By Susmita Abani:
On Mother’s Day, May 2012, Jessica Silva, a 22 year old girl in Sydney, committed a crime that would change her life forever. Her ex-partner of 4 years, James Polkinghorne, lay dead on the road in front of her parent’s home, bleeding from several stab wounds—marks of her desperate act of self-defence.
Polkinghorne was deeply involved in the drug scene, and was a murder suspect himself. On the night of his demise, his veins were electric with ice. He had charged at both Jessica and her brother, threatening to finish them. Within seconds, she lashed back, eternally silencing her child’s father, a man who had tormented her mind, and injured her body for too long.
Today, I feel compelled to write about this issue because to me, Jessica Silva’s story hits close to home. She was a fellow classmate, a neighbour. For six years we attended the same high school, knew the same people, read from the same books. Only one wrong relationship made the difference between our lives. So far this year, at least 25 women, 5 children and 4 men in Australia died at the hands of their violent partners. Today I write this article in remembrance of them.
There are hundreds of cases similar to Jessica’s across the world, involving women who’ve killed their abusive partners – and of others who’ve taken their own lives in response. These women were not heroes, or martyrs. They were victims of circumstance, who retaliated with extreme measures against their suffering. They are a metaphor for the limits of human tolerance, and quite often an underlying condition known as Battered Wife Syndrome, a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Some people in recent years have tried to distort the narrative of domestic violence, particularly against women, by denigrating the gravity of the issue. They ask why these women “didn’t just leave” their violent relationships, expressing suspicion about the victim’s story, perhaps to partially blame her for tolerating, or even triggering, the abuse. I want to dispel the myth by explaining what Battered Wife Syndrome is, what it can turn people into and thus why it’s crucial to address the destructive and debilitating nature of domestic violence.
Why Won’t She Leave?
Most abusive relationships follow a cyclic process that undergoes three phases. The first phase involves the build-up of tension, leading to the second stage of explosion – where the abuser batters their partner. This is followed by a show of regret by the abuser, where they may apologise profusely, admit to their faults, promise to cease the violence and remain (temporarily) loyal to their words. This is the honeymoon phase, a delusion of optimism that keeps the battered victim hopeful about the future at the end of each cycle of violence. Victims then feel guilty, second guessing their instincts, convincing themselves to remain committed to their wrongdoer.
With repeated and more severe episodes, the victim feels increasingly helpless, assuming that their offender is invincible and therefore no normal course of action can improve their situation. They hang onto the threads of an unwinding relationship, for the sake of their safety, their children, economic and emotional dependence, and a lowered self-esteem. The shame and self-loathing that accompanies abuse often isolates victims further from seeking help from family and friends, reducing their capability to make rational choices –
Did She Trigger The Violence?
Victims of domestic abuse don’t ask for it. In fact, the underlying issues stem from the abuser’s own psyche, and the societal influences. A heightened response to their own negativity causes an abuser to assign blame on another for the woes in their life. They then seek to control their situation through exerting physical, emotional, sexual or even economic and spiritual power over their partner. In some cultures, the external manifestation of masculinity is often linked to physical and behavioural aggressiveness – further legitimising their imposition of power on what they perceive to be the “weaker” sex.
Is There Anyone Out There?
Society’s overwhelmingly unhelpful attitude can often render the victim cynical about whether a higher authority can, in fact, help. I recently spoke to Pauline Gomes from Breakthrough, on the current situation in India for abuse victims. Pauline explained that help is absolutely accessible to victims even though it’s not always forthcoming. The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act 2005 in India, allows women to seek refuge from household violence – from their partners or their relatives in shared households. It offers Protection Officers at police stations who are trained to assist abused women. However the efficiency of each Protection Officers varies widely and there’s inconsistency in the scheme’s implementation, not every station has a designated Protection Officer. In such situations, the police officer on duty may not have the time or understanding to focus on abuse cases, or may send the victims home. Nevertheless it is far better to seek help than to assume there is none, as the laws are certainly in place.
Where To From Here?
In a touching episode of 60 Minutes Australia, Jessica gave a strong warning to female victims of violence. “You need to let people know what’s going on in your life,” she said, “don’t keep it a secret“. By reaching out to others through her own experience, Jessica exemplifies to us the strength of communication. The best weapon one can use to overcome any form of oppression is education – to recognise the abuse, to safely remove themselves from it, to seek help, to live again, to inform others. It is crucial to vocally condemn domestic violence, to never blame the victim, and to alter as a society, our language around masculinity – to not associate with authority or power, in charge of reward or discipline. We need to ensure that children who have suffered or witnessed abuse, learn the right lessons from their experience and any unhealthy tendencies towards aggression should be treated from an early age. These are but a few steps we can take in the right direction towards changing the face of domestic violence, and to slowly retreat from the tragedies that befall those like Jessica.
Update: Jessica Silva was found not guilty of murder and will not serve any more time in prison apart from the 29 weeks that she served before the trial.