Nigella Lawson, handsome, clever, rich, who seems to unite some of the best blessings of existence, isn’t the sort of woman we expect to get hit by her husband. And yet, here we are, gawking at photographs which apparently show Charles Saatchi with his hands around our heroine’s throat, and her obvious, chilling terror.
How fortunate for him that it took place in a posh restaurant, where everyone was too polite to intervene. One can’t help but wonder, if this is the public face, what he might dare do in the privacy of their luxury home.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that we’re so surprised that domestic violence can apparently affect a woman like her. Our shock gets to the shameful nub of it: that really, we don’t believe cultured, middle-class men are violent to their partners, or that successful, confident, fabulous women suffer it. Surely, domestic violence is the grubby problem of the inarticulate and poorly educated, who can’t eloquently express their frustration, who are not self-aware or emotionally intelligent enough to thrash out their differences via a civilised heart-to-heart, rather than simply with a thrashing. We suspect that the typical victim is a meek mouse of a woman who somehow brought those cigarette burns upon herself by being irritating.
“I’ve met a lot of women who’ve survived domestic violence,” says Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid. “All different types of people, from all walks of life, and I’ve never met a little mousey, victim-type woman.”
What we struggle to get into our heads is that anyone can be a victim, regardless of race, religion, age, lifestyle, or how many times they’ve appeared, looking beautiful and accomplished, on television. A quarter of women have suffered domestic violence, and being an extrovert, boasting a brilliant career or a degree from Oxbridge is, outrageously, no immunity. “It’s a gradual thing, abuse,” a police officer friend told me once. “It’s a mental thing first. You’re brainwashed.” So, when this police officer friend’s boyfriend began to throttle and beat her, she thought to herself: “I’ve obviously done something to annoy him.”
So class or status is irrelevant, but we persist in our naivety. It’s a defence mechanism, of course; we’re desperate to find a cast-iron reason that will distance us from the miserable fate suffered by someone unnervingly similar to our comfortable little selves – because we don’t want to believe that it could happen to us. We cannot tolerate the thought that we are not safe. And from this weaselly position of “I’d never get myself into that situation”, it’s a short, shameful step to blaming the victim: why does she stay with him? Why does she put up with it?
Hence the reflex instinct of society to presume that a victim is exaggerating. We grimly cling to our rose-coloured view, wilfully disregarding the truth that our blindness makes us guilty of cowardly neglect. Of course, it is difficult to acknowledge the truth, because then we are obliged to take the inconvenient, awkward, possibly frightening step of doing something about it. Often, we can’t face doing that. So instead, we focus on scrambling out of this sticky, tangled cobweb of complicity. As Ms Neate says: “We don’t think: the person who we ought to be questioning and challenging here is the abuser, the perpetrator.”
We supposedly “decent types” find the act of cruelty, if not the instinct, hard to comprehend, so we search for a sensible cause to explain it away. Or at least to explain it. Is it a man’s inadequacy, his feelings of failure, frustration, stress, anger at the world, which he viciously takes out on someone physically weaker than himself, who in some way, perhaps by their mental and moral superiority, inspires their envy and resentment and bile? Tricky, because Charles Saatchi doesn’t quite fit this profile.
Instead of stretching our little brains trying to work out “why Charles Saatchi?”, perhaps we should be asking, “why not Charles Saatchi?”.
“Before I started this job,” says Ms Neate, “I’d be more inclined to think domestic violence was [perpetrated] more by sad, weak men. But now… I think it can be all kinds of people, and the only common factor I can latch on to is the cultural backdrop.
“My opinion is that all men can be influenced by a wider culture which objectifies women, trivialises them. If you are inclined to be abusive, you don’t have to look that far in popular culture to find some sort of justification of that. We might not have as many mother-in-law jokes, but we’ve got a lot more naked and provocatively posed women up and down the street.”
The truth is, if you are inclined towards abuse or violence you don’t need a reason, because you create a reason. It’s not the other person’s fault. It’s yours. Years ago, late at night, on a train, I was physically intimidated by a couple of older men. I ignored them until one lunged at me, growling like an Alsatian. All the potential heroes in the carriage hid behind their newspapers or looked away. In those brief moments of fright, I realised how helpless I was, how pitifully unequal in strength, and that provocation isn’t necessary. My only error was being there to pick on. I got off the train. It’s not quite as easy to leave a relationship.
Perhaps the sight of Nigella Lawson, frozen in fear, as her husband apparently chokes her, will end the curiously pervasive myth that domestic violence is just a teeny bit linked to the victim’s behaviour – that a woman can be so irritating or pathetic that she, as the saying goes, deserves a slap. It could be time to stop critiquing the abused, and focus on the perpetrator. Domestic violence is about exerting control, inspiring fear, and the insidious progression of that. As Ms Neate says: “The early warning signs of control are not necessarily physical, and can build up quite gradually – controlling someone’s phone, or how often they see their family or go out.”
The problem is, we don’t want to comprehend another’s capacity for evil. Our mind naturally twists away from the unpalatable truth. This is possibly why many early warning signs of abuse are interpreted in a romantic, rosy way by society: the adorable idea of the man who loves “his woman” so much he can’t bear to be without her for a second. He’s jealous, possessive, passionate (euphemism of the day) only because he cares.
Even the experts struggle. One pair of psychoanalysts, trying to establish quite why someone would beat to a pulp a person they supposedly love, in a paper entitled Theoretical Basis for Family Violence, wrote: “People who allow the abuse have often experienced painful shock or trauma in the past and will align themselves with abusers who enable them to re-experience the pain of the original trauma.”
What a curious notion: that a victim gives an abuser permission. But we do, like dogs returning to a filthy old bone, keep gnawing at the delicious idea that the victim is somehow culpable. After all, Nigella has spoken of her mother’s cruelty towards her as a child, and the idea that someone who was mentally abused by a parent has latent insecurities is hardly surprising. As Ms Neate says: “The experience of abuse dramatically impacts on a person’s self-esteem and ability to protect themselves. It impairs their understanding of what they deserve and what behaviour they should expect in relationships, and that can make them vulnerable to further abusive relationships.”
And yet, we must take care, for again, we teeter perilously close to the suggestion that some women seek out abuse. One glance at those photographs of Nigella, with her lover’s hands around her throat, and I think we can safely consign that theory to the dustbin of denial. No victim lets it happen – but perhaps we do.