Its been quite a week for media explorations of domestic violence and sexual abuse. On Sunday we had ‘Savile‘, on BBC2, Louis Theroux’s truth and reconciliation-style revisioning of his 2000 documentary about Jimmy Savile. The clips of Savile give us the chance (with hindsight) to notice coercion in action. Theroux returns to the aspects of the earlier documentary that are most indicative of Savile’s coercive style and of Theroux’s naive interpretations or responses. In one clip we see Theroux turn away as Savile gets horribly physical with a mother and her daughter. This sequence should serve as a reminder that these types of abuse often involve an array of characters – victim – perpetrator and bystander. The event takes place in a crowded space where everyone can see Savile’s inappropriate behaviour but as far as we can tell no-one consciously registers it. Theroux interviews several of Savile’s female victims – interestingly no male victims – and offers them the chance to give their accounts of what they thought during the first documentary. This was a particularly helpful aspect of his endeavour giving voice to the women who are most affected when the media coludes with or minimises domestic violence or sexual abuse. It would have been interesting to hear Theroux reflect more on his feelings about being duped by Savile but he tends to sidestep discussing any sense of personal shame.
The Archers is of course ongoing (and has been since the 50’s!) allowing Radio 4’s nightly drama to unfold a portrait of coercive control, domestic violence and sexual abuse in a timeframe that mirrors real life. The story of Rob Titchener’s abusiveness has been well constructed over 18 months or so but in the last week we heard him beginning to show his abusive side more publically. In his efforts to flout child contact arrangements he begins to attempt coercion of the baby minder gradually escalating his efforts to physical threats when she will not comply. We hear members of the Ambridge cricket team loudly rejecting Titchener as he tries to re-enter the team as if the public accusation that he raped his wife has no meaning. His wife Helen, meanwhile has begun to refind her voice after an extensive period of being coerced and controlled by her husband’s mind games. The great thing about this drama is the focus it provides for women like Helen, (middle class, good family support, ability to earn money) who are often the hidden faces of victimisation. The stereotype of the abused wife is more frequently drawn from the poorly resoured women whose only recourse to support is through public services. The Archers are showing that the comfortable white majority of families are also exposed to the vagaries of abusive men.
On tuesday we had Channel 4 offering up ‘National Treasure‘ a four part drama about a celebrity accused of rape. We follow the immediate aftermath of the accusation as the police cart away computers and mobile phones and the main character, Paul Finchley is left to face up to his wife. We discover that whether the allegation is true or false, Paul is a man with a string of sexual encounters that his wife Marie has managed to disregard for the sake of the marriage. He is a user of violent porn and his celebrity status gives him resources and access to adoring fans. This is a dark and complex drama that shows the extent to which the mechanisms of sexually abusive behaviour are at the reach of the many through household technology. The casual use and distribution of porn; turning a blind eye to everyday sexism; being a mute bystander; subservient female roles; these are all the ingredients of sexual abuse. The drama concludes next tuesday but you can catch up on the All 4 on demand service.
Finally we had a report on the autobiography of Peter Hook, from Joy Division and New order in which he talks of his brief marriage to comedy heroine Caroline Aherne (Gaurdian 3 October 2016). Hook describes a troubled 3 year marriage in which he experienced put downs, controlling behaviour and a range of violent assaults. He describes feelings of shame so typical of being victimised and revealed that the relationship had left him clinically depressed. Its useful to hear men speak about the feelings of shame and embarrasment that go with abuse experiences – it reminds us that abusive behaviour corrodes self esteem in ways that overide gender differences. Aherne, who died in July this year was much revered as a comedian which will make this revelation a contentious one for Hook. On the following day the Gaurdian (4 October 2016), reported that Aherne’s brother, Patrick, had spoken out against Hook for his disclosures as they were historic and sister was not alive to defend herself.
In Savile, National Treasure and the Peter Hook story we see the public struggle to make and maintain heroes at all costs. In The Archers we see a similar process on an ordinary scale – Rob is elevated in the community because of his public display as perfect husband and father – it gave him a heroic status. The capacity to be duped by an abuser is not in itself shameful – the act of attempting to appear safe when you intend to be predatory IS shameful. It seems that being funny, or charitable or nice generates an impression that you are safe and kind too. We need more media coverage of these complex dynamics and we got that this week. The purpose of those reports like the fairy stories of my youth (Little Red Riding Hood or The Emporer’s new clothes) is to remind us that what you see is not always what you get.