Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

World gripped as spectre of domestic violence hits home

Headline-grabber: the spotlight is on domestic violence after a tabloid showed Charles Saatchi gripping Nigella Lawson's throat
Headline-grabber: the spotlight is on domestic violence after a tabloid showed Charles Saatchi gripping Nigella Lawson's throat

Nigella Lawson – handsome, clever, rich, who seems to unite some of the best blessings of human existence – is not the sort of woman we expect to get physically manhandled by her husband. Yet, here we all are, gawking at photos that show Charles Saatchi, the art collector and owner of The Saatchi Gallery, with his hands around our heroine's throat.

Saatchi has since insisted that it was "just a playful tiff" and that he grabbed Nigella's throat "to emphasise [his] point" during a heated argument. He claims she was unhurt.

How fortunate, though, for Saatchi that the altercation took place outside a posh central London restaurant – Scott's in Mayfair – where everyone was, apparently, too polite to intervene.

We don't believe that middle-class men are violent to their partners. Or that rich, successful women suffer from domestic violence.

Surely, we think, domestic violence is the grubby problem of the poorly-educated? We suspect that the typical victim is a meek mouse of a woman, who somehow brought those cigarette burns on herself by being irritating.

"I have met a lot of women who've survived domestic violence," says Polly Neate, the chief executive of Women's Aid. "All different types of people. But I've never met a little mousey woman." Anyone can be a victim. A quarter of all women have suffered from domestic violence and being an extrovert, boasting a brilliant career is – outrageously – no immunity.

Class, or status, are wholly irrelevant, but we persist in our naivety. It's simply a defence mechanism, nothing more, nothing less; we are desperate to find a cast-iron reason that distances us from the miserable fate suffered by someone unnervingly similar to our comfortable, little selves. We cannot tolerate the thought that we are not safe.

We cling to our rose-coloured view, wilfully disregarding the truth that our blindness makes us guilty of cowardly neglect.

It is difficult for us to acknowledge the truth, because then we are obliged to take the inconvenient, awkward, possibly frightening step of doing something about it. We, supposedly 'decent', types find cruelty hard to comprehend; so, instead, we search for a sensible cause to explain it away. Or, at least, to explain it.

Is it a man's inadequacy, which he viciously takes out on someone physically weaker than himself, who in some way, perhaps by their mental and their moral superiority, inspires their envy and resentment? Charles Saatchi doesn't quite fit this profile.

"Before I started this job," says Polly Neate, "I'd be more inclined to think domestic violence was perpetrated by sad, weak men. Now I think it can be all kinds of people and the only common factor I can latch on to is the cultural backdrop. If you are inclined to be abusive, you don't have to look far in popular culture to find justification. We might not have as many mother-in-law jokes, but we've got a lot more naked and provocatively posed women up and down the street."

Many years ago, on a train, I was physically intimidated by a couple of older men. One lunged at me, growling like an Alsatian. All the potential heroes in the carriage hid behind their morning newspapers, or looked nervously away.

In those few, brief moments of fright, I realised just how helpless I was. I also realised that provocation isn't necessary.

Perhaps the sight of Nigella Lawson, frozen in fear, with her husband's hand around her throat, will end the curiously pervasive myth that domestic violence is just a teeny bit linked to the victim's behaviour.

Domestic violence is about exerting control, inspiring fear and the insidious progression of that. As Polly Neate says: "The early warning-signs of control are not necessarily physical and can build up gradually – like controlling someone's mobile phone, or how often they see their family, or go out."

We all keep gnawing away at the idea that the victim is somehow culpable. After all, Nigella Lawson has spoken of her mother's cruelty towards her as a child. And the idea that someone mentally abused by a parent when very young has latent insecurities is hardly surprising.

Yet, we must take care, for, again, we teeter precariously close to the suggestion that some women seek out abuse.

One glance at those photos of Nigella, with her lover's hand around her throat, and we can safely consign that theory to the dustbin of denial.

No victim of domestic abuse ever 'lets' it happen. But, perhaps, we do.

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