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 first 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

Chapter One: THE WAY WE SEE IT

Coming out of the courtroom on to the front steps, after the first trial at Acton Magistrates’ Court, I gazed over a sea of well-loved faces – mothers and children I had not seen for years. But what moved me most were the gaps there, which should have been filled by the smiling faces of women I knew who had died. They should have been there with us – there was no justifiable reason for them to be dead. For they, too, had been ‘refugees’ in our care. But unlike many of our women who, once free, had chosen to leave their violent relationships for ever, these women had chosen to go back, thereby forfeiting their lives.

I could now see Sue beaming at me, holding up her small daughter. She had been married to a very violent man, whose chief boast was that he had bitten off another man’s nose in a fight. They were married when she was very young, but once she had come to us for help, she had no further thought of returning to him. She was an enormous help in the refuge, very practical and full of fun. Eventually, she moved to a house we acquired in the south-east of England.

Julia should have been standing next to Sue, as the two had been such good friends. But Julia was dead. She was one of those who went back. In those days I did not know enough about violent relationships to recognise her addiction and to help her as I could now.

In my first book about refuge, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear (1974), I wrote about our battered grand-mother, whom we all loved. We called her ‘Nan’, and she was seventy-eight years old. There I wrote: ‘She sits in our chaos of mums and kids, her face covered by wrinkles and a black eye.’ She’s dead now – as a result of a brutal kicking by her own son, who was himself the casualty of her marriage to her violent stockbroker husband. And I grieved for her, too, that day.

Another gap in the ranks was Sandy, whose face was dreadfully scarred from a car accident. She was left so distraught by her disfiguration that she had to be moved to a mental hospital to recover not only physically but also mentally from her accident. There she met James, her violent lover. After leaving the hospital, they lived together and had a baby. Then James became so cruel and abusive to Sandy that she fled to us for refuge – and he soon went off with another woman. Yet Sandy could not bear to be deprived of this extremely violent man – ‘The only man who makes me feel alive,’ she would say. She took her own life the night before she was due to move into a brand-new flat.

Rachel, mother of five lively children, insisted on moving back into her own house when she had obtained her injunction against her husband, knowing full well that he became almost a lunatic when he was angry. She died the same night she moved back home – he stabbed her to death. And their children joined the thousands of other kids in care who have little hope of being adopted or fostered, but will sit m children’s homes like little time-bombs primed to explode into our streets years later, with the enormous likelihood of recreating the violent living patterns of their parents.

That poses the crucial question, the main theme of this book: why did all these particular women choose to return to their violent and often deadly relationships? We can all chart moments in our lives when suddenly we need to face a truth that we have hitherto been avoiding. In my own case, I had been avoiding this particular question for years. For me that moment, standing on those steps, crystallized a train of thought that had been nagging at me for months previously.

For the first few years, my colleague Anne Ashby and I were the only permanent members of Chiswick Women’s Aid who worked full-time. Volunteers and well-meaning people came and went, many disapproving of our policy of never turning women away, because this policy brought about overcrowding and unhygienic conditions. But then, having lived in the Middle East and travelled extensively, Anne and I did not share the normal middle-class repugnance for anything less than suburban standards of tidiness, cleanliness and comfort. In those days we relied very much on each other for moral support; and, of course, some of the mothers coming in for help became close personal friends.

A vivid lesson from those times was to recognise the anger and hostility shown us by certain people who would claim that ‘women like to be beaten’, or that they somehow ‘deserve it’. This simplistic attitude served only to condone the terrible acts of violence committed under the covering excuse of ‘You make your bed so you must lie in it’. In other words, that women who were victims of violent partners were largely responsible for their own regrettable situations, and could not deserve much sympathy.

I remember particularly such views being thrown at me one evening when several couples who worked in the caring agencies were gathered together for a barbecue party. The men there seemed determined to argue that many women deserved what they got. There was clearly no room for rational argument. Yet again, I could sense an invisible barrier erected between my own experience – which was then very recent in terms of my work – and their professional frustration with often difficult and recalcitrant clients who had been turning up in their offices for many years complaining about violence, only to go back to it again and again. Those professionals with me that evening could, of course, quote chapter and verse of the dreadful deeds, the unspeakable delinquency, the manipulatory techniques, and the promiscuity of the women they counselled. In those early days I did not have the solid basis of knowledge and experience to answer the challenges so often thrown at me. All I could say was that it just was not that simple. For it was not a case of either liking or not liking violent behaviour; it was much more complicated than that – and some day I hoped to understand it better. But the people there were so frustrated and angry that the evening degenerated into a slanging match.

In those days it was too dangerous to attempt to share my discoveries in this field, because it was hard enough to gain public acceptance even for the idea that battered wives needed refuge. To discuss the notion that some women were actually prone to violence, and returned to violent relationships again and again, would only have served to alienate the public from these women who were in genuine need of help. [1]

By that time I had read a paper entitled ‘Wife-Torture in England[2] published in 1878 by Frances Power Cobbe. The paper was an impassioned plea to Parliament to do something to help the women and children of this country. She was promised by Parliament that a select committee would be set up, and further action would be taken. I was depressed to learn that after her select committee sat and reported, the whole subject was swept under the carpet again, to be for-gotten – just as in our case.

I, too, had sat in the House of Commons, when Jack Ashley, MP, was begging consideration for the lives of such women and children. In June 1973 he put forward a Private Member’s Bill which asked a minister representing the Department of Health and Social Security what they would do for battered wives. The hour was late and I, sitting with our mothers in the gallery, looked anxiously down to the floor of the House, where Jack Ashley addressed an almost empty room. The only other people there were the ministers from the DHSS and the House officials. Jack Ashley commented that if the discussion had been about dogs instead of about women and children, the House would have been full.

The subject was debated in Parliament on 17 July 1973, and it was decided that a select committee of MPs should be set up to investigate. The select committee met in the House of Commons during the summer of the following year, and one of our wives told her personal story of abuse – the first woman in history to give evidence to a select committee. This committee agreed that one refuge should be established per every 100,000 people living in Britain. A Parliamentary committee, however, has only the power t0 recommend, and no power to enforce its recommendations. Their recommendation was never put into practice.

We faced the terrible certainty that if our Refuge was allowed to go under through legal pressures due to overcrowding, and if the public was conned into believing that something was being done for these families, when it was not, then the whole campaign would sink without trace again.

To my amazement, nobody seemed to genuinely want to find out why violent people treat each other the way they do. Furthermore, I could not give my personal support to the accepted political solutions based on the notion that violence was a strictly working-class problem, and therefore a purely economic issue: the political line maintaining that men hit women because they were frustrated by their jobs, their poor housing, and their lack of money. I had seen enough middle-class women in trouble to convince me that doctors, dentists, solicitors, and Members of Parliament also indulged in bouts of violence against their women and children in sufficient numbers to make that argument invalid. In fact emotional violence is extremely common in middle-class and upper-class families, and just as damaging as physical violence.

Officialdom suggested that the solutions were to be found in other socialist, or communist, countries. But reports from Russia showed otherwise, for marital violence is a major Russian problem. And China dealt with the problem by proclaiming wife-beating a crime punishable with the death penalty. They obviously had no answer for the root causes, either.

Even if it was too inflammatory to hold public discussions on family violence, I did have by this time a large and dedicated staff. Though it included some paid members, the majority of us volunteered our services for nothing. Apart from our daily work at the Refuge, we spent many weekends together sharing our experiences of the families that came to us. We soon realised that we had much more first-hand knowledge of these families than did any of the other social agencies, because the mothers and children lived with us in our Refuge as one large family. Indeed, most of our families had already been involved with social agencies, who very rarely seemed to have fully understood their true background. Time and again, when called to a case-conference to discuss a family, we would find that, although it had been on their books for years, each agency saw only fragmented aspects of the family situation. I was often reminded of the old Chinese story about the sages who all felt bits of a huge animal in a darkened shed. After they came out they began lengthy discussions about a leg or the tail or an ear, but not one of them grasped the fact that the whole was an elephant.

During our staff seminars, we came to realise that we were catering to two very different needs in our Refuge. The first involved women like Sue who, for one reason or another, had married men who turned out to be violent. Once offered an opportunity to escape this situation, they would take it gratefully and leave, never to return to the violence. These we tend to call the genuine ‘battered wives’. The second involved the type of woman unable to stay away from violence, however much she claimed she wanted to. She seemed doomed either to return to her violent partner eventually, or, having given him up, to move rapidly on to another violent man.

Our growing awareness of these two distinct problems culminated in a report that we sent to the Department of Health and Social Security in the summer of 1977. For the first time, I wrote down some of the conclusions I had reached, and the report was based on 377 mothers with 745 children who had passed through the Chiswick Refuge between May 1976 and May 1977. It was a mammoth task to record and chart the details and the origins of all these families. Seven members of staff voluntarily went into seclusion in my house until the job was done.

The introduction to that report reads:

In 1971 Chiswick Women’s Aid was originally conceived as a safe refuge for women and children on the run from violent relationships. It was at this point that the phrase ‘battered wives’ was corned. However, in the course of the last five and a half years one of the conclusions we have come to is that a more apt description of the families involved would be ‘violence prone’. That is to say, that the members of these families have a tendency to be attracted to violent relationships or are themselves violent. We see the term ‘battered wives’ as too simplistic. We do not claim that this description fits all our families or indeed all women who find themselves in a violent relationship. But what we do claim is the majority of families who come to Chiswick are in such a state of confusion and despair, having fallen through the net of all caring social agencies, that to be offered accommodation in homeless family units, bed and breakfast or temporary hostel accommodation is an unrealistic solution. What they need is for society to understand that the chaos, anarchy and drama of the violent relationships which they have lived through has created within them a special urge to continually relive the excitement of what they have left behind. The dramas in their relationships seem endless and in these conflagrations chaos reigns. Children in such a situation feel the ebb and flow of fear and excitement. Soon they grow from terrified unwilling spectators to active manipulators in the family war. These are the violence-prone adults of tomorrow. These families have failed to build the structures necessary to provide the community with law-abiding citizens. Instead we have a percentage of the population whose drive stems from fear, flight and rage which appear to produce puzzling symptoms of addiction.

In everyday life the emotions of fear, rage and flight cause the adrenalin to flow through the body, preparing it urgently for action. Most human beings rarely need this sort of protection. Our families have lived at this level of excitement for many, many years and when deprived of excitement tend to re-create hazardous situations which bring back the thrill of the moment of ‘adrenalin high’. Racing drivers, mountaineers, test pilots, occasions of war are acceptable high-adrenalin pursuits, and it is our job to get our families to be aware of their addiction and the catastrophes they create for themselves and their children. It is also our job to realise that these families have largely been abandoned by the caring agencies who have tried valiantly over the years to find solutions to their problems. What we offer is to accept the damage and lack of inner structure that causes them to fail again and again and to try and re-integrate their disordered personalities to where they can leave our care having learned satisfactory methods of maintaining relationships and standards of child care and home-making that enables them to exist happily within the community. Of course, often we fail but we have achieved sufficient success to hopefully attract funds to continue our work. One major hurdle is to get the Government to accept that these families urgently need help of a special nature and using techniques that we have developed over the years that we have been running, based on some 5,000 women and children who have passed through our hands. (This paper is quoted in Appendix A).

We were all naive enough to believe that the powers-that-be would study our evidence carefully, and perhaps accept that we had something to say. But, after weeks of waiting, the first response was merely an acknowledgment that the report had arrived. After that there was silence. It seemed that any money allotted for research by the DHSS would be given to groups prepared to spend it on safe, comfortable solutions. Again no one wanted to hear the uncomfortable truth. And that truth was that there are so many thousands of violence-prone people, born and raised in violence, who know no other lifestyle except to terrorise and mutilate each other or any innocent victim who comes into their circle.

Not only were we dealing with some of the most violent men in the country, on our very doorstep – which we expected would happen as soon as we began to offer refuge -but we had some equally violent women on the inside, too. Other refuges had careful screening measures built into their selection procedures, so that they could avoid these families. Gradually we made constructive links with good refuges who would take our ‘battered wives’, and in turn would send us their ‘violence prone’ women. It had become obvious in our struggle that any funding for our operation seemed unlikely to come from the statutory bodies. We had put our finger inadvertently on an official sore spot.

These families we cared so passionately about were truly ‘dustbin’ families. Their behaviour and lifestyle were so chaotic and derelict that, in the past, the solution had always been to break them up and disperse them. It is extraordinary to think that until the 1940s pregnant women were still giving birth in local workhouses, where their babies were forcibly taken into care. As soon as they were old enough, those children were shipped out to the colonies for farmwork and general labour. They were chiefly sent to Canada, New Zealand and Australia, where there was no black population to be bullied into serving the white man. The unwritten policy was definitely dispersal.

Within the last twenty years such overseas dispersal became more difficult, and therefore institutions were be-coming packed with inmates – so another strategy came into being. This brought about the creation of ‘ghettoes’ where such ‘dustbin’ families could breed and swarm. For instance the White City Estate was built in London, and still the New Towns are growing all over the country. However, with the advent of mass communication and investigative journalism, embarrassing questions were raised about hungry and ragged children. And the ghettoes were growing so big that their violence threatened to spill over into the other, ‘respectable’ parts of our cities. Attempts were made to improve housing conditions. Architects and planners built huge estates that would look good from the outside but were sited well away from the cities. The Glasgow Gorbals were torn down. Families were exiled all over England.

The idea was that if you separated these huge and brawling families from each other, you would somehow reduce the level of violence and criminal behaviour in our society. But the planners reckoned without the tenacity of these problem families. For every house in a New Town that a hopeful social worker filled, another was abandoned as a supposedly resettled family quietly packed its bags and fled for the big cities.

By stumbling across the plight of battered wives who were trapped for lack of an escape route and needed support, we had also uncovered the widescale traffic of a far greater number of adults and children who were being continually passed like parcels from one social agency to another. No wonder we received so little cooperation in our efforts. A huge machine seemed to build on the nursery of these helpless people. Traditionally the women took refuge in mental hospitals, the men in prisons, and the children went ‘into care’. But some were now coming to Women’s Aid, where, for the first time, they were made to feel welcome, and where we recorded the abysmal treatment they had suffered from The very people ostensibly trained and paid to care for them.

All would have been well if we had agreed to stick to the traditional concept of ‘battered wives’. Certainly it would have made life a lot easier for myself and the people with me. But those who had worked with me for several years shared the frustrations I felt, and witnessed the often horrific circumstances of the women and children who came in a never-ceasing tide through the door. The frequent newspaper stories about the various attempts to close the Refuge helped to give us a credibility among the women who came to us. They felt that we were ‘against’ the law and were therefore ‘on their side’. Because of this attitude, the women felt it was possible to communicate to us the often unspeakable occurrences in their families – not only the grievous acts of violence, but also the incest and the sexual abuse.

Time and again we would contact a family’s social-worker to ask how such abuses could occur for so many years without some constructive and caring intervention from the social services, only to be told that ‘the file on that family is closed’. This comfortable euphemism meant that they could no longer cope. Individual social workers would certainly express their own anger at the system that trapped them and rendered them impotent. Many of the most caring of them would leave after a few years, because the strain was telling on them and they found the role of Pontius Pilate unbearable, tired of handing their cases over to be crucified.

I remember once pointing out to a small group from the north of England that though Hitler was internationally condemned for trying to exterminate the Jews, we ourselves had a similar programme being carried out against our ‘problem families’. The agencies even used words like ‘dispersal’ and ‘natural wastage’ in this context. But here, instead of it being six million Jews seen as a threat to the nation, we had an equally large number of people who were considered antisocial and intractable and were quietly being destroyed. The horrifying fact is that nothing at all was being done to help them. There was absolutely no concept of care involving any auempt to rehabilitate them or to understand why they behaved the way they did.

In most cases, the true crime these people had committed was merely to be born into an emotionally disabled family -taking on damage they would carry with them all their lives. Had these families been physically disabled, the various caring agencies would not only have tried to help but would have succeeded, since the care of the physically disabled is well understood. The tragedy of our time is that we have almost completely ignored the inner world of the emotionally disabled. Particularly in Britain, we prefer to believe that a few pills and a stern warning from a magistrate are all that is required to encourage a recalcitrant teenager to mend his or her ways. The magistrates are oblivious to the fact that most of these disabled families have no understanding of what they are talking about. You do not ask a paraplegic to get up and run a race, but somehow we expect people who have never had a chance to learn even the basic rules of living in our society, still to follow all society’s complex rules, both written and unwritten. If they fail, we have jails, mental hospitals, children’s homes and borstals set aside to receive them. Apart from a few such institutions run by enlightened people, these places do nothing to help.

Poppy was a classic example of a no-chance child. She was found on a railway station in a carrier-bag when she was two weeks old. I remember looking at her and thinking to myself that this is what actually happens to those little abandoned babies who feature in the newspapers from time to time. Usually the hospital gives the baby a name, and well-wishers send in presents, moved by the infant’s plight. Having sent off their donations or a piece of knitting, they assume as I did for many years – that the enormous sums contributed in taxes every year will ensure that this desolate little scrap is cared for and will have a future in which the sorry pattern is not repeated.

Certainly, Poppy was cared for physically. She was taken from the hospital and put into a children’s home. She remained there until she was five, and then was fostered. However, by that time she was far too disturbed to settle. She was a very pretty little girl, and the foster-parents tried hard, but she continually screamed and spat and soiled herself. She was used to living in a large group of children, with all the noise and commotion that went on in the daily routine of a children’s home. She was absolutely terrified of the physical intimacy of family life, and was particularly frightened by the man of the family. She had never known any men in her little life – and had only seen them as distant figures on visiting day. She was soon returned to the home.

Poppy constantly asked about her mother – and was told differing stories. She received no cards at Christmas. No visits. Nobody. The staff at her children’s home were sympathetic, but nothing could make up for the absence of any family contact. Even the most deprived of her friends had some memory – or even some record in a social service office – which gave them a twig of their own history to grasp at.

By the time Poppy was eight, the school said she was out of control. She fought in the school playground, not only with the girls but with the boys, too. This probably brought the only admiration she ever received in those days – that she was as tough as any of them. She began a pattern of being moved every so often, when she had finally driven even the most caring of the staff to distraction. In some of the homes she was beaten, in some molested – once by a milkman. By the time she was thirteen she was having sexual intercourse with boys at school. She was known as an ‘easy ride’, but that did not worry her. In her unit for disturbed adolescents, intercourse was the normal exchange rate for affection. Most of the children had been sexually abused when very young, and were therefore sexually aware from a very early age.

Poppy was pregnant at fifteen, and had her baby just before her sixteenth birthday. She had the child in hospital, and was sent to a mother-and-baby home that, as a rule, kept its clients for only six weeks. They actually kept her there for three months, because they were so worried about her. She was determined to keep the baby, and treated it like a doll. It was a girl, and she called it Mary. During the day she would push the child round the streets and pass the time by shop-lifting. The pram was a great help in this, and she would come back with a hoard of knick-knacks. She knew this was considered wrong, because all her life she had been pinching things she wanted and was every so often caught and punished. But, then, she had always been supplied with the day-to-day things of life in various children’s homes, so having and spending money was just not part of her up-bringing. Thus she was never required to save money for a pair of shoes; if they were needed she was taken to a shop and they were bought for her.

After the mother-and-baby home, yet another social worker arranged a small flat where, with the help of the social security grant, she was set up with the bare essentials. After the birth of her baby, Poppy felt prompted to ask about her own mother yet again, since she noticed her baby had a birth certificate. Admittedly it was the short form, because Poppy could not say for sure who the child’s father was, but she realised she had never seen her own birth certificate. The social worker promised to check. For the first twenty-four hours in the flat, Poppy enjoyed herself. She was not a bad mother in that she was not liable to hit Mary, because she was so used to hearing children crying for hours on end that the noise did not irritate her. The problem was that she just blocked it out if she was watching television or had some other distraction. Because this was the first time Poppy had been away from institutional care, she had no inner structures to carry her through the day, and the health visitor became concerned. There was no one to get her up, no compulsion to have breakfast, lunch, tea, or dinner, no rota for cleaning, no time for lights out, nothing. Just undreamed-of, unlimited freedom.

The first freedom was the freedom to sleep all day. Meanwhile the baby was being neglected. She lay all day in her cot unwashed, hungry and screaming. Finally she didn’t even bother to cry much any longer. The health visitor called a case conference, and it was decided to send in a home-help. At that juncture, however, Poppy met John outside a pub. Re seemed very understanding, and would hold the baby affectionately. He was living in a hostel after falling out with his father, who was a violent brute. All John wanted was a home and a family – something he’d never properly had. He had spent some time in borstal for stealing cars and such. Poppy felt she had found a kindred castaway, and John moved in by the weekend.

The social worker decided that Poppy now had a supportive relationship, so no home-help was necessary. Also she could now safely tell her about the business of being abandoned in a carrier-bag. She explained it all very thoroughly, unaware that most of what she said was going straight over Poppy’s head. Street language consists of very short sentences; anything longer goes unheard. But Poppy did hear the bit about the carrier-bag. The social worker was actually a very kind woman, and she had gone to the trouble of looking up back copies of newspapers and securing a picture of a three-week-old Poppy. Finally she left Poppy and John together, hoping he would comfort her.

That piece of news completely shattered Poppy. She had always imagined that her parents were killed in an accident. Even in her most lonely, punished moments, when all the world seemed united against her, she had kept this golden fantasy that her mother and her father had loved her passionately but, because of the car crash which left her an orphan, she was now alone in the world. After seeing Tarzan, she would even fantasise that she had been born in the jungle, and was stolen away from her parents by wicked white hunters. Never, never had she suspected that she was merely abandoned at a railway station. John did the best he could. He was not very good at sympathy, but he did know about pills which keep you happy. So far, Poppy had kept off drugs and alcohol; she had got most of her kicks stealing and fighting. But as John had a ready supply, and with this dreadful sense of rejection inside her, she blotted out nearly a year of her life.

Most of that year she spent drunk and violent. The health visitor arranged to get the baby into a day nursery, but Mary was now silent and withdrawn. Still Poppy did not hit Mary; she just ignored her. John was really much better in dealing with the child, as he had come from a large family, and he did at least see that Mary was fed and changed. But both of them were unable to refrain from yelling and screaming at each other. Poppy had no idea of how to take care of herself or a baby – and even less of an immature and aggressive man. Their rows were monumental. Soon he began to smash up the flat when he felt pushed beyond endurance. Angry neighbours began to complain.

Then Poppy became pregnant again, and that seemed to calm her down. They promised each other that they would try harder. The health visitor reported that things were looking better. The neighbours even began to talk to Poppy again. John got a job, but Poppy could not cope alone all day. She had never before in her whole life had any time alone. The mere thought of it terrified her. In care, one is occupied all the time, if not by the staff, then by other children. There is no time to develop inner resources. Aloneness is then not a creative time for self-expression; indeed it is a disturbing and fruitless condition when there is no training for it. Poppy doped herself with pills and lager all day, and then staggered back with Mary from the nursery to try and cook an edible meal. This was a difficult task because she had never been expected to cook before. Shopping for food was out of her experience. So they tended to live on tins and packet food, following virtually the same menu as a children’s home.

The new baby was a boy. It was an easy birth, with John present. He was thrilled, and wanted Poppy to breast-feed the child. She declined, but she was really very pleased with the baby, and far less uncertain because she had done all this bit before. For the birth, Mary had been taken into care for two weeks, but when Poppy returned to the fiat with baby Sam, her relationship with Mary became very different. In the past Poppy was largely able to ignore her, but Mary was now an active toddler, and Poppy had a new-born child to cope with. With the trial of having to be a mother to two tiny children, Poppy began to crack up. She and John began to have serious fights again. All her rage and frustration would erupt from her, and he had almost no ability to hold his temper. All the men of his family beat their wives as a matter of course. Soon Poppy was seen badly bruised by the health visitor. The baby seemed to thrive. He put on weight and smiled, probably because he knew he was wanted by both parents. Even if they had no conception at all of responsibility, they both still wanted him. Mary did not thrive, however; she grew thinner and more withdrawn. The almost nightly fights outside the bedroom door shook her little heart; and then she ached for her mother, whose sobs and screams she could hear so clearly, followed by the dreadful sounds of crashing and falling. The neighbours starting complaining again and a petition was sent to the local housing department. The Social Services began to think seriously about receiving Mary into care, but unless a child is actually physically harmed, magistrates tend to find in favour of the parents.

The Social Services were so worried about Mary that they did not realise she at least expressed normal feelings of fear. If only they had been trained to recognise the budding psychopath. Already, at nine months, so cut off from any of the emotions roused by the warring couple, Sam would watch furniture fly and blood flow, and clap his little hands, his eyes alight with excitement. The social worker believed Sam to be a happy enough baby, for he had been a wanted child. We have found, however, that in a disturbed and violent household, where screaming and hitting is commonplace, a healthy child will show signs of distress. It is the disturbed child who seems to cope well in such a family – all too well.[3]

In truth Poppy had never much enjoyed sex To her it had always been a means of attracting men. She had tolerated John’s sexual demands in the early days because she did enjoy the feeling of his need for her. Then as soon as she was pregnant she had told him to lay off. Once the baby was born, she grudgingly let him make love to her again, but she began to taunt him sexually. This started a disastrous series of rows, in which he accused her of being a whore and a lesbian, and she retaliated by saying that she had no choice but to look elsewhere because he was not enough to satisfy her. It was at this stage that she first arrived at Chiswick Women’s Aid, covered in bruises from a violent fight. She also had a torn cervix because he had held her down and thrust a milk bottle up inside her.

It took Poppy about two days to settle in. During her first interview, she played the outraged battered victim. Many of the women in the community, who had not been sexually abused, were appalled at her descriptions. By the time Poppy had enthusiastically described the role of carrots, cucumbers, marrows and various household utensils in her sex life, I could see the brigade of ‘heavy’ mothers in the room looking at each other. I interviewed Poppy again that afternoon. She was still swearing by the Virgin Mary and on her babies’ lives that she would never go near John again -she who only lived for peace.

That night she went out with a few of the other mothers, and the next day she appeared in the house meeting with six stitches in her head. It seemed they had all gone to the Palais for a drink and a dance, and this man had said something unacceptable to Poppy, who was forced to defend her honour in a fight. At some point in the proceedings she was hit over the head.

It was early days yet for Poppy. We needed to give her time to get to know us before we tackled her problem of only being able to express herself violently.

She very soon started a friendship with our house-father, Mike Dunne. She then made an incredibly aggressive approach to him, but we realised it was the only way she knew. I was easy for her to cope with because I represented a mother figure. Even if she had never had a real mother, she had experience of various surrogate mother figures during her life in homes, who had cuddled her occasionally. But Mike was a completely unknown quantity. She only knew how to present herself sexually, and when that failed to elicit a response from him, she was very angry. She had offered herself, all she had to offer, and he was rejecting her. Mike would talk to her about her children, about herself, about anything she wished, but that only confused her. How could you have a relationship with a man who did not fancy you?

She took to getting drunk as a skunk at lunchtime, then rolling into the sitting-room and trying to pick a fight with him. Fortunately, Mike is a big Irish lad and has played a lot of rugby. He would manage to fend off the worst of the attack, and then would hold her gently until she subsided. In the beginning, she would relax for just a few minutes, enjoying the child/parent situation, but then she would push him away and reel over to me. She would bury herself in my arms for a while, and then lurch back to attack him. We both recognized that in these moments she was working out a very deep internal conflict, and that it was necessary for her to be allowed to act out her awful pain.

The staff talked it all through among themselves, and with her, and the play staff took over the care of her children during the day. Several of our older mothers would take care of the children during the nights, because Poppy was so exhausted after these bouts. Soon it became a daily routine. Poppy would burst in, the other mothers would clear out, then she would go for Mike. Mike would patiently defend himself from harm, and hold her when he felt it appropriate, and then she would turn to me and I would hug her hard. The first breakthrough came one day when she collapsed in a heap on a mattress beside the fireplace. (This was where I tended to sit but it was also where sleeping babies were laid.) There she curled up in a foetal position and put her thumb in her mouth. I stroked her head and Mike sat down beside us. As she slept, we looked at her face, and for the first time she seemed peaceful. When she woke up she stretched and smiled, first at me and then at Mike. It was the kind of small miracle that most of our work is based on.

From that time on, she would quarrel with Mike if she felt like it, but she never again needed to physically attack him. She had learned it was perfectly OK merely to argue with him. She soon made her own friends in the community, and became much loved by the play staff.

We had a particularly gifted group of men and women working with us, and they helped young Mary to show her fears in her drawings and paintings. Sam so much enjoyed being kissed and cuddled that he bit and scratched the staff enthusiastically in return, because that was what he had seen the only people in his early life do to each other. He assumed that was how you expressed pleasure. His pleasure and pain were already crossed, so it would take a lot of skilled therapeutic work to help him back to normal.

Meanwhile, although we were pleased with the family’s progress we were less happy with the contribution of the Social Services. Poppy needed at least two years of care in a large loving community, where she would not only be emotionally nurtured but also taught physical skills that would enable her to live a useful and happy life in the outside world. The health visitor could see that immediately, but the social worker seemed obsessed with John and his situation. Of course, in those cases where a genuine relationship has been formed between two people, the answer must be to work with both of them. However, the truth here was that Poppy saw John, just as he~ saw her – as an available port in the storm. Neither of them shared anything with each other except their violence, which Poppy was seriously attempting to give up.

We could offer John time with the male staff, but at that point we did not have a residential house for men. John, however, was not willing to make use of any help we had to offer. We were asking him to come to terms with his own violent behaviour, but he far preferred the social worker’s strategy, which was to ask the Housing Department to give them a new flat. My heart sank when I heard that the Department were backing John’s application. John telephoned Poppy constantly with details of the new property. With the help of the social worker, he put in for a large grant for new furniture.

As much as Poppy recognised that she still needed months of real hard work on herself and her children, she could not resist the temptation to ‘play house’. We talked with John a long time, pointing out the very real danger they would both face if she reverted to her past behaviour patterns, and if he continued to drink and became violent. It was no use.

They were like small children playing at Christmas with the social worker acting as Santa Claus – a not unusual role. Poppy’s flat allocation came through. She went to see it, and was delighted. As soon as the furniture grant came through and the cooker was connected, they were gone. A few weeks later we had a phone-call from Poppy: predictably, John had been drinking again. She was torn by conflicting emotions. Part of her wanted the reality of our community and the badly needed day-to-day support, but the other side of her had already plugged into a violent lifestyle again. I had one final hysterical phone-call from her. After a particularly violent fight that lasted most of the night, the police were called in. Poppy was taken to hospital, and she lost her children, for they were both taken into permanent care. The last I heard, she had left John, but had moved on to another violent relationship.

Poppy’s story is only unusual in that she was found as an infant in a railway station. The rest of her case history is classic, and exemplifies the live traffic in human misery that takes place in all Western countries, where a multimillion pound machinery has been created out of ‘caring’. Not only did Women’s Aid, for all those years, take in these very damaged and often dangerous families, and learn to understand and to care for them, but also we found that everywhere we turned for help or support, we encountered open hostility. It is easy to obscure the truth with a series of court cases over how many bodies a building should hold, but the reality lies in the hundreds of case histories we have gathered.

Sometimes it seems that nobody wants to hear about these families. There are no votes to be won by supporting or helping them. For they cannot be easily claimed to be innocent victims of others’ aggression. They are not grateful or gentle. Their children are usually dirty, often violent, and frequently in trouble with the police. They are what they are because they were born with no chance.

Western societies have failed to understand how to care for a damaged family. This is because ‘The Family’ has always been seen almost as a religious concept, and therefore sacred and untouchable. In the days of the large extended family, sheer size and numbers gave individual members escape routes. But with the increasing separation of the extended family into nuclear families we have created a dangerous lifestyle for ourselves, because this limited family is the primary socialising agency in a child’s life. Emotionally disabled parents create emotionally disabled children.


[1] In the course of reading this book, it is essential to understand the differentiation between our use of the words battered and violence-prone. For us, a battered person is the innocent victim of another person’s violence; a violence-prone person is the victim of their own addiction to violence

[2] Extracts appear in Appendix D.

[3] We believe that Sam’s adjustment to his violent family situation was a result of his growing addiction to pain, as explained in Chapter Six.

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