Why it's so important to learn from DV survivors' stories

Rosie Batty

Rosie Batty Photo: Andrew Meares

There's no doubt the past few years has seen a steady rise in conversations around men's violence against women and children in Australia. This is thanks in large part to the work of Rosie Batty, who responded to the unthinkable murder of her son Luke at the hands of his father by becoming a tireless campaigner against domestic violence.

Rosie Batty's name might be synonymous with speaking out against family violence, but she's found a new comrade in Australian Rules footballer, Jimmy Bartel. On Easter Sunday, the Herald Sun published a brave, intimate interview with the Brownlow medallist and Geelong Cats player in which he recounted the abuse he witnessed his father perpetrating against his mother and sisters.

It's an emotional exchange, and I found myself frequently weeping while reading it. But despite the obvious heartbreak and suffering on show, it's also a story full of hope - not just for the determination of Bartel to create a different environment for his own young family, but for the change he might be capable of bringing about by exposing such a vulnerable history.

Jimmy Bartel.

Jimmy Bartel. Photo: Getty Images

As a survivor, Bartel has a particular insight into the machinations of family violence. Not only does he know how abusers change form between the veil of public and private life, he also understands how unhelpful stereotypes can be in working to successfully turn victims into survivors. Consider this section, in which Bartel describes watching his father not only beat his mother but also throw his sister against the wall "like a rag doll" before finally throwing Bartel himself into an old fashioned bureau. Bartel was 4 years old at the time.

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When narratives of violence are recounted for the general public, the typical response is to ask, "Well, why doesn't she leave?" But as Bartel says in regard to the above incident, "He was no longer living with us when that happened. People often say to women, 'Why don't you leave him?' Well, Mum did, and it still happened. It was easy for Dad, he could do whatever he liked, and then leave and didn't have to go to bed next to Mum and confront the guilt."

'Guilt' was another tactic wielded by Bartel's father as a means of controlling his family. Like many abusers, Terry Bartel preferred his victims to be weaker than him. Bartel describes his father waiting until his mother had turned away before "belting" her. He chose fights that he thought would be easy to win, and he would force Bartel's mother to accept blame in order to justify his behaviour to himself.

"He would say, 'You made me do that, you know that, you got me into that emotional state, so you have to take some of the blame. Can you understand why I did it? Say it was your fault! I love you though!'" As Bartel observes, "It's easy to justify something like that to young people, or to someone who is physically weaker than you. They have to agree, or more will come."

But to outsiders, Terry Bartel was charming and gregarious. Despite refusing to spend time playing football with his son, he took credit in public for teaching him the skills he needed to find success on the field. The violent nature of his father didn't appear only in the physical and emotional scars carried by his mother, but also the deprivation of paternal care and love for Bartel and his sisters.

As much progress as we seem to have made in encouraging a national conversation around family violence, there are still too many attempts to derail it or discount it altogether. For Bartel to lend his voice to this campaign is a huge move, and one that has the potential to rigorously shake up the minds of people who have either previously been apathetic or steadfastly ignorant on the issue. Bartel has said he will not shave or cut his hair for the entire football season, and he hopes this will prompt conversations between fathers and sons especially.

This is where the need for multipronged approaches becomes seriously apparent. Because while these conversations are vital, it's also essential that they be defined by the right information. This is why we need better and more visible campaigns to make it clear how complex and multifaceted family violence actually is - so the conversations we have with our children actually help to make a difference. With Bartel's help and instruction we may be one step closer to making that happen, but there has to be a correlating commitment from broader society to listen, learn and act accordingly.

Still, there's no denying the bravery implicit in Bartel's action here - bravery that has no doubt been learned by the example of survival shown to him by his extraordinary mother. These are the things that make a difference. By inviting fans, foes and impartial bystanders alike to witness his past, Bartel has helped initiate another important conversation about the impact that is wrought when behaviour like that of his father goes unchallenged. Despite popular opinion, there is no blueprint for family violence and the victims who suffer as a result of it. The fact that one of the most potent examples of powerful Australian masculinity can stand up and lay claim to that is all the proof we need of just how widespread and indiscriminate violence is. With any luck, it will be one of the final encouragements we need to end it once and for all.

Jimmy Bartel is raising money for both the Luke Batty Foundation and Bethany in Geelong. As Bartel says, "They both have great programs in education, helplines, housing, and helping women and children who are suffering at the hands of domestic violence." To donate, please visit www.bendigobank.com.au/geelongcatsfaceuptodv.