had this really uncanny ability to get me angry. I'm not generally an angry person. I'm a passionate person. But I'm not generally an angry, spew abuse at people kind of person. But he had this uncanny ability to push my buttons to the point where I would get so angry, and I would react, and just be just so enraged, whether it was a comment he'd make about my dad's passing, or a comment he would make about my brother.
..or he'd say stuff about me and the work that I would do and my integrity, you would question or, or you'd say, how fake I was on on social media, which, I've always just put photos of my own friggin kids up on social media. But anyway, he would say that I would have this fake persona. And that's something that I really pride myself on is integrity.
I like honesty, I like to be vulnerable. That's something that I value about myself. So he would pick at those things specifically. And then when I'd get angry, he would then go to talk about how I needed to take my medication because I was getting out of control or, or I've triggered him now. And now he's got to leave. So he would have an excuse to go for a day or two and get on drugs or whatever. So he would set it up. And it would almost go bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
50:38 KARINA: So what the signs did for me was it made it made me go, Karina, it’s ok, what he’s doing is he’s trying to get you angry, … so he could do A B and C. And when I started to point it out, and he could no longer have that coercive control over me, that infuriated him even further.
JESS: Yeah. It’s amazing, like your strategy around that. I've never heard someone doing that. I mean, you know and it wouldn't work for everyone because some, for some people that that would provoke their partner so badly that it would be too dangerous, you know, but in your in your particular situation, that's what worked for you.
51:10 KARINA: I will say Jess though there was one incident where he choked me, after pointing out the gaslighting poster. So I absolutely say to you to definitely be careful, because it does it provokes them. It takes their control away.
NARRATION: Despite how strategic and courageous she was, Karina was in the same trap as so many other victim survivors. Damned if you call it out, damned if you don’t.
She’s separated from her ex now, but only recently - she’s still working a lot of things out.
51:43 KARINA: I'm not out of the woods yet, you know, it still does feel draining.
It's because you're kind of carrying their load as well, they've got so much pain and hurt. And they're dealing with a lot of their own traumas and their own past, their own, their own violence that they've experienced growing up, or the their own dysfunction they've experienced growing up. And literally, they come to you, I feel like this anyway he's come to me to be like this crutch almost or this, or this, this way out, or this safety, this shelter, that's what it is this shelter from, from recovery.
He doesn't want to heal, he doesn't want to recover from it. He wants to hide underneath me. And I am almost this protective layer for him. He comes to me, I'm almost like his protective mechanism.
So if he abuses me enough, and he keeps me down enough, and he convinces me that I'm crazy enough then I will stay with him.
52:38 NARRATION: We’re going to hear more from Karina in later episodes - especially when we start talking about police and the criminal justice system.
But what she raises there about the feeling that she needed to care for her partner - that is so common. In fact, studies from around the world consistently show that women working in healthcare are victimised at rates way above the community average - in Victoria, one survey found that 45 per cent of female medical staff had experienced violence from a partner or a family member during their adult lifetime.
Here’s Lisa Aronson Fontes:
53:16 LISA ARONSON FONTES: I think one of the tactics of an abuser can be to make the caring other - the victim - want to rescue them. So we find that a lot of people who are victimized in coercive control or caretakers by profession, they may be nurses, they may be therapists, that may be early childhood educators, and they may just be very, very caring people.
TRANSITION MUSIC BEGINS
So of course, a caring person can be manipulated by an abuser, and so the tactic of, I'm gonna kill myself, I'm gonna go back to using drugs, I'm gonna start drinking again, those are really very effective tactics a lot of the time.
It's hard, but part of the process of becoming free from coercive control is to have some separation between yourself and your issues, and the abuser’s. So you refer the abuser to help, you hope for the best for them, but it doesn't become your life and your problem.
The person who's been a subject of coercive control their entire life revolves around the abuser, what the abuser wants what the abuser doesn't want is the abuser made... Are they getting irritated? What can I do to soothe them? And so it's a huge transition, but a really necessary transition for somebody who is being victimized to begin to think about themselves again. What are their own opinions? What are their own desires? What do they want out of life?
TRANSITION MUSIC CONTINUES
54:45 GERALDINE: I felt like things were escalating. Then I remember, just before Christmas, he was really angry.
NARRATION: We’re back with Geraldine now, and things have come to a head with her partner.
GERALDINE: At that time something switched in me and I really started to steal moments to think about, what would my life look like if I left? Or, could I leave? I had Googled things like, what I would get from Centrelink if I left. I still didn't think of myself as a family violence victim.
I think he sensed it, because my behavior changed a little bit. Where I used to stress about appeasing his behavior, I just started existing. I kind of had a "fuck it" mentality.I would still appease him, but not as much as I used to. I was still keeping the house meticulous, but when he cracked it, I'd be like,"Well, it is clean."
I think he felt it. At that time, he applied for his gun license.
55:59 JESS: That's what I see in so many of these types of relationships, the perpetrator will do something that can be interpreted as a threat, but it's not overt necessarily. He doesn't need to say, "Once I get a gun, I'm going to come for you at night." You know, and he knows, that he will have access to a gun.
GERALDINE: Yes, exactly. It was the first of February that he came home one night and was yelling about the state of the house. I yelled back and was like it's fine. I was upstairs in my daughter's room and she was standing outside the doorway. He picked me up and threw me through the doorway. As I got up, my daughter had run, I scrambled up and chased after her. I got to the bathroom and found her in the bathroom. She was in the bath, crouched. Hiding. In that instance, looking at her as a two and a half year old that was afraid of the world hiding in an empty bath. I just thought, this is bullshit. I have to get out. It's not okay. I grabbed her and said I was leaving.
57:19 GERALDINE: I would never want to hit rewind and have to go through that again, but I would walk through hell 10 times over to get to Katie. To get to my daughter. I'm so grateful for her. I'm saying that, but I want you to understand that as well. Because I feel really guilty about what my daughter had to live with in her first few years. People often say in response, "It's not your fault. She's so lucky to have a mother like you. She's so lucky that you got her out." But she really she saved me. I could accept what was happening to me. But, in the end, it was what I saw it doing to her that pushed me to leave. So, I feel like she saved me, not the other way around.
TRANSITION MUSIC BEGINS
NARRATION: It’s become clear seeing Katie so distressed that there is no other option for Geraldine but to get out of this relationship, and fast. At first, her partner is just dismissive, and doesn’t seem like he’s going to stop her.
58:33 GERALDINE: He was saying, "Well, that's it. Get out then."
I'd said, "Okay, I'll go then." I was going to walk to my mum and dad's. At the time, they were two or three kilometers away. I was just going to walk, then he was like, "No, no, I'll take you. I'll drive you and my daughter there." I had agreed to that and got into the car. Then as I was getting into the car, I just suddenly thought, "Oh my gosh, what if he drives me out to the middle of nowhere and dumps me out in the middle of nowhere with nothing?" All of a sudden, I felt really scared.
SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC AND SOUND EFFECTS BEGIN
59:07 GERALDINE: So then I started saying, "I need to have my phone, I want to take my phone. I won't take anything else. I just want to take my phone with me." Then we argued, he was saying, "It's my phone. It's not your phone." All this kind of stuff. In the end, he said, "Fine, have your fucking phone." He hit me over the face with that, and that's how I ended up with a facial injury. Katie was in the car and she's just lost the plot by the stage.
Immediately, as soon as he did it, my face started to swell up. I was freaking out. I couldn't see out of my eye. Katie's freaking out. And he was like, "I didn't do that." I'm like, "Yes, you did. You just did that." He was like, "Okay, I didn't mean to do that." I'm like, "Just take me to my parents house." And he said, "Okay." We got halfway there and he pulled over and said, "No, I'm not going there. I'm not taking you there." I was thinking, "Fuck, fuck, what do I do? This is a bad situation."
So, then I say that I couldn't see out of my eye. Sort of saying to him, it's okay. Everything's okay. Why don't you take me to a medical centre? There's a 24 hour medical center in town. So, he agreed to that. We drove there, I jumped out of the car. I had nothing with me. I jumped out of the car and grabbed Katie. We walked in, all together. There was a security guard at the door. As soon as I got inside the doorway, I just screamed and said that he did this to me. He just took off.
That's how I got away, but I had nothing.
JESS: Everything that you had been, for want of a better word, conditioned to be loyal, to be compliant, to not provoke. All that stuff, all that habituation. Then, in that moment, just to go in and take such a risk. To say that in public. Humiliate him in public, which is how he would see it. To claim that in that moment is so brave.
1:01:21 GERALDINE: It doesn't feel brave. It's just, you do what you have to do. I feel like it was a gift, a moment in time that I was lucky to have. Other people don't get that moment in time.
POIGNANT TRANSITION MUSIC BEGINS
JANET: Yeah I'm alright darl, it's nice just relaxing here. He tried calling before but we both (inaudible) number
NARRATION: Janet, the woman we picked up from the police station at the beginning of this episode, is looking so much more relaxed. It’s really beautiful to see her slowly come back to herself, to start talking a bit louder - to claim space, and to claim back her right to feeling even a little bit of pleasure and happiness.
JANET: I had it some chocolate
JESS: Excellent! Did it have the desired effect?
JANET: Yeah I think so, I feel a lot happier.
JESS: You look actually more relaxed than an hour ago
JANET: exactly hey?
I think so (trucks passing) (inaudible) isolated, just wierd ya know? To have people to talk to other than him you know?
1:02:50 NARRATION: We’re here at the motel where Janet will stay until a bed becomes available in a refuge.
ASH/SOPHIE: Dejavu huh?
JESS: (laughs) yeah really
ASH/SOPHIE: You ever been to this one before? Yah! So, we want just some (inaudible) number 14? Hopefully we get a nice room.
(car door/boot closing)
NARRATION: As we walk Janet upstairs to her room, I just want some way to wrap her up and help her feel safe, feel loved. It’s so hard, leaving her alone here, after everything she’s been through.
ASH?SOPHIE: Nice to see you.
JANET: Nice to see you too
JESS: Thank you and just Best of luck, you know?
JANET: Gonna need it
JESS: Well, you're in a much better place now. I hope you have a really good night's sleep too. Just lay back and spread out of the bed and have a hot shower.
ASH/SOPHIE: Enjoy a shower, yeah.
JANET: Yeah not used to that. Thank you.
JESS: Bye lovely
1:03:57 NARRATION: Tonight, women and kids from all over Brisbane will be driven to motels around the city for their protection. Most will take with them only what they could carry in their hands, or load quickly into their car. In these cramped motel rooms, they will wait to hear if they can get into a refuge, and how far they’ll have to travel to get a bed. They will busy themselves with the paperwork of leaving violence - Centrelink, banking, social services. They will agonise over their decision, and some will quietly gather up their few possessions and return to the person they just escaped.
Over time, whether they leave for good or return again and again, they will start to find the words to describe what they’ve experienced. They may start to recognise that what they were subjected to wasn’t their fault, but even if they do, it will take many years for them to actually believe that.
What they need is for us to understand. They need their friends and family and co-workers to see the trap they were in, to understand the choices they made, and to help them find their way out of it. That’s why we need to know exactly what coercive control looks like, how it feels, and how to talk about it.
As we’ll see in our next episode, these conversations need to be happening not just amongst adults, but with teenagers. Because believe it or not, they are actually in the highest risk age group for becoming both victims and perpetrators.
That’s who we’ll be talking to - next time, on the Trap.
TRANSITION MUSIC BEGINS
You’ve been listening to The Trap, proudly brought to you by the Victorian Women’s Trust and it’s harm prevention entity the Dugdale Trust for Women and Girls. We would like to thank all of our supporters and donors. Special thanks to Equity Trustees & the Phyllis Connor Trust, the Bokhara (pronounced Bock-hara) Foundation and a private donor.
Our Creative Producer and editor is Georgina Savage. Co producers are Ally Oliver Perham (pronounced Pear-hem), Maria Chetcuti (pronounced Chet-coo-tee), Mary Crooks and Lucy Ballantyne. Special thanks to Leah McPherson and the team at the Victorian Women’s Trust. The Trap was mixed by Romy Sher (pronounced Rummy Share) and Pariya Taherzadeh (pronounced Pa-ree-yah Ta-hair-zar-deh) . I’m your head writer, producer and host, Jess Hill.
This podcast was produced in Sydney and Melbourne and we respectfully acknowledge the traditional owners and custodians of this land, the Gadigal of the Eora nation and the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.
We would like to acknowledge the victim survivors and others who have generously shared their stories and expertise.
If today’s topics have raised any issues for you, help is available. Contact 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or see our show notes for a full list of support services.
For more information about this podcast including show notes and resources, visit vwt.org.au/the-trap and follow @TheTrapPod on Instagram
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Thank you for listening.