Review: See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

Like many Australians, I’ve seen the names in the headlines – Rosie Batty, Hannah Clarke (and thanks to this book I will add another that should come to mind as easily: Tamica Mullaley). I’ve heard the astonishing number – one woman dies at the hand of a partner every week in Australia. Shocking. But this book shows that these names and numbers are only the tip of a vast and terrifying ice berg.

Jess Hill is explicit in her aims in this book. She is “seeking the perfect combination of words to make you feel so acutely, and with such fresh horror, that you will demand… drastic action from our leaders.” I certainly came away utterly horrified. I hope it leads to political change. It must. Maybe if enough people read this it might be a circuit breaker.

Hill begins by explaining that late in editing, she and her publishers changed most references to “domestic violence” to “domestic abuse”. Abuse is a better term, she says, because it is not always violent, and not always a crime (at least in Australia). The real horror is the system of control and terror that perpetrators traps their victims in.

Cases of domestic abuse in the news often seem baffling, unconnected, but See What You Made Me Do reveals patterns behind the madness. Hill shows us what domestic abuse looks like, dividing perpetrators into two types. There are the men who build systems of total control, using techniques like isolation, gaslighting, surveillance; these are the most dangerous type, although they can use surprisingly little violence (although it happened after this book was published, Hannah Clarke’s murder at the hands of her husband Rowan Baxter appears to fit this mould).

Then there are the men who react spontaneously, often in jealousy, men who can sometimes be reformed. In the first of many surprises from history, Hill shows how the modern understanding of domestic abuse came about when researchers noticed the similarities between victims of abuse, and prisoners of war.

Hill looks at how our understanding of victims has changed, from seeing them as masochists or helpless, to understanding the many ways that women resist and survive, even if they cannot leave. She investigates the twin theories for why men abuse: because they have a mental illness, usually due to childhood abuse, or thanks to the patriarchy. While both can explain different cases, Hill advocates for a middle ground rooted in the power men feel they are entitled to hold over women.

In two chapters, Hill explores how men’s experience of shame is a primary motivator for abuse, and how the patriarchy, the social system of male control that we all live in, creates the perfect environment for it to thrive. As a man, I got a lot out of these chapters, reflecting on my own experience of shame and the ways I have been “inducted” into this system of power. Feminism, writes Hill, gave women a way to redefine womanhood, but nothing has changed for manhood. Instead of “soul-searching”, men are “seething”.

Hill weaves this theory with testimonies from victims, and occasionally, abusers. These are utterly harrowing, unspeakable really – women raped during labour, children set on fire, babies sexually abused. But this books makes the case that they must be spoken, if we are to understand the extent of what is happening.

At this point I felt the book must pass a turning point, start climbing out of the rabbit hole. In fact, the worst is yet to come. Hill next looks at the horrifying experiences of children, Aboriginal women, and the utter failure of police to protect victims. In one extraordinary chapter, Hill tackles the family court system. This is a system so warped, so opaque that, as Hill writes, there is really only one way to interpret the way it functions, that it is designed to punish victims and protect perpetrators. It is a brilliant piece of journalism, as Hill names and exposes several powerful figures who are responsible for systematically placing children in the hands of their abusers. As Hill suggests, it is like going through the looking glass, and I came away doubting my grasp of reality.

At length, there is a glimmer of hope. Hill describes the reforms some jurisdictions in Australia and the US have enacted, with dramatic improvements. She praises Victoria, with its world-first Royal Commission and commitment to enacting every recommendation, equipped with millions of dollars to do so. But Australia’s national plan to “reduce” domestic violence, prioritising attitude change and “gender equality” comes up short. These are admirable goals in the long-term, but victims need to be removed from harm, immediately.

Throughout, Hill demolishes naive or malicious ideas: that domestic abuse is a thing of the past (it’s becoming exponentially more frequent and severe), that women make up claims of abuse (they don’t), that women could leave if they wanted to (the most dangerous perpetrators do not rest until their partner is brought back under control, or dead), that there is an equivalence between male and female victims of abuse (male victims, while similarly traumatised, rarely fear for their lives), that abuse is the province of the poor or drug addled (terrifyingly, abusers can be anyone, one of the reasons it is so difficult to address).

Hill’s writing is impassioned – she writes herself into the story in ways that help us understand our own prejudices and biases. At several points she suggests revisions were made within days of going to press, as new details came to light, and new legal threats were made. The effect is of an incredible urgency.

Domestic abuse is not a simple topic. The study of abuse is full of psychological rabbit holes and wormholes, things that don’t quite connect or add up – because human brains and relationships are complex, and we certainly haven’t as yet learned everything there know about them. But we know enough.

I think perhaps I had become resigned to domestic abuse as a grim fact of society, felt helpless in the face of endless headlines. But this book showed in a new and urgent light why we must act right now. Domestic abuse is something we can stop.

Gay rating: briefly considers how queer relationships can reproduce the power imbalances of heterosexual relationships.

See What You Made Me Do is published by Black Inc.

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