This blog comes after three events.
First, the criminalisation of coercive control under the 2015 Serious Crimes Act.
The second, a short conversation with a much-loved ex-colleague (paraphrased below).
Me: “So, I work for a centre researching inter-personal violence”
Him: “Yes, I know, but isn’t all violence inter-personal?”
Me: “I guess so, but as opposed to state violence”
Him: “Good point”
Third, I finished reading Carmen Bugan’s Burying the Typewriter.
Reading that book prompted me to consider whether my response about state violence was a good point. Is there really a clear distinction between state violence and inter-personal violence? Is the state different from the people who enact its orders and couldn’t my colleague be right that violence is always inter-personal? The feminist adage that the personal is political is about refusing straightforward dichotomous categories. It suggests that there are links between the state and personal arrangements; that is: who is discussing whether or not we bomb Syria impacts on, is related to and, therefore, is as political as who has their hands in the sink with the dirty dishes. The state and those who live within it are the same.
Coercive Control and the Serious Crimes Act
The Serious Crime Act s. 76 (1) is the first legislative attempt to criminalise the patterns of psychological abuse which underpin domestic violence. It is about tackling the non-violent forms of abuse which torture and restrict victim’s lives. Ewan Stark defines this as the ‘micro-regulation of everyday behaviours’ and likens it to a hostage situation:
“victims of coercive control are frequently deprived of money, food, access to communication or transportation, and other survival resources even as they are cut off from family, friends and other supports” (Stark, 2007: 5)
The change in the law is in part a response to feminist activism which has highlighted that the emphasis on physical assault means that much abusive behaviour remains hidden and therefore, women’s responses to their physically violent partners are too easily viewed as incomprehensible (Westmarland, 2015). The question – why doesn’t she just leave – remains a mystery when coercion is left out of the equation.
Why Bury a Typewriter?
Burying a typewriter must also seem incomprehensible. Yet, this act is central to Carmen Bugan’s memoir of her childhood in Romania under Ceausescu’s regime.
Bugan’s account is both charming and haunting. She presents the experiences of her childhood with the clarity of a child’s recall and demonstrates the impact of government control, corruption and manufactured hunger.
“There is a thought that occurs to me as a result of helping my parents in the bread queues, and that always bothers me. It has to do with the transformation that people undergo at some point between three and five o’clock. At three everyone is dignified, walking around the small town slowly, calmly, with all the buttons neatly shining on their coats, each face with a pleasant, open smile, which my parents teach my sister and me to imitate, because that is part of being civilised. At five each person forgets custom and civility and I see neighbours pushing each other, fighting for a loaf of bread.” (Page 72)
Carmen’s father is arrested for activism, for daring to bring to the attention of others the state of the nation. This has severe consequences. He is imprisoned, shackled and fed lies about his family who themselves are subject to incredulous levels of surveillance. They are not allowed to sleep with the curtains drawn. Parts of their house are sealed off. The house is openly wired and every conversation is heard. Their neighbours are regularly invited to discuss them. Her lack of freedom and the realities of everyday life compared with the propaganda of her schooling and the media lead to a complex inner life:
“Without realizing, I become bilingual as far as feelings go: I learn ease and unease.” (Page 67)
However, the impact is much wider than the immediate family. Those who carry out the surveillance are afforded bragging rights:
“’I can hear the child breathing and crying.’
He always tells neighbours about this as if he really wants us to know it. This sentence is becoming a refrain.” (Page 145)
This is state violence, enacted by a person. The officer is the state.
The state also co-opts neighbours for its own ends.
“Sofica is our neighbour who is in her late thirties and single, is called to the Securitate to give information about us. Does she have a choice? We can’t tell the difference between her being ‘interrogated’ about us and her being asked to ‘inform’ on us. This is a fine distinction…” (Page 159)
Then there is Carmen’s literature teacher:
“Lucia was also asked to inform but she very loudly denied the ‘offer’, telling us about it with a big voice in the house, so the Securitate will register her with their microphones and not bother her again. My thought is that she is spared the punishment that comes with the ‘refusal’ only because she doesn’t live next door like Sofica does.” (Page 163)
Both Lucia and Sofica offer resistance to the Securitate’s orders, in different ways, whilst both guarding their own survival. Lucia’s defiance becomes even more significant when it is disclosed that she is a victim of a different kind of violence.
“Her husband comes home from his lover, with whom he now has a baby, only to beat her and to take the money she earns from teaching. He is an abusive alcoholic. She shows me her legs puckered with holes from the forks with which he stabs her.” (Page 163)
The state not only is violent, it fails to protect against other forms of violence. The state makes villains of its officers, and coerces others to collude. Whilst highly visible in the life of Carmen’s family, it is noticeably absent in policing Lucia’s husband.
However, despite its force, there is no straightforward victory for the state. There is resistance.
“I feel like the chick which convulsed in our hands before it finished fighting the toothless hag. But every day I decide I am not the chick and I will put my fist in the face of suffering, both angry fists if I have to. I will win, I will grow, I am so much stronger than a victim.” (Page 147)
Coercive Control, State Control, Resistance
Reading this memoir was a useful means of examining what is meant by psychological abuse or the extension of control over a life/lives, often couched in the language of protection (of ideals, the state, of freedom…). There are obvious parallels between this experience and that of victims of domestic abuse who report ‘walking on eggshells’ (Westmarland, 2015). However, simply because there are similarities in the behaviour of a domestic abuser and an abusive state, this does not mean that the two are linked. And however, I feel about current UK politicians to compare them to the monstrosity of the Ceausescu regime would be reprehensibly disproportionate.
Yet, this book has led me to consider why I feel troubled by the new legislation. Like most feminists I am glad to see that coercive control has been recognised as a phenomena that underpins many abusive relationships and has a particular impact on the portrayal of women within them, their ability to seek help and the reception to their stories. To police domestic abuse without an understanding of coercive control can lead to victim blaming.
However, as a social policy academic, there is concern about the role of the state in this. Here in the ‘Democratic West’ –
“Politicians frequently claim to support liberty and empowerment. Yet governments and political leaders often advocate policies that restrict citizens or seek to persuade them strongly in specific directions” (Harrison and Sanders, 2016: 3)
I think my concern is the emphasis on the role of legislation, rather than welfare and support being central to the response to abusive relationships. This is heightened by current restrictions on legal aid, imposed by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (2012), which has tightened regulations and access to legal aid, with strict evidential eligibility requirements. Physical assault can be evidenced by bruises and medical attention, but how do you evidence coercive control? There is also recent historical evidence that attempting to address and emphasising one aspect of domestic abuse can lead to unintended and potentially punitive outcomes for women. For example, domestic violence has now been recognised (quite rightly) as a child protection issue. Most noticeably with the new category of harm ‘impairment from seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another’- being introduced in the Children and Adoption Act (2002). Children are not just passive witnesses to domestic abuse (Callaghan et. al., 2015) and this needs to be acknowledged. However, a heavy-handed, non-nuanced approach to this knowledge is highlighted in Peckover and Bridstone (2007) who suggest that the focus on child protection means that women are seen primarily as mothers rather than victims and the fathering role of perpetrators goes unexamined.
Legislation enacted by a state is a blunt tool to address a complex, nuanced set of circumstances, especially when this is not supported by a well-resourced welfare sector. Domestic Abuse services are particularly hard-hit in the current throes of austerity.
Some Final Thoughts
Read Burying the Typewriter because it will give you a poetic insight to life under siege. It demonstrates how lives are curtailed by vicious policing and state-sanctioned surveillance. It also is a story of courage and resistance.
However, individual endeavour and courage should not be the only means of escape. Carmen’s family relied on allies and international support. Simply being in the right (or being victims of a wrong) is not enough to secure justice.
Most of all, it demonstrates that whenever a state tries to demonise an individual, or group of individuals, there are casualties and there is resistance.
For me, it troubled my thinking about state, welfare and control. The means of demonization may be more subtle in 21st century UK than under communist Romania, but they still need to be wrestled with and resisted.
Bugan, C. (2012) Burying the Typewriter: Childhood under the eye of the secret police London: Picador
Callaghan, J., Alexander, J., Fellin, L. and Sixsmith, J. (2015) Beyond ‘witnessing’: children’s experiences of coercive control in domestic violence and abuse. Journal of Interpersonal Violence.
Harrison, M. and Sanders, T. (2016) Social Policies and Social Control: new perspectives on the ‘not-so-big-society’ Bristol: Policy Press
Peckover, S. and Featherstone, B. (2007) Letting them get away with it: Fathers, Domestic Violence and Child Welfare Critical Social Policy 27, pp181-202
Stark. E. (2007) Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life New York: Oxford University Press
Westmarland, N. (2015) Violence Against Women: Criminological perspectives on men’s violences London: Routledge