I fled my abusive husband in my pyjamas – but dealing with the courts was almost worse than staying

I put one foot in front of the other, feel the fear for myself and my children, and comply no matter what

As I was running from my rural former family home in bare feet and embarrassingly holey pyjamas, I had no idea what I was running to. Eventually depleted of adrenaline, I lay down on the cold and dewy early morning ground among the tall grass desperately hoping that my husband, who had moments before attempted to strangle me, wouldn’t find me.

I gathered my strength for the final dash to my nearest neighbour’s home and, in this moment, I thought of nothing but survival. I had no idea that while I was now out of the proverbial frying pan, I was jumping straight into a fire of a different kind. A more complicated and at-times-incomprehensible kind.

The experience of living with an abuser is, dare I say it, a relatively simple one. You are on high alert for the signs of an impending explosion and you take evasive action when you see those signs. Sometimes you emerge unscathed, other times not so. Rewind. Repeat.

What I failed to appreciate in that moment among the tall grass was that I was not only about to lose line of sight of my personal terrorist, but that I would for years hence be embroiled in legal proceedings for which I was utterly unprepared.

When one person’s account of events conflicts with that of another person, how do you make a decision that most reliably results in a just outcome? This is the dilemma faced by civil courts in the domestic violence and family law jurisdictions across Australia every day.

I fled my former family home and sought physical safety two hours away from the community in which I lived. My children were seeing their father on a regular basis and yet I was ordered to return to live within close proximity of the man who had threatened to kill me “forthwith” – or to relinquish the children to his full-time care. The reason given by the court for doing this was that it was not possible for the judge to give appropriate consideration to all the evidence of violence on an interim basis.

The rules of evidence – although admittedly more flexible in these jurisdictions – demand objective evidence, sufficient to satisfy a person who wasn’t in your home at the time your husband tried to strangle you, that it happened.

Another difficult dynamic arises when survivors of domestic abuse are at the mercy of duelling “experts” whose credentials may look impressive to the court but who offer little in the way of expertise in coercion and control, and we are relegated to the backseat of our own stories.

When you have children in the backseat with you, the experience is all the more terrifying.

The cruel catch here is that you have to pretend “for the sake of the children” that it isn’t happening. You are expected to paint the journey as one deserving of optimism and hope – lest you be accused of failing to protect them from their reality.

Children aren’t stupid. They are born fluent in the language of love and trust, and despite your best efforts, they are inevitably unsettled when your maternal mouth says one thing but the fear in your eyes says another. And so begins the subtle and largely unacknowledged undermining of the relationship between victim parent and child, brought to you by the system set up to protect them both.

Now that we have final parenting orders, I am required to have frequent and direct contact with the source of my greatest fears.

The minute I contravene orders – whether for significant safety reasons or not – I give him the excuse he needs to file a contravention application and we are back in the door of the federal circuit court of Australia. Rewind. Repeat.

Even if the court agrees with me and my legal advisers that I contravened with reasonable excuse, our parenting matter is now back before the court and any and all parenting arrangements are essentially “fair game”.

My gleefully litigious ex now has a soapbox from which to proclaim his victimhood and we are once again in a prolonged legal battle about who the children will live with and family report writers with questionable qualifications are asking the children who they love best.

I am one of the lucky ones. I have a voice, and I have been given a medium through which to use it. There are countless other women and children in our cities, suburbs and rural communities who are not being heard, and who are feeling the frustration of being silenced “for one’s own safety”.

You will not often hear the stories of women in fear of their lives, especially those with children. The stories you hear in the media are almost invariably those of the women whose lives, or whose children’s lives have already been taken and who have nothing left to fear.

The fact that so far my murder-avoidance rate is 100% means that the onus remains on me to watch what I say lest I place myself or my children in harm’s way.

Add to this complex dynamic the fact that women who experience domestic abuse are imperfect, ordinary human beings, just like you and your neighbours and your politicians.

They sometimes react to their experiences of trauma in ways that may seem incomprehensible to a person who has not walked a mile in their shoes. They are women who cope as best they can under difficult circumstances and who sometimes appear less-than-credible self-advocates because of their compromised resilience and worn-down sense of self.

On the flipside, they can also be women who appear to the world to be competent and strong and articulate. While the self-advocacy skills of these women may be intact, the judgment of others is often no less scathing.

I once had a judicial officer refuse to invoke “protected witness” status for me during a legal matter because I “was clearly a person who can stand up for herself and who is not easily intimidated”. I shook and cried throughout the hours of cross-examination by my abuser as a result. Credible victimhood it seems is reserved for those who meet a certain social expectation. Not too messy and not too strong.

The experience of vulnerability is quintessentially human and yet it is a deeply uncomfortable place to be. I have never felt more vulnerable than when the man I loved tightened his hands around my throat and told me he could kill me if he wanted to.

I know that mine is a difficult story to hear, so thank you for hearing me.

When you risk life and limb every day to comply with family law orders, you want to know that you are seen and heard and that, if the worst were to happen, someone would care – that your story would matter, and that someone would be appropriately outraged on your recently deceased behalf.

Consider the uphill battle she will face convincing others to take her seriously when she says, “One day, I believe he will end my life,” without dismissing her fears as hysteria.

Consider the financial toll she knows she will face when trying to use the systems supposedly set up to protect her and her children.

Consider that despite coping with complex trauma, she will be required to navigate inordinately complex systems and conduct herself as a master tactician.

Consider also, the impact of multiple compulsive online purchases of fancy pyjamas to ensure that if she ever has to run from her home again barefoot, in nothing but her PJs – she can at least do it in style.

  • This piece is anonymous to protect the writer
This article first appeared in The Guardian 
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