Editor’s Note: We are pleased to have obtained permission to reprint Erin Pizzey’s classic book, Prone to Violence, first published in 1982. This book is a must-read on the subject of domestic violence, and is what people from the former Soviet Union would call “samizdat,” as the book was subjected to concerted campaigns to make it unavailable for publication or distribution in the UK or United States. Over 30 years ago, gender ideologues were already trying to hide the truth–that men and women are equally prone to violence. Although parts of this book are dated, what’s most shocking is how fresh and timely most of it still is: little has changed in the last 30 years, except that the vast majority of peer-reviewed scientific research done since its publication has only bolstered all of Erin’s most salient points. When it comes to domestic violence, women and men are about as violent as each other, just in somewhat different ways, and its primary victims are children.

We continue our series with the second chapter of “Prone To Violence.” Watch for the other chapters to be published here on AVfM. If you have ever been involved in an abusive relationship with a woman (or man for that matter), you owe it to yourself to read this book. And if you know someone who is, or has been, in such a relationship, you owe it to them to get them to read it. –DE


Olga sat by the window in the small office* of the Refuge. The prosecution for overcrowding had recently been successful, and though we had won at Acton Magistrates’ Court on a technicality, we had lost at the High Court. We were given leave to apply to the House of Lords. The numbers in the Refuge were still well over the limit: most days we averaged seventy to eighty mothers and their children in only nine rooms. The conditions were chaotic, but this chaos, I was beginning to realise, contributed to the feeling of excitement in the community.

As I looked at Olga I thought to myself that if we had closed the door, she would now be one of the ones on the outside. She had a badly scarred face, but must have been a very attractive woman before she had been repeatedly beaten. Now there were ledges of scar-tissue over her eyes, and her nose was a curious shape. But when she smiled, her face lit up with such life that everyone around her relaxed and smiled at each other. She had come to us, she said, because she was in fear of her life from her boyfriend Jim. I soon knew this was no exaggeration, because the day after she arrived I had a phone call from her local police inspector asking if she was there. Jim had yet again reported her missing, and the inspector was worried because he considered Jim so dangerous that he was prepared to order his men to dig up their back garden if she could not be found. “He will kill her,” the Inspector warned, “if she doesn’t stay away from him.”

He sounded genuinely concerned about her. We chatted for a while and I tried to explain to him that Olga did not “like” what was happening to her, nor did she “deserve it”, but she was bound to Jim by forces that she could not understand. He listened to me very patiently, then after I had finished he asked if I had any idea how much she had cost the local taxpayers. Apparently, he explained, every social agency in that small city had been channelling its energies into the Olga/Jim relationship for twenty years. I could believe it. Here again was a situation I had come to recognise in most of the families that came to us.

By this time I was beginning to feel sure that behind a woman’s attraction to the drama and excitement of a violent lifestyle, there must be an even more compelling need to go back to a particular man. Olga’s four children had been taken into care years ago, so that could not be claimed as the reason for her not leaving him. Subsequently I sat down with her, and we talked for two and a half hours. When we finished, I had a much clearer picture of why she put herself in a position to be abused. She had never made the connection for herself, because no one had bothered to delve back far enough into her childhood. To be fair to all the people who had tried to deal with Olga she was capable of putting up such a smokescreen of demands and drama that it would be difficult for anyone to comprehend or handle the situation. Usually, when she demanded help, her unsuspecting helpers would soon find themselves drawn into a life-and-death battle between Olga and Jim.

Olga was born in Scotland. Her grandfather was a Bible-thumping Puritan bigot. The family lived in a small village, and Olga’s mother was the only girl in a large family of boys. The beatings, always for religious reasons, did not spare her. The leather strap hung behind the door, both at home and at school. By the time she attended school, she was well used to the pain of it across her legs and buttocks. If Olga’s mother was alive today, she would probably be able to describe the moment when she first realised that, on the knife-edge of pain, it is possible to experience the sickly, evil glimmer of pleasure.

When pain and pleasure become inextricably mixed in early childhood, as they did in the case of Olga’s mother, the result is a badly abused and abusing human being. By the time Olga’s mother was sixteen, she was sexually involved with a local lout who got her pregnant. Olga was the result of that union. The horror and outrage of her family were expressed in a series of beatings, which, though physically crippling, had become by now such a normal pattern of family life that they were the prime method of communication. Olga was born the only illegitimate child in the village. Her grandfather, who raged weekly from the pulpit of the local church, refused to let her be christened. She grew up with no friends: an outcast, a pariah. The only message she received from all corners of her little world was “It would have been better if you were never born”. That message, so often repeated by her mother, formed the bedrock of Olga’s personality. She should never have existed. Her existence was an offence against her community, her family, her mother and most terrifying of all, her God.

Olga, too, was regularly beaten in this God-fearing family. And she does remember the first moments when pain evolved into pleasure. She was five, she thinks, and her mother removed her knickers and made her bend over her knee. She had not done anything very bad, so she was being smacked by hand, rather than strapped with the tawse. As usual, she felt a tremendous sense of fear and anxiety before bending over, but the difference this time was that as the pain in its crescendo reached its highest pitch, she suddenly felt a warm surge of tingling pleasure suffusing her whole body.

Olga was amazed and dreadfully embarrassed. Soon she began to look for that pleasure in further beatings. So she would definitely provoke her mother, and that was not difficult. She would fight at school until they whipped her and blood ran down her legs. “The Devil’s in her,” the teachers would tell her mother. Her uncles mostly lived at home. Two, she remembers, were silent and withdrawn. The other three were noisy and violent, and one of them often tried to molest her.

Olga’s life was well documented by countless agencies by the time she ended up in my office, but this discussion of her need for pain to find pleasure was not something she had ever talked to anyone about before. That sense of shame and embarrassment had stayed with her all her life. She had not even discussed it with Jim. In our time together, we began to look at her life from a completely different perspective. By this time, I had sat through hundreds of interviews with women who described the same feelings. It was becoming clear to me that the difference between a non-violent woman and a violent woman is that a non-violent woman can get into a relationship with a man who is violent, and love the man but hate his violence. A violence-prone woman will look for a violent man with whom she will hate the man but cling to his violence.

By the time Olga met Jim, she was climaxing in pain. Sexual intercourse was meaningless to her. Jim was, quite simply, the most extreme, the most violent man she had ever met. “He will kill me”, she would say to me, and the awful prospect of her death would cause her face to glow. “How will he kill you?” I would ask her. “Like this,” she would say, putting her hands round her throat and squeezing her neck until her face became bloated and her eyes bulged.

Usually, Olga would stay with us for just three or four days, and then would go back to her own battleground. Months later she would be back on the doorstep again – thinner, with more bruises, and more stories. Then we would sit together and talk through this terrible addiction. By now, I refused to allow her to use the word “love” in the context of this hideous sexual abuse. Again and again, we would go back to two central issues: her death-wish, a goal set for her by her rejecting family and community; and her addiction to pain, learned from her early childhood.

As I write Olga’s story down, I hear from Scotland that she has left Jim again after being stabbed by him. No doubt, we shall see her at some point. She and Jim cannot live with each other, but they cannot live without each other. They are two badly abused and assaulted human beings endlessly acting out their past damage. It won’t stop until one or the other of them gets killed. The remaining partner will then look for another violent relationship, and it will all start over again. It was painful to listen to Olga, for I knew that listening was probably all I could do. It was almost too late for her to change.

At least Olga’s children were safe, and they no longer lived in the constant torment of her and Jim’s life together – they were already in care. I found it far more painful listening to Rose, because she still had her children with her. Her children had no choice but to experience and witness the violence that Rose was addicted to. Violence-prone men and women, though conditioned to need violent relationships, can still choose to leave their abusive relationships. Their children, however, have no say, no choice. They are indeed the innocent victims of violence.

Rose came into the Refuge like a tremendous whirlwind. She was tall and dark, with what we call “adrenalin-high eyes”. They were so filled with energy they transfixed anyone who met her. She had two very active little boys in tow (she had left her little girl at her mother’s). She launched into details of how her husband had sodomised her in front of the children. As she talked, the boys both nodded like two little old men watching yet another horror movie. I sent them out of the room. “They see it all anyway”, she said, uncomprehending. “I know they do,” I replied, “but your first lesson from me is that it isn’t all right to fight and fuck in front of children.”

In our first interview she wanted to show me a picture of her dad. My heart sank. Countless times had I seen those brutal, sexually abusing men, standing proudly in the family photographs. Clustered around him were the children; at the back of the photo was the wispy mouse of her mother, worn and thin. Clutching him by the hand with an unmistakable air of possessiveness was our Rose. Within a few minutes, Rose raised her skirt to show me the faint white scars that latticed her legs. He was a huge handsome man, her father, and something of an expert with a thin cane, which he used on all the children, but mainly on his favourite daughter. Rose explained that when she got out of a hot bath the scars still flared again; and she said it all with such force. The sexual charge she experienced while telling about him now brought her whole body alive.

She did not get married until after her father died. Then she met a man, Ron, who “reminded” her of dad. Of course, that was a disaster: he was not her father, and was not sufficiently violent to satisfy her need for pain. Rose was dreadfully hard work for us because she had been brought up half-saint, half-whore. Yet this happens to so many women, particularly Catholic women: they are beaten and molested at home, then expected to attend church every Sunday. No outsider would ever have guessed that Rose was anything other than a devoted wife and mother. She was always immaculately dressed, and her children were little models in public.

Once they were settled in the Refuge, however, the children soon took over. Rose’s method of control had been to beat them into good behaviour, so once her boys discovered that there was no hitting of children permitted in the Refuge, they went wild. Fortunately the play staff already knew well that battered children addicted to pain will provoke and provoke, waiting for the release of tension which a thumping brings. So the staff were trained to reverse the process. They would grasp the shrieking, struggling child firmly but gently until the child calmed down and discovered the, often first-time, pleasure of being held and caressed. Rose was amazed at our concept of child-care; she would beat her children when they were out of line, as a matter of course. I had some American stickers reading “People are not for hitting, and children are people too,” which I used to stick on kids’ jumpers to remind our battering mothers that they must learn other ways of communication with their children.

We found Rose a model member of the community during the day, but once the staff went home, Rose went out to play. Unfortunately Rose’s games were extremely dangerous, particularly if she had a lot to drink. Her pattern was to begin an evening in the pub by attracting men to her table. Then, after a lot of good-natured sexual joking around, she would start drinking shorts which grew larger and larger as the men filled her glass. She usually wore very low-cut dresses and short skirts to display her excellent figure. One of her frequent acts was then to dance her version of the can-can on the table, with no knickers on. Although this was much enjoyed by the attendant men, the manager would inevitably try to stop her. Thereupon a fight ensued, with Rose joining in. The next morning a hung over Rose would sit in the office completely denying any responsibility. It was a totally unprovoked attack by the pub manager upon her innocent person. “Holy Mary, mother of God, would I tell a lie?” she would say to me.

The truth is she was not lying, and I learned that years ago. People from emotionally disabled families have no permanent reality. In order to develop a stable and permanent reality for a central reference point in your relationship to the world about you, you must have permanent and stable parenting, at least until you are five. Rose’s life, like so many others, was a sequence of events that occurred chaotically and made no impression on her memory. Memory can only exist when there is a structure to hang it on. Our problem families have no permanent structures to their lives. Instead their lives are dictated by violent events, and they organise their living around cataclysmic eruptions.

Getting Rose to share our view of what really happened during her binges necessitated seeing that other women were with her to tell her the next day about the event. Though it was painful for her to accept the side of herself she so deeply hated, she came to understand that we loved her anyway. The hours previously spent in social workers’ offices had only succeeded in making her feel more lonely and isolated. She fooled everyone so completely that she had no one to turn to. The only person she did not fool was her husband, who knew both sides of her and was hopelessly addicted to her violence.

Ron’s mother had been a forceful, emotional, ebullient woman. She had died when he was about ten, and Ron went into a children’s home. Her death was an act of betrayal, as far as he was concerned. Like so many other mothers, she had made her son Ron into her fairy prince. Bored with her husband, who was wedded to the television set and to his friends at the pub, she turned to Ron for companionship and spoiled him. Meanwhile his two sisters, who were second-class citizens in their mother’s eyes, were expected to help her clean and cook. It was the sort of family life you could expect to find behind millions of front doors. The boy, gradually taking over the role of head of the family, was encouraged by his mother but resented by his father. Her sudden death left Ron outraged: his grief and fury at her leaving him went deep into his heart. At times his rage was murderous, but he learned to suppress its visible outburst at his children’s home. Instead he learned to channel that rage into controlling his environment. He was fastidiously neat: by keeping everything ordered, he could order his rage. His great fear was that one day he might erupt, and then he would avenge himself for his mother’s death and would totally explode with his rage.

At the children’s home he was not particularly badly treated, but rather largely ignored. Eventually he went on to qualify as an engineer, and proved himself a regular and hard-working man. When he met Rose at a friend’s house, it was love at first sight. What actually happened was that Rose, afraid of her own chaos, was attracted to Ron’s apparent order. She also sensed his potentially murderous rage, and this attracted her sexually. Ron, with his need to order chaos to contain his rage, was attracted to all that Rose flaunted. When he was near her, he felt alive for the first time since his mother died. He was hooked. He could not wait to marry her. For Rose he was a good prospect: he earned good money, and they were able to buy their own house.

Rose was extremely extravagant, and she soon had the place looking like a palace, with most of the buying done on hire-purchase. Ron had to do a lot of overtime to keep up. Sexually he found himself completely enthralled. He had very little experience of sex because his children’s home was for boys only. He was shy anyway with only a few unsatisfactory affairs behind him. For the first two years of marriage, things were not too bad. Rose was sexually very demanding and sometimes this frightened him; occasionally he wondered if she was acting out some dramatic part in a film. She also worried him when they were out drinking with friends, because she would sometimes change and become raucous and suggestive.

The first time they had a serious fight was when Rose told Ron that one of his friends had suggested she run away with him. The pain of that moment linked into the pain of his “betrayal” by his mother. At the time he kept quiet because they were in the pub, but when they got home he was shaking with rage. They were hardly into the hall before he lashed out and sent her sprawling. But Rose had also been drinking, and got to her feet and began to scream at him. A dreadful torrent of filthy abuse poured from her mouth. Then the two of them suddenly stopped: he shocked by his physical attack; she snapped back into her wife-and-mother role. But the honeymoon was over, and everything started to go from bad to worse.

Rose became pregnant soon after this event, which meant she had to give up her job at a betting shop. But while she had the excitement of laughing and teasing with the customers, she could at least channel a lot of her enormous energy into her work. Once tied to home with a small baby, she went into a deeper depression. Actually, it was the fact of being trapped at home with a man who could not understand her or her needs that finally, after her second child, started off the pattern of picking up the children and running.

The children had become used to the fighting and screaming and crying. At times the older boy tried to protect his mother by throwing himself at his father, flailing at him with his little thin arms. He became hyperactive and violent at school. He could not contain the surges of hatred he felt towards his father. He could not understand why his mother would continually leave and run off to friends’ houses, only to come back again. Over the six years of his short life he acquired a cynical and hard shell to protect himself from the awful pain of watching her cry. “Why can’t we go away?” he would persistently ask her, seeing huge bruises on her face. So they would go, usually after yet another fight, either at night while Ron was in a drunken stupor, or during the day when he was at work.

It became a cat-and-mouse game. After a fight, he would worry that Rose might leave with the children, so he would take time off or suddenly pop home unexpectedly. Leaving became a very tense and dramatic event. It all fell into a pattern of drinking, fighting, Rose running, Ron pursuing with chocolates, flowers and phone-calls; then a reunion. And then it would begin all over again. Ron was mystified when I discussed it with him. “But I love her,” he said, while trying to explain the depth of his hatred for himself. “We have everything we need to be happy.” That was certainly true. They were a handsome couple with two lovely sons, a daughter and a beautiful house. Ron earned good money and Rose was popular in her neighbourhood. On the surface they were a successful couple, but underneath it all was a hornet’s nest.

The fight that first brought her to me was the end of several weeks of bickering and tension. Rose had finally been warned by yet another set of relations that she could no longer expect to burst into their lives, exhaust them with stories of Ron’s cruelty, then rush into his arms again and return home, only to come back later for more sympathy. She had joined the hundreds of families who troop through homeless family units and pop in and out of refuges, using these places as an extra dimension in the war against their husbands. Most of the tension here was to do with Rose’s need for pain and Ron’s need for rage. Making love had long been abandoned, and no wonder. The relationship between them had little to do with loving each other. It was actually to do with hate, fear, rage and violence.

Emotionally disabled people have to be taught love. It requires a great deal of security to be able to give yourself on trust to another human being. These two people were only able to use sex as a relief mechanism when one or other of them felt sexual tension, but that only brought more problems, as the residue of physical relief without tenderness or affection was a bitter sense of loneliness and further isolation. The problem was that Ron, because he had had at least some good parenting, was capable of a fairly healthy sex life, but Rose could only climax in pain.

At this stage Rose had not identified this need in herself. She saw the fighting and the very violent sexual sessions as manifestations of Ron’s cruelty to her. It is true that Ron was by now drinking heavily. Rose would drink in bouts. The children knew that when Rose’s voice became slow and precise, it was time to get out of the way. There was little they could do to shut out the sounds of the two bodies heaving and thrashing about the bedroom, or the groans and the moans which made it difficult to distinguish between agony and ecstasy. After a particularly violent sexual episode they would both be ashamed of themselves. Ron would tell Rose she was a disgusting old whore. Rose would be genuinely hurt and bewildered. Slowly Rose would need more and more pain as the ability to climax moved further and further away.

There came a time when they had been tormenting each other for days. The taunting and the jeering excited both of them and built up tension until Rose started screaming at Ron in the passage. Finally he threw her on the floor on her face in a rugby tackle, pinned her with his knees on the back of her legs, tore her clothes off, and split her anus with the first thrust. Her screams brought the children downstairs. There was blood everywhere. Ron curled up in a ball and was sick. The climax of the pair was now over, and Rose was in dreadful agony. She dragged herself to the bathroom and attempted to clean herself up. And she arrived at the Refuge the next day.

“Never again…I’ll never go near him…never. This time it’s finished.” I had listened to this whole story, and I felt a tremendous sympathy for a whole family so horribly trapped in their circle of violence, but I felt physically sick – so I had to go out of the office. Mike Dunne, who worked beside me for so many years, sensed what had gone on; God knows, we had seen thousands of families together. So he gave me a big warm hug, and I was able to go back and comfort her, too. I knew this was not the end of her relationship with Ron. “It’s finished” – I had heard those words so often before. Battered women who come to a refuge to sincerely get out of their violent relationships will talk about their future. They very quickly give up their pasts. However, women like Rose, who are still locked into these relationships, use the words of leaving for ever…for good…never again…like a litany. In their heads they recognise the danger and degradation of these relationships, but they are addicted to the excitement and drama that go with them.

Predictably she was on the phone to him by that evening. There was a huge bunch of flowers by the morning. She was pleased. The boys looked at me – two pairs of cynical eyes.

They were beginning to hate her now. Already they looked at all the women in the refuge with loathing and contempt. “Slags, whores, cunts,” they would scream at the other mothers if anyone upset them. Then Ron was on the doorstep. We talked to him about their problem, about how he and Rose were on a slippery slope which could, at worst, end up with one of them dead – though it was more likely that their lives would slide in a gradual decline to where they would become hopelessly addicted to alcohol, giving them an excuse for the release of their violent needs for each other. Then, after the money ran out, Ron would find himself in prison, and Rose would be relegated to a mental hospital to be treated for drink. The children would go into care. The family might then be briefly reunited for several months of semi-stability, but they would soon degenerate again.

By this time there would be case files and conferences involving their doctor, health visitors, probation officer, social worker, hospital social worker, borough solicitors. All the case workers would have a little information to contribute, mostly reflecting the to’s and fro’s of the various members of the family. Yet still nothing would be understood about the violent needs of these desperate people. By the time the boys were fourteen or fifteen, they would have girlfriends pregnant – and therefore they would receive accommodation and social security. Two more babies would join the rapidly growing army of the emotionally disabled. Unloved and unloving, they would inherit the mantle of violence that is passed from one generation to another – the mark of Cain.[1]

By now I found that I was more and more drawn to the concept of these violent relationships being actually a form of addiction. Moira once explained to me why she stayed with Mike – Mike, who was so dangerous that he had knifed her between the ribs and put her into an intensive-care unit; Mike, who had so nearly run her down; Mike, who had stubbed out his cigarettes on her breasts and stomach while he pinned her to the ground. But she always went back to him, and each time she conceived another child. I think it must need a lorry by now to cart round all the documents recording the history of this family.

Moira is a wanderer, and in between bouts with Mike she, like so many others, stays in various homeless family hostels or refuges. She then gets allotted a flat in a new town and a grant to furnish it; she installs her kids in school, and orders from her mail-order catalogues. She is such a good hustler that before long she has £3000 to £4000 worth of goods delivered from masses of different catalogues. Then, when it’s all in, she sells off the lot to neighbours and second-hand shops, and flits with the kids back to Mike, if she feels like it, or to yet another homeless family unit. When she was with us she became the life and soul of the Refuge, and all the staff loved her. But she liked to taunt Mike over the phone. She would ask him to come over and see the kids, but when he arrived she would be out, taking the kids with her.

On one occasion, when she had made yet another such arrangement which left him raging on our doorstep, I asked him why he did not just forget her. I warned him that they both had a “till-death-us-do-part” relationship, and it looked to me highly likely that one of his onslaughts would eventually finish her off. Then the kids would go into care and he would go to jail. Although he agreed, it was hopeless talking to him. He just kept repeating that he loved her and wanted her back. “How can you say you love someone when you torture her?” I asked. “In the hospital after the last baby, you screwed her on the balcony and split all her stitches”. “She wanted it as well,” he said. There was no getting through to him. Moira eventually came back and found him there, and I saw the confusion on the children’s faces as they struggled to understand the violent and perverted world of their parents. Now Mike was crying and promising to take them home. This was the same Mike who went berserk and smashed their toys and beat their mother to a pulp.

“Why do you do it, Moira?” I persevered in exasperation. “Why do you need to get killed?” If I’ve asked a woman that question once, I’ve asked a thousand times, and each time the answer is roughly the same. In this case Moira thought for a few moments, then said “It’s the moment just before he hits me”.

It is hard to explain this need to people from non-violent backgrounds. The best way to explain it probably is to ask you to imagine a moment in your life when you are in mortal danger. Suddenly you find you are super-human. You deal with the situation perfectly. Maybe you rescue a child from in front of a car. Maybe you pull someone out of a burning house. Then after the event your knees collapse, you are shaking, and you go into a state of shock. What happened to you is that you put yourself on red alert. You perceived danger, and the message flashed from your brain to all the nerve centres of the body. Chemicals in the body alerted the system to a state of high arousal. You rose to the occasion. You were literally high on your own body chemicals. When the danger had passed, your chemical levels dropped dramatically, and the body suffered immediate withdrawal symptoms.

Once the danger is over, most people go back to normal, but not the violence-prone personality. This is the child that became addicted to its own body chemicals from babyhood. Probably it will one day be discovered that such children were addicted even before birth, when they were in the womb. Their entire system is constantly awash with the chemical of high arousal, as scarcely a day goes by without a violent family episode. Soon the body becomes so used to this feeling of the chemical rush that unconsciously the child looks for dangerous situations to provide it.

For Moira her high, the moment when she felt totally alive, was the point when she had so enraged Mike that he was about to hit her. She was only twenty-six, and in time her pain threshold would rise, and she would need more pain just before the blow, and she, too, like the others, might go down that dreadful road to death.

A woman named Gemma described to me how her pain threshold had become so high that she did not even feel the pain of having her finger broken. This is a transcript from one of my tapes, when she had just arrived and put her baby in my arms.

GEMMA: My finger won’t go straight.

ERIN: Why?

GEMMA: Because he bent it right back. He didn’t do it on purpose. I don’t think, mind. Because I couldn’t tell, you see, at the time, of course. He sort of went like that (She demonstrated his pulling the finger back. I cringed, imagining my own pain) and I couldn’t tell whether he broke it or not, because I didn’t go to the hospital.

ERIN: Yes, it is broken. You see, as a battered child, you’ve been used to quite a lot of pain.


ERIN: (Seeing a horrible bruise on her thigh) I would scream blue murder if anybody kicked me like that. My God, I’d go to hospital.

GEMMA: Yes, I know. I’m used to it quite. Nothing really hurts anymore. I’ve been through it all, and it just doesn’t hurt anymore.

ERIN: How bad did that kick hurt?

GEMMA: It didn’t hardly hurt at all. I went like that, “Aah!” and I, you know, just kept thinking there’s something else, and then it just went away.

All the staff at Chiswick had noticed that many of the injuries inflicted on our women coming in would have put most people into hospital for weeks. I think I first realized this many years ago, when a CID officer’s wife came in with broken ribs. Not only had he broken her ribs, but he had also made her sit on a chair and poured a kettle of boiling water over her lap. She had huge blisters between her legs. He did all this in front of her six-year-old daughter. She came to us straight from hospital. By the second day she was pushing a broom round the office. “Can’t be doing nothing,” she explained. “You must be in agony,” I said, thinking of the blisters. “Oh, no, I’ve had so many beatings all my life I don’t feel nothing”. As soon as she was healed she was off back home, dragging the reluctant six-year-old with her. “She’s ever so proud of her dad…He won a medal for danger.” I should go now, I thought to myself. Of course when I thought about it later that night, it all made sense. It’s like a soldier on a battlefield fighting for his life; there are countless stories on how a soldier can be horribly injured and just not notice until after the battle is over. Our families lived in a permanent state of war with their parents and their children.

We were also fascinated to watch the reactions of the mothers if they heard that a very violent man was on his way to the Refuge. Those who abhorred violence would retreat down into the safety of the basement or up to the top of the house. Those who got high on violence, on the other hand, would all congregate round the front hall and the windows. Some of the children behaved the same way: they would cluster round the front door in spite of repeated attempts to lead them away. It always saddened me to see their little faces light up at the possibility of a violent explosion and of somebody getting hurt. However, those who stayed with us for a sufficiently long time did eventually learn other patterns of behaviour.

At that time I had such a gifted play staff that the children in the Refuge probably had the best care this country could offer. Sarah Gibson was the surrogate mother figure who embraced them kindly and gave them back their childhood. Roger Blades and Michael Taylor were the first truly gentle men the children had ever met. In time I noticed, as I stood on the doorstep with yet another angry man, that some of the children who were beginning to form non-violent relationships in the Refuge would now stay away from the excited group at the doorway.

Another insight emerged from the fact that we seemed able to keep these particular families with us, in contrast to some other refuges who catered for a different type of woman. It was precisely the atmosphere of our huge, chaotic, busy house that seemed to make these families comfortable. That reminded me very much of an experience during the war. I was in Canada when relatives and friends of my mother’s were returned from the concentration camps in Singapore. They were all lodged in extremely comfortable hotels, but one by one they left the hotels and moved into a nearby park. They could not, at that stage, cope with the structure and order of normal everyday life.

Once I explained my theory of “positive” overcrowding to Anna Freud. She listened to me, and then she said it reminded her of her own work during the war, when she set up a scheme deep in the heart of peaceful countryside to cater for women and their children who were in danger of losing their lives as the bombs fell on London. They spent a lot of money to set it all up, and as the trains pulled in carrying all these families, they were made welcome and settled in. But gradually they began to return to London – to the danger, to the bombing, to the chance of getting killed. She smiled at me as she recalled this, for she did understand. But certainly the Department of Health and Social Security did not want to know my theory.

Dealing as I did daily with violent men, women, and children, I began to make other observations for myself. Confronted with a human being emotionally and chemically “high” in a violent state, the one thing you must never do is to become aggressive back. That will only escalate an already violent and explosive situation. I have never, in all my ten years, been struck, though there have been two or three occasions in the Refuge when I have had to “floor” a woman who was escalating to such a pitch of aggression that she was liable to do some damage to herself or someone else. This means pushing her gently to the floor, and holding her down until she starts to cry; usually she then cuddles into you and relaxes. Violent people are very frightened people.

I have always taught my staff not to be over wary of the big mouthy woman – it is the little quiet ones at the back that are liable to do most damage. Because the social agencies grew out of an outdated Victorian middle-class notion of philanthropy, there is no proper or practical training in this country, or elsewhere, for dealing with this problem of violence. People who are not trained to deal with violence tend to be terrified of violence, because they only see the physical manifestations of it: the swollen face, the red and purple flesh, the swelling of the neck, and the yelling and the swearing, followed possibly by physical attack. What they do not perceive is that under all that acting out is a great deal of pain. If you have been born into a violent home, you will never have had time to express sorrow or pain in any other way except through rage.

There were only very few occasions when I was seriously in danger, and they taught me a lot. The first occurred when I dropped by the Palm Court Hotel, which housed about sixty mothers and their children, and I was chatting to Anne Ashby, who was then running the place. A very flushed and breath-less Dawn rushed past us, babbling that she had been home to collect some things. Now I am never terribly happy, after a mother has told you horrific stories of what went on at home, and you have seen the files to prove it, to learn that she is just popping back to collect some clothes. Somehow, if someone is out to murder you, clothes seem irrelevant, particularly as Women’s Aid always had lots of spare clothes.

Anyway, Dawn proceeded to her room, and I was preparing to leave, when there came a thunderous knock on the door, and a man outside was screaming that he would “fucking kill her”. It did not take long to establish that Dawn’s husband had followed her, and was about to tear the place apart. This was an Ulster family, and not only were both parents violent, but they had also twice been bombed out of their home. The children were very disturbed, and at this stage were setting light to everything they could lay their hands on. Their only topic of conversation seemed to involve fire, and they constantly acted out the sounds of bombs falling.

For some reason best known to himself, the house’s very large Alsatian, who was usually capable of removing portions of innocent passers-by was now lying quietly on the floor looking very occupied with something on the other side of the room. Fortunately, the doorway was small, with an inner porch, and I took up almost all the space, thereby effectively blocking the man out. He was so enraged that he was beside himself. He was quite a large Irishman with drink in him, so he was not liable to listen to anything reasonable. I decided to treat him as I would a badly upset Refuge child, so I threw my arms round him in a bear-hug and held him tight. He was absolutely stunned. There he was, raging and swearing, with people all round scurrying away, and here was this fat middle-aged woman enveloping him in a huge embrace. He collapsed in my arms and sobbed. All the pain and the grief ran out of him, and he became safe. His rage subsided, his body relaxed, and he calmed down.

Apparently what Dawn had done was to go home in his absence and take down all the wedding photographs, and also remove those in the album. But what had really upset him was that she had taken time to sort through his belongings, and had removed his precious insurance card. Without it, he could not get a job. I went and fetched it from Dawn, who looked a little embarrassed. She did not get the exciting smash-up she had expected. For she had already spent hours at the Palm Court boasting about his violence, describing how he would smash all the windows and kill anyone who got in his way. So I’m afraid she felt he had very much let her down. Unfortunately her urge for violence meant that she soon moved on to another relationship that offered an even more exciting level of violence.

Often violent episodes never really got out of hand because the staff were confident in their non-violent approach. Highly trained and very experienced, we would all work as a team. On one occasion Jo, who became the bane of our life because her need to fight meant that she was involved in frequent episodes in the local pubs, decided to continue her war with her current boyfriend from the safety of the Refuge. Jo had spent most of one morning recounting the grim story of how George, a Nigerian student, was promising to kill her, and indeed at that very moment was on his way over. For one about to face imminent death, Jo looked remarkably cheerful. The prospect seemed to fill her with ecstatic excitement.

Now, it is necessary for anyone working with violence to have a good understanding of how violence is expressed in different cultures. English people, on the whole, don’t carry knives. West Indians do. An Irishman will respond to religion; not so a Scot. A West Indian man is more likely to attack a male member of staff because he may have little experience of men in a position of power. The West Indian mother is the supreme matriarch, so it is appropriate for a woman to go to the door, and he will not be offended. However, the reverse is true for a Nigerian, who comes from a country where it would be humiliating to be faced with a woman, their society being such a strong patriarchy.

Remembering this, I sent Mike Dunne to speak to George. He was certainly angry, and was determined to get at Jo. She had taken his wallet and car keys. I stood behind Mike, and together we formed a barrier into the house. It did not help matters to have Jo leaning over my shoulder grinning at him. He lunged forward and threw a punch at me, but it was very half-hearted. Mike rugger-tackled him to the floor and held him while the poor man sobbed his heart out.

He had been a student here, and was terribly lonely. The eldest son of a highly successful Nigerian family, he would finish his business studies, and then return to Nigeria to care for the family all his life. Meanwhile he was cut off from the warmth and friendliness of Africa, so he was desolate. As a people, the British are far more at home with the easy-going West Indian community than with the more serious Nigerian community. So he had fallen into Jo’s hands, and fortunately ended up in our arms, or he may well have got to her and injured her, and wrecked his life. He told Mike of his struggles to help her, of his need for her warmth and company, of her repeated betrayal of his trust and friendship. We explained to him that Jo behaved like this to all men.

Now was not the time to point out that over the years we had known her she was much improved. In fact, the original Jo had been a vicious animal when she first arrived, festooned with six children. When George calmed down, we let him go, and he went outside. But he asked to see her. Jo was now crouching in a very small corner of the sitting-room. All the excitement, the rush of the chemicals of high arousal had drained away, and she looked grey and shaky. “Don’t send me out there . . . he’ll kill me.” Once the high has gone, the prospect of death becomes the reality it is. “I don’t think so, this time,” I said, dragging her to her feet. “Consequences, Jo. You made the mess – you clean it up.” It was a very shamefaced Jo that went down the steps to speak to George. That episode cured him of his need for Jo, but curiously enough, it also cured Jo of using us as a buffer between herself and the men against whom she warred. She recognised, I think, that we were her safe place, and that we loved her enough to risk ourselves before we would risk her.

I learned from these encounters that, as a general principle, it is better to leave a violent person no physical space in which to organise his rage. Studies on aggression and animal display have suggested that violent people require more social space in order not to become anxious and feel threatened than non-violent people. But when I read these findings I am extremely skeptical. After several years of refuge work, I noticed that whenever the Refuge was packed tight, and there was no choice of personal territory because the families had to sleep in dormitories and share all the available communal space, the aggression level would be low. As soon as our numbers dropped however, and several feet of extra space could be annexed by each woman, then the levels of aggression would rise.

It always amazed me to find that, given the antisocial behaviour and the past records for violence of many of our families, we had virtually no major incidents. In my ten years as Director, I can only recall three or four occasions when a bout of fisticuffs resulted in a black eye. Overcrowding, which began as a necessity due to lack of other refuges in the country, turned out to be of major therapeutic benefit to a community of aggressive and asocial families. So, too, I learned that those men and women most inclined to raise a wall of rage around them responded best to a gentle touch or the offer of a cigarette.

I saw a lot of verbal violence, of course. “I’ll fucking knife you, you fat cunt,” was Judy Scott’s way of saying good-morning. “I love you too,” was my stock response. Poor Judy, with such affectionate greetings, had terrified and alienated a whole shoal of well-meaning social agencies.

Then there was Jilly; who came to us from the locked wards of Holloway. She had twice burnt down her house, her children were in care, and she went from one diabolically violent relationship to another. She teamed up with Jane, whose neck was corrugated with scars from the times when she had attempted to hang herself and to slash her throat. “It lets out the pain,” Jane would whisper. Jane came in to us after she had slashed her wrists. For her it was just time out of the nightmare that she lived in. She had finally found a man who, like her, was a middle-class reject. She told me how his rich farming father hated him so much he was forced to sleep in the barn on freezing nights. She told me how once the father broke the boy’s legs with a metal rod when he was six, and his sister carried him over the fields on her back to the hospital, saying it was “an accident”.

Anyway Jane and Jilly became drinking partners, and it was inevitable, given the pecking order of physical power in a community of this kind, that Jane would eventually need to launch a public attack on me. Again, the rooms at the Refuge were always crowded, so she had nowhere to be by herself to work up a state of rage. It is almost impossible to get ready to launch a physical attack if small children are pulling at your skirt or another woman passing by says “Want a cup of tea, love?”

Finally, one afternoon after the pubs were closed, she came in with Jilly and seeing that most of the room was clear, because we were all sitting in a semi circle, she stood in the centre of the group, swinging her handbag and organising her attack. I decided it was best to let it happen and get it out of the way. She flung her handbag first, and then launched herself at me. But I caught her in my arms and gently pulled her to the floor, where I pinned her down for ten minutes while the rage ebbed away. All the time I talked to her as you would to a hurt child. Slowly, she began to curl into that foetal position so often seen. Then I was able to gather her in my arms, and rock her and hum to her. I was aware that this was probably the only time she bad been held close in love. She was calm and happy for the next few hours, but then she departed into the night with Jilly.

She is another woman who may end up sleeping rough under the arches, and probably die from exposure. The hardest part of our work is knowing that it need not end like that. If only we could recognise that you cannot beat people better. You cannot lock them away or keep them drugged in mental hospitals forever. We must create programmes that at least give these families a chance to learn to live in a world which is now so highly complex. If the main part of their childhood lacked adequate training for coping in our society, they are doomed to fill the institutions which are ready and waiting to receive them.

I always remember talking to a very enlightened member of a children’s home board of management. She was telling me of her frustration with a system that created more problems than it solved. We both noticed how as one child was taken into care, another rapidly replaced it in the same emotionally disabled family. It was not uncommon for some of our women to have had ten or eleven pregnancies, of which some would be miscarriages and others cot deaths. The rest of the children would be scattered like confetti across the country, in “care”. Usually these children were abandoned in the aftermath of one violent relationship when a new partner came in and resented their presence, for the children were living reminders of the woman’s past liaisons. They would then be taken in by the local social services on a voluntary basis. Then there would be a new baby to cement the new liaison, followed by further violent episodes, or else the man might abandon the woman. On her own once again, the woman would take her previous children out of care, having increased her family by one or two meanwhile, until she met another man and the whole process began again. It is a highly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Why, I asked then as now, do we not take whole families into care? After all, if the source of the problem is the parents ignoring their children, merely concentrating on their children completely defeats the object of the exercise. But I discovered that by asking such questions, you are shaking the very foundations of a society that has never questioned its basic assumption that the privileged few should control the lives of everyone else. The class structure and social fabric of our society are so organised that any failure to comply with this assumption is met by a rigid and unyielding bureaucratic offensive. All caring agencies in this country, and in most of Western society, are based on a series of negative reactions: fail and be punished.

Overlying the basic premise that “to punish is to improve” is the massive superstructure of the administration of misery. Millions are paid into its pocket annually to relieve the burden of conscience for the many individuals who can adapt and survive. With the old social orders decaying and crumbling, however, we can no longer afford to ignore our jails bursting at the seams, or our Welfare State being cut to ribbons. We will have to concentrate on an alternative strategy of love and hope for these problem families.


Author’s Note:

*The little room referred to throughout the text as the “office” was in fact normally used as a bedroom, and apart from housing the filing systems was never actually used as a formal office in the usual sense of the word.

Editor’s Note:

[1] In some parts of the United States, the phrase “the mark of Cain” has racist overtones that a British author like Erin would be unaware of. The phrase is left intact here out of respect for the integrity of the author and her work.

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