Book Review: See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

I just finished the excellent book See What You Made Me Do by the journalist Jess Hill. See What You Made Me Do is an in depth investigation into domestic abuse in Australia, written by a journalist who has spent years covering the topic, and who brings a lot of expertise into the field.

The book is comprehensive. There are so many interesting parts, and I found the sections on why women stay in abusive relationships, alongside the section on domestic abuse in indigenous communities (and the failures of the police to deal with this in any way at all) particularly powerful. Today however I want to focus on the three chapters (chapters 3 – 5) which focus on why men commit domestic abuse.

One of the most powerful parts of See What You Made Me Do is that Jess Hill refuses to believe that we cannot do anything about domestic abuse. There is a lot of this out there, an assumption that domestic abuse is inherent to gendered relationships. This often, oddly enough, comes from some radical feminist thinking, with some radical feminists seeing aggression and domination as inherent to the male psyche or the physical differences between men and women. In this approach we cannot do anything about violence, except for punish it when it occurs.

Hill disagrees, and instead, in these chapters attempts to lay out the conditions that create domestic abuse, and in particular the conditions that underpin the gendered nature of it. I want to now briefly summarise Hill’s argument, before making some of my own commentary on it.

Hill starts by examining what she describes as the ‘Abusive Mind’. Using research from Gottman and Jacobson, Hill argues that those who commit domestic abuse fall under two categories: Pit Bulls and Cobras. As she says, there is “a big group, called Pit Bulls, whose anger and hostility builds slowly and then explodes, and a small group, called Cobras, who are always in control, even when their violence looks frenzied.” (Pg. 92) In summarising these typologies, Hill asks the question, why do (some) men act in these two distinct, yet at the same time connected ways? In doing so she examines two particular explanations dominant in the literature; a psychopathology method, which argues that domestic abuse is “rooted in mental illness, substance abuse and childhood trauma” (pg. 100) and a feminist model, which argues that “domestic abuse is a natural byproduct of patriarchy: a system in which men feel entitled to dominate, discredit and disregard women.” (Pg. 103).

To cut a long story short, Hill argues, and I believe rightfully, that neither of these approaches are suitable, at least on their own, and instead argues for what she describes as a ‘middle ground’. We cannot, Hill argues, examine why men are abusive without looking at the issue through the lenses of both gender and psychology.

This is an extraordinarily valuable contribution, and one that is deeply needed. Too much of our current discourse around domestic abuse has become, I believe, too simplified, seeing men who engage in the behaviour and simply ‘bad’ and leaving it at that. In doing any attempts to understand the driving forces of violence is treated as a way to either sympathise or explain away the violence, something many react against. While understandable however, these approaches lack any real capacity to look and address the root causes of the issue, instead, once again treating it as a natural outcome of the existence of such ‘bad men’ that we can engage with at the point after the violence and abuse has occurred. Hill talks about this as well, looking at her own journey of examining domestic abuse through the eyes of a perpetrator:

“To (then) turn around and look at domestic abuse through the eyes of the perpetrators – and to see them as complex humans with their own needs and sensitivities – has been so difficult that it’s sometimes literally made me feel ill. It may be painful – even infuriating – for some readers to confront this too. But it’s essential that we do. Because getting clear on what causes men to abuse – and on how to prevent and stop them doing it – is urgent. As the renowned violence expert James Gilligan says, to simply condemn violence ‘is as irrelevant as it would be to “condemn” cancer or heart disease.” (Pg. 106)

So what are these complex causes? In chapters four and five, Hill identifies two: shame, and the patriarchy.

First, Hill identifies what she describes as a sense of ‘humiliated fury’ that exists behind domestic abuse. Hill argues that shame is a powerful emotional force for both men and women. Shame, she argues, is the “unspeakable (and often deeply buried feeling), ‘I am bad’ – the feeling that we are unloved and unlovable” (p. 113). Shame is about notions of defectiveness in oneself, functioning as a way to “prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them” (pg. 115). Shame however, and in particular the causes of this feeling, are deeply gendered. Women, Hill argues, are told to feel shameful for a kaleidoscope of issues – “be sexy, but not too sexy, be smart but not intimidating, assertive but not pushy, and on it goes” (Pg. 115). For men however shame is associated with one rule: do not be weak. Men cannot be weak emotionally, physically, or any other way, and when they do feel week they seek out two feelings to counteract this: power and control. In response to weakness, in all its forms, men aim to take control, and it is in the family that this is most likely to occur. Talking about a study of seventy-six coercive controllers conducted by the researcher Professor Neil Websdale, Hill describes the role of this powerful feeling:

“This deep, long-buried shame was much too painful for the men to acknowledge, let alone address. When their shame was triggered (in ways we will soon explore) the only way they could override its intolerable pain was to overwhelm it, even momentarily, with a feeling of power. This they achieved through lashing out, abusing, controlling or terrorising their loved ones. This is the destructive force of ‘humiliated fury’. (Pg. 112)

This, I believe, is one of the most powerful interventions made by Hill. As she notes later in the book (in the section on patriarchy) there is a tendency within particular forms of politics around gendered violence to brush off men’s pain. This is particularly true in cases of domestic abuse, where narratives of powerlessness and shame are seen as potential justifications for awful violence. It is natural and normal that people do not want to do this, particularly given the constant battles women face to even be believed that the violence is real. Yet, at the same time, understanding this pain and these feelings, Hill argues, is essential.

While not justifying the abuse, Hill argues that we must grapple with these sense of shame if we want to deal with the abuse. She argues that approaches to domestic abuse need to approach these feelings directly with men, making them see their shame, and to address it head on. To illustrate this Hill uses a case study of behaviour change groups lead by Kylie Dowse, in which men directly address their shame, taking ownership both of the feelings, and the abuse they were committing. In doing so they could call it out and stop themselves, rather than letting the shame drive their actions. These groups, Hill argues, were extraordinarily effective.

But shame is not the only answer. Secondly, Hill addresses the question of the patriarchy. It is here where I struggle a little bit with Hill’s analysis. Not because I don’t think there is a gendered element to this crime, and that therefore we don’t need to engage with gendered hierarchies to address the issue. Despite the claims of some it is clear that men conduct that vast majority not just of domestic abuse, but of all crimes, and therefore we need to understand the gendered element of it. The question I have however is whether patriarchy is a sufficient framework to address this part of the problem?

The narrative of the patriarchy element is simply. As Hill argues “patriarchy is an invisible mainframe that regulates how we live. It sets parameters around ‘acceptable’ behaviour for both genders: men should be ‘strong, independent, unemotional, logical and confident’, and women should be ‘expressive, nurturant, weak and dependent’” (pg. 135). So far, so good. It is clear to me that these are the expectations given to both genders, and these expectations play out through the lens of ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’. Hill then goes on to argue that a core part of patriarchal thinking is an obsession with control. She uses arguments from the well-known masculinity sociologist Michael Kimmel, who argues that patriarchal thinking provides men with a sense of an ‘entitlement to power’. These two parts can naturally lead men to lash out, in particular when they have a feeling of powerlessness.

This analysis however leaves me wanting more, a lot more in fact. In particular I cannot help but ask the question, what are the driving forces, or more accurately, what are the structures, which lead to this drive for control and power? Here I feel as though Hill is missing analysis of one important factor: the family.

This I feel is the biggest thing missing with Hill’s book. Throughout the text Hill almost assumes a common understanding of the family – it is a structure she never analyses in any real depth. The family is within the text, tacitly, essentialised – assumed to be natural and unchanging. This is not deliberate, but is the eventual outcome of a lack of in depth analysis of its structure.

However, we know the family is not like this. If we examine history we can see that our modern notion of a nuclear family, one in which men are the breadwinners and women are homemakers, is an artefact of history. In particular in the modern era, theses notions are deeply connected to a capitalist means of production, one which privatised domestic labour and put it into the hands of women. The family as a structure is a space that disconnects men and women, with men being seen as responsible for the public sphere (work, politics etc.) and women the private (domestic labour, reproduction etc.) (see my blog post on this history for more detail).

I could spend more time going into depth about the history of the modern family, but my point here is that I think an analysis of the family is essential to understanding the gendered piece of the domestic abuse puzzle. The problem with patriarchy theory, at least as it is currently used, is that abstracts gendered hierarchies from other social structures, treating them as something that are disconnected from the other material realities of our society. It fails to explain how and why these cultural expectations (i.e. masculinity and femininity) have come about, and to what end, and it fails to deal with the challenges of how to merge the generalised argument that men have collective power over women with the very realities of the powerlessness of many men.

An analysis of the family, I argue, brings these issues back to a very real social structure, one that is intimately linked with domestic abuse. Through analysing the modern family unit we can see many of the root cause of many of the cultural and gendered expectations Hill discusses, in particular the gendered ideas that men should be providers, protectors and there must be strong and in control, while women should be carers and nurturers, and therefore weak and at the mercy of their partners. These expectations, I argue, are built from family structures.

This is important not just in understanding the causes of domestic abuse in a theoretical way, but it is also essential for us in dealing with the questions of how to address the issue. I think Hill’s response in the final chapter ‘Fixing It’ is excellent. She rejects the notion that we fix this through changing attitudes, arguing that while this is important, it will not solve the problem in the short term, and in turn leaves many women to the mercy of abuse and violence while we hope that change will occur in the future. In turn she examined programs in High Point in the United States, which treated men as rational adults and forced them to take ownership over their violence, and of justice reinvestment in Broken Hill in Australia, which effectively moved resources out of punishment and instead invested in programs that addressed the root causes of these violence. These approaches seem effective, and should be examined as approaches that we could implement more widely.

Yet, what is notable, is that in these approaches, Hill almost moves away from the gender question entirely. She acknowledges patriarchy as a root cause, but does not, at least in a systemic way, address any effective solutions to dealing with it. This makes sense. If you frame patriarchy in the broad sense that Hill has, particularly as an abstracted structure from other realities, then it becomes near impossible to suggest any form of change apart from long term behavioural change. As Hill has rightfully argued, the evidence clearly suggests that this just doesn’t work.

If we understand the gendered element of the domestic abuse however through the lens of the family, we have more options. While we treat the family as a natural, essential, structure, that is not the case. While kinship is, I’d argue, natural (to an extent), nuclear family structures are built by laws and a range of social structures. It is our understanding of the current family structure that underpins how family courts work and the priorities they make. It is both laws and social structures, based on the notion of a woman needed to be protected, that leave many women economically dependent on men and therefore unable to leave an abusive relationship. Breaking down these family structures, thinking of other ways that we can live in kinship with others, and implementing that through law and social changes, is one way we can deal with these material realities alongside the programs Hill introduces. Hill does address this somewhat, particularly calling for a Royal Commission on the family law system, but I think this can only be effective if we deal with the family system itself.

See What You Made Me Do is essential reading for anyone who wants to do something about domestic abuse. Hill does an excellent job of arguing that domestic abuse is something we can do something about right here and right now. Her solutions very much present a strong way forward. Yet, they could have gone even further, particularly when examining the role of gender and the family.

This book is a must read.

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