“Every woman adores a fascist
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you”
– Sylvia Plath, ‘Daddy’
MELBOURNE woman “Lorraine Brown” loved not wisely, but too well. She wrote to her husband of her passion for him: “The very thought of you and our love takes my breath away. My love for you, Trevor, is a tune, and every waking moment you are ‘Always on my mind’. My darling, your wants, needs, hurts are all mine. My very life is yours.”
The letter was read at her 1994 trial for his killing. She wept inconsolably throughout the hearing, which twice had to be adjourned when she could not contain her sobs. She told the court, “Yes, I wish I could have taken all his hurts … rather me have them than him … I loved that man. I would do anything for him.”
Her tenderness was rarely reciprocated. Trevor locked his wife naked in a cupboard, urinated on her, vomited on her and refused to let her clean herself afterwards. He raped her in their car in the street, forced large objects into her vagina, throttled her and dragged her around on the floor.
Yet, the night she was admitted to hospital after a fight in which he cut her fingers to the bone, she took off in a hospital gown to go home and make up with him. She found him drunk, stupefied, unresponsive. When he did acknowledge her attempt to embrace him, he called her a “f…… c…” and told her he would leave her. She stabbed him to death. She received a 28-month sentence, with a non-parole term of seven months.
The feminist analysis has it that such women are victims of their brutal men, who will not allow them to leave; that they are rejected and silenced by a community that does not want to have to deal with them; and that, when driven to kill in self-defence, they are dealt with harshly by a legal system that largely ignores the abuse they suffered.
The highest court in the land has now been asked to incorporate this view of gender politics into the Australian legal system. Bendigo woman Heather Osland has appealed against a 14-year sentence for her involvement in the killing of her sadistic husband, Frank, in 1991. Her case might set a precedent about the legal significance of battered women’s syndrome.
At present, as one lawyer told a jury, a battered woman cannot claim self-defence unless she kills while she’s “looking down the barrel of the only gun in the house, effectively”. That is, she must have killed while facing an immediate threat, and she must not have used any more force than was being used against her.
It is also difficult for battered women to claim provocation, which can reduce a murder charge to manslaughter, unless they can prove that they snapped in the face of an immediate provocation.
In reality, most abused women who kill attack their partner while he is unarmed, drunk, drugged or asleep, a reflection of differences in size and strength.
In the Osland case the main ground for the appeal is that Heather, who drugged Frank and held him as he twitched after her son David bludgeoned him to death, was convicted, while David, who struck the blows, was acquitted.
If the one who wielded the weapon did not commit murder, of what, then, can Heather be guilty?
But Heather Osland’s barrister, Dr Jocelynne Scutt, also told the High Court in April that judges should be required to tell juries to take into account the effects of years of battering, which can leave a woman feeling that the only way she can escape is to kill her jailer.
There is concern that such a change could be a licence for bedroom vigilantism. Justice Michael Kirby said he could understand someone reaching breaking point, “but that we would be laying down the legal principle that people can go around shooting sleeping people … I certainly could not agree to that … You can’t make people immune from the law of homicide”.
Scutt told him that her argument did uphold the sanctity of human life – it supported the battered woman’s right to preserve her own.
But is it as simple as that? Heather Osland left Frank eight times, but that means she went back to him eight times.
At least once she was rescued by others; her local minister and men from her parish descended on her house with station-wagons and trailers, packing up her, her children and her belongings and taking them to a safe place.
But she soon returned to her husband, as so many battered women do. How can you help women who seem to collude in their own abuse? Is there a moral obligation to rescue people who don’t want to be rescued? And why on earth do these women put up with it, anyway?
The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre would have accused them of living in bad faith, of not being true to themselves, of not taking responsibility for their lives. But then, Sartre did not believe that people can be driven by inner forces of which they are unconscious. He never came to terms with the fragility of human freedom.
THE High Court of Australia is a stolid, heavy-set building, the architectural embodiment of judicial gravitas. It dwarfs the couple of dozen women milling about its entrance this crisp Canberra morning in “Release Heather” T-shirts.
They have brought life-size cut-out figures made by women who have lived through domestic violence. A mother looks down at a small child clinging to her legs; her hand is tied to the child and the child is tied to her feet. Another female figure is hunched over a set of rosary beads: “I kept praying he would change, I kept praying he would change, I kept praying he would change . . .”
Inside the court, the issues face a different kind of scrutiny. Even some feminist lawyers privately believe that Osland’s case was not the best vehicle for the High Court action and regret that the sisterhood did not wait for a better one.
Frank Osland was undoubtedly a brute. He bashed Heather and her four children. He beat the dog so badly it had to be put down and he killed the children’s cat with a piece of pipe (perhaps it was no coincidence that this was the weapon Heather and her son chose for him).
Frank Osland raped Heather so fiercely that she suffered chronic urinary tract infections and tears to the vagina and anus. He tried to exercise complete control over the family and often threatened to kill them and chop them up. Late in Heather’s joint trial with her son, David haltingly, shamefacedly, revealed that Frank had also raped him when he was 14.
But Heather Osland and her son dug a grave for Frank before he was killed, and she later was recorded on police telephone intercepts saying that the killing had been planned for a week. This suggests premeditation.
Other feminists, such as lawyer and former equal opportunity commissioner Moira Rayner, say this case tests whether provocation and self-defence must relate to an immediate threat: “Because the killing was not that immediate, it’s really pushing the envelope. ”
Rayner’s trust, set up to help fund equal opportunity complaints, contributed to Osland’s appeal because it raised issues of access to justice for battered women, “who have never been able to avail themselves of the provocation defence”, Rayner says.
She cites the Western Australian case of “Nina”, a woman who shot her husband dead when he taunted her about how he had sexually abused her children.
“Everybody said the law of provocation was adequate. But on appeal, the judge couldn’t understand that she was acting in a state of automatism . . . The Nina case showed me that the judge didn’t understand that someone can suddenly snap after 30 years of being mild . . . because of what had happened over decades.”
Rayner is one of many who argue that the law’s “bar-room brawl” immediacy requirement, designed for the eruptions that typify male loss of control, does not allow for the “slow burn” experiences that drive women to lethal violence.
A lecturer in law at Melbourne University, Bronwyn Bartal, says that provocation privileges anger as a driving force over other emotions including fear and compassion (as in the euthanasia of a suffering spouse).
She also criticises the extent to which self-defence requires “proportionality”: that defensive force be no stronger than the force used by the attacker. It developed from the rules of honor and fair play regulating the duelling encounters of aristocratic males. But women are usually smaller and weaker than their partners, says Bartal, and have little choice but to use a weapon. (Women are far more likely to be killed by their partner than are men; a NSW study found that 73 per cent of spouse killings were committed by men.)
Forensic psychologist Dr Kenneth Byrne often gives expert evidence about the typical pattern of battering partnerships. He says the woman is often isolated, deprived of food or sleep, threatened with torture or death, sexually abused and instilled with a sense of terror that makes it difficult for her to think clearly. Severe batterings are administered unpredictably and have little relation to her behavior, which leaves her feeling helpless to avoid them.
Bashers tend to be men who blame others for their problems, deal poorly with stress, and believe that wives and children are there to serve them. They use sex as an act of aggression to humiliate women and bolster their own shaky self-esteem. They are also pathologically jealous.
But the theory of battered woman syndrome, as this cluster of characteristics is known, has its flaws. Many of the women supposedly suffering “learnt helplessness” try to escape, and it seems paradoxical to argue that a woman who killed her abuser felt helpless.
Mark Weinberg, then a QC for Victoria’s Office of Public Prosecutions, told the High Court in the Osland case that any change to the legal significance of the syndrome should be left to Parliament: “It’s too important.” Male fears of women’s untrammelled murderous impulses were alluded to more directly at Osland’s original trial, when Justice John Hedigan touched on the need for her sentence to be a warning to other women: “Perhaps it’s just generally deterring wives from killing husbands . . . There are certainly 48 per cent of the community who are in favor (of that), whatever I think.”
Phil Cleary cannot be counted among them. Cleary is the former independent MP whose sister, Vicki, was tracked down and knifed in 1987 by an ex-boyfriend she had left four months earlier. Cleary is astounded that Heather Osland received a 14-year sentence while his sister’s killer served only three-and-a-half years. “If provocation is no more than ‘A woman left a man, so he’s pissed off’, that is a barbaric view of the relationship between men and women,” he says. “That is looking at women as property.”
He holds the media partly responsible, citing newspaper stories about the murder of women by men that had dangerously euphemistic headlines, such as “Love pulls the trigger”. He also believes that there is a class element: “The killing of women is written off because they are usually working class, so they’ve got no political clout.”
But he wonders whether the imbalance is really due to an underlying force that is more pervasive but less tangible, perhaps the Judeo-Christian notion of woman as the root of all evil: “Is it Adam and Eve? Or is it deeper, something about the relationship between men and women?”
THE LOVE Lorraine imagined she had with her husband was not merely the fantasy of a disordered mind. There are intense ties in these couples, and such men can be charming, affectionate and convincing in their protestations that it will never happen again. “They are very loving and attentive, and the woman is so important to them,” says Rosalie Pattenden, a counsellor with Relationships Australia.
Associate professor of law at Melbourne University, Jenny Morgan, is impatient with the question, Why doesn’t the woman leave? She points out that most of them do leave, repeatedly, but are often obsessively pursued. “The real question is, ‘Why won’t he let her go?’ ” (And, however else these women’s perceptions might be distorted, their fear that the man will kill them if they leave is solidly founded: almost half the women murdered by their partners die as a result of trying to separate.)
Morgan says it is hard for women to leave because they are financially vulnerable and anxious about caring for their children alone – and, often, they love the man. “In all sorts of other circumstances we think love is a fine emotion,” she says. “Women are supposed to be sharing and caring, and we admire that elsewhere, but suddenly here, we think they’re stupid. All we can see from outside is the violence but relationships are always more complicated than that.”
Kerrie Collings, a Queensland psychotherapist who treats battered women, says these relationships are the result of disturbed childhoods. She says every child wants to perceive its parent as good in order to maintain a desperately needed sense of attachment: “If the parent is abusive, the child might cut off all feelings, so that they don’t feel anything at all, or they might idealise the other, as in ‘They’re doing it for my own good; I’m bad, I deserve this.’ ”
COLLINGS says about 4 per cent of people suffer “disorganised” attachment as children, in which emotional links with others are based on threats and fear of abandonment. This becomes a model that they carry into their adult relationships. (It is typical for battering to intensify whenever a woman tries to assert herself in a relationship, which increases the man’s fear that she might decide to leave him.)
But if both partners have suffered similar childhood abuse, why is there a gender split in their response to it, with men growing up to batter and women to be battered?
Dr Jon Kear-Colwell, senior lecturer in forensic psychology at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, points out that all male mammals are more aggressive than females. Innate differences are then reinforced by child-rearing practices: “Often when boys are punished by their parents, they are given a smack on the leg; it’s the behavior that’s dealt with. When girls are naughty, guilt is used to make them feel responsible.”
It may not be that women love the fascist boot, but they do tend to feel responsible for having somehow provoked the kick (and, like Lorraine Brown, responsible for “healing” the emotional wounds of the man who delivers it).
The Wounded Prince and the Women who Love Him is a paper by two American family therapists, Gillian Walker and Virginia Goldner. They argue that many of our culture’s myths of female love (such as Cordelia’s for Lear) centre on the notion of the wounded male nursed by the compassionate woman.
Walker and Goldner say the violent man justifies himself by describing his partner as a bad woman: she is provocative, she is or will be unfaithful, she is insensitive to his vulnerabilities. “And then, in the honeymoon of contrition and forgiveness which follows the violence, this evil female figure transmutes into the longed-for, irreplaceable nurse/mother, who knows and cares for this hurt man/boy better than anyone else . . .”
The woman is beset by self-doubt. To protect the relationship, she holds on to seeing him as wounded and in need of care. This causes the man to get in touch with emotions that frighten him, such as his infantile terror of abandonment, so he feels that the woman’s love weakens him. The cycle of attack and contrition continues.
This kind of psychologising exasperates women’s activists, most of whom also dislike the concept of battered woman’s syndrome. They analyse the issue politically and see battering as an extreme outcome of the power imbalance between men and women in society. The battered woman is not mentally ill; she is having a normal human reaction to extraordinary stresses. They have a case. There is evidence that an abusive environment can reduce anyone to psychic rubble.
In 1973 a Californian psychology professor, Philip Zimbardo, recruited intelligent male middle-class university students to live in a mock prison for two weeks. The men were screened to ensure they were psychologically stable and randomly assigned the role of guard or prisoner.
The “guards” quickly turned sadistic. The abuse they meted out to the “prisoners” triggered in their captives symptoms including extreme depression, disorganised thinking, uncontrollable crying and fits of rage – classic responses of the battered woman. The experiment had to be aborted after only six days.
Zimbardo later wrote that a perverted symbiotic relationship had developed: “As the guards became more aggressive, prisoners became more passive; assertion by the guards led to dependency in the prisoners; self-aggrandisement was met with self-deprecation, authority with helplessness, and the counterpart of the guards’ sense of mastery and control was the depression and hopelessness (of) the prisoners.”
Zimbardo wondered whether this happens in the everyday social “jails” of racism, sexism – and bad marriages.
But the fact that they chose to flee their jail can be no comfort to women such as Vicki Cleary. The role of guard is much more powerful than that of prisoner, and in real life, there is often no outsider to call an end to the game.
“Sharon” had tried to leave her husband, “Pete”, many times. Once he caught her and beat her with a wheelbrace; another time he terrorised the refuge she was staying in. When she got right away and hid interstate, she made the mistake of sending a letter to her children in which she mentioned that it had been raining. Pete phoned meteorology to find out which part of the continent had been having wet weather and next day packed up the kids and drove from Queensland to Perth to haul her back.
Over the years he tied her to a tree and lashed her, aborted her with a teaspoon and forced her to drink his urine and her menstrual blood.
Sharon told the court that one baby, Molly, did not die of cot death as she had reported but had been smothered in her cot by Pete. He repeatedly raped another daughter, Jenny, from the age of eight through to 14, when Sharon finally found out and told police. “Got rid of one and f….. the other,” he would brag to her.
One morning an exhausted Sharon crawled out of bed to make Pete breakfast. He had been sick and bad-tempered for days. He refused the meal and snarled when she tried to return for more sleep: “What do you want to get back into f…… bed for, you dog?” She fetched his gun – she had always been terrified of guns – and shot him dead. She hid the body in her yard.
That’s another problem with these cases; the women often “snap” over a seemingly trivial incident.
In Sharon’s case the prosecutor, Tom Gyorffy, pointed out that “We, as a community, wrestle every February with our consciences over having an open season for shooting ducks. Human life is worth more than that. Nobody in this community, no matter how nasty they are, is shootable.”
Juries are often told that a trial is just a sifting of the relevant facts, not a search for the truth of everything that happened. Enough was prised from Sharon, in the clipped, stony questions and answers of the courtroom, to win her a verdict of manslaughter and a suspended sentence. But the police record of interview at her arrest gives hints of another aspect of the story, one not put to any jury.
A week before the shooting Sharon had received a letter from a friend who had lost a grandchild to cot-death. It brought back so many memories of her Molly, she told police. And she had no trouble remembering the date on which she had killed Pete, whose body had been decomposing in her yard for months. “It was the 21st of May because it was the day – it was the day – it was the day of me daughter that died’s birthday. Molly Rose. She would’ve been 25.”
But then, courts are not required to know the full truth about everything.
The names of Lorraine and Sharon and their families have been changed.
First published in The Age.