Note: This article first appeared in Housing Care and Support, Volume 17, Issue No. 4.
Paper type: Case study
The author here recounts her own experience of developing the first ever refuges for domestic violence, and the lessons learned about working with “violence-prone” people.
This is a first hand, narrative account, interspersed with observations and commentary on the lessons learned.
The author first identifies her own experience, as the child of several generations of violent parents, as central to her ability to empathise and work with women with similar histories. Learning together, and refusing to take responsibility away from the mothers, becomes central to the approach. Recognising the roots of violence requires in-depth, long-term relationship building with peers. The concept of “therapeutic chaos” sums up the way the spontaneous turmoil of the households seems to match and manage the cathartic expression of the residents’ world.
Research limitations or implications
As a first hand account, this reportage challenges the assumption that constructive practice must all be based on someone else’s prior, “evidence based”, practice.
The refuge and network that arose from the work at Chiswick Women’s Aid was a pioneer in addressing domestic violence. This is a unique voice, and an opportunity to place this personal account in the record for future work on inter-generational emotional damage, addictive violence and social-environmental therapeutic treatments.
domestic violence; violence-prone; refuge; inter-generational; therapeutic environment; Chiswick
In the 1960s and 70s, I lived for several years in what was then a very poor part of Hammersmith, in West London. My house soon became a meeting place for many of the children living in the street. I very quickly became involved with their mothers and so many had problems, I tried to help in any way I could. Most of the time I mediated between the families and the agencies which were supposed to help them. I understood that much of the problem was that these mothers, usually on their own with children, had themselves never been adequately parented. But I myself had been a child of a badly damaged mother, and I was a very violent child. So I was able to be of use to the mothers, and understand their issues. But I was outraged by the top-down, judgemental, middle class attitude of the agencies towards them.
England at that time was on the verge of a political upheaval. Legal centres were popping up all over the place to help people who were being ill treated by property developers, and for those convicted of drug use. The police were called ‘pigs’, and demonstrations and riots took place against their actions and attitudes. A television documentary called ‘Cathy Come Home’ had shocked the nation, exposing the desperation of the homeless. Squatting agencies encouraged people to take over empty buildings and the Claimant’s Union went to war against The Department of Social Security who bullied anyone who had the misfortune to try and claim benefits.
In 1969 I became aware of a new movement that came over to us from America. It was being called Women’s Liberation, and when the media in our country first started writing about it, I was thrilled. I was aware that women still needed signatures from male members of their family to get mortgages. I resented the fact that I had to prove to my doctor that I was going to be married to get contraception. At that time, abortion was illegal; and I saw a woman die from infection because of a botched abortion. I believed that these things needed changing.
A group of young women came together after we attended an abortion meeting in nearby Chiswick. Like so many women at that time, all of us were politically naive, but the more we talked to each other, in our kitchens and in playgrounds, the more we felt that there should be a place in our community where we could meet, with our children, and address the issues that women were facing across the western world.
Our first project was to make the idea of a place to meet concrete, and with the help of a local councillor we plagued Hounslow Council for a house that we could make into a community centre. In 1971 with a small group of women, we opened Chiswick Women’s Aid, in a 4-roomed house with an outside lavatory in an ordinary residential area in West London.
Very quickly, once we opened, we realized that outside our relatively comfortable middle class lives, many of the women who came to us were living desolate lives of poverty and suffering. Within a matter of months a woman came in and showed her bruises from her husband to the volunteers that ran the centre. She was desperate for help and, as there was nothing else we could suggest, I took her home that night.
Almost overnight other women were coming to ask for refuge with their children and we became aware that there was simply no facility that offered women a safe place once they wished to leave their partners. The police were unable to intervene in what was routinely described, and dismissed, as “a domestic”. The only help these women could be offered would be a place in their local homeless families unit, which meant they could be easily found; or if the situation was really dangerous, a social worker could offer to take the children into care – and the mother had to find her own accommodation.
Women in those days could not claim any social security welfare benefits because if they left their homes and had partners who wanted them back, the Department of Social Security took the view that they had made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’. Women who were referred to their G.P.s were offered tranquillizers; and if the women continued to complain, they knew they could lose their children. Everyone involved in the field of family caring colluded in silencing the subject of domestic violence.
Thus No 2 Belmont Terrace in Chiswick became the first refuge in the world for mothers and their children fleeing domestic violence. The Salvation Army gave us mattresses and bedding, and as the women who were now living here recovered from their injuries, they took turns in running the house and getting food donated from our local shops, so that we could cook meals for everyone in the small kitchen.
Suddenly we were thrown into the reality of the politics in our own community. From the start, there was opposition. The local vicar preached against us, calling me a ‘marriage wrecker.’ The local authority, having given us the house, now began a long series of threats and intimidations, on the grounds that we were “overcrowded”. But when first the local paper and then the national newspapers began to publish the stories of many of the women who were with us, the British public responded and sent donations which enabled us to continue to keep open and care for the very fragile people coming through our doors.
A SMALL COMMUNITY
Once in the little house the group by necessity became welded into a small community, well aware of the outside threats from the local council to try and evict us. We actually had some sympathy for the local council and their position. We were aware that we had no permission to house anyone; but when we discovered that the council simply refused to help us, we decided that we would stay and fight to educate the public about the fact that domestic violence was no secret to the many so called caring agencies and they had ignored the frantic pleas of the victims.
There were three mothers I relied on in particular to take the responsibility of running the house. Pat, Sarah and Lindsey were perfectly able to organise and run the refuge and the older mothers welcomed and settled the new comers into the house. With no guidelines, we spent a lot of time deciding how we could organise the ever increasing number of women and children who came to us and how we would run the house. In fact, it seemed to me that with many of the women who came to the refuge, not only were they demoralised but also the agencies actually created “learned helplessness”, because they took away the women’s sense of responsibility. We would not do that here.
I took my children to school in the morning and then worked all day in the refuge returning to collect my children from school and then work from home. Every morning when I arrived we opened all the post in the little office/bedroom at the back of the house. All the post was opened publicly, including any letters addressed to me. Mothers crowded in and shared out the letters to be answered. Those who could not read and write dictated their letters to someone else.
One person volunteered to bank the cash and the cheques and then we decided how much money was needed to pay for the day. Whoever volunteered for desk duty filled a big day to day diary of all phone calls, appointments and notes that could be read by everybody else. Around ten o’clock we all gathered together to discuss any issues that had arisen during the night, and also to organise the small play group we had in the front down stairs room for the smaller children.
THE ROOTS OF VIOLENCE
We soon realised though that we had two problems facing us. There were the women coming in who could be described as innocent victims of their partner’s violence. These women had been parented as children, and they could take care of their own children. With loving families behind them, they knew that what was happening in their relationship was not normal. As much as they tried and failed to change their partner, they could leave, grieve and move on. They needed refuge, help and support; but they did not need long term therapeutic care.
Then there were the women who were ‘victims of their own family violence’ – that is, those from families with histories of violence, and now perpetuating the same violence-ridden relationships in their own lives. Hostile agency workers told me in no uncertain terms that their ‘client provoked the violence.’ Many of the social workers warned me that they had done all they could to help the mother but she repeatedly went back to her violent partner and I was ‘wasting my time. ’
The violence-prone women who came into the refuge were as violent as the men they left. Our regular volunteers left because their brutal behaviour, their foul language and anti-social behaviour intimidated everyone. But I could relate to this. I knew from bitter experience that my mother had been one of ‘those women,’ She had a big family in Canada who would gladly have taken us in. Both my grandfathers were violent alcoholics and my mother was herself abused by her own violent step-mother. My mother had money, but she never left her husband. On her death bed I asked her why she stayed. ‘For you children,’ she said. ‘For all the things that he could give you.’ ‘Thanks for nothing,’ I said, bitter. ‘We would’ve been better off in a shed.’
So. I saw from the beginning that domestic violence was part of a generational cycle. Neither of my parents had transcended their own violent childhoods. Because my father was a Consular official, my parents were posted abroad so for many years, and I lived in a boarding school and also in a holiday home for children whose parents were abroad. For all the eleven years I lived in institutional care, I rebelled against all of it. So I was determined that there had to be another model for caring for vulnerable and fragile people. Top down rules and regulations were useless and wasted on already violent and delinquent people. I could see that we needed to find a way for all the ground rules to be set by the community itself.
SETTING OUR OWN RULES
The first house rule that the mothers made was that there would be no physical violence in the house. The second was that if they wished to go out at night, they had to make arrangements with other mothers to babysit their children. But the most important rule for me was that only the mothers in the house could answer the telephone or sit behind the office desk. This was because I was so aware that the mothers who came in had usually been reduced to feeling worthless – not just by their partners, but also so many of the agencies who were involved in their lives.
When the school age children felt ready, we sent them to the school that was at the top of the road. We had an acerbic battle with the council’s Education Officer, who tried to insist that the children should attend school within the first few days of their arrival. We refused, saying that the mothers would decide when their children were sufficiently settled in the community.
Mothers accompanied each other to appointments, whether it be to the doctor, dentist, solicitor or social work agency. All the rest of the women ran the house with the help of a ‘house mother.’ Our first house mother was a cordon bleu cook, and she oversaw the meals in the community and the running of the house.
WORKING WITH VIOLENT WOMEN
Most of the women who by accident got themselves into a violent relationship, however much they regretted having to leave their partners, said that the deciding factor was to watch the effect on their children. My violence-prone mothers, by contrast, were unable to put the needs of the children first in anything. In their violent and dysfunctional family’s lives, they had no experiences to fall back on. Their families were dangerous and frightening mini concentration camps, and many of them survived by developing equally dangerous strategies for survival.
Yet these women didn’t intimidate the non-violent mothers, because they too experienced similar behaviour from their violent partners. What held our small community together was the friendships that developed between the women. Anyone living with a violent partner – particularly if he (or in some cases she) were morbidly jealous – lived cut off from the rest of society. Isolated and friendless, unable to socialize in a normal fashion, they quickly made sure that their children never tried to bring friends home. Here – for the first time for so many of them – they and their children could reach out to each other.
I do believe that we need to recognise that violence prone families do not ask for help. Violence-prone women came to my refuge in many cases either because they believed their lives were in danger, or to use the refuge as a ‘time out’ before dragging their children back into the battle. These are the families that cause such chaos and consternation within all the social agencies trying to help them. But our answer to the conundrum of ‘why does this woman keep going back to him (or her)’ is to make sure that when she arrives in the refuge, we are able to offer her a real understanding of her dilemma.
Sometimes that includes accepting that she will go back, maybe time and time again; but she knows we are always there for her, and for her children. It doesn’t always work out well. Sally, one of the founding women in the refuge, said to me, ‘I’ll be fine as long I don’t hear his voice. Then he’s like the pied piper, and I won’t be able to resist going back to him.’ Our solicitor at the time made a mistake and left our address on Sally’s divorce papers (after that we arranged that our address be handed to the Judge.). Her partner telephoned her late at night and she left with her two girls; and she died.
It was then that I began to believe what Freud said some one hundred years ago, that in eighty years’ time all emotions will be discovered to be in the chemicals of the brain. After that, when I talked to the women who were compulsively drawn to returning to their violent partner, I suggested treating them as their drug pusher – and the only way out of that addiction was to go ‘cold turkey.’
INTERCEPTING THE RAGE
I very soon realised that the overcrowding actually had a beneficial effect on the community. First of all, it made the frightened women feel protected. Many of the women told me of the times they had been offered an escape route through the local homeless family hostels, and how they had sat up night after night behind the closed door, dreading the fact that their partner could find them, and there was nobody around to offer protection. Sleeping surrounded by other women and children was for some the first good night’s sleep they had for many years.
I also noted that women who were violence-prone were unable to translate pain into sorrow. If hurt or offended, they went straight from pain into rage – a quite orgasmic need to explode. Here, packed into the house, they had no space to organise their rage. People milling around, children asking questions, cups of coffee being brewed and women offering each other cigarettes continually distracted women from their raging.
Many of these children despised their mothers, and they too abused their mothers. Now that there was zero tolerance towards violence in the house, some of the children pushed both their mothers, the staff and each other as far as they could, testing these limits. These were the children who only caught their mother’s attention if they misbehaved, so provoking for attention became a pattern of behaviour. In our community this was not acceptable; and soon children learned that approaching other people without aggression was rewarded with love and acceptance – and in my case a boiled sweet which I kept in the front pocket of my pinafore!
THE PLACE OF MEN
One rule that was made in the very early days of the community was that no men could be brought into the community who were not part of the volunteers group. It was the mothers who decided that we should employ, from a large donation, a male play leader for the children so that they could know good, gentle men. I pointed out to the mothers that many of them had little or no respect for men, so they too would benefit. From then on we had as many men join the community as women.
Mike, for example, was a rugby player and an ex-priest. We worked side by side, talking in pairs or individually with mothers and children. We also had a very dedicated children’s playgroup leader, a woman, with a gift for reaching violent and dangerous youngsters. She created a staff of mostly male volunteers who lovingly nurtured the children. (Many of the women had no idea how to play. In families like mine, the house is a grim place, and playing attracted anger and hostility from parents.) Many of the mothers volunteered to join the play group which now took place in a nearby abandoned church hall. We had frequent football matches on a nearby green, with women playing against the men.
Where possible we worked with the fathers of the children, and men often came to us for help. We had charity shops called ‘Men’s Aid’ to raise money to employ a vicar who visited any men that requested our help. In so many cases the fathers of the children were part of the huge and growing under class of un-parented anti-social adults who had been denied a chance to grow into harmonious loving members of our society.
ON OUR WAY
As other refuges opened around London, we were able to offer women who were in no need for such intensive services as ours the option to be housed elsewhere: and in return we took on families that other refuges had felt unable to contain. As we all grew and learned from each other we became much more adept at helping women to learn to control their behaviour and their behaviour toward their children.
Within months we were offered a much bigger house and the money to renovate it, by a millionaire property developer. We discussed the offer in our morning meetings and decided to go house hunting while the children were at school. We found a very big house with a garden and our benefactor bought it for us and we moved in. Some of the mothers nevertheless decided to stay in the little house, preferring the closeness. But even before we moved into the ‘big’ house I knew we were going to be overcrowded there too.
By this time many volunteers came by to see what we were doing. We welcomed them all. Many were horrified by the noise and the seeming chaos of the refuge. What they couldn’t see was that, underpinning the now huge group of women and children’s daily lives, there was a coherent strategy emerging. I called the free flowing energy of the refuge a ‘therapeutic chaos.’ The external roller coaster drama of day to day life in a violent family kept the adult and children in a state of high anxiety. Remove that family into a silent space and the anxiety becomes overwhelming; and the result is they return back to the fray.
What we needed was to find the right balance, so that the life of the vibrant and busy chaotic community created its own healthy ‘high.’ My years in two institutions had taught me that structures imposed on most people damaged them. What I was looking for was a way of the community creating their own structures, which were sufficiently fluid for mistakes to be made but rapidly corrected.
THE WAY WE WERE
The women agreed that any new relationship they had would be kept out of the community. One of the on-going concerns was the role of alcohol in the community. Usually the community preferred to rule that drinking alcohol should take place outside the house. On one occasion they reversed their decision and voted to have a party for November 5th for the children and then after the children were in bed they would invite their boyfriends.
I arrived the next morning to find the big sitting room packed with mothers who unanimously reinstated the ‘no alcohol’ rule. There had been a fight over a boyfriend and the aggrieved mother tore chunks of hair from the interloper. The house decided that both women were at fault and they were warned that one more incident of violence would result in their expulsion.
In order to expel anyone from the community the vote had to be unanimous, and another place had to be found for the family. It happened on one occasion. The mother concerned was moved to a refuge in the East End that had no rules. Weeks later she wrote to all of us to say how sorry she was that she had been violent and that the refuge had been a frightening nightmare; she had moved on and was now rehoused in the North of England.
As I said, we learned from our mistakes and because the community was responsible for policing itself there was no ‘them’ and ‘us’ to set up a conflict. All the power was in the hands of the women who paid the rent. One of my chief concerns was that there should be no office where staff and volunteers could set up a power structure. There was a small cubby hole where we stored clothes for the newcomers and in the corner was a desk and two filing cabinets. The filing cabinets were never locked and anyone could check their file any time they wanted to. Here was a place for mothers to talk privately with anyone they chose.
In the house meetings we read poetry to each other, and talked for hours and hours about feelings and events in all our lives. For the first time in their lives women had time to talk about their feelings, their hopes and aspirations. The heart-warming part of the work was seeing mothers with their children growing and changing in our community. The refuge, over the years that I was there, fulfilled my vision of how women, with the help of men, could come together and learn to heal themselves and their children. What I hoped that without imposing structures from the outside, eventually even the most chaotic members of the community could grow their own inner structures. I found the more time women spent exploring their inner worlds, and the more words they were able to learn to discuss their feelings, the less need they had to explode into violence.
SECOND STAGE HOUSES
However we were still stuck in a bottleneck, because when women left their boroughs they lost their re-housing rights and Hounslow borough refused to help us negotiate swaps, so that we could send mothers from our area to other boroughs, to be safe. We joined a squatting agency, and the house decided that we would create a group of mothers who felt ready to move on with friends, and create second stage housing. We only squatted houses owned by boroughs who had spent tax payers money on renovating the buildings but they were empty for a long time.
We began close to home in our own borough and the second stage communities were so successful, we soon expanded our territory to other boroughs. We were also donated houses and then we found a huge hotel in Richmond on the river Thames. This created a community of some forty women and children. In the second stage houses the mothers had learned well from the crisis refuge on how to manage the houses and also how to manage dissent within the community. All of us at the big house were readily available and if necessary we would visit with the community; we all learned from our experiences.
For those that could not manage living on their own with their children, we had a ‘home for indefinite stay.’ This was staffed by a young couple and their children. Nearby we had a ‘boy’s house’ where the older boys each had their own bedrooms. They worked alongside a volunteer group of men who were all skilled construction workers, plumbers, electricians and bricklayers. The boys were mentored by these men and paid at the end of the day for the hours they worked.
Although the external threats continued – on one occasion there was even a lengthy court case that went from Acton Magistrate’s court to the High Court in the Strand and then to the House of Lords – otherwise we were largely left to our own devices. All these threats were creatively used to weld us into a tight group of women and men, spread now across the country.
As a huge and thriving community we were all well aware of our pioneering status. Our project was even the subject of a study by the London School of Economics [reference still needed?], which found that it was one of the cheapest projects of its kind in the country. Mothers gave interviews to media from all around the world, and we had many offers of volunteers. We particularly encouraged volunteers who requested placements from other countries. The community also comprised people of many nationalities and the women often cooked for their families in groups, sharing their recipes.
We saw ourselves united in an effort to make sure that the idea of a safe place for victims of domestic violence was of paramount importance, and not just for the victim – be they male or female – but more importantly for the children who were the real victims in this situation. So many of the mothers experienced the agony of having their children removed that they were the ones that were even more determined to fight for the right to be in a project that offered long term care and rehabilitation.
We relied on each other and only when we needed expert help did we call in and upon professionals. We had a waiver from the Law Society so our solicitors could come to the refuge and take instructions from the women who wished to proceed to a divorce. Health visitors came and helped mothers to take their children to dentists and doctors. With my mothers and some sensitive architects we drew up plans to build a purpose built refuge that incorporated all we learned during our years together. The space and the shape of the rooms and the building has a great deal to do with therapeutic intervention. This centre was never built; but perhaps one day these ideas will find their place.
HOW WE CARE FOR PEOPLE
In my opinion we need to rethink our approach to how we care for people. A few years ago, I worked in Brixton, South London, in a project for women who were all in conflict with the many agencies gathered around them. They were judged and mostly threatened with removal of their children. Most of the women were incapable of making long term relationships with the fathers of their children. There were frequent court proceedings and if anything, the hostilities towards the mothers were epidemic. They were housed in substandard housing, and bullied by being set standards of cleanliness most of us would find hard to live up to, by weary, exhausted, underpaid agency workers who now have to spend the majority of their day filling in forms.
Likewise for the last forty years we have been told in some quarters that men are to be blamed for all family violence, and women are merely helpless victims. Research across the world now recognises that domestic violence is a family issue, not essentially a gender issue. Children, boys or girls, who are born into violence are deprived of their right to a peaceful and happy childhood. They in turn will fail to transcend the violence unless they are offered therapeutic intervention, and I believe this has to be on a residential and long term basis.
In the refuge movement, we have wasted some forty years chasing an erroneous concept, that domestic violence is all the result of male patriarchy. But we now know, from the work of researchers such as Prof Murray Strauss, Don Dutton, John Archer, the Dobashes, and Nicola Graham-Kevan (see Further Reading), that both men and women can be equally violent in interpersonal relationships: and now hopefully we can turn our attention of the real victims of domestic violence – the family, and the next generation.
We need to retrain social workers away from the bias against men and fathers and their gendered attitude that men are abusers and women victims. In my experience, most domestic violence is consensual – both parents are violent. The majority of people who are marinated in violence from birth do not know how to form relationships, so any relationships they attempt to form are fragile and not long lasting. Only in long term living together can adults learn what has always been denied to them – the right to a happy and harmonious life.
I knew that most of these families were considered ‘dust bin’ families, as they were called in those days; now it is more politically correct to call them ‘the underclass.’ But we do have a frightening and growing population of violence-prone families that threaten not just each other, but also all our communities. We cannot continue to build prisons and mental hospitals to simply warehouse these people. Caring for families who are part of a generational cycle of violence needs a total revolution in how we aim to reach out to these families.
In my research into the history of the setting up of interventions into the lives of the fragile victims, I have always felt that most of the solutions so far have been dictated by the upper echelons of academia, and therefore the solutions have filtered down from a very Victorian and puritanical attitude that people should be punished better. We are now in the twenty first century and enlightened people who have the power to make the changes are beginning to accept that simply building bigger prisons, removing more children and filling our mental hospitals is no solution. Sadly, many of the small, local, initiatives, very close to the ground, have been absorbed into larger and larger bodies, national charities, with management teams that are now almost as large, and often just as divorced from the reality on the ground, as the institutions they set out to replace.
Our refuge grew out of meeting the needs of the women who were living there. It was really all a case of mothering the mothers, so that they can mother their children. It was effective because the ethos was about building relationships, not about making rules. For far too long we have institutionalised the caring of adults and children. We dis-enabled generations by institutionalising them. We still punish people for making mistakes. We do not allow them to learn from their mistakes. Our hope was always that the time women and children spent at the refuge was a time of healing and understanding; that we can make a difference in our own lives. We do not need to be told we are victims.
Archer, J (n.d) various collected articles. UCLAN, available at http://www.uclan.ac.uk/staff_profiles/professor_john_archer.php(last accessed: 13/10/2014).
Dobash, R & Emerson Dobash, R (n.d.) various collected articles. Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, available at: http://www.sccjr.ac.uk/people/prof-russell-dobash/ (last accessed: 13/10/2014).
Dutton, D (n.d.) various collected articles, available at: http://www.drdondutton.com/publicat.htm (last accessed: 13/10/2014).
Graham-Kevan, N (2011) “The invisible domestic violence – against men” in The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/jun/07/feminism-domestic-violence-men (last accessed: 13/10/2014).
Pizzey, E & Shapiro, J (1982) “Prone to violence” Hamlyn Paperbacks; Feltham.
Pizzey, E (2011) “This Way to the Revolution – An Autobiography” Peter Owen: London.
Pizzey, E (1998) “The Emotional Terrorist and The Violence-prone” Kindle, on-line, available at: http://www.amazon.com/emotional-terrorist-violence-prone-Erin-Pizzey/dp/0889701032 (last accessed 13/10/2014).
Pizzey, E (1977) “Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear” Penguin: London.
Straus. M (n.d) various collected papers, Family Research Laboratory, available at:http://pubpages.unh.edu/~mas2/.
Straus. M (2013) Falsification of Domestic Violence, conference speech video, at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMm3iBFhypE (last accessed 13/10/2014).