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The Uncomfortable Truths revealed by Nigella Lawson

June 21, 2013

In yesterday’s NZ Herald was an opinion piece I wrote about the Nigella Lawson story. Here is the full, unedited piece:

On Monday morning, my breakfast was disturbed by the distaste resulting from an image in that morning’s New Zealand Herald of Nigella Lawson, eyes bulging in terror, while the hands of her husband, Charles Saatchi, were apparently wrapped around her throat. That story and the pictures that accompanied it force us to confront a number of uncomfortable truths about our own attitudes and culpability in respect to domestic violence.

My first reaction was to think the photo must have been photo-shopped by a sensationalist UK press. My mind defaulted to a place where the image conveyed of the successful and privileged Lawson and Saatchi by those pictures surely just could not be. As I caught myself thinking this, my initial shock was replaced with the discomfort of realising that, despite 17 years of working closely with victims of domestic violence, I too struggled to accept a picture where domestic violence apparently affected the likes of Lawson and Saatchi.

I have worked with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence from all walks of life yet I had to acknowledge that at some base level, I too suffer under a conditioned misapprehension about “who” the victims and perpetrators of domestic violence are and, more importantly, who they are not. The uncomfortable truth that the Lawson and Saatchi story confronts us with is the destruction of the widely held idea that domestic violence is the dirty problem of the underclasses, the uneducated, the inarticulate. The photos of Lawson starkly jolt us to the reality that domestic violence occurs not only in the homes of the uneducated, the brown skinned or the indigent of South Auckland but also in the manicured Remuera homes of successful, white, financially secure, professionals and business leaders.

Lawson confronts our assumptions about who the victims of domestic violence are. Some of the most professionally intelligent, successful and savvy women I have known have been known to be emotionally stupid in their relationships and personal choices. Not for one minute am I suggesting that in the situation of domestic violence, this means the blame for violence falls at their feet. But, as Lawson illustrates, possession of the coveted trifecta of beauty, intelligence and wealth does not make you any more immune to domestic violence than you are to the common cold.

In those barometers of social opinion, our water cooler and talkback radio discussions, talk of the Lawson story has invariably and reasonably led to the question “Why did no one intervene”? This did not occur behind closed doors. The media were able to capture photos of Lawson and Saatchi arguing and gather eye witness accounts from concerned onlookers so why wasn’t anyone concerned enough to intervene?

One theory I came across attributes the lack of intervention to the “untouchability” of celebrity but this is inadequate as an explanation. Firstly, the public has no difficulty about encroaching on the personal time and space of celebrities in order to seek out autographs, photos or to bask momentarily in the deflected glow of fame. Secondly, it is not only incidents of violence involving celebrities where the public fail to provide assistance. The truth is far more confronting and uncomfortable – we all live with a cultural imperative that says we simply don’t interfere in other’s “domestics” or personal affairs and hence renders us all culpable for its perpetuation. It is a culture that campaigns such as “It’s not OK” aim to change but it continues to exist.

Many of us have told ourselves that had we been witness to Lawson and Saatchi’s argument, we would’ve rightly acted to stop what was occurring. But would we? As I found myself judging those who had observed Nigella and Charles’ argument, I had another moment of discomfort and shame when I recalled a similar incident where I was guilty of failing to help. Last year in Melbourne, during the busy rush hour, my partner and I stood waiting for a tram. We became aware of a couple standing further along in the queue who were engaged in an argument that quickly became aggressive and physically violent. We stood watching as the female moved away from the male in the line and across to a large public square, full of people sitting enjoying the sun. He followed and the fight continued, growing in intensity as she kept trying to leave the situation.

Not one person, including myself, did anything to help this woman. Why not? In the back of my mind was the recollection of two people I know who have intervened in such situations only to have the violence turned on themselves. But the main reason I didn’t intervene was I kept waiting for someone, anyone, just not me, to step in. Apparently everyone else was waiting for the same thing. At the same time I was in Melbourne, another incident occurred there on a bus when a French woman was verbally and aggressively abused and threatened in front of onlookers who did nothing to come to her aid. We’ve all seen and read the experiments where such situations are set up and a psychological phenomenon occurs whereby bystanders simply stand by. The uncomfortable truth is that the majority of us, faced with witnessing a similar situation to that of Lawson and Saatchi, will simply leave it to “someone else” to intervene and only just then might we follow suit.

The following day’s news brought us Saatchi’s response. In the Court of public opinion, to have remained silent would’ve served him better. In one of the worst PR moves seen in some time, the argument shown in the photos was explained by Saatchi as merely a “playful tiff” and that he “…held Nigella’s neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasise my point”. What point would that have been? Perhaps that he is a bully and will use physical violence to achieve his ends? Perhaps that being educated and successful does not guarantee one is emotionally articulate and intelligent, able to respond to conflict without violence?

Saatchi’s statement speaks of a man who believes his own hubris, a man who sees nothing in his actions to feel culpable or remorseful for, a man for whom domestic violence has no meaningful bearing on the moral compass by which he travels. We should not be surprised by the attitudes revealed by Saatchi’s statement. In the last seven days alone, I have listened to three other stories where men of financial and positional power have expressed similar attitudes to physical or sexual violence. One such view was that when assessing the violence in question, one had to remember that the victim was “naughty” which so neatly encapsulates the belief that somehow women behave in a way that makes them deserving of violence. They had it coming to them. A lesson needed to be learned. The point had to be emphasised.

Allegations against celebrities of domestic violence are nothing new.  Allegations of domestic violence have been made against actors Charlie Sheen, Josh Brolin, Mel Gibson and Sean Penn but barely register as blips on our radars. Sheen’s dismissal from a television show and his statements at the time were the subject of far more public debate and discussion than his arrests for domestic violence related incidents have ever been. So why has the Lawson and Saatchi story evoked such widespread discussion? I believe the answer, in part, lies in the photos that accompanied the story and in our reactions to those. In the recesses of my mind, I have a disturbing catalogue of images of victims of domestic violence that I have seen. The images range from bruises, black eyes and broken bones right through to the woman I saw in her hospital bed, her broken jaw wired shut and her upper body rendered motionless by a broken neck and various metal bars screwed into her head. Such are the ugly images of domestic violence. Long after my memory of the written evidence of those cases has faded, I cannot erase those images. In much the same way as the photos of a beaten and bruised Rihanna did, the Lawson photos brought the ugly reality of domestic violence into our homes and to our breakfast tables. They confront us in the evocative way that only visual images can; in a way we cannot easily ignore or brush over.

The images of Lawson and Saatchi appear to “out” Lawson as a victim of domestic violence and Saatchi as a perpetrator of it. Celebrity does not appear to have protected Lawson from being vulnerable to violence but it means that, unlike most who have been subjected to domestic violence, she faces the added burden of having her every decision from here publically scrutinised. There will be unfair pressure upon her to be thrust into the role of being the poster child for domestic violence or to assume the mantle, willingly or not, of speaking out against domestic violence.  One uncomfortable truth in this remains – many victims of violence reconcile or remain with their violent partners. Whether Lawson does remains to be seen.

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