Defending abusers helps no-one
During his appearance on Monday’s edition of the popular magazine show Loose Women, Comedian Alan Carr was asked about his friendship with his old television partner Justin Lee Collins, who was convicted of domestic abuse in 2012.
Carr wrote about his friendship with Collins in his new autobiography, Alanatomy and suggested that Collins, who abused his girlfriend, Anna Larke over a 9 month period, had “sorted himself out” and that his action “wasn’t the Justin I knew”.
Those actions, the court heard at the time, included Collins slapping, grabbing and pulling his girlfriend’s hair and spitting on her face. He also controlled his girlfriend’s social media, eventually forcing her to close down her Facebook account, stop using Twitter and abandon her email address. The court was told he prevented her from looking at other men, saying: ‘When you’re with me you look at the ****ing ground, you look at a tree … you don’t look at any other ****ing human being.’
While I’m sure that Carr feels that he is being admirably loyal to his old friend, and indeed, his plea on behalf of Collins that “everyone deserves a second chance” was met by a round of applause from the Loose Women audience, his loyalty is misplaced. Having spent seven years in an abusive relationship, I can tell you that very often, the man abusing you, the person using violence or emotional abuse to batter you, either literally or metaphorically, uses his friends as part of his armoury. They provide a convenient smokescreen behind which to hide the abuser’s true nature.
Everyone knows the grim statistic that two women a week are murdered by their partners in the UK. According to Women’s Aid, police receive a call related to domestic abuse every 30 seconds. Of the victims of Domestic Abuse in the UK, 84% re female and 16% are male while 92.4% of perpetrators prosecuted are male and 7.6% are female. It is very much a gendered crime. According to the 2013/14 Crime Survey of England and Wales, 28.3% of all females in the UK have experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16.
We are all aware that huge numbers of women experience domestic abuse, be that physical or emotional, in their lifetime. We know that the problem of emotional abuse is so pervasive, that in last year, coercive control was finally recognised and written into law as a criminal act within the context of an abusive relationship.
But sadly, what appears to still be the case, is that despite these shocking statistics, domestic abuse is still regarded as something that happens to other people and crucially, is perpetrated by ‘others’.
Domestic abusers are all too often regarded as knuckle dragging Neanderthals, markedly different from the men around us. This allows us to separate what we know to be hideous acts of violence and control, from the men that we like and love. It allows us to condemn domestic abuse without having to look too closely at those around us or even at ourselves, and ask the question ‘Am I complicit in this?’.
It is both convenient and comforting to ‘other’ abusers, but statistically, if abuse is something that affects so many women, then statistically we must all know someone who perpetrates it. It is an uncomfortable truth to know that among our colleagues, friends and family members, there lurk men who would hurt and disrespect woman, but it truly is the case. Every man who abuses a woman is someone’s son, brother, father, partner, husband and friend.
It is undoubtedly hard to hear that your friend or relative has been accused of domestic abuse, but by doggedly separating the person you socialise with from the partner who hurts, beats, kicks, pushes or emotionally terrorises their partner, you do no-one any favours, least of all the women in your life.
An important part of emotional abuse involves gaslighting; the practice of denying someone’s reality in the face of overwhelming evidence. “No, I didn’t hit you”. “I don’t know what you are talking about”. “You are imagining things” and the old standby, “You’re crazy”. All these were stock phrases aimed at me repeatedly by my abuser. In the end, in the face of such overwhelming coercion, and in the absence of any witnesses, I started to doubt my own sanity and my own reality.
It is unbelievably hard being the victim of domestic abuse. To discover that the person you love and trust is capable and willing to hurt you. To feel trapped and manipulated into staying in a relationship that is slowly destroying you, because you don’t know how to leave. Or you can’t afford to leave. Because you are too scared to leave. Because you have nowhere else to go. What makes it harder, is to hear and see your pain minimised by those around you, because they don’t want to acknowledge the truth of the situation.
The vast majority of women in abusive relationships love their abusers. Violence eventually kills that love, but it can take a while. I loved my abuser. I hated the abuse but I loved him. I believed him when he told me he would change. I wanted our relationship to work but crucially, I just wanted the abuse to stop. I, like many abused women, wanted my partner back; the man who wooed me with promises of love and security. The man I originally met. I wanted everything to go back to normal. Of course, there is no ‘normal’ in an abusive relationship and the nice guy that I met at the beginning was a lie. A front, to allow him access; a way in. It’s the same front that is presented to people like Alan Carr. The ‘nice guy’ fallacy.
I lost friends when I eventually left my abuser, because so many people refused to believe, couldn’t believe that the kind, funny, helpful, intelligent and talented man that they knew as their friend and colleague, could be the same person who was inflicting such egregious violence on me. Many of them are still stuck in this place. I could tell that some of them desperately wanted to believe me. They didn’t want to accuse me of lying and so couched their concern in more relatable terms. “Had he been drinking?” they would ask. “Is he under stress at work”. “Does he take drugs? Is he angry at his parents?” Endless questions were asked that gave them the opportunity to somehow diminish the horror of what was happening. To give him some kind of ‘out’, to make it somehow less his fault. To give him an excuse, when in truth, there is never an excuse for domestic violence.
Alan Carr has fallen into the same trap; wanting his friend to be good. Wanting his friend to have experienced a ‘blip’, or as he put it on Monday, “He was in a toxic relationship”. Anna Larke was certainly in a toxic relationship, but the source of that toxicity was Collins himself. All of this highlights just how vast the chasm of misunderstanding about domestic abuse still is and how great the level of cognitive dissonance when it comes to hearing difficult things about people we care about.
Many of my old friends are still in touch with my abuser and must wrestle with the monstrous allegations that I made, versus their own day to day experience of him as an all-round ‘good egg’. It is almost impossible for them to square the warm, friendly family man they spend time with, against accusations of extreme violence and psychological manipulation. It is easier to write me off as bitter or crazy or emotionally unstable – all accusations that he has levelled against me over the years as a means of defence. I can live with that. I can live with being regarded as unreliable or crazy, because I have my sanity and my safety and my life now is grounded in good things. I was one of the lucky ones and I managed to escape.
But for many women, still trapped in destructive relationships, their avenue of escape is made much more difficult to traverse, by the knowledge that they are unlikely to be believed. When everyone closes ranks around you, either through disbelief, embarrassment or shame, to whom do you turn?
For some men, the possibility that their best friend could be an abuser is too uncomfortable to countenance. Either that, or they, on some level, share that aggression, that sense of ownership and entitlement. The idea that one’s partner is there to be ‘kept in line’. My abuser once confessed to his best friend that he had hit me. Instead of expressing shock or opprobrium, his best friend nodded sympathetically and told him “I know what you mean, I once smacked (girlfriend’s name) round the face”. Instead of condemning him, or expressing concern for me, his friend merely reinforced the myth that this is what men do. When your girlfriend pisses you off, you teach her a lesson.
In the face of such complicity and denial, it becomes devastatingly hard to exit an abusive relationship. Women who are trapped need more support, more honesty and more courage from the circle of friends and family around their abuser. Men like Alan Carr need to be braver than this. Carr needs to be open and honest about Justin Lee Collins and the abuse of his girlfriend, after all, this is not some spurious claim, he was found guilty in a court of law.
As hard as it may be for Alan Carr to admit that his friend is an abuser, he is a celebrity and his words carry weight. He has a responsibility to speak the truth about domestic abuse; he owes it to the one in three women who will experience it over their lifetime.