The Archers’ domestic abuse storyline is a hard listen, but it could change lives says Lighthouse Women’s Aid
Lighthouse Women’s Aid tells entertainment writer Wayne Savage why The Archers’ domestic abuse storyline is a good thing and the huge responsibility the drama’s producers have to get it right.
The Archers’ Rob Titchener seems the perfect husband, catering to expectant wife Helen’s every need. In truth, he controls her every move; using those who love her to tighten his grip. For the actors, it’s words on a page. For the hundreds of women across Suffolk who have turned to Lighthouse Women’s Aid in the last 12 months, it’s a terrifying and confusing reality.
Sarah Lomasney, the charity’s fundraising and development manager, who has listened to the BBC Radio 4 serial since she was a child, says it’s a surprisingly dark but incredibly well written and very realistic storyline.
“The reaction of a lot of people is that it’s very hard to listen to a lot of the time - but you can turn it off whereas there are women like Helen living it.”
She and Laura Squirrell, Lighthouse’s volunteer and community fundraising coordinator, are full of praise for The Archers, which started sowing the seeds of the current storyline about a year ago, for showing that undermining somebody’s independence and self-esteem is just as damaging as broken bones and black eyes.
“That’s what they’ve done brilliantly. Everybody thinks Rob is this fantastic man, so loving and caring to his beloved Helen when actually he’s taken all control away from her. He’s totally dominating her life and she’s now lost all sense of self.”
It’s a story they’ve heard too many times.
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“The emotional impact of domestic abuse is immeasurable. They’re no longer a person, they’re just a shell; they don’t know what they’re like any more. The courage women have taken to come forward after all this time never ceases to amaze me,” says Sarah.
“To be able to take that step and then to work with us on building them up and empowering them to make choices... Yes, they are a very important, powerful person and yes they can do what they want to do. It’s giving them the confidence to take that forward after they’ve been told they’re useless, they can’t do anything, they’re silly. It constantly just eats away at them.”
A common question is “why doesn’t she just leave”. Victims are often told nobody else will look after them, love them. All they have is their abuser. Doubting their decisions, their thoughts; there’s also the fear of what happens next. Quite often perpetrators will threaten to track them down or hurt themselves.
This is because domestic violence isn’t about losing control, but taking it.
“There are perpetrators who are so cunning, the way they manipulate and drag their victim down. Everybody else sees them as this perfect, marvellous person. Rob’s looking after her and she can’t do anything which is something people see as being very caring but actually it’s very undermining,” says Sarah.
More often than not, the abuser’s coercive behaviour extends to the victim’s friends and family. Something Rob excels at.
“Rob’s grooming Helen’s son Henry, making him part of the abuse. Henry’s telling his mother she’s stupid and a liar. Children become weapons almost...”
He doesn’t seem to see Helen as anything more than a vessel for their unborn baby, something else they hear a lot.
Sarah says there’s an increased risk of domestic abuse when a partner is pregnant: “A lot of women have multiple pregnancies pretty much one after another because it’s a way of them being controlled.”
“It immediately makes women more vulnerable because they’re protecting the unborn baby,” adds Laura.
Each case of domestic abuse is different and victims traditionally try to minimise the perpetrator’s behaviour by blaming booze, money woes or even a bad football result. It’s a coping mechanism, the result of having their self-worth undermined - perhaps over some time - like Helen.
“It becomes a reality. You think it’s completely normal, everybody’s relationship’s like that. Some women haven’t identified themselves as (being abused) when they’ve come in the door but have realised by talking to people,” she says.
“Whatever incidences have happened in their relationship doesn’t give them a licence to behave that way. Abuse is all about power and control, wanting to completely dominate another person. We spend quite a lot of time unpicking some of those beliefs and values around what causes domestic violence.”
Will a drama like The Archers tackling domestic abuse help dispel the myth it doesn’t happen in middle class and above homes?
“It doesn’t discriminate,” says Sarah. “It doesn’t matter what class you think you’re in. It’s quite frustrating people still think it does. That’s another good thing about The Archers (storyline), hopefully it’s making it easier to talk about domestic abuse.
“It’s not a nice, fluffy, subject to talk about it. But if (it helps people) recognise it (in themselves), in their friends and make it more socially acceptable to talk about and then present themselves to a service like this...”
A BBC spokesman says The Archers has a rich history of tackling difficult issues and doesn’t shy away from those that affect people in real life, adding the team behind the show is being advised by professional bodies and charities on the development of the story.
Sarah says the responsibility is now on them to resolve it realistically.
“They have to do it in a well thought out, even-handed way. They can’t just get a scriptwriter to change Helen and Rob’s lives. It can go on for years, whereas that can’t happen in The Archers; obviously they’ve got listening figures and other things to think about so I think it’s quite a responsibility for them to handle it sensitively - and they are doing it at the moment.”
Lighthouse Women’s Aid has seen a steady increase in the number of women approaching it for help.
The charitable organisation, celebrating its 40th anniversary, has seen 865 women and children access one or more of the services available at its Community Women’s Centre in Ipswich in the last 12 months.
The centre, in its second cycle of funding from the Big Lottery Fund, which awards grants to UK organisations to help improve their communities, offers women experiencing domestic abuse, and their children, a range of therapeutic services, courses and advice.
“The intention of the centre is it’ll be a one-stop-shop for women, we’ll get them in touch with all the other agencies rather than them having to tell their story to housing, social services... It’s very hard, because they relive it every time they have to do it,” says Laura Squirrell, Lighthouse’s volunteer and community fundraising coordinator.
The charity does receive some money from Ipswich Borough, Babergh District and Mid Suffolk District councils and has been supported by various church and women’s groups over the years. A push is under way to increase community fundraising. Staff and volunteers are taking part in this year’s Orwell Walk and there’s its Big Lighthouse Tea Party appeal.
“We want organisations, businesses, community groups, sports clubs to take up the gauntlet and say ‘this is a really important issue, it’s really important women and children who experience domestic abuse have the opportunity to come to a centre such as this or to find safe refuge’. The only way we can do that is through your funding,” says Laura.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cheese and wine, beer and curry as opposed to tea parties; whether it’s a small group or a big party - every bit counts.”
Building the confidence to leave isn’t easy, adds Sarah Lomasney, the fundraising and development manager.
After having been controlled for so long, victims don’t trust their own judgement. They wonder “maybe what they’re saying is right, maybe I am useless”. Often there are children involved.
“There’s that conflict of ‘is it right for me to deny my children a father?’ I think 80% or 90% (of children) will be in the room or in the next while the abuse is taking place; 50% of children in abusive households will suffer some form of abuse themselves,” says Laura.
“While there might be a perception he’s a ‘good father just not a very good partner’ and the abuse is towards the mother, in terms of what’s happening in that family unit and what they may witness it’s actually very different.”
As Sarah points out, the victim is very often still in love with their abuser. They’ve had women in their 50s and 60s visit the centre who have endured decades of abuse.
“There is a real conflict in their mind about wanting to be able to be positive about their relationship and wanting to be able to find reasons for why something has happened because, actually, the alternative doesn’t bear thinking about. Because it means the sort of love the perpetrator has for them isn’t healthy and it’s not love.”
It takes a number of attempts before a woman will eventually leave. Even then she may still go back. The centre’s not there to say what she should and shouldn’t do but Sarah admits it can be heartbreaking to see that happen.
“Every penny’s spent on helping women and children who have been affected by domestic abuse,” she adds. “That’s the frustrating thing, after 40 years there’s still as much need for support.”
Interested in fundraising or corporate sponsorship? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01473 228270.