Why is it that everything that is being written about the Helen and Rob domestic violence story line of the 65- year- old soap the Archers starts by setting out the writer’s status as fan, or otherwise? I don’t know but I feel equally compelled to tell you that I am a “passive” listener. It is my husband of 40-odd years who is the fan. I thought it very strange that a long- haired hippy in the 70’s was an Archers fan, but when the Cambridge Folk Festival puts the omnibus on the speakers on Stage One on a Sunday morning and it becomes as significant as any of the bands you know he is not alone amongst that demographic.
So I am a family lawyer and have been for over three decades and if I had counted the number of times a victim of violence has told me that “it’s not the physical violence; it’s the mental abuse” it would be well into hundreds. Most say it at some stage of opening up about how their life spiralled out of their control. It is this that answers the question so frequently asked by those who don’t have insight into how domestic violence works. After systematic “grooming”, and being “cherished” into isolation with a toxic mix of adoring “you’re not like others”, and criticism “if only…..”, the first slap or push is a shock. However, that shock is inevitably met with an expression of contrition which is so “sincere” that it convinces an already confused soul. How easy is it to meet the disbelief and horror of what has happened with hope that those words of apology are going to be acted on? Too easy when the abuser is two such different beings. The love for the “good” side of the partner focuses the victim’s energy on presenting behaviours which meet with approval - “I wouldn’t get so cross if you didn’t ….” and so the control really takes over.
The storyline in The Archers has shone a light on all of this brilliantly. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the government funded something similar as compulsory listening for all teenagers? That would be a school curriculum item of merit. Let the teenagers have all the debates and discussions that are currently being conducted by the older generation in the broadsheets as a result of this storyline. Might that not also help our young people understand and takes steps to guard against other attempts to control for sexual “you would if you loved me…” or purported religious purposes?
So where do I think the Archers has gone wrong?
The Archers was initially “an everyday story of country folk” and has been painfully careful to reflect real life in all its slow-paced tedium (or is that just my view?). There was uproar when in the interests of drama and presumably in an effort to increase listeners Nigel was killed off (I started walking out of the room when the programme was on at this stage). Now I understand it is officially described as “a contemporary drama in a rural setting” . It would seem that in the interests of drama Helen has adopted the very unusual step of meeting abuse with violence. Perhaps it will all resolve itself in a just way but for an uncomfortable amount of time Helen is as isolated and disbelieved as any victim of domestic violence is warned by the violent partner to expect to be. She is separated from her child – often the most controlling threat. How are the scriptwriters going to replicate the reality that once a light is shone on the violence the lives of the majority of victims get immeasurably better? It is the fear of not being believed that keeps so many victims in their relationship. It is the fact that this storyline might perpetuate that fear that makes me unable to listen even passively to the Archers right now. I fear for those victims that might be dissuaded from coming forward. I don’t care how much money is being raised for charities but if that view prevails we are doing victims a great disservice.
So to the extent that we can correct this:
Do not believe what your violent partner is telling you about the help that is available to you.
Victims of violence are believed.
You will not be judged for getting into this position, or putting up with it as long as you have. The focus will be on putting in place effective legal and practical steps to free you from fear of repetition in the future.
Being a victim of violence does not involve losing care of your child – unless you fail to protect your child from the violence in which case it is not the perpetrator who is taking the step but the local authority who will take action to help a parent break free rather than remove the child.
I am thankful that the Archers has carried the storyline. I am thankful for the discussion. Let’s make sure the “drama” does not obscure the fact that coming out and telling someone about the abuse you are suffering is the first step to changing your life for the better. It is not normal to be abused and you do not have to put up with it.
Most lawyers will offer a service of talking to you and telling you what they can do to help without your having to commit to doing anything. Being informed is the first step to taking back control.
Please ring someone who knows about this stuff. Us, another firm of lawyers or Womens’ Aid.
For an interesting article which sets out the extent that this affects our society: