There’s a lot of derailment and obfuscation that occurs in both the response to and the reporting of incidences of family violence, particularly when a perpetrator commits family homicide. Jane Gilmore’s #FixedIt project aptly demonstrates this, highlighting in particular the media bias present in most public descriptions of this type of crime.
Men who rape, abuse or murder women are described in news reports as being “good blokes” and “nice guys” for whom such callous acts of violence were “out of character”. Their sporting achievements and community accolades are trotted out for show, with everyone from their neighbours to their butcher lining up to list their positive qualities.
Their victims, on the other hand, are often left almost as a postscript to the crime; a by-product of the real tragedy that is a sad man lashing out.
Nowhere has this been more starkly outlined recently than in Rossalyn Warren’s recent (and superb) Guardian UK profile of Lincolnshire residents, Luke and Ryan Hart. The brothers have both emerged as advocates not only speaking up for the women and children victimised by violent, controlling men, but also against the kind of restrictive, harmful masculinity that helps to create such tyrants.
The impact of this violence is not theoretical for the Hart brothers; last year, their father used a single barrel shotgun to murder their mother, Claire, and 19-year-old sister, Charlotte, outside a community leisure centre, before turning the weapon on himself. Just days before, Luke and Ryan had helped Claire and Charlotte to move out of the family house and into a rental property.
On the morning of the escape, the pair recall being unable to make contact with their mother. They later discovered their father had driven Claire to her workplace against her wishes, just the latest act of control in almost three decades worth of aggression.
In recounting the arrival at their new home to Warren, Luke Hart spoke about how much suffering he, his siblings and his mother had endured at the hands of his father. He said, “Everything felt uncomfortably different, but I later recognised that the feeling was simply freedom. It was something I’d never known or felt before. We felt reborn.”
Yet the reality of this trauma was absent in the media coverage following Lance Hart’s murder of his wife and daughter. Like so many Australian men who similarly take the lives of their partners and/or children, Hart was described afterwards in almost glowing terms. He was described as a “nice guy” and a “DIY nut”. As Warren points out, “in every report, there was speculation that the prospect of divorce ‘drove’ Lance to murder, and little mention or description of Claire or Charlotte.”
Similarly, in Australia, men (most typically, white men) who murder their partners and/or children are treated as tragic figures governed by a force that exists outside of themselves. Geoff Hunt shot his entire family on a farm outside of Lockhart and he was remembered fondly as a good man who helped his disabled wife in and out of the car. Gregory Floyd chased his wife down with a gun in Wangaratta and killed her before killing himself and articles declared his crime a “tragedy” that was “out of character”. Damien Little drove a car carrying his two sons off a wharf in Port Lincoln and was mourned afterwards as a “top bloke”.
Luke Hart sums up the frustration and harm inflicted on the living victims of these crimes at the hands of a press altogether too willing to forgive or downplay the actions of domestic perpetrators: “In the absence of information, they chose the side of a terrorist who committed murder.”
This is a key point. Because domestic violence IS terrorism. Some people argue otherwise, claiming that terrorism by definition is the use of force to prompt political change. But what could be more political than the reinforcement of domestic-based masculine dominance and patriarchal leadership via the use of fear, violence and recriminations?
The oppression of women and children is a political matter, and the men who overwhelmingly make up the perpetrator base of this kind of terrorism do so to solidify their power within this space. And yet, in much the same way that jokes about rape reassure rapists that they’re not all that different from other people, the media coverage depicting perpetrators of domestic homicide as otherwise good men propels the fiction that these actions are provoked by victims or circumstances, rather than the perpetrator’s choice.
When Luke and Ryan searched their father’s computer following his murder of their mother and sister, they discovered he had run numerous Google searches on men who had killed their wives. As Ryan told Warren, “I think he wanted to feel he wasn’t being different, and that other men were like him.”
Their lifelong experience of domestic violence has pushed the brothers to reject what they see as the “pathetic” nature of “overtly masculine figures”. The fostering of gentle, kind masculinity is something we need more of the world over, but especially in Australia where notions of the quintessential ‘Aussie Bloke’ still reign supreme.
Masculinity is a broad and colourful entity just like femininity, and it should be liberated from oppressive, restrictive ideas about what constitutes a “real man”, and how that is informed by his dominance in relationships with women and children. Contrary to what certain people want to believe about feminism, it is a movement that seeks to empower men to be something other than the reductive stereotypes so heavily ascribed to them.
Anti-feminists often like to counter feminist arguments about domestic violence with the claim that men are victims too. This is, of course, perfectly correct. But it is not correct in the way they would have people believe, which is that violence is symmetrically perpetrated by both men and women.
Rather, the more common face of male domestic violence victims is that of the man traumatised by a childhood in which his father, stepfather or father figure created an environment of violence in which he, his mother and any siblings he may have had were targeted.
Luke and Ryan Hart are not outliers of this kind of trauma – they are typical of it. And if we want to change outcomes for boys and men, it is imperative that we listen to those of them who have been most harmed by a masculinity that, even as it kills, is still honoured and celebrated.