How domestic violence has been normalised in New Zealand

by Venetia Sherson / 29 April, 2019

Leonie Newman and her daughter Mereana in 1996.

What I’ve learned from a year of writing about domestic violence.

I was deputy editor of the Waikato Times in 1996, when Leon Colin Wilson strangled and stabbed to death his former partner, Leonie Mary Newman, in a Huntly house. The court reporter wrote that Wilson, a 27-year-old Kaitaia man, had been charged with murder and remanded in custody for a depositions hearing. The story appeared on page one, below the fold. The lead that day was about ongoing ructions over rates.

A month later, on page eight, the newspaper reported Wilson had pleaded guilty to murder. The following month, Justice Penlington jailed him for life, with a minimum of 10 years before he was eligible for parole. The court heard Wilson strangled Newman so hard, he broke his thumb; then he stabbed her 28 times with a boning knife. She had the words “Property of Leon” tattooed on her face. Wilson told police, “If I can’t have her, no one will.”

Leonie Newman was 26 when she was murdered. She had three children aged nine, six and five. After the sentencing, her mother told the newspaper, “The nine-year-old – Mereana – is finding it very hard at the moment. The two young ones – I don’t really think it’s sunk in for them yet.”

The newspaper didn’t tell Newman’s backstory. It was never reported she was a terrible cook but would present her kids with takeaway fish and chips with a flourish as if they were 10-course meals; that she once baked a birthday cake shaped like a pig’s head and whooped with delight when they ate the snout; or that she spent hours brushing the tangles out of her daughter’s hair.

I learned that last year from Mereana, now aged 32, who has a two-year-old son with dimpled arms, a serious face and curly black hair. I also learned that, as a child, Mereana distracted her brothers by making mud pies in the garden while, inside the house, her mother had her head shoved through a wardrobe door.

Read more: No one is immune: The Aunties' Jackie Clark on her abusive marriage'I took pleasure in making her feel worthless': The psychology of domestic abuse

When I began writing about domestic violence last year, I thought I knew a lot about it. I knew family violence was about power and control, not anger; that phrases like “he must have just snapped” inferred men were pushed over the edge by stress – or by the woman they lived with; I knew police and many people referred to partner violence as “just a domestic”.

What I didn’t realise was how little I knew. Dozens of interviews with survivors and people who work with them have demonstrated the crushing reality of domestic violence, and the almost unbelievable courage and determination of women who survive and those who help them rebuild their lives.

I also know that myths about family violence continue to be perpetuated: that it’s a crime of the poor and uneducated; it’s always physical; that the cops and courts can solve it; and that if a woman stays with the man who harms her, her situation can’t be that bad.

All of them are false.

Frontline crisis worker Marion Shaw, 34, was on duty at Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge one Sunday when the phone rang at 3am. A woman was crying, and in the background, there were sounds of fists pummelling flesh. An angry voice screamed, “Who are you calling, bitch?”

 “Where are you?” Shaw asked. It’s the most important question. An address means frontline staff have somewhere to go, or somewhere to direct the cops. She also asked, “Are you safe?”

The phone went dead but then it rang again. The woman said, “He’s passed out on the couch.” “Are you hurt?” Shaw asked. “Can we come to get you?” “Yes,” was the whispered reply. They took her to an emergency clinic, where a doctor dressed her cuts and put her wrenched arm in a sling. She said her partner was unemployed and stressed. There was no money and no car. He drank all day. “Do you want to go to a safe house?” Shaw asked. The woman shook her head. “He’ll be okay now. He’ll have slept it off.”

Women go back on average seven times. Shaw, who graduated with a law degree from Waikato University in 2017, says, “You never say, ‘You’re mad to stay.’ If she shuts the door on you, you’ll lose her. But by calling you, she has taken the first step. One day, she may walk out for good.”

Leaving a relationship, no matter how abusive, is never easy. Women often love the men who harm them, at least initially. They may worry about the reaction or even rejection from family and friends. They often blame themselves for their partner’s violence or believe that, with time and effort, they can change him. Lack of money may also limit their ability to leave, especially if children are involved. If you are economically dependent on someone, you rely on them to pay the rent and put food on the table. If you are the one working, and can’t afford childcare, it makes it harder to leave. If you walk out, there is also a greater risk of being further harmed – or killed. Abusers often stalk, harass or threaten a woman who tries to leave. “If you leave, I’ll kill you,” is not an empty threat. Leonie Newman was running from her former partner when he murdered her.

Domestic abuse is not only about physical violence, of course. In fact, it’s rare that the first act of abuse is a violent one. It may begin with name-calling, threats, possessiveness and isolation. One man I interviewed told his partner he’d had an affair with her best friend, to drive a wedge between them. Another said he forced his wife to have sex every day so she would have more kids, which limited her options. When he found contraceptives in her bag, he threatened to kill her beloved dog.

What at first may appear to be doting attention can escalate into extreme control. A woman who escaped an abusive relationship, and later joined the police, said at first, she thought she was lucky when her partner wanted to phone her constantly. Then she realised his intent. “He’d call 10 to 12 times a day. He was stalking me on the phone, wanting to know what I was doing and who I was with.” Another woman’s partner would never leave her alone with their baby. “He knew if I had her on my own, I would run.”

Myths about domestic violence extend to profiles of the perpetrator. It’s easy to label a tattooed, coarse, brown-skinned man as a potential abuser. Media court reports appear to affirm our views. But stereotypes only exist from a distance; get closer and they dissolve. Perpetrators come in all shapes, colours and bank balances. Among them are surgeons, judges, detectives and corporate bigwigs.

Te Whakaruruhau takes calls from women married to men who are the pillars of society. It may appear these women have the means and nous to get out. But they battle shame and public humiliation. And not being believed. Abusers are often charming, generous and well-presented people. Because abuse is carried out only in the privacy of their own home, their Jekyll and Hyde personality is never evident. One of the perpetrators I interviewed – a man now remorseful – turned up in a smart jacket, collar and tie and freshly pressed slacks. He spoke in a soft, educated voice. You would have picked him for a high-flyer except for the small, black electronic ankle bracelet hidden out of sight.

Millionaire Greg Meads murdered his wife Helen in 2009.
The role of a journalist, according to Samuel G. Freedman, who wrote the book Letters to a Young Journalist, is to be “an honest broker of information”. I have always taken that to mean journalists have a responsibility to unearth and understand the essence of a story, and make it meaningful to their audience. In the year spent co-writing Stand By Me with fellow journalist Denise Irvine, I’ve had to confront the reality that media have played a part in downplaying and normalising domestic violence. A man assaulting another man in the pub or a woman attacked at random out jogging is more newsworthy than a woman getting beaten by her partner. Unless there is a significant twist in a domestic violence crime, or the perpetrator is a famous face, stories are seldom reported. Domestic violence is noted chiefly as statistics: on average, 13 New Zealand women are killed by their partners each year; in 2017, there were more than 120,000 police callouts for family violence, 328 each day; one every four minutes. 

When I sat with women to record their stories, I heard details that chilled me to the bone. Some had never told their stories publicly. They took time to gather their thoughts and consider who might be harmed by their accounts, including their children. Like the many cups of tea shared, the stories took time to brew. Details were added and subtracted. The stories were filled with hurt – but also hope.

If there is hope, it largely comes from organisations like Te Whakaruruhau, formed in Hamilton in 1986 and based on Māori whānau values of non-judgmental care: awhi (love), manaaki (to surround and nurture) and tiaki (to take care of), where women heal, grow stronger and learn skills to forge new paths. It’s a powerful kaupapa and recognised and respected by government agencies, academics and corporate funders.

The refuge founders Roni Albert and Ariana Simpson – both awarded QSMs in 2012 – know about domestic abuse from the ground up. In the early days, they confronted perpetrators, sheltered women with their bodies and hustled them to safety in their one-bedroom flat. Today, while they run a multimillion-dollar organisation with dozens of like-minded generous souls, they still work on the frontline so they can relay real stories to the lawmakers, government agencies, police, courts and those who fund their work. They operate six safe houses and are often stretched for space.  

Read more: The murder of Helen Meads: The multimillionaire horse breeder who shot his wife

What will it take to make a difference, I ask Roni Albert. “An understanding and a determination by everyone involved to speak with one voice,” she says. “It won’t be solved by criminal justice. We need to agree on the things we know work. We can’t be pulling in different directions.” She tells a story of an incident a few nights before in which a young mother was told she would have her baby uplifted by the courts. “We knew she’d been abused, but she was too scared to tell. We had to fight for 48 hours for authorities to make the right decision.”

She also takes hope from young women like Leonie Newman’s daughter, Mereana, who she keeps in touch with.

Albert first met Leonie in the early 1980s, when she fetched up at a safe house in a car crammed with three toddlers, plus treasures and trinkets she sold to raise money to pay for her board.

Back then, Albert says, Leonie was a pretty young woman with shoulder-length hair and beautiful skin. “None of her money went on drugs or alcohol. She had a hugely kind heart and she was patient with her kids.” She last saw her shortly before she was murdered. “She was skinny and anxious. By then her face was tattooed. She came to the refuge because she wanted to turn her life around. She was strong, but not physically strong enough to save herself from this man.”

Mereana also has vivid memories of her mother: of when she dressed up to go to a party wearing a velvet and lace dress and gumboots; of handwritten postcards sent to the kids when she was away; of being bundled into a car late at night to hide out in the bush. She made a vow on her mother’s casket that if any man lifted a hand to her, he would be out the door. She is taking that message to other young women. Which is why her face is on the cover of the book.

Stand By Me: The Story of Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge by Venetia Sherson and Denise Irvine (published by Te Whakaruruhau Waikato Women’s Refuge, $29.95; waikatowomensrefuge.co.nz).

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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