Book Review: See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse

Reviewed by Alexandra Middleton

“Why doesn’t she just leave?”

It’s the question many of us ask when it comes to domestic abuse, and the question Jess Hill insists is the wrong one in her award-winning novel See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse. Instead, the investigative journalist says we should be asking: why did he do it? 

See What You Made Me Do dives deep into the underground world of domestic abuse, using forensic research and powerful stories to help us comprehend it’s severity. The novel proffers stories about real victims and survivors across Australia; from the suburbs of Sydney to remote Indigenous communities, domestic abuse certainly does not discriminate. Hill presents readers with a ‘perpetrator’s handbook’, and subsequently dissects the tools, reasons and strategies abusers use to inflict pain of every kind on their loved ones. Her book defines and explains the humiliating and degrading form of domestic abuse that is coercive control, a particular kind of violence which stems from the patriarchy and is “almost exclusively perpetrated by men”. 

Hill describes coercive control as “a strategic campaign of abuse held together by fear”. Coercive controllers “don’t just abuse their partners to hurt, humiliate or punish them… they use particular techniques – isolation, gaslighting, surveillance – to strip the victim of their liberty, and take away their sense of self” with their end goal being “total domination”. Understanding coercive control is central to understanding domestic abuse – reading about it throughout the novel caused me to consider if I’d witnessed or experienced it, even at a superficial level. Would I be able to recognise coercive control? Would you? 

Hill insists on using the term ‘domestic abuse’ instead of ‘domestic violence’ whenever she can. Why? “Because in some of the worst abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present.” Hill maintains throughout the novel we need to stop sending the message that domestic abuse is only a serious issue when there has been physical violence; emotional and financial abuse are some of the most painful and damaging experiences victims are forced to endure. 

It is made clear in the first few pages of Hill’s novel that “domestic abuse cuts a deep wound into our society. It has been experienced by one in four Australian women.” A recent Monash University study reveals there has been an increase in demand for domestic violence services across Australia (and the world) during the coronavirus lockdown. Having read this novel during lockdown, it made me think of the women trapped in their homes with their abusers. I felt so thankful that I live in a safe family environment, that I feel safe in my home.  Hill notes that to feel safe in our own backyards is a privilege, because so many women have never experienced that feeling. 

Hill’s explanation for why she focuses on men’s violence against women is simply because it is far more dangerous in scale and severity. She acknowledges that women inflict abuse on men, and that abuse and violence is not only perpetrated in heterosexual couples. But Hill dedicates most of her book to investigating domestic abuse against women and children, because, as she supports with four years worth of evidence, interviews and expert opinions, they are the largest group of domestic abuse victims.

One of the most harrowing chapters for me to read in Hill’s novel focuses on violence against children. The chapter, titled ‘Through the Looking Glass’, recounts painful stories of childhood abuse and trauma, and examines the Family Court; what Hill discovers is shocking. From allegations of sexual abuse against their fathers to being forced to live with their abusers, I couldn’t believe the injustices inflicted upon children of family violence. What’s more, this was the first time I’d read about Family Court orders; none of these astonishing cases or injustices are reported in the media because “publishing anything about a family law case that might identify someone… is a crime”. Hill shines a bright light on the cultural problems embedded throughout the family law system, raising awareness on an incredibly important issue that needs changing and that many of us don’t realise exists. 

Stories about children and women experiencing abuse are hard to read at the best of times, but Hill is able to take incredibly sad, frustrating and horrifying stories of abuse, and present them to readers in an incredibly sensitive yet powerful way. She pays tribute to the victims and survivors who trusted her enough to share their experiences with her; two pages into the novel and I was captivated, utterly immersed by Hill’s writing and consumed by the facts she’s presenting. This pattern consistently continues throughout Hill’s thoughtful and extensively researched opus. 

What’s more, Hill engages in solutions-based reporting; with the use of expert opinions, forensic analysis and case studies, she is able to present solutions to fixing the national crisis that is domestic abuse. For example, Hill nominates strategies used to reduce domestic violence in the city of High Point, North Carolina, where they implemented a strong justice response to perpetrators which resulted in halving their domestic homicide rate (which was previously twice the US national average). On a more local level, Hill draws attention to justice reinvestment in the New South Wales town of Bourke, which saw domestic violence related assaults decrease by 39%. Hill labels these programs as “exciting”, not just because they reduce domestic abuse in these areas, but because they are community-led and make victim protection a priority. 

See What You Made Me Do was challenging to read at times, but ultimately, I couldn’t put it down; sometimes, I would finish a chapter and have to take a break because of how distressed, enraged or saddened I was feeling. But this anger I felt towards perpetrators of domestic abuse, and the systems which perpetuate them, made me want to read more, learn more, discover what needs to be done to make a change. Although horrifying and saddening at times, I forced myself to keep reading because I wanted to hear and understand the experiences of women and children living in the underground world of domestic abuse. 

Jess Hill makes it clear that domestic abuse is a national crisis and one of the biggest threats to women and children in this country. Her book is deeply emotional and backed by facts, statistics and opinions from an array of surveys, experts and services. 

As Louise Swinn said, chair of the judging panel which awarded Hill the $50,000 Stella prize this year for See What You Made Me Do, the book is an “incredibly powerful” piece of work that “meticulously dismantle[s] all of the lazy old lies we associate with domestic abuse”. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au 

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