How 16 women are telling their stories of domestic violence to highlight the systemic societal issues that allow abuse in its many variants.
“This is the thing,” Jackie Clark says from her home in South Auckland. “This shit is no more visible now than it was 20 years ago. It's no more talked about now than it was 20 years ago.”
The shit Jackie is referring to is domestic violence. It’s an issue that’s rife within New Zealand: official statistics from NZFVC say at least one third of women in Aotearoa have experienced physical or sexual-partner violence in their lifetimes. When psychological and emotional abuse is included, this figure goes up to 55 percent of women. But the official stats barely scrape the surface, when you consider that an estimated 76 percent of domestic violence incidents go unreported.
“My stat, which is not an official stat, but it's one that I believe is true, is that 50 percent of relationships are abusive,” Jackie says. “And everybody I work with in the domestic violence field says, 'Yup, sounds about right.'”
Despite its prevalence, domestic abuse is still shrouded in silence and stigma. If you’re living with it, it can feel shameful to acknowledge and impossible to escape. If you witness it, well, it’s not polite to pry, it’s awkward to talk about, it’s easier to ignore.
The lack of awareness and conversation around domestic violence is something that Jackie and The Aunties are determined to change.
The Aunties is a collective founded by Jackie, which supports those living with and healing from domestic violence. At its core is a whānau of 27 women, sixteen of whom have told their stories for the book Her Say: Survivors Of Domestic Abuse Tell Their Own Stories.
Jackie calls these women “shiny fuckers,” and it’s an apt description. The collection sheds light on the complexities of domestic violence, and the vast spectrum of control and power wielded in such relationships - be it emotional, physical, sexual, spiritual, financial, or any number of combinations in between.
Just as no relationship is the same, neither is any abusive one. (Although, Jackie notes, a trait many abusive men share is narcissism). But more than that, it also showcases sixteen remarkable women who have found their voices and are using them.
“It's all strength,” Jackie says. “It's all strength and power.”
“It really is about sharing it so that someone out there, who may be experiencing the same thing, might be able to get the help that they need,” says Moeroa Marsters, whānau member and chair of The Aunties board.
“Because there is help out there. That's one thing I learnt about everything that happened to me. I didn't know that there was support out there for me. I didn't even know that I could get out of it. And when people experiencing [domestic abuse] are able to hear that, maybe it will give them strength to get the help they need. Or to feel that they're not alone.”
For Scorpion Princess, telling her story - both in the book and at the subsequent launch events - has been a key part of the healing process.
“It was really nice just being heard,” she says. “You’ve been silenced for so long, and then there's somebody on the edge of their seat just wanting to hear your voice.”
Like most things wrong in this world, real change requires systemic upheaval. “There’s a power structure in this country, and every country. You can call it the patriarchy if you like. And that power structure excuses, defends and protects perpetrators. It always has and it always will,” Jackie says.
“That's why I choose to work at the grassroots. It's not me who's going to make a difference, I don't give a fuck. It's these women, it's the women in the book. They're the ones that are going to make a difference. Their power.”
On an individual level, Moeroa says, “Buy the book. Read it. Gain an understanding.”
“It will have a ripple effect on the way that you will approach the kaupapa of domestic violence,” she says. “These are true stories, and they exist, and they are there to shine.”
The following interviews took place separately, and have been condensed and edited for clarity.
What are some of the major misconceptions around domestic violence in New Zealand?
Jackie Clark: There's a lot of misconceptions, and a lot of the stuff we do know about it is completely fallacious. The stuff that we see in the paper, on the news, that psychotic shit - that stuff's very visible. But it actually makes up a reasonably small proportion of all domestic violence. Because that's how pervasive DV is.
It's so easy for white people to look away from what's going on in their own little family. I always give the example of Uncle Norman and Auntie Jean at Christmas. And Uncle Norman's a gruff, grumpy old bastard, and when he speaks to Auntie Jean he snaps at her and she looks down.
Moeroa Marsters: I think people don’t realise the amount of layers it has. Some parts of society believe that it's all about physical violence. There's not enough to highlight what kinds of violence and control there are - financial, spiritual, mental.
The book shows the different kinds of violence, power and control that’s out there, and we need to understand those layers. If you understand it a bit more, it does change the way you approach it.
Why do you think domestic violence is so rarely discussed or addressed?
Jackie: Well, it's because people still have the Once Were Warriors narrative in their head. That entire film wasn't completely fallacious, but it was mostly fallacious. Because when you're talking about DV in New Zealand, you're talking about stuff that's mostly invisible. I just happen to have a whānau of women who have all been through shit, absolutely. But that's still not what most of it looks like. Most women can count friends and family members who've been through it, or they’ve been through it themselves.
One young woman asked me, ‘Well what's gaslighting?’ And I told her and she started crying. We don't even know what a healthy relationship looks like, so how are we gonna know if the relationship we're in is unhealthy? There's a soundbite for you.
And it must be pretty tough to get out of a relationship when you aren’t even aware how unhealthy it is.
Jackie: One of the things most abusive relationships have in common is the perpetrator is often quite narcissistic. So with my husband, he was professionally unsatisfied, and everything that he thought, did or said was my responsibility. ‘I'm sorry if I yelled at you, but you don't listen if I don't yell.’ Or, ‘This happened to me the other day, that was your fault.’ Lots of gaslighting. And that stuff seems pretty mild, but 28 years of it grinds the fuck out of you.
It's that thing where you're in the middle of something, and you kind of know, because you're so miserable. But you're not miserable all the time, and that's the kicker. This is why these relationships last so long. There might be days or months or weeks where it’s not miserable, it's lovely. And that's what you hang on to. And that's why you become even more convinced it's your fault. It's all you. 'I caused that, it was me that did that'. And that stuff's really sticky.
The onus is so on the victim to get themselves out of these situations - do you think that will ever change?
Jackie: No, I don't. The power structure protects the people who are the most harmful, and in New Zealand, that's white men. 50 percent of all IPV [intimate partner violence] murders are committed by Pākehā men. Then there's white women, who excuse, defend and protect those same men. And they don't appear in the stats as much, because nobody calls the police. White women don't call the police, they don't go to safe houses.
There's very few Pākehā men in prison for Male Assaults Female, for example. So when they go to family court, that's the first time it might be brought up by her, and she has to be very careful. Because he's got money and a good lawyer. And there are very, very few judges that I know of in the family court who have any, any inkling of what domestic violence is. And if they do, they don't really fucking care.
Moeroa: I think the justice system actually keeps women in those relationships. It revictimises a person. I don't like the victim label, but [the system] turns you into a victim.
I remember having to go to my first hearing, and even just going to see a lawyer, you already have to explain yourself, and prove why you should make the case in the first place. Then you have to go back and forth with the affidavits again and again, because they're saying you're lying. Then you have to have someone come into your home and have someone talk to your children, and you feel like you're a bad parent. And then you go to court.
That's the strength you have to have. And imagine a person whose self esteem is very low - they'd rather go back home to the guy. It's so much easier.
What are some of the changes to the legal process you’d like to see?
Moeroa: They can't have it at court. It needs to be done somewhere that isn't a court. The courtroom is very scary, you feel like you're in trouble if you go there.
There also needs to be a lot more education around the system itself - I just didn't understand anything. And lawyers are expensive if you're a working single mum. Not only do you have to deal with getting single mum income support, you also have to get on that register first to apply to get legal aid. I actually think there needs to be a whole new system. There's got to be a better approach.
What can people do if they know of someone in an abusive or violent relationship?
Jackie: If someone knows or suspects [a relationship is] abusive, they just need to be there. The thing is, when you're in an abusive relationship, you carry all the shame. If anybody tries to talk to you about it, it's instant mortification.
People always ask me, so what can I do? What can family and friends do? And I just say, well there's fuck all you can do. Because it's all about happenstance. Finding the right person at the right time. The person who goes, ‘You know what, this is shit.’ All the people in your life might have said it to you, but it has to be the right person. Then there needs to be the right support networks.
What are some of those support networks?
Jackie: There has to be financial support, emotional support - and that won't usually be family, but it might be. Then, is there somewhere safe for them to go? And I'm not talking about a safehouse. I’m talking about if there is somewhere they can stay with that he doesn't know about.
Children are the one that stops most people, and financial's a really big one. So if you're a friend and you've got a bit of dosh, I often suggest getting a credit card and put $5000 on it for them. Then, are they prepared? Because unless they're ready, none of this is happening.
Scorpion Princess: With me, I was always so scared to ring the police because Child, Youth and Family were going to take the kids. But if you do hear something - if you hear your neighbour being beaten up, ring the police. Because you are going to be the voice for those children, you are going to be the voice for that lady. You might stop him from killing her, or you might stop her from getting broken ribs that day, and it might be the wake up call that she needed. People hear it and walk away from it.
There was a little boy that went missing the other day, and everybody was on it. That's how they should be with domestic violence. Stop putting it in the cupboard. Jacinda needs to pay attention and see that the stats are really, really high in New Zealand for a small country. So more wraparound services need to happen, but for that to happen, people are going to have to start speaking out.
Why do you think people are so hesitant to call out abusive behaviour?
Jackie: Because they get embarrassed, they don't want to get made fun of, whatever whatever whatever. I'm going to white men all the time, ‘If you're at a social function and you don't like the way your mate's talking to his missus, have a word.’ Because if they know somebody's seen them doing it, or heard them doing it, they've got two things they do. They get very defensive - let them get defensive, who gives a fuck. Unless they know they've been noticed. So say to them, 'I saw how you talked to her. And I'm not taking your bullshit.'
Do you think that’s perpetuated by the bro culture we have? Everyone’s so concerned with being all matey and chummy?
Jackie: That's right. [For example], a number of young women had messaged me on Twitter about this one particular guy, and said, what do I do about this person? He's standing too close, hugging too long, veering towards that sexual inappropriateness. And I was like okay, I’ll have a word to a mate of mine, because he sees this guy sometimes at events. So I had a word to him. And he said to me, 'Oh, I don't find him like that.' And that ended our friendship. Because I said to him, 'Well you're not a 23-year-old woman you fucking idiot. Why would he be like that to you?’
It's the whisper network. Believe. I say to people all the time, the whisper network is there for a reason. Young women in particular, that's to keep them safe. So now, if I know if I think someone's abusive or know someone's abusive, sometimes I’ll have quiet words to the right ears.
Even when they’re called out, a lot of men seem to struggle to realise or admit the harm they’ve done.
Jackie: They play the victim. They really do. 'I'm misunderstood', 'I'm a feminist ally'. This is what it is, this is the system. Excuse and defend. That's why I don’t believe that there's an answer to any of this until systemic stuff is dealt with.
And Jan Logie's tried, and Marama Davidson will try, but they don't have enough power. Andrew Little didn't do anything about the Family Court system. He said, 'Oh well, there was a big inquiry and no problems with it.’
Well there is actually, it's the judges. We can do all the work we like with Māori and Pasifika women, and have safe houses and refuges and all this carry on. And for 20 percent of people they are lifesavers, but 80 percent of people who access those services return to existing relationships, because that's the nature of the beast. Until we get serious about doing something about the perpetrators. And that needs to be intensive therapeutic stuff.
So what you see happening at Gandhi Nivas - that's extraordinary, but that's only in Auckland. They have three residential houses and they deal solely with men. And with intensive therapeutic input those men can either go back to their families, or stay with their families, whatever it is. I'm not saying that gaslighting never happens or emotional violence never happens, but certainly the physical violence ceases. That’s where it’s effective. It's therapy. Because these are hurt people.
What would you say to someone who is in an abusive relationship?
Moeroa: I can't even answer as to what would be the best way to deal with it, I can only say that when a person is cared for, and starts to reconnect to their self worth, I believe that has a huge effect on the decisions they make next.
I've seen that happen for myself, and I've seen that happen for a few other people. Because when you're in that situation - I felt that I wasn't myself, that I wasn't strong, that I wasn't of worth. You don't tell yourself you're unworthy. You sit there and you just don't believe in yourself anymore. That's crushing. And it's shattering to hear that there are people out there that no longer believe that they deserve to live, or that they deserve to be loved, or cared for.
But the thing I noticed was that when people continue to stick with you, and love you and support you and care for you - it has a ripple effect, and it starts to make you believe that you're worthy. That you deserve better.
Scorpion Princess: To the lady that wants to leave but doesn’t think she can or doesn’t have the strength - you are enough. You are worth so much more. If you can go through what you’re going through now, you can. It will be hard at first, but I promise you it is much easier.
Start off by telling yourself you are a queen and you deserve the best. Keep your mind strong, tell yourself positive stuff. If he says you’re ugly, tell yourself you’re beautiful. Go to a coffee group, go for a walk, sign up to a course to empower yourself. Don’t give up. You can only heal if you take that step.
Her Say: Survivors of Domestic Abuse Tell Their Own Stories by Jackie Clark, $35 (published by Penguin NZ) is out now. Click here to buy a copy.