David Challen is perhaps an unlikely campaigner against domestic abuse. Aged 30, he can remember the first time he heard the words “coercive control” – and finally had the vocabulary to describe his experience of family life growing up.
Labels shouldn’t be important, he says. But for David, finally having the words meant everything.
It was on a Saturday morning in 2010 when his mother, Sally, picked up a hammer and beat her husband more than 20 times over the head as he ate the bacon and eggs she had cooked for him for breakfast. The following day she drove to Beachy Head, a high cliff on the English coast, and had to be talked away from the edge by a suicide prevention team.
Despite the brutal way in which his father Richard was killed, David says it was his mother who was the real victim. Throughout his childhood and into his teens, he knew things weren’t right. He remembers his father trying to convince his mother that she wasn’t sane when she found him cheating (a practice known as “gaslighting”, common in abusive relationships). He remembers his father dictating when she could leave the house. He knew it wasn’t normal.
Although there were moments of physical violence, including a brutal rape which was said to be punishment for a male friend kissing her goodnight on the cheek, most of the abuse in his parents’ relationship was psychological, financial and emotional, and therefore much more difficult to pin down.
Sally was just 15 when she met the then 22-year-old Richard, and David believes this contributed to how submissive his mother was during the marriage.
“I had a moment in December last year when I was asked to speak at a Justice for Women event and they said ‘coercive control’ and I was like ‘oh my god, how come I’ve never heard of this term?’ It’s everything.
“You feel a bit helpless without that term so that’s why it was so important for me to hear it.”
In February, a landmark appeal case will consider whether to reduce his mother’s murder conviction to manslaughter, based on the abuse she received at the hands of her husband prior to killing him, which was not taken into account in the original trial in 2011. Back then, coercive control wasn’t against the law. The legislation, brought in in 2015, was too late to help Sally.
In fact her lawyers at the time didn’t attempt to use a provocation defence, and despite numerous friends and family speaking about the control Richard had over Sally in police statements they made at the time, his behaviour was not presented to the jury. Tellingly, none of Sally or Richard’s family have ever come out in support of him. In fact all of the family, on both sides, and including neighbours and friends, are all behind Sally’s appeal.
During the trial a 999 call was played in which Sally, who was drunk at the time, can be heard saying she wants him out of the house. The jury then heard Richard taking the phone from her on the recording, sounding “quiet and meek”, his son recalls. It played to the prosecution’s portrayal of Sally as the crazed one in the marriage, and Richard who had to put up with her.
“But my brother and I know that voice,” he says. “It was pure acting. We knew that as his acting voice. It’s sad the way it was manipulated in court and described in the press. And frontline police, perhaps due to their lack of training, didn’t think it was something to follow up.”
This time, Harriet Wistrich, the co-founder of Justice For Women and the lawyer who helped ensure the “black-cab rapist” John Worboys was not released from prison, is representing her. Although she has had success securing the release of women who have killed violent partners, this will be the first time she is attempting the feat where coercive control is the main factor, rather than domestic violence.
David, and his brother James, 34, who prefers to take a backseat when it comes to campaigning, are both hoping their mother will be released from prison and that the appeal could pave the way for other women in similar situations.
“We are really not justifying murder,” David says. “We recognise that she has done a crime, she has killed my father and in weird way we still love him. But nothing will ever be solved in society unless we look at the root cause. Right now this conviction serves absolutely no-one in society and that’s one of the most frustrating things.”
He says he and his brother didn’t take the decision to support their mother lightly. “It’s not just that she’s my mother and I’m her son. I’ve looked very hard in the mirror and I’ve looked hard at the situation that my father has been killed and taken into account what she has done. It’s an horrendous crime and nobody is condoning it but he created her world which revolved around him and he pushed and pulled her throughout the marriage … I think it had just snowballed for her.”
“At times it was physical, most of the time it was psychological manipulation. He verbally fat-shamed her in front of mutual friends and families. He had pictures taken of him on a sports car with topless models and sent it out as greetings cards to friends and some family. It was humiliating.”
On one occasion when Sally caught her husband cheating, she presented him with phone records. Still, he argued back. “It was like sticking jelly to a wall. He would say ‘you’re going mad Sally’. It was his mantra. When she finally proved it, she came to me and said she had honestly been questioning her sanity. At that point I had alarm bells but still it wasn’t a tangible thing I could go to the police with.”
The media coverage at the time of the killing and the trial also disturbed him. “I remember there was something on TV and someone was interviewed about what a nice guy my father was, and I remember thinking ‘I don’t even know who you are’.”
The way the media covers domestic abuse is something that another campaigner Luke Hart has been working to change. His father Lance killed his mother Claire and his 19 year-old sister Charlotte, before killing himself in a swimming pool car park in Spalding in 2016. In the press coverage afterwards, his father was repeatedly called a “nice guy”.
One article in the Daily Mail sparked outrage among campaigners for implying the murder of Claire was “understandable”. The article, which referenced the recent breakdown in marriage between the Harts, read: “Of course, such men are often motivated by anger and a desire to punish the spouse. But while killing their partner as an act of revenge may be understandable, for a man to kill his children (who are innocent bystanders in a marital breakdown) is a very different matter.”
Following the murders, brothers Luke and Ryan Hart, 28 and 27, chose to speak out about what their father was actually like. In open letter, which went viral, Luke wrote that their father “a terrorist living within our own home” whose only cause was to “frighten and bully” his family. Like David, they remember the exact moment that they learned of the term coercive control. It was in the police station, as they sat in shock following the murders. Suddenly everything made sense to them.
The first year following the deaths was spent in Spalding, where the murders took place. Luke describes the year as “groundhog day” as they tried to make sense of what their father had done, and the realisation that their family life growing up had not been normal.
“We just sort of hid because our life had been turned upside down. Our life wasn’t what we thought it was. Our father was not the person we thought he was. Obviously with control, you are isolated and your narrative gets distorted. We literally lived a lie. We spent a year tearing it apart and trying to make sense of it.
“Our father, behind closed doors, was a horrible person,” Luke says. “Although he wasn’t physically abusive, although he was in the end as he obviously killed my mum and sister, he was psychologically, financially, emotionally abusive. Everything he could do without making bruise, he did. He used to say, ‘other men would hit you’ as if we should be grateful.”
They began to carry out training sessions with police officers. This soon snowballed into requests for them to speak at events, do training for other police forces, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the NHS.
Despite running training sessions together, the brothers found it difficult to actually speak to each other face to face about what had happened. They wrote letters to each other as a coping mechanism. These letters have formed the basis of their book, Operation Lighthouse.
Both are engineers and now live in Surrey with their mum’s dogs, and have thrown themselves into campaigning about coercive control.
Luke says the campaigning work has been therapeutic: “I started seeing a psychologist and she suggested I work part-time to help me deal with stuff. But I have ended up filling all my time with charity stuff and campaigning ... It makes me feel better and I love meeting new people, especially people who have been in a similar situation to us.”
“We had grown up with domestic abuse thinking it was just our personal problem that we had to resolve ourselves,” Luke says. “It was only when we started talking to people that we realised domestic abuse isn’t a personal family problem or a male emotional problem as how it’s portrayed in the media, it’s societal gender violence.
“It’s a sociological problem. It manifests in the home because it’s really hard for people to get in. The home is a really easy place to execute gender violence. We realised if we could tell our story and help people, then it was almost an obligation.”
The brothers have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have got in touch to say that them sharing their story had helped them come to terms with their own abuse – or even realise they were being abused in the first place.
“A number of people came to us and people were saying that they didn’t know they were being domestically abused,” Luke says. “They heard our story and left their husbands and said things like ‘thank you for articulating something we never had words for’.”
One woman got in touch to say she had decided to leave her husband after reading their story and realising she was in an abusive relationship. Police later discovered, almost by accident, that he had actually been plotting to kill her.
He says: “We never thought to be controlled was to be abused, but that’s exactly what domestic abuse is. It’s not always necessary for it to be violent, but it is always about control. The more research we did, the more things became clear about how domestic abuse is gender-based violence.”
As well as the book, working with Women’s Aid and White Ribbon and speaking on the topic, the brothers have also worked with Level Up, a feminist campaign group, which this year issued a set of guidelines for the media on reporting domestic abuse.
“It was important for us to take charge of the narrative after so much of the media reporting at the time was from our father’s perspective. They mentioned his suicide note, which was actually a murder note for my mum and sister. They asked passersby what our father was like but not asking what our mother and sister were like. The story the press were putting out was his story. Our story was actually 25 years long trying to escape him but that was never even mentioned.”
He admits they were “furious” when they saw the news reports, and that anger has helped fuel their campaigning. Turning the narrative around to focus on the victim is something they are passionate about.
“When we talk about the media, we’re really talking about editors and publishers because a lot of journalists want to do the right thing … we have found so many reporters who are really sympathetic.”
The way these young men discuss male and female murderers is striking, with David pointing out that female killers are demonised, while Luke discusses how the bar is so low for men that the media focused what a nice person his father had been rather than what he had actually done.
“Apparently our father was a good man despite killing our mother and sister,” Luke says. “You can kill people and still be considered a good man because you’re good at DIY or something … What the hell do you have to do, to be a bad man?”
“There is a massive problem with masculinity at the moment. There is a horribly low bar. Unfortunately the way we deal with domestic abuse is to help women escape, which is totally necessary and it’s the easiest thing we can do right now… but in the long term to get rid of it we have to change how men think.
David agrees. Although doesn’t like to use the phrase “toxic masculinity”, he says he believes that we live in a patriarchal society that favours men, and that’s what needs to change. “Even the best men don’t always do the right things. One of their mates may make a sexist joke or they might see them treating their girlfriend in a controlling way but they don’t say anything. If you do, you’re revoking your lad status. You’re revoking your position as a man and people would think you’re weak. It’s weird how men turn on each other like that.”
David says he has received a backlash for choosing to go public with his mum’s campaign. “I’ve had some online hatred. There are lots of trolls. Some people have put me disliking my father down to him not accepting me for being gay when it’s got nothing to do with that.”
Occasionally, it has also been difficult to navigate campaigning on an issue that is seen as women’s territory. “Walking into a room full of women at the Women’s Aid conference and being one of the very few men there was perhaps one of the few moments of my life where I felt like a minority and it felt quite scary. Add to that I wasn’t scheduled to speak but they put me in at the end of some questions.”
The upside to occasionally feeling uncomfortable or receiving abuse from trolls is that, like Luke and Ryan, he has received countless messages from people who have shared their own stories of domestic abuse with him. “There have been so many people who have got in contact with me, and I know it’s been the same with Luke and Ryan, and they have read our stories and started to identify coercive control in their lives.”
Luke, Ryan and David aren’t the first men to raise awareness about domestic abuse. The White Ribbon Campaign is a global movement of men and boys working to end male violence against women and girls, which launched in 1991. But Chris Green, executive director of White Ribbon UK says they are doing great work to raise the particular issue of coercive control, partly because they are all so young.
“I have been wanting to pass the baton on after setting it up in 2005 and gradually I’m doing less because you want the young men to take it up because what they are saying is so much more relevant to other young people. That’s not to let older men off the hook of course, education at any age is important.”
Like Luke and David, he agrees that much more needs to be done to get more men involved in learning about domestic abuse and calling it out when they see it.
“Last year we had 156 events but that’s pathetic, it’s not enough,” he says. “There should be 10,000 events around Britain. They should be in every school, every church, every community centre, every factory, every office. But it isn’t. We have 1000 ambassadors and 35,000 men who have signed our pledge but that’s pathetic. It should be 35 million. So we mustn’t get too complacent about what we’re doing.”
For Luke, it’s the memory of his mother and sister that keeps him motivated to continue to start conversations about coercive control.
He says: “My mum and Charlotte were the most beautiful people. Charlotte, in particular, ever since she could walk would spend her time looking after people, animals or people with disabilities … We didn’t have much at all because our father wasted all our money or purposefully hid it from us but my mum and sister would sell things at car boot sales and instead of keeping the money, they would give it to charity.
“[They] taught us that being in that environment of hate doesn’t infect you, it can teach you why you value love and that’s what my mum and Charlotte taught us. Without them, we wouldn’t be who we are. We would be emotional shells and completely destroyed.”
For David, who visits his mother once or twice a month at HMP Send in Surrey, it’s the thought of her finally getting to experience life as a free woman – both free from prison and free from his father’s clutches – that motivates him.
He says: “The scariest thing is she still loves my father. She hasn’t walked the earth properly outside living free to know that she can exist without him because he controlled her so much and even now, even though he is dead, he still has that control.”
- Refuge- Domestic violence help for women and children - 0808 2000 247
- Visit Women’s Aid- support for abused women and children – or call the National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247
- Broken Rainbow- The LGBT domestic violence charity - 0845 2 60 55 60
- Men’s Advice Linefor advice and support for men experiencing domestic violence and abuse - 0808 801 0327