Stella Prizewinner Jess Hill talks domestic abuse with Women's Agenda

‘I hope it makes more politicians read the book’: Stella Prize winner Jess Hill

Jessie Tu speaks to author Jess Hill about how she sought to undercover 'the concealed truth' of domestic abuse in Australia

One afternoon around Christmas in the early noughties when Jess Hill was nineteen, she was invited to her grandmother’s place for dinner. During the meal, guests sat around a table and shared what they wanted to do with their lives. When it was Jess’ turn, the Northern Beaches-raised student said, “I want to help people understand.”

More than a decade later, she has built an extraordinary portfolio of journalistic work, covering issues from refugee rights, disputes in the middle east, coal mine expansion in NSW and the ethics of foreign correspondence. 

But she is best known for her award-winning, barrier-breaking reporting of domestic abuse that led to and culminated in her book Look What You Made Me Do published in 2019. That body of work cemented Hill’s reputation as a leading investigative journalist and a critical authoritative voice on the subject of domestic abuse in Australia.

Off the back of Hill’s Stella Prize win, announced on Tuesday night, I spoke to the author.

Writing about such a heavy subject and saturating yourself in each woman’s story, all of them so harrowing in all their different iterations, how did you keep yourself emotionally in a place of wellbeing? 

I didn’t really. I almost refrained from self-care as a way of entering this incredibly difficult space. It was like I had to cease to fully exist. I had to put myself to one side and occupy this alien space. It was difficult to be in that space and come back into myself, and be with friends. I had no social life for 3 and a half years.

By the time I was finished, I was in a really difficult place. When I was writing the book, however, the experience was profound. It was fascinating, it was life-changing; all the good things that come with writing a book.

How did you decide on what parts of domestic abuse to cover in your book and which parts to leave out? 

I wanted a clear way to navigate this huge landscape. I made the chapters little worlds of their own. I wrote on what I thought needed the most focus. What started off as one chapter on perpetrators, ended up being three. So I expand on the analysis on perpetrators. We don’t focus on that enough.

Why do you think we don’t focus on that enough?

We’ve always put the focus on the victim. It’s much more difficult to reckon with the perpetrator, and reckon with the phenomena of the perpetrator and not the individual. It’s very disturbing. When you analyse perpetrator behaviour and questioning why they do particular things, it takes you into some extremely uncomfortable places most of us prefer not to go.

Judith Turner has a great quote about this: What the perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing. Whereas what the victim asks of you is that you share the burden of the pain; that you share in the remembering the trauma, and so what we like to do is kind of blame the victim, and by making the perpetrator invisible, it’s almost like, we exonerate them. Because it’s easier for us.

Perpetrators don’t like to be studied. It’s much easier to find someone who has survived domestic abuse to talk to, and much harder to find a perpetrator who will talk to you and have the requisite insight to actually speak honestly about their experience. 

What was the most surprising thing, coming out of having written that book, for you, as a journalist? Was there something about the study and research that shocked you?

Everyday, I was in shock about something new. I am constantly surprised even though I’m fully aware of what goes on in the family law system. Every new story shocks me afresh. It’s an ongoing roiling level of shock.

One of the things that shocked me the most was the statistic I wrote about in the Children’s chapter in the book. In South Australia, an astonishing one in four children are reported to child protection by the time they are ten.

[From the book, Hill states; “This shocking statistic was cited by the South Australian Minister for Child Protection, Rachel Sanderson, in March 2019, when she announced a new system of intensive support services to disrupt patterns of child abuse and neglect].

I was like, that can’t be true. But I double checked with the academic who came up with that figure, I went back to the department and I went to the minister. That was probably one of the “THIS CAN’T BE TRUE” moments that I had.

There were so many of those on a lower level that kept occurring and that’s what’s amazing about this subject. Over five years into researching and writing about this pretty much exclusively and still I’m still learning something new everyday.

I’m still talking to people and thinking ‘Wow, that’s a new way to contextualise it, or that’s another way that I can frame it, or, gosh I wish I had written about that’. It feels like a Mary Poppins bag. You cannot reach the bottom of it.

It’s that classic thing of — the more you find out about something, the less you know because you suddenly see how huge it is, and how difficult it is to really say anything definitive. We’re still in such early days on understanding it, even though we’ve got some of the basics down. There’s just so much research and analysis that still needs to happen.

If the function of journalism is to undercover concealed truths, then this is one of the biggest concealed truths that we have. The unique thing about this concealed truth is that it’s even concealed from the people who experience it.

So often, what happens in domestic abuse is, your language is taken away from you, to describe what you’re experiencing. It can feel like such a fog, to even get a clear sense of what’s happening can be very difficult. It can be hard to explain to friends and family why you’re making certain choices, especially when the legal system gets involved.

For me, I wanted to reveal domestic abuse to the general public but also give that language back to victim survivors, so they can have words they feel like are missing to talk about what they go through.

What was your drive to want to give women that language? 

This is like a calling for me. My grandmother was an author and very involved with PEN International. Some of my earliest moments was I helping her fold pamphlets to advocate for writers who were imprisoned. Ken Saro-Wiwa from Nigeria was the first writer I campaigned for I was nine. I’ve always wanted to speak up for those who dodn’t have the voice to speak for themselves.

I love the chapter on patriarchy. It addressed fundamental roots of the choices men make towards the use of violence. I don’t think we have enough conversations about gender. What do you think?

I think we’ve had a lot more in the last four to five years. Especially for whatever reason, because the dam was ready to break. Rosie Batty was the advocate who made domestic abuse a household issue, after decades of work from so many other advocates. From there, we’ve been building over the last five to six years to understand how that enculturation impacts the way we live and how intergenerational trauma impacts the way we live.

Then with the #metoo movement, that just really pushed it out. It might not feel like we are having these conversations, but I feel like that conversation is permeating our daily conversations way more than it ever did — certainly more than when I was growing up in the 90s.

What we perhaps need to talk more about is what happens to men. Gender was always a by-word for the study of women and femininity. It’s only been much more recently that people have started to realise that gender applies to men as well. I hope that men are also starting to realise how entrapping this system of patriarchy is for them.

That’s been some of the most positive feedback I’ve had from men after reading the book. They tell me it’s given them language to discuss the sorts of things they’ve had to sacrifice in order to be a ‘real’ man. 

Even the language to talk about entitlement for many men is invisible. They are difficult, prickly subjects to bring up. Just as it is a prickly subject to bring up entitlement with white women. None of us really want to talk about our entitlement. We want to think of ourselves as fair-minded. But many of us have varying levels of privilege, most of us operate on varying degrees of entitlement.

Making all that visible makes it easier for us to see where the problems are and begin to change our behaviour, and how we interact with other people and envision what might be a different way to structure our society. Which, at the moment, when everything is cancelled, is something many people are thinking about. 

I wonder whether the only way to overcome discomfort about talking about entitlement and privilege is to simply just to talk about it.

To talk about it openly, and with humanity at the core of why we’re talking about it, not to talk about it in a way that condemns, or ostracises or expels people. 

There’s been an enormous amount of anger in the last few years, especially as many women have remembering things that they buried, thinking that it was normal, and that there was no way to talk about it.

It’s been several years now of remembering and feeling the anger about having to suppress that, and their life choices as a result of those experiences. 

Understandably, there’s been a lot of anger towards men. There must be a way to engage with men on this that doesn’t compromise what we’ve been thinking and feeling; that integrity of that emotion. There must be a way that brings men into this conversation. 

Otherwise, there’s no point. It’s good to have our consciousness raised, but if we can’t raise the consciousness of men, we’re just continuing down the same paths. 

This is the second non-fiction book to be awarded the Stella Prize. How do you feel about the country’s general reception to women who write non-fiction? Do you think we need to do more to highlight them? 

We need more women writing everything! Some of the most incisive journalistic minds are women. People like Kate McClymont, Joanne McCarthy, Louise Milligan, Sophie McNeil, Adele Ferguson; there are so many incredible female journalists.

When I teach journalism, I end up, without meaning to, teaching almost always female journalists. There’s just so many amazing female journalists. I would love to see more of this type of deep work come from women journalists, delving deep into cultural issues and doing the work to challenge and upending people’s stereotypes and biases.

The more it gets acknowledged the better. That’s what so great about The Stella Prize. Every time it gets acknowledged, it does encourage other women to pick up a pen and do the same kind of work, or transform it.

What do you hope winning this prize achieves on a broader spectrum in terms of the future of how our government manages domestic violence in this country?

I hope it makes more politicians read the book. Once they have a clearer understanding of what domestic abuse actually is, how it functions inside a relationship but also, how it functions outside the relationship, in the areas they have control over, that we’ll see more innovative thinking on how to protect women through the lifecycle of that abuse. From the house to the family law system to the intervention order process – the whole thing. 

We don’t have good solutions for a lot of things when it comes to domestic abuse but particularly we don’t have good solutions when women are being abused through the legal system. That needs so much more focus.

At the moment we’ve solved little bits and pieces; like having women do video testimony or being being cross examined by the perpetrator; but there’s still so much to do in order to do things like, make intervention orders stand up, to enforce breaches, stop illegal harassment of women long after they’ve left the relationship, to make the family law system work for children, make it safe for victim survivors. There is so, so much to do. I hope we start to see the will and the belief from politicians; that solving this is possible, because it is.

What’s next?

Northern Pictures are a documentary company and they are adapting the book for SBS. It’ll be a three-part series, coming out in 2021. Brand new editions of the book are being published in the US, the UK, Russian, Hungary and Hong Kong.

I’m also doing a podcast with the Victorian Women’s Trust, looking much deeper into the issue of patriarchy and how it’s a real connecting tissue between many different crisis we’re facing at the moment and unpacking that.

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