'If he had made it into the house that night, I would have died'
Warning: This article contains details that some readers may find distressing. Independent.ie is running a series on emotional and psychological domestic abuse. Here, Geraldine Gittens speaks to Jessica Bowes on the abuse she suffered in a recent relationship
“He used to call me ‘an inner city scum’. He’d say ‘I should have left you in the gutter where I found you, go back to the flats’ - things that you or I would never say to a human being in a million years.”
In December 2015, Jessica Bowes from Dublin was so badly beaten by her partner Jonathan McSherry that she was left with multiple fractures to her eye sockets, face and skull.
The mother-of-three needed reconstructive surgery with metal plates to her face.
“If you ever tried to go against him or defend yourself, he’d say, ‘look at you with your big words’. I’d try to explain to him how I was feeling and he’d say, ‘will you speak English? Where are you going with your fancy words? Who do you think you are?’”
During McSherry’s trial in late 2016, the court heard how she lost consciousness twice during the attack.
McSherry, whom she has two children with, was given a three and a half year prison sentence with the final 12 months suspended for assaulting his former partner and breaching a barring order.
The former soldier walked free from Mountjoy Prison earlier this year having served 22 months.
Ms Bowes, who now campaigns on behalf of domestic abuse victims, says that attack was the final episode of six years of emotional, financial and physical abuse from Mr McSherry.
“Everyone knows what happened on that night," she explains. "But in some ways that’s where the story ended for me with him. For years, I’d been subjected to financial, physical and emotional abuse.
“I used to be threatened regularly... dishes were thrown at me... I was told I was a bad mother. He used to threaten me in jealousy if he felt I didn’t give him enough attention... that he was going to leave.
“He’d monitor my weight and make remarks if I was putting on weight. The one thing I was always happy with was my face, but my face has changed now. He used to say ‘I’ll bite your nose off’, ‘I’ll throw acid in your face’, or ‘I’ll rearrange your face’. He used to always threaten to harm my face.”
During Jessica's pregnancies the abuse escalated, she says.
"He used to slag me over my bump. He'd say, 'put that away, that's disgusting'. He hated my bump," she says.
"When I delivered Isobel, the control I was under was so bad that when we went into the labour ward there were women screaming in pain and he said ‘you better stop that screaming if you start’. So I breathed through my labour and wouldn't take a paracetamol, and I didn't make a single sound. It was the strangest experience I’ve ever had in my whole life."
One in five women in Ireland is affected by domestic abuse, according to Women's Aid. A third of those will never tell a single soul what is happening to them.
Ms Bowes tells Independent.ie that the emotional abuse is so cruel that it breaks you down and makes you doubt all your instincts. You’re caught in a trap, she says, which no one will understand, unless you've been in the situation yourself. She likens it to grooming.
Though he bit and punched and insulted Jessica, Mr McSherry would continually impress upon her how important she was to him - how he couldn’t survive without her, how he'd been to counselling and was going to change.
She believes that he “gaslighted” her, a form of psychological manipulation with the aim of getting the victim to doubt their memory or sanity. The person is made to believe that the version of events that they recall is not true, and that they cannot trust their own instincts or evaluation, experts say.
Ms Bowes says he manipulated her psychologically until she doubted her own sanity. He also “love bombed” her, or obsessively proclaimed his love for her, another common tool which abusers use to hook in their victims.
“If I came to him with a problem, he didn’t want to hear it. He’d attack me, and divert everything back to me," she says. "I knew in my heart that he cheated and I asked him outright, ‘did you do it?’ And he’d just say ‘you’re paranoid’, ‘you’re nuts’, ‘you’re after making this all in your head’. I could feel it in my gut but he’d make me believe it was all in my head.
“He set up an eight-week counselling session, and I told the counsellor that I really believed it and I was hurt by what he’d done and that I was more hurt that he wouldn’t admit it. He sat there for eight weeks in front of her and told her I was paranoid.
“I was sitting in there with my head in my hands, so confused, thinking what was going wrong, ‘maybe I was mad’, ‘maybe I was worthless’, ‘maybe it was my fault’, ‘what am I doing wrong here, I can’t seem to get it right?’
“When we’d finished the counselling I got a phone call from the girl I thought he’d cheated with and she confirmed it.”
Jessica, an HSE clerical officer, eventually broke up with McSherry. She secured a barring order against him after he hit her in front of their children. He left, but eventually came back and terrorised her once again.
She says the barring order didn’t deter McSherry. He showed up at her home, texted her obsessively, drove into her front garden and revved the engine, scaring the young family, who believed he would drive through the house.
Once, when he breached the barring order, he stumbled in the door early in the morning when she and the children were getting ready to bring Jessica’s eldest daughter to an Irish dancing feis. He saw that Jessica had make-up on, and he grew paranoid and angry that she was only after coming in from a night out. She hadn't.
“I went upstairs and as I was going up I heard a smash in the kitchen, and he was walking towards me with the butt of a wine glass, and I thought ‘oh my God he’s going to stab me’.
“I locked the door and rang the Gardai and said ‘I need help’. I was hysterical, I said ‘he’s smashed a glass, please come and help’. It felt like forever, but they did come," she recalls.
"But in the meantime he’d managed to open the door, he’d cut all up his arm and chest. He was pumping blood and then he was flinging his hand around, splashing the blood around, so we were getting hot splashes every so often.
“I had my hands on [the children’s] eyes. The phone was still on, I wanted [the emergency services] to hear what was going on. He walked into the bedroom and picked my son up. He looked like he was going to go grey, and I kept saying ‘please give me the baby, I rang you an ambulance, help is coming’. I kept saying if he just gave me the baby I’d help him.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced in my life. My eldest daughter… she wouldn’t talk to me about it; the kids are afraid to tell you because they’re worried and scared. They’re very in tune with your emotions and they don’t want to add to the hurt you’re already feeling. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Jessica says that an ambulance took him to hospital for medical attention, but the authorities didn't follow up on the fact that he’d broken a barring order. She says this was a missed opportunity.
Woman's Aid, Ireland's leading domestic violence service, recently launched the 'Too Into You' campaign, which outlays 10 signs of dating abuse that women can be aware of when entering new relationships.
One sign, the campaign clearly states, is that "you feel afraid to break up with him because he has told you he will hurt you or himself”.
This aligns with Ms Bowes's experience, who says: “[Whenever we broke up] I tried everything to keep him out of the house but nothing worked.
“When we’d break up then, he’d cut you off, and he wouldn’t see the kids. I was OK with that because it meant I had some peace in that period of time. But then in his own time he’d come back after weeks of living the life of a single man, saying ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve been for counselling, I can’t live without you and the kids, you’re so important to me’.”
“He’d show up at my job. He’d send me flowers and ‘I love you’ balloons. When I look back, that was a trick - we weren’t together but he was still sending me flowers, wanting people to think I was in a relationship and to put a mark on me.”
“He’d show up at the school when I was collecting the kids...He’d follow me around...He’d send me texts...He’d get in on my emotions.”
“He’d ring and say ‘tell the kids I’m sorry and I love them’, and he’d make you think he’d made a decision that he was going to end it all," she adds.
“He’d send you photos of his wrist - now I know they were all superficial cuts – making you think if you don’t help me, I’m going to die. I’d be traumatised. It was so overwhelming in that moment that you’d forget about what he’d done and that he’d hit you.”
“Your focus was shifting all the time, that’s what it’s like. He was still, for whatever reason, feeling like he needed me. I’d tell him, ‘look I don’t want to be with you; we don’t get on; it’s toxic; it’s bad for the kids; we’ve tried a million times to make it work but it just doesn’t’.
But Jessica explained: “He was everywhere; he blocked me in once in my garden and he wouldn’t let me leave in the car. He’d say ‘please come for coffee’, he’d be booking tables for restaurants: ‘will you please just come with me?’ He was at my job and he’d ring and say ‘if you don’t come out I’m going to come in’… Once he pulled me by the throat off a clinic in front of all the patients.”
In 2017, Women’s Aid heard 10,281 disclosures of emotional abuse. These accounts were from women who were victims of verbal abuse, threats with violence, stalking both physically and online, women and children being locked out of their homes overnight; being isolated from friends and family, being in fear of their lives because abusers threaten them with guns, knives and with injury due to speeding in cars.
Jessica says: “They target you and groom you. People don’t understand why you would put up with the abuse. What they don’t realise is that someone has worked really, really hard to get into your head and blind you to what’s going on around you.
“I’d say to anyone who’s in a bad relationship: educate yourself about what’s happening to you - this is what abuse is, this is the personality type, this is what he does to get inside your head.”
On December 20, 2015, the night Jonathan beat her mercilessly, Jessica believes she was lucky that he didn’t get inside her home.
“I believe if he had made it in I would have died. The only thing that saved me that night is the fact that the neighbours let me in.”
Anyone affected by issues discussed in this story can contact Women’s Aid on its national Freephone 24 hour helpline, on 1800 341 900.