Asia-Pacific

Friday 25 July 2014

Tom Meagher: The danger of a monster myth

On September 22, 2012, Jill Meagher (29) was murdered in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, as she made her way home from a night out. In a personal blog, husband Tom Meagher reflects on his reaction to her murderer and on how he came to realise that most violence against women is not perpetrated by 'monsters' like Adrian Bayley but by friends, acquaintances, lovers and husbands.

Tom Meagher

Published 19/04/2014|02:30

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Tom Meagher and his late wife Jill
Tom Meagher and his late wife Jill

One of the most disturbing moments of the past 18 months was hearing my wife's killer form a coherent sentence in court. Jill had been murdered almost six months earlier, and Adrian Bayley's defence team were presenting a rather feeble case for a four-week adjournment of his committal hearing. Bayley appeared via video-link as I sat flanked by two friends and a detective. I anticipated and prepared for the most difficult moment of the day when his face appeared on the big-screen TV, looming over the seat I then occupied.

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When that moment arrived, a jolt of nausea came and went, but the worst was to come, made all the more horrifying because it was unexpected. The judge asked Bayley whether he could see the courtroom. I don't remember his exact words, but he replied that he was able to see his lawyer and half of the bench. I had come face to face with him before in court, but vocally I never heard him manage more than a monosyllabic mumble into his chest. This was different.

There was a clarity of communication, sentence structure, and proper articulation. It was chilling. I had formed an image that this man was not human, that he existed as a singular force of pure evil who somehow emerged from the ether. Something about his ability to form real, intelligible sentences forced a refocus, one that required a look at the spectrum of men's violence against women, and its relation to Bayley and the society from which he came.

By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions. I left court that day in a perpetual trauma-loop, knowing I needed to re-imagine the social, institutional and cultural context in which a man like Adrian Bayley exists.

Three days after Jill's body was found, 30,000 people marched respectfully down Sydney Road. I watched on TV as the long parade of people reacted to their anger at what happened to Jill with love and compassion, the very opposite of everything Bayley represents. I remember my sister's voice from behind me as I fixed my eyes on the images saying, "wow, people really care about this".

After the court date where I heard Bayley speak, that infinite conveyor belt of the compassionate replayed in my mind. People did care about this, and for whatever reason people identified with this particular case, it was something that I hoped could be universalised, not localised to this case, but for every instance of men's violence against women.

The more I felt the incredible support from the community, the more difficult it was to ignore the silent majority whose tormentors are not monsters lurking on busy streets, but their friends, acquaintances, husbands, lovers, brothers and fathers.

Since Jill died, my inbox has overflowed with messages from thousands of women who shared with me their stories of sexual and physical abuse. Some were prostitutes who felt it pointless to report sexual assault because of perceived deficiencies in the justice system, some were women whose tormentors received suspended sentences, and felt too frightened to stay in their home town.

While the vast majority of men abhor violence against women, those dissenting male voices are rarely heard in our public discourse, outside of the monster-rapist narrative. While not attempting to broad-brush or essentialise the all too abstracted notion of 'masculinity', male invisibility in the language of the conversation can be compounded by masculine posturing, various 'bro-codes' of silence, and a belief, through the monster myth, in the intrinsic otherness of violent men.

One of the most dangerous things about the media saturation of this crime was that Bayley is in fact the archetypal monster. He feeds into a commonly held social myth that most men who commit rape are like him, violent strangers who stalk their victims and strike at the opportune moment. It gives a disproportionate focus to the rarest of rapes, ignoring the catalogue of non-consensual sex happening on a daily basis everywhere.

The monster myth allows us to see public infractions on women's sovereignty as minor, because the man committing the infraction is not a monster like Bayley. We see instances of this occur in bars when men become furious and verbally abusive to, or about, women who decline their attention. We see it on the street as groups of men shout comments, grab, grope and intimidate women with friends either ignoring or getting involved in the activity. We see it in male peer groups where rape-jokes and disrespectful attitudes towards women go uncontested. The monster myth creates the illusion that this is simply banter, and sexist horseplay. While most of us would never abide racist comments among a male peer-group, the trivialisation of men's violence against women often remains a staple, invidious, and rather boring subject of mirth.

The monster myth perpetuates a comforting lack of self-awareness. When I heard Bayley forming sentences in court, I froze because I'd been socialised to believe that men who rape are jabbering madmen. The only thing more disturbing than that paradigm is the fact that most rapists are normal guys, guys we might work beside or socialise with, our neighbours or even family members.

Where men's violence against women is normalised in our society, we often compartmentalise it to fit our view of the victim. If a prostitute is raped or beaten, we may consider it an awful occupational hazard 'given her line of work'. Her line of work is dangerous, but mainly because there are men who want to hurt women. If a husband batters his wife, we often unthinkingly put it down to socioeconomic factors or alcohol and drugs rather than how men and boys are taught and socialised to be men and view women.

When Bayley was arrested, the nightmare of the lurking evil stranger was realised. It was beamed through every television set and printed on every newspaper headline in the country. It was the reminder that there are men out there who are 'not like us', men who exist so far outside our social norms that the problem can be solved simply by extinguishing this person. Bayley became a singular evil that stirred our anger, and provoked a backlash so violent that it mirrored the society from which he emerged, that the answer to violence is more violence.

I dreamt for more than a year of how I would like to physically hurt this man, and still often relish the inevitable manner of his death, but wouldn't it be more beneficial for Jill's memory, and other women affected by violence, to focus on the problems that surround our attitudes, our legal system and our silence?

What would make this tragedy even more tragic would be if we were to separate what happened to Jill from cases of violence against women where the victim knew, had a sexual past with, talked to the perpetrator in a bar, or went home with him. It would be tragic if we did not recognise that Bayley's previous crimes were against prostitutes, and that the social normalisation of violence against a woman of a certain profession and our inability to deal with or talk about these issues, socially and legally, resulted in untold horror for those victims, and led to the brutal murder of my wife. We cannot separate these cases from one another because doing so allows us to ignore the fact that all these crimes have exactly the same cause – violent men, and the silence of non-violent men.

Since Jill died, I wake up every day and read a quote by Maya Angelou – "history, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again". Male self-examination requires this courage, and we cannot end the pattern of men's violence against women without consciously breaking our silence.

THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF TOM'S BLOG 'THE DANGER OF A MONSTER MYTH', WHICH CAN BE SEEN IN FULL ON THE WHITE RIBBON CAMPAIGN WEBSITE

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