Let me tell you what it is like to write about domestic violence as an academic. Academics have to follow particular conventions around research that include being able to sound like everyone else. Getting your reference list right matters because it is the first thing the anonymous reviewers look at. It is a sort of resume for your suitability for their world, an introduction from the best names in the field. For a former journalist, it is a strange world of polite (at least if you are accepted) ritual and indirect manoeuvring. Reporting news was easy. I talked to people, they told me things. I saw a lot for myself and wrote about it. But as an academic writing about domestic violence, I could not do this, even if I knew first-hand where some of the causes of this violence could be found.
In two long journal articles I wrote in the months after my mother died I focused on real cases – headlining horrors – one about a woman raped and murdered in Sydney, the other about child killers; crimes so shocking that they sparked public outrage and incredulity. Both of these articles were accepted with only minor revisions. One carried a warning label about distressing content. Survivors of violence might read it and find its material confronting. The warning was included because one of the anonymous reviewers felt my descriptions, my language, could be toned down. I had reported details of cases in a matter-of-fact way, what happened, without side dressing. Matter-of-factness was how I made a living, and went on living, after getting through my own violent relationship. I turned out hard copy and focused on detail.
Focusing on detail and finding a way through led me to write another two long articles to see if I could use the world-class education I had achieved, miraculously given I was a girl from one of the poorest suburbs on the outer fringe of a big Australian city. Somehow I stayed in the seminars about deconstruction, postmodernism and, back then, Marxist feminism. I finished my doctorate without any idea that there was an unwritten rulebook, a way to speak, act, and express gratitude that other women learned at private school, or from their parents. My mother left school after year six and my father was a labourer. They only knew how to say what they meant, and always meant what they said. There was no experience of academic life in any of the five, now seven, generations of my family. We knew and understood Aboriginal culture and community because we lived in the ‘Black Belt’. The only thing we knew about white middle-class Australians was what mum told us, when she got home from cleaning their houses. But I had been to a top university and had ‘got’ what the celebrity scholars meant when they talked about the abject, the dominant culture, the Other and their voice.
So maybe if I could remember what I heard, and learned, in those seminars, how it felt to take the theory and use it like a bungee cord, leaping off high places with it, swooshing through vertical landscapes, bouncing back before I hit the ground, I could think my way to respect. I could show that I can do privilege convincingly by selecting the right theorists, and using politely toned words. What came back from the reviewers after just over 15,000 words of extending, stretching, flexing – all the things the physiotherapist gets me to do to manage the neck pain that started when I was punched in the face and my head hit a bookshelf behind me – were words like, ‘obscurantist’, ‘garbled’, ‘jargon’ and, almost like an incantation, ‘I have no idea what this means’. The same reviewer could have just stopped at their opening comment, ‘It is poorly written’, which hurt me because it felt like it came from the same place as the punch. The reviewer did conclude their notes by saying that they hoped what they had written did not sound negative. Almost like an automaton I replied to the editor and said I was sorry that the piece had aggravated the reviewer, and that it wasn’t good enough.
I blamed myself, too, for over-extending by writing about an unconventional pairing of blockbuster film and notoriously difficult theory. I did it because I wanted to remember what it felt like to be allowed into the conversation, back during the doctoral days, and because one of the ways I soothe myself is by watching movies about women with superpowers, who could fight back, who leapt from weakness into divine supremacy, or just transformed themselves. I forgot that access to many feminist conversations requires a password, a proper name, and the indirect signals that you belong to the cool group and not the bogan girls whose hems are too short and are more like Vicky Pollard than J’mai King.
Maybe that’s why the other article was returned with the note, ‘The reviewers have returned their comments. They are not positive.’ I only saw one of the reviews, about eight lines, one for every thousand I had written. ‘Why make an old argument about media images of women linking to violence?’ ‘Maybe if the author had discussed new materialism and anti-pornography it would have been a stronger paper’. It would have been a different one, at least, with ‘new’ and not ‘historical’ in front of ‘materialism’. I wondered (for about a minute) whether the second review was not sent to spare my feelings, but I had read four reviews of my work in under a week that told me that this was not the case. I had also noticed that many reviewers are repelled by the word ‘historical’ these days, unless it comes before ‘fiction’ or ‘romance’. Not ‘materialism’ and definitely not when talking about the causes of violence.
The reviewer was right to comment that the article ‘wandered all over the place’ because that’s how I was when I wrote it. I wandered around, looking for ways to ask for what would have helped when the violence was happening to me. I wanted to make the theory gather up all the subtlety there is in the ways that women’s lives are made worse, how my life was made worse, as was my grandmother’s, whose second husband pushed her down a flight of stairs and killed her. I went into my head, into the memory of using it for survival, and into the miracle that I had been able to think at all, and write enough to make a life from it.
But writing about feminism and culture is a privileged pursuit, after all. I was leaping from a life of disadvantage into one of polite conversation and subtlety. I know, now, that I have to start from where I am. I cannot be an imposter. I am a survivor of domestic violence who tries to understand the bigger, complicated picture because I cannot understand my own private grief. If I had instead written about that Saturday afternoon in a tent at the side of a crowded holiday camping ground, would that have sounded old, too? When he held a knife to my throat and questioned me, over what I think was three hours (although who can say for sure), about my previous partners, my inadequate responses to his questions, and my dream of going on to complete a higher degree, was I supposed to remember everything? I remembered the noises outside, his breath, and a zipper tab at the top of the tent flap.
I cannot remember how it stopped, but I only got away when it did. Not from him, then. That would take another six months, police dogs, and that punch in the face. I still feel ashamed because I didn’t get away sooner, and that I weighed 49 kilos when I finally did. Is that what comes back when I get shit reviews? The shame of not giving the right answers, writing my way out of history, and becoming respectable? I could have written all those words in my matter-of-fact way, untangling the bungee cord so I could fly like I had superpowers, with magic words and sentences that were not garbled, poorly written, tortured. I might have leapt back up before I hit my head if I had mentioned when I jumped off with feminist theory how it feels to think you might die because your answer to a question sounds incredible or because the person holding the knife at your throat blames you for his rage. I might have been able to say, to convey, that movies about women with super intelligence and combat skills are empowering for me, at least privately, even if they are not (apparently) so for women generally. If I had known about it then, I might have worked through the effects of poverty and torture on my writing. I would not have needed to link media content and violence against women in arguments that were old, or all over the place. It would have been just my story and my place; that would have been a different article. That is really what the reviewers wanted, and I don’t blame them for that.
I still need to make a living from my writing and to live beyond it, which is why I write under a pseudonym when, ironically, I write about my own life. I try to see the shit reviews as word choices other people make. As hasty and hostile as they often are, sometimes other reviewers make considered choices, more sensitive suggestions, and show that they realise what you were trying to do even when the doing of it did not work. That is, after all, how women who are right now living in their own horrors of domestic violence might someday describe their stories: an old argument, once romantic, now history.