Seeing the pictures of Nigella Lawson on the front page, being humiliated, hurt and looking afraid was shocking for some, but not to me. I've spent the last year studying domestic abuse among middle class women. There were an estimated one million or more female victims of domestic violence last year, accounting for almost one in five of all assaults. Prosecutions are on the up and the conviction rate has increased. These mind-blowing statistics were at the forefront of my mind when I was writing my novel 'What Have I Done?' It tells the story of an abusive, controlled marriage and Kathryn's struggle to rebuild her life and reconnect with her children after incarceration for her husband's murder.
The recent changes to the law to include 'controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour', as well as 'psychological abuse' and which apply to anyone 'regardless of gender or sexuality' are long overdue. This means that partners who torment their victims, but do not assault them physically can be brought to justice for the first time. The key to its success will be empowering victims to have the courage to report the crime and the engagement and education of the legal system to ensure adequate deterrents are utilised.
I'd read the quotes and looked at the statistics, but it wasn't until I started speaking to victims and listening to heartbreaking tales of control that I began to see the true picture. Through my novel, I want to explode the myth that domestic violence occurs solely in the top of a tower block between two parties who are alcohol or drug addicted and I hope that by doing so, it becomes a problem that the whole of society has to deal with and not a topic that seems so far removed from most people's lives that it can be swept under the carpet.
Domestic abuse happens in the suburbs, behind net curtains and outside fancy restaurants. No postcode or social group is immune.
I have been staggered by the generosity of the women who have shared their stories with me. Smart, beautiful women whose recollections all started with a similar phrase, 'he wasn't like it when we met in fact he was great. It was small things at first, until I was isolated and vulnerable, that's when it really began...'
These women, to the outside world, lead happy, functioning lives and yet to see the quiver of their lip, the tremor of their hand as they recalled what it felt like to hear his car pull up and the sound of his key in the door, made me realise that it was anything but.
The government change in the definition of domestic violence, highlights the fact that abuse does not have to mean a punch or a kick, it can be a word or a measure of control - just as any victim will tell you, fear comes in all shapes and sizes. It is also key that under-18s will face prosecution for the crime, following concerns about the number of abusive teenage relationships. I sincerely hope that the teenage perpetrator is given the required help to try and prevent them developing into an abusing adult and those teenage victims do not allow a pattern to be set when self esteem and self worth is being calibrated.
One victim I interviewed told me that she wished she'd had a crystal ball to see what 'he would turn into.' I suggested was he did not 'turn into' an abuser, but merely modified his behaviour until the process of isolation and true vulnerability had set in to allow for abuse. If on a first date, he had removed her phone and bank account, criticised her appearance and given the implicit instruction not to talk or look at anyone, she would have run a mile. Yet horrifyingly, it took her a further six years from that first encounter before she found the courage to run that mile. She is still running.