I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things. I’m not a writer who just can’t stop writing wherever they are in the world. I’m very much about separating my ‘writing time’ from my ‘desperately trying to finish this 1000 piece jigsaw’ time. Oh yes, I do jigsaws. Increasingly, I don’t see this as a skill, but as a hindrance. I read once that Lena Dunham ‘never stops writing’ and, you know, she is pretty awesome.
Despite my lack of workaholic tendencies, I have devoted the last few months – or more accurately two years – to one bit of writing specifically. My new solo show All The Things I Lied About (the acronym of which is ATTILA – which is most pleasing to the whole team) is heading up to Edinburgh on Monday.
I'm scared about it. It’s an honest show about dishonesty and it’s telling a very personal story – one that I’ve been trying to tell in every poem I’ve written over the last eight years.
At the heart of the story is domestic abuse. As any good compartmentalizer knows it’s useful to label things in life that scare or disturb you. Domestic abuse has been taped up inside a box clearly labeled ‘Physical Violence’ since I was young. I was very fortunate not to experience any form of it whilst growing up in my family or any of the families around me.
The problem with compartmentalizing, though, is that inevitably you will eventually have to open the box and what’s inside won’t look the way you expected it to, because you never tried to understand it in the first place.
When I was doing my GCSEs, I slacked off revision one afternoon and watched TV. An old black and white film was on – Gaslight by Patrick Hamilton. I’d been in a play of his and watching it made me feel all warm and sentimental about that. Until it didn’t. If you aren’t familiar with the film, a musician called Gregory marries a beautiful singer called Paula and urges her to move back to her family home in London with him. Once they are back he begins to manipulate her – convincing her slowly but surely that she is losing her mind – by playing with the gaslights in the house along with other daily deceptions. Gregory is a wanton jewel thief, when he sees the crown jewels early in the film an atmospheric twinkle appears in his eye, and he knows there are some pricey gems hidden in his wife’s house. His deceptions work well on Paula. At the climactic point of the film she is ready to be taken to the asylum, unable to fight her madness any more, despite being perfectly sane. The film stuck with me. In part because it was so believable (maybe not the twinkling eye of a jewel thief, but the little lies that lead to a woman’s total meltdown) and in part because, at the time, I was watching the exact thing happen to my mother.
My father hid a six-year-long affair from us and dealt with mum’s suspicions about it by telling her that she was crazy to have them. If you tell someone that they are unstable enough times – guess what? They will believe you. Then it will become true.
When I watched the film it had a creeping sense of familiarity, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. We were still a few years away from discovering the truth and mum was going to get a whole lot less well in that time. Domestic abuse was so neatly taped inside that ‘Physical Violence’ box that I just couldn’t recognise it as that. No one ever spoke to us at school about psychological abuse in relationships, of the damage it can do, of how over time it can leave a person destroyed both physically and mentally. I learned that by watching the affect of it on my mum and I am still ashamed to say that I believed my father’s lies over her truth. I thought she was crazy, a nightmare, obsessive – all the things he suggested she was.
In December last year a pretty massive law change happened. The use of coercive and controlling behaviour in relationships became punishable by up to five years imprisonment. Psychological abuse is now officially recognized by law as a criminal act. As important as this law change is – and as overdue – we now have a long way to go to fully enforce it. Gaslighting (as this particular form of abuse is known – named after the film) is incredibly difficult to prove in court. What evidence are you going to give? You can share text messages and emails but what about the little comments, putdowns and late night arguments that go undocumented? The most challenging part of all is that the victim is slowly being broken down and is often unable to accept what is happening to them. They are a victim of abuse and their abuser controls them. It takes a lot of guts to start taping and logging conversations, let alone to even believe your situation warrants it.
I’ve thought a lot about what we can do. My strongest thought so far comes back to that box. I compartmentalized my mum’s abuse into invisibility. I couldn’t recognize it because I didn’t understand that abuse existed in that form. As with most things, I think this comes down to opening up a dialogue. Schools are beginning to teach students about the dangers of psychological abuse in relationships, a key to future generations addressing the problem at source and curbing the damage. I know that I personally need to be braver in opening up conversations with people I know and love when I see evidence of manipulation in their relationships. To be really clear – the abuser does not have to be a demonic jewel thief! Gaslighting begins often unconsciously as an act of protection or love towards the victim – it can just snowball from there very quickly into something much more insidious.
Whilst in Edinburgh, I’m going to be raising money for Women’s Aid – an incredible charity who offer support and rehabilitation for victims of domestic abuse. They lobbied steadfastly for this law change until it came to pass. They are doing phenomenal work and I encourage you – if you’re still reading this (thank you so much if you are!) – to look at their online case studies showing the effect of their work. If you can join me and WAF (Women's Aid Fundraising) by dropping a few pennies in the bucket after the show or making a donation please do.
There’s a long way to go still, but strong moves are being made and I am really heartened by that. One thing we can do immediately, though, is rip the tape off those boxes, take a good look inside and give them a new, more comprehensive label.