Today I stand up here wearing many hats that make me a passionate advocate for affecting change NOW in the epidemic that is violence against women in Australia. I am a social worker who works with women and children in the Northern Territory who are exposed to domestic and family violence on a daily basis. I am a mother of three sons, who I have a responsibility to educate about violence and mould into good men. I am the mother of a daughter who I hope grows up free from the violence and abuse that women are often expected to see as normal in society. And in addition to all those things I am also here as a woman whose young life was torn apart by physically and emotionally abusive relationship. An experience that nearly ruined my life and my self-worth for good.
There are many excuses we hear thrown around to justify physical and sexual violence against women - she asked for it, she baited him, she was wearing something suggestive, he was drunk, he didn’t hurt her that bad... but all of that is rubbish. The only person ever responsible for violence is the perpetrator.
No one sets out to be in a violent relationship, or be with someone who wants to hurt them, but often those elements of a partner and relationship don’t come out until you’re deeply invested, and almost always it is made out to be the woman's fault. I was always the type of girl who wondered why on earth girls stayed with guys who were controlling or rough, or made their whole lives about their boyfriends. That would never happen to me, I thought, because I was too smart and independent – I knew exactly what I wanted out of my life.
So how did I end up in a violent relationship? Well, I want to give you a bit of a back story to my life led me to that relationship. Before I was born, while my mother was pregnant with me, my father brutally murdered two people in a very high-profile case in Sydney. I didn’t learn about these crimes until I was six but when I did I was forced to keep the information a secret. I look back now and wonder if the pressure to keep unpleasant information secret impacted my choices to be silent later in life, but either way, it set the tone for how we in my family dealt with shameful things. Be silent!
While I was growing up my mother was prone to volatile relationships and I suppose subconsciously I began to think it was normal for people in adult relationships to scream and fight and drink a lot, and sometimes throw furniture at each other. In these times I would just take myself off to my room and wait for things to die down. And then things would be okay again. Or the relationship would end and it would just be me and mum again. That’s just how adult relationships worked, I thought.
Life was going to be different for me, though. Keeping my secrets from everyone, I managed to mould myself into this reasonably popular girl. I was a cheerleader for Manly football team, captain of the mock trial team, and was off to study Law at university, when I met Ben in the final months of high school through mutual friends.
Ben came from a broken home; he didn’t have a lot, but he was a hard worker, funny, a bit of a showman. and we were pretty serious from the beginning. I knew Ben had a tough childhood, and his dad, who raised him, was rough with him. But people can’t help who their parents are - I was testament to that.
In the first stages of our relationship I was away in Canberra at university, starting my law degree, so much of our relationship was long distance. One night, in Canberra, I was raped by my male employer while at work. And my whole world came crashing down. Everything I had been working for crumbled around me. So I moved back to Sydney to try to process it all.
I was a broken woman after the rape. I thought it was my fault and, like many women, I kept it a secret because I was ashamed. I had no family support. My law aspirations were set aside. All I had was Ben, so when Ben asked me to move in with him I said yes. And at first, that seemed like a good decision, because we all need someone to love us, don’t we?
Ben and I were together for more than a year before he seriously hurt me for the first time. By then I knew Ben had a bad temper: I’d heard about a few drunken fights he’d been in and I knew he could be a loudmouth at parties sometimes, and, yes, on a few occasions he had pushed me around and said awful things. But he always said sorry, and I thought I could handle it.
And he would tell me that even though I was damaged goods after the assault, he still loved me.
Now, I could stand here and tell you about all the awful things Ben said and did to me over the four and a half years we were together but all you will take away with you are snippets of awful adjectives. Instead, this passage from the book will put you in a moment with me the first time things turned violent and I realised I was out of my depth. And where life between me and Ben unravelled and set me on a new trajectory that I would struggle to escape from.
Every time I tried to get up and move a few steps towards the guesthouse, Ben shoved me back down, my palms shredding against the bitumen. Back up, a few more steps, then back down. Finally, I ran the few metres to the guesthouse and all the way up the stairs. I sat with my back against the door and waited momentarily for Ben to make his way up the stairs. He opened the door, and we moved our fight inside, and the shoving continued.
‘Just stop, Ben. STOP! What are you even doing?’
Grabbing my arms, Ben threw me backwards onto the bed and pinned my arms over my head. ‘What am I doing? What am I doing? I am teaching you a lesson. You don’t tell me what to do, who the hell are you? You’re no one. You think you’re too good for me but you’re lucky I’m even with you. No one will ever want you if they know what a slut you are. Do you want me to tell everyone?’
‘No, that’s right. You’re just a dumb slut, aren’t you?’
‘No, I’m not.’
Ben leaned down and gritted his teeth. ‘Yes, you are. Say it, say, “I’m a worthless whore”.’
‘I’m not saying it.’
Ben let go of my left wrist and drew one hand back. ‘If you don’t say it, I’ll punch you. Don’t make me punch you.’
‘As if punching me is any worse than what you’ve already done. You just kicked me like a dog in the street.’
‘That’s because you are a dog. Now say it!’
‘You’re not in control of me, Ben. I won’t say it. I’ll never say it.’
Everybody has a threshold and in this moment, after everything, I’d found mine. It was all I could muster, but I felt determined not to give in on this, certain that if I did I would lose myself completely.
I stared defiantly up at Ben, our eyes locked, and for a second my confidence faltered. I thought he might actually punch me.
I shut my eyes.
The sound of flesh splitting flesh.
My face opened like an overripe watermelon, juices bursting onto every surface. ‘Oh my God, oh my God,’ I heard Ben say, so I opened my eyes to see what he saw. My thick red blood had saturated the starched white sheets and splattered high up onto the walls. Ben looked instantly sober and surprised. Surprised to see my face bloodied? Surprised, like me, that he actually followed through? Or perhaps it was shock as he took in the sight of my blood dripping down his fist. I couldn’t tell.
Sweet metallic blood. It was all I could smell, all I could taste and all I could see. It was everywhere.
After this incident in Thailand Ben swore it would never happen again, but of course it did. This set the bar of all the fights to come. If there was no blood, in my mind it wasn’t that bad. Over time the violence happened with more regularity, and greater ferocity. It never happened every day but it did become a cycle. Violence, self-loathing, apologies, recovery. And I was trapped in it and had no idea how to get myself out. I began to believe all the words Ben told me, that I wasn’t good enough, that no one else would love me, that it really wouldn't happen again, that it was my fault, that people wouldn't believe me if I told anyone, but as is the way with a cycle every time things got better, they ultimately got worse the next time things turned violent.
So how did I leave? I threw myself back into my study, into building my career, building a life secretly away from Ben because I could see that if I wanted any sort of life for myself I needed to get out, but it took a long time until I felt like I could do it, until I was truly prepared.
When I finally left at the age of 22 after seven failed attempts, the real work of overcoming the trauma truly began. The scars left by my rapist and Ben had fundamentally changed who I was as a person and I discovered leaving was just the beginning of a very long road of healing ahead for both of these acts of abuse.
In the years after leaving Ben I saw a psychologist and worked hard to build up my self-confidence after it had been destroyed. I got married and went travelling, finished my degree, forged a career, had children and wrote a book about it all. I overcame it all despite never thinking I could.
For me, sharing my story with others, writing about it all in a book, talking about it at events like these has been the most cathartic experience. Ultimately breaking my silence and talking about my sexual assault and abusive relationship takes away the power from the perpetrators in my life who expected me to stay silent and has returned the power over my story to me, where it belongs. Because I decide what happens next.
This year in Australia there have been 63 recorded deaths of Australian women from perpetrated male violence. For every one of those 63 dead women there are another 100 who have been sexually assaulted, and another 200 who haven’t died from the violence they have endured this year but have come close. For every one Caucasian woman experiencing violence there are 32 of our Indigenous sisters experiencing the same, and as a Northern Territory resident and professional I feel compelled to highlight this figure, because it is even harder for Indigenous women in remote areas to get the support they so badly need.
All of the figures become disturbingly overwhelming and hard to fathom. Sometimes people put these figures aside because they are too much. Many people have said to me, ‘I to put your book down and have a break because it was too painful to read’ – and aren’t we lucky we can take a break? But what we can’t do is brush these stories, these realities aside, or ignore them.
The reality is that physical and sexual violence against women is increasing. We have to stop thinking in numbers and think in faces because Every number, every statistic has a face and a story like mine. These are women who if they can escape could go on to have a bright future ahead of her, a family, people who will love her and treat her as she should be treated. Like me. And it is our responsibility as a nation to make sure that happens.
This year 63 Australian women will never get the opportunity to live their life like I have, we will never hear their stories and they will never get to call themselves survivors. And that is unacceptable. But while I am grateful to be alive, I resent even having to call myself a survivor. Because I shouldn't have to survive a relationship or a rape. The violence and abuse should never take place to begin with. And that is why we are here today, to make a difference, to affect change and to end male violence against women.
The House of Lies is available now.
For more information on White Ribbon, go to: https://www.whiteribbon.org.au