Images of Charles Saatchi apparently throttling Nigella Lawson challenge our clichéd ideas about domestic violence
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.”
Instead of stretching our little brains trying to work out “why Charles Saatchi?”, perhaps we should be asking, “why not Charles Saatchi?”.