Investigative journalist Jess Hill has been covering Australia’s domestic and family violence crisis for the past six years. In a new three-part documentary premiering on Wednesday on SBS — See What You Made Me Do — Hill addresses the question “why doesn’t she just leave?” by showing the obstacles women face when they try to.
“The more confounding question,” Hill says, “is why did he do it?”
Australian police attend a call of domestic violence every two minutes. One woman a week is killed by a current or former partner on average.
The series focuses on coercive control, showing how a strong, driven and independent woman can slowly fall victim to abuse as she is cut off from her friends, her family and her finances.
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Importantly, the series doesn’t just rely on harrowing stories (though there are plenty of those). It shows pathways to escape and pathways to reform.
Jess makes a stop at a secret office for women on their way to a refuge, where their phones and cars can be checked for tracking devices.
One woman’s car is swept for bugs. Two devices are found — one is battery-powered and the other plugs into the car. They are inconspicuous and well hidden. The woman’s phone is scanned for spyware, a tedious task as the woman’s partner calls nonstop.
Another woman shows how her abuser keeps breaking into her apartment, each time leaving a memento to let her know he’s been there. One woman explains why it took her so long to leave her abuser: “It’s better the devil you know.”
Failures of the court system are also exposed: women who tried to leave their partner but then, thanks to a family law act that says children have the right to be cared for by both parents, now have to send their children to their abuser and risk being in contempt of court if they don’t.
Most distressing is the story of Tamica Mullaley, an Aboriginal woman from Broome. In 2013 she was beaten and stripped naked by her partner Mervyn Bell — but when police arrived, they arrested her for abusing officers. Bell ran away with her 10-month-old baby, Charlie, inflicting fatal wounds on the child while police focused on prosecuting Mullaley. Mullaley’s dad Ted pleaded for help from police to find Charlie but was accused of being drunk (despite being sober for two decades) and dismissed.
Abusive men are also interviewed as they take programs to try to reform their behaviour. Their language exposes everything the documentary is trying to address: “You get someone nagging and harassing you over your shoulder and it’s very easy to snap,” one man said.
They say how being emotionally repressed and feeling out of control led to their abusive behaviours. They’re asked to write letters to themselves from their partner’s perspective — an upsetting exercise for many of them.
The documentary is alarming and heartbreaking but also crucial viewing. Even for those well-versed in domestic and family violence, it exposes new angles and new solutions.
See What You Made Me Do screens on SBS at 8.30 tonight and On Demand.