“But who is ‘he’, the Shadow Man thought to be responsible for all this harm? Is he a mythical creature who hides in the cracks of alley walls, emerging only to wreak havoc on the women who will later be considered naive and foolish for failing to take their own safety seriously? Is he a monster?
In some cases, yes. But in the vast majority of cases, no. These Shadow Men live very much in the daylight.”
This is why I am here.
Content Warning: this blog post will feature a discussion of domestic violence.
I work in a shoe store and we organise our stock via categories. Ugg boots, slippers, ladies’ winter boots. School shoes, children’s sneakers, men’s casuals. Each category is then sorted via colour; roughly from darkest to lightest, and within its colour subcategory each shoe is placed according to its price. Despite being someone with trouble distinguishing between brown, taupe and grey at times, and who questions the validity of grey being classed as darker than navy at the base level, I appreciate this system for the efficiency it grants us.
But sometimes we get rainbow shoes.
I’m never quite sure where to place them. Neither is anybody else. As a result, rainbow shoes tend to be left in a neat pile behind the register, outside of our rigid algorithm of shoes in the stockroom, until somebody decides where to home them.
Some stories are the same.
White Ribbon Australia, an organisation fighting for Australia’s transition into a nation whose female citizens are free of all forms of men’s abuse, has collated data that will tell you one woman each week is murdered by her partner on average. One in four women has experienced emotional abuse from a partner from the age of fifteen. These are only reported statistics (the actual number of occurrences is much higher), and it’s worth mentioning that for the LGTBQI+ community, the Indigenous community and those who live in rural or regional locations, they get much worse.
But this project isn’t about numbers.
How do we go about collecting these deeply intricate personal stories and treating them and their owners with the care and responsibility they’re owed? What are we supposed to do with vulnerable tales?
The media tends to imagine domestic violence through a frame entirely constructed via statistics. Even the legal system and its structures tend to rely on media and pop culture representation of family violence to respond to it. As such, the narratives of individual ‘battered’ women facing the court system are understood through a quantitative lens perhaps designed with efficiency as its primary performance indicator (ibid). The nature of this design filters out much of the valuable qualitative data from a family violence narrative. Therefore, there is a prominent gap in the wider public understanding of family violence that narrative research has the potential to fill – at the very least, as a starting point for navigating the issues that these stories seek to unravel.
Whilst journalistic and statistical framing may incur shock tactics and garner a short-term response from the wider community, there are issues with, and severe limits to, this representation. Narrative based research has the potential to reinform this void by bringing “certain forms of knowing and unknowing into focus”. This is particularly relevant for research topics which are traditionally “tabooed”, including family violence, which until recently was predominantly treated by the media, and social structures as a whole, as a private issue.
My research will aim to project vulnerable narrative research as a means of unpacking and advocating for social issues such as family violence in a way that attempts to reach a depth not allowed by journalistic tropes and statistics. Interrogating personal and vulnerable narratives behind these issues allows for more cohesive social progress than the propaganda-like media and legal strategic publications that is currently in place to respond to these social issues.
The focus on narrative research for this thesis will allow for the proliferation of traditional critical frameworks and theories and encourage an expanded means of understanding family violence. Autoethnography as a form of narrative research has risen as an “integral part of human culture” and as such, this method of research has the capacity to reflect or contest sociocultural structures.
Some stories are hard to swallow. They contain material that is taboo and some would say the taboo is forbidden territory (Guntarik et. al 2015).
I’ve written before that domestic violence stories are not one-dimensional. There’s this murky grey mass surrounding these tales; although a domestic violence perpetrator might be a culprit in a concentrated violent story as a result of their own context, on a wider scale it’s much less simple:
The complicated thing is, if there’s a random burglar who breaks into your home and starts to abuse your family, you’d recount the incident as horrendous. He’d be painted as the enemy in every recount. When we hear of indicted criminals, we think and say bad things about them, just like the antagonist of a fictional novel or film. When that person is part of your immediate family, it’s really different. We didn’t live with a hardcore, violent criminal. We lived with a loving dad by day who became a monster by night, fuelled by bottles of alcohol he couldn’t live without. That made it really hard for us to leave him. As soon as you mention alcoholism or domestic violence, a very negative picture is painted of an antagonist, even if they have a good heart in other stories. (The Antagonist was a Good Man)
There is growing dissent over the term ‘domestic violence’ and strong complications in the mechanics of writing about it. I myself find this the phrase is hugely misleading and am deciding which, of a selection several less-evil options, phrase I will use myself going forward. However, outside of semiotics, ‘domestic violence’ is the most widely-recognised definition of what I’m writing about, and thus the hashtag and SEO online environments perhaps quietly demand I comply – for now. For now, I’ll settle with replacing ‘perpetrator’ with ‘antagonist’, because the latter is a cold label I’m not going to let blindfold me nor my audience with a basic stereotype that misses the rich insights that can be formed via narrative research.
And so to bring this blog post to an end, for now, I’ll gently nudge you back to Clementine Ford’s quotation at the top of this page, and leave you with the impression of the shadow man floating through the various stories others weave about his life, perhaps with thoughts on the ethics and responsibilities we owe to antagonists in stories we frame via categorical truths. These antagonists didn’t rise from the dust as perpetrators of domestic violence. They’re products of generational narratives; subdued violence very ornately passed down from parent to child. And so we owe our antagonists some respect; or, at least, some effort towards understanding. This research project aims to slowly move through these ideas, whilst seeking and maintaining a reasonable ethical discretion on the scale between writing clinically and romanticising the issue at hand.