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Sandra Horley, head of domestic violence charity Refuge, wrote a pioneering book on the abuse of women 25 years ago. She’s just republished it because the violence goes on
ne day, in the mid-80s, Sandra Horley sat on a stool in her partner’s studio and told him what she was seeing at work. She described the women who were coming to her refuges (which she ran on an overdraft), their terror, the injuries they’d sustained at the hands of their partners – hit with hammers, raped, shot by air rifles. There was a woman in her shelter who just sat and rocked. Another held her son in her lap and cried because her husband had never let her cuddle him before.
But it wasn’t this that so astonished Horley. It wasn’t this that she wanted to get across. What was most sinister was that all these women were telling her the same stories. They described identical incidents – the way their partners behaved, what they did and what they said, right down to the words they used. Always, these men started off charming. “I heard that word almost every time,” says Horley. “The women would say, ‘If he was sitting in this room now, you wouldn’t believe he could do this.’” The men were loving and charismatic – they knew how to disarm and draw women in. Then slowly – still mixed in with the charm, flitting between the two – the same patterns would creep in. Put-downs. Possessiveness. Isolation. When there was violence, these women were already worn down, cut off, trapped.
Horley’s partner, Julian Nieman, urged her to put it in a book – as a warning to everyone. Horley wasn’t a writer, she was busy on the frontline and that book, a side project, took years to finish. (Horley married Nieman and had a daughter along the way.)
The Charm Syndrome, published in 1991, focused on six women whose abusers included a singer, a solicitor, an academic and a builder. “Because that replicates society,” says Horley. “It’s all walks of life.” It drew out the patterns in the men’s behaviour. In isolation, their acts seemed senseless and random – shocking losses of control – but this was far from the case. They were calculated to achieve one goal: total domination.
One in 10 crimes recorded by police are domestic abuse cases – ONS
The response to her book was beyond what she’d hoped. “I was sort of shocked by the huge amount of coverage,” she says. “It was described as groundbreaking.”
Now, 26 years later, it has been updated and reissued under the title Power and Control. There’s far more awareness these days – domestic violence isn’t hidden behind closed doors, it’s on TV and the radio, in headlines. There’s stronger legislation, too – it’s hard to believe that when Horley was having that conversation with her partner, rape was still legal within marriage (it became a crime in the UK in 1991).
But in 2017, abusers have more weapons in their armoury: technology helps them track their partners, monitor communication, and terrorise from afar. And the statistics are still devastating. Domestic violence accounts for a third of reported violent crimes in England and Wales. Each week, two women are killed by partners or former partners; another three will take their own lives because of domestic abuse.
Is she angry? “I did get angry when I was younger,” says Horley. “I try not to feel it so much now, as it gets in the way … I guess if you probed a little, it’s still there.”
Sandra Horley with her book, Power and Control.
Sandra Horley with her book, Power and Control. Photograph: Julian Nieman
Now Horley is the CEO of Refuge, the largest single provider of emergency domestic violence services in the UK. Her office is stunning, right on the river Thames with views across Tower Bridge. The walls are lined with photographs of women and children, frontline workers, bereaved relatives, plus the great and the good – Princess Diana, Cherie Blair QC, Helena Kennedy QC. The space was provided by a generous donor.
Horley has come a very long way and fought for every bit of it – and how she did this is a story in itself. She was born in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, and her parents separated when she was 14 – her father disappearing over the border to the US, leaving her mother with four children.
“We were deeply poor,” she says. “I mean penniless. Mum earned $47 a week in a laundry and $18 went on rent.” Horley vividly recalls knocking on the door of a stranger to ask for food (the woman made her a sandwich) and when the family found themselves living in just two cockroach-infested rooms, Horley left, knocking on another door (this time, the house of a girl she’d met on a school trip). The mother took her in, gave her tomato soup and put her to bed.
Horley spent the next few years moving between people, sofa surfing. While at school, she worked. “My mother used to say the only way out of this was to get an education and that just stuck,” she says. She won a scholarship to McGill University in Montreal, which included a term at Oxford. After graduating with distinction, she returned to the UK to study sociology at Birmingham.
It was here Horley saw an ad for a job as director of a project for homeless and abused women in Wolverhampton. “I thought, ‘That sounds interesting. I’ve been homeless. Maybe I could help.’ It was as simple as that. I applied on a whim and got the job. I found out later I was the only applicant!”
This was the late 70s – Refuge opened the world’s first refuge in Chiswick in 1971. “In those days, the phrase ‘battered women’ had barely been coined,” she says. “Domestic violence was a ‘private matter’ – something to do with ‘problem families’ on council estates. People didn’t understand the dynamics, and I didn’t, either. I arrived with an armload of feminist books and never opened them. I was the only paid member of staff, running four shelters – living and breathing it every single day.”
Controlling or coercive domestic abuse to risk five-year prison term
The greatest shock, says Horley, was the “sheer brutality”. “One of my first cases was a woman whose husband had taken a hammer and chisel to her face. She’d had 250 stitches and there wasn’t a square millimetre of white skin. Just a mass of purple bruising. I fed her through a straw.
“And then the priest came. I’d never allow this now, but in those days, you didn’t know what best practice was. In front of me, he persuaded her to go home, saying her husband promised never to do it again. And of course he did – she was back again later.”
In her five years at Wolverhampton, Horley helped 3,000 women. She doesn’t recall one man being prosecuted.
During this period, Horley met Nieman, her future husband (“A gentle giant, not a sexist or possessive bone in his body”). Having joined him in London, in 1983, she took a job running Chiswick Family Refuge (“There were two applicants that time!”) which was later relaunched as Refuge.
Starting with an £8,000 overdraft and a semi-derelict refuge, Horley first asked a company to donate a tonne of steel wool to control the rats. It was delivered the next day and she has been asking for help, one way or another, ever since. Now Refuge has about 40 refuges. “And they’re all nice, cheerful environments, because that’s what the women deserve.”
There’s far greater awareness now – and the great thing is women know there’s help available
Domestic violence has moved up the social and political agenda. On Wednesday, a bill to protect the victims of domestic abuse was proposed in the Queen’s speech. The 2015 legislation concerning “coercive control” was also a step forward, attempting to tackle the techniques other than violence that are used by a perpetrator to control a victim – from what she can say to how she must look, to where she can go. These were behaviours Horley had highlighted in her book 25 years earlier. She also advised writers on the Radio 4 soap The Archers, which portrayed this so powerfully through the abuser Rob Titchener. “That storyline helped reach a certain demographic,” she says. “The Sun. EastEnders. The Archers. We need all of it. There’s far greater awareness now – and the great thing is women know there’s help available.”
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But the patterns remain the same, and prosecution levels are far too low. Fewer than 10% of reported incidents result in convictions, according to Horley – despite the fact that domestic violence is one of the few crimes where there’s no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator. “These aren’t burglars who’ve broken in wearing masks,” she says. “What they’ve done is against the law and prosecuting them is the only way to send a clear message that it won’t be tolerated.”
In a patriarchal society like ours, says Horley, domestic violence will always be with us. “Women don’t even have equal pay. Girls are still growing up with the message that the handsome prince on the white horse is the happy ending. For as long as there’s an imbalance of power between the sexes, it’s inevitable that that power will be abused by some men.
“You could put a refuge on every street corner and it wouldn’t be enough. I just hope the book will keep raising awareness and drawing attention – yet again. Because you can never do enough.”
Domestic violence – the warning signs
Common abusive behaviours set out in Power and Control:
• Jealousy and possessiveness.
• Humiliating and insulting you in front of others.
• Sabotaging your relationship with friends and family.
• Sudden changes of mood – charming one minute and abusive the next.
• Monitoring your movements, insisting on time limits when you do things, checking your phone, social networks and spending.
• Controlling what you wear and eat (so subtly, you don’t see it happening).
• Blaming you for the abuse (“I’m not like this with anyone else!” “You make me like this.”)
• Expecting you to have sex when you don’t want to, including when you’re ill or asleep.
• Damaging your treasured possessions.
• Harming or threatening to harm family pets.
• Driving recklessly to frighten you.
• Threatening to kidnap or get custody of the children if you leave.
• Telling you you’re useless and could never cope without him.
• Dominating how you feel – whether that’s happy, afraid or frightened. Having the power to make you constantly change your behaviour to avoid his “displeasure”.
• Power and Control: Why Charming Men Can Make Dangerous Lovers by Sandra Horley (Vermilion, £12.99). To order a copy for £11.40, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.
National Domestic Violence Helpline in partnership with Refuge and Woman’s Aid, 0808 2000 247, refuge.org.uk.
Refuge also runs a website with information on supporting a friend or family member who may be experiencing domestic violence, 1in4women.com.