Turning the lights back on

‘From the outside, it looked like I was living in a beautiful house, with everything I could possibly need. But inside, it was like a haunted house from a carnival ride. Things popping out from the dark when you don’t expect it. Mirrors distorting what you see. And you are constantly, always, afraid of what’s around the corner.’ 

With this vivid analogy, Lita* encapsulates the twisted sense of reality deliberately created by people who use violence to control and manipulate victim-survivors’ sense of safety and autonomy. Like the ‘scary clown’ who jumps out at you unexpectedly in a showground ride, the terror resides in the uncertainty and unpredictability, as well as the fact that from the outside world, things can seem idyllic. 

Lita’s evocative description, shared with others in McAuley’s advisory group of people with lived experience, conveys the multiple, complex layers of emotion and meaning around the concept of ‘home’ when it has been a place of violence. 

The advisory group has been formed to consider the issue of ‘Safe at Home.’ McAuley has been at the forefront of advocating for a greater emphasis on victim-survivors’ ability to stay in their home after violence. The current system is weighted towards women and their children ‘escaping’ and ‘fleeing’ homes, with limited consideration as to whether homes could be made safe for them to stay. 

Evidence gathered by McAuley shows that this is commonly a first step towards homelessness for women. We have argued that it is not only intrinsically unfair that they are the ones who leave behind neighbourhoods, employment, schools and friendships; it also exposes them to the risk of poverty and unstable housing. 

Previous consultations by McAuley with those who had lived experience had demonstrated that the concept of ‘home’ is often problematic when it has been a place of violence. Some women felt that as a place of trauma, they instinctively reacted against the idea of staying there. The advisory group also wrestled with this concept, and whether home could ever be safe. 

This is where Lita’s haunted house concept – of what ‘home’ can come to mean when violence has been pervasive – resonated with group members. While her home had become a nightmarish place where she was made to doubt her own sanity, reaching out for help illuminated, and changed, the emotions around ‘home’ for herself and her four children. 

Just like in her analogy of a terrifying carnival ride, getting help was the point when ‘the lights came back on,’ says Lita. ‘All the dark corners you’ve been afraid of are brightly lit up once the ride has ended. You can see the exits. You know there is a way out.’ The ‘scary clown’ is quite different when exposed to the light, and can be kept in view. 

Lita’s harrowing experiences in an abusive relationship had spanned 20 years. A pivotal, earlier, point for her in 2008 demonstrated just how difficult it can be to name and see the violence with clear eyes. 

She had four children under the age of seven – and ‘a baby on my shoulder’ only a few days old – when she called the police.  Lita was in tears and couldn’t articulate her experience and why she was so afraid. The ‘scary clown’ – esteemed and successful in his own community – was plausible in his assurances that he would, of course, never hurt her, and was allowed back in the home. Lita had been threatened by him with the loss of her children. And ‘I didn’t think I could leave as my children needed me. I had no access to finances and just had a newborn baby.’ 

The lights had been switched off again for Lita. ‘I was silenced into compliance, and made to feel silly for having called police. I wasn’t allowed to make any reference to his abusive behaviour. Silence – and pretend we were the perfect family.’ 

In the years that followed, Lita was controlled financially, belittled and humiliated. She had the ‘false hope that if I just finally did something right, everything would get better. It was easy to blame myself. I carried the shame that it was all my fault.’ 

Contacting safesteps in 2021 was enormously difficult given that by then, Lita felt she was in ‘a cult of one, defending or playing down the abuse’. She says there was both a knowing, and a denial, at the same time. She knew the call would be seen as an act of betrayal; it was a time of intense fear, knowing that she was doing something the exact opposite of the placating and appeasement which had become the pattern, just to survive. 

The long conversation with the safesteps responder was the first step in ‘turning on the lights’ and recognising the violence with painful clarity. Over the phone, she outlined all the many incidents and instances; the responder asked the right questions, and gently helped her to piece it all together. Lita found herself looking around in the car, from which she had hidden to made the call, somehow hoping that she was talking to someone else when the responder named it as abuse. ‘But there was only me in the car. I was shaking with the realisation of what I had known deep down for years.’ 

Leaving was not straightforward even though Lita now knew what she was dealing with. The point of separation is a dangerous time, or as Lita describes it ‘peak unsafe’.  The abuser continued to harass and manipulate her with tactics such as cancelling credit cards and refusing to pay bills. Lita says: there is a lot of ‘surviving after the surviving’. She continues to navigate exhausting challenges in managing the courts and legal system, reporting breaches, and coping with the financial drain.  

But Lita is living in the home, which she wants to be a loving and kind place for her children. She finds it looks completely different now; it’s like the lights are permanently on, and those terrifying shadows have been banished. She has made some changes to make it her own; even small things such as changing the linen.

Lita even gets excited when she sees bills in her own name, having been so controlled financially over decades. The abuser used to make a huge fuss about doing his only real chore around the house, taking the bins out, demanding recognition for it. Now that Lita has taken it on, she realises: ‘it’s actually ‘the easiest job in the world.’ 

Lita is very mindful of the overall complexities of leaving, and the precarious nature of ‘home’ for women in violent relationships. Her own mother was also in an abusive relationship, but stayed to provide shelter and food for her children. 

‘My beautiful, loving mum developed early onset dementia in her early 60s.  It is for her, and all women currently living unsafe in their home, that I speak out and do this work.’ 

*to keep her safe, her real name has not been used

Family violence emergency

If you are in immediate danger, have been threatened, or are fearful for yourself, a child or family member, call 000 emergency or police.

Family violence help in Victoria

Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre: 1800 015 188
24/7 phone support to help you explore options, develop a safety plan and link you to crisis support.

Homelessness: emergency accommodation

If you need emergency accommodation you can call 1800 825 955 to speak with a housing and support worker. The service is available 24 hours a day.