My first Archers blog was about why it’s wrong to accuse someone of having a mental illness as if it were an insult. My second was about the chicken and egg relationship between mental illness and domestic abuse.
And this one? Well, it’s about the anguish we feel for women like Helen who find themselves caught in an abusive relationship trap. And my wish to make sense of this gripping story in both literary and psychological terms
How the story makes us feel
I defy anyone who has actually listened to The Archers recently not to find Helen’s situation upsetting. This week’s interview with her barrister, the apparently brilliant Anna Tregorran, was particularly so.
I know some people are saying it is too much. I understand. But I also disagree. Fiction plays an important role in our emotional and psychological development. It helps us to understand the bad things that can happen and practise emotions that we may one day need to use in real life. This is why so many children’s books feature cruelty, unfairness and loss – Bambi, Black Beauty, Little Women, Harry Potter.
Most listeners to The Archers don’t need to prepare for domestic abuse themselves. But they will undoubtedly come across someone else who experiences it. If Helen’s story has raised people’s awareness even a little, so that they are alert to the signs and don’t pretend it can’t happen in any family, then that is a very good thing.
Reflections in literature
I heard The Archers producer Sean O’Connor on the Today programme this week speaking about the literary references evoked by this storyline. He mentioned the Thomas Hardy classic Tess of the D’Ubervilles, which I could not bear to re-read because what happens to the central character is so awful. It made me think of that other classic, A Pin to See a Peepshow by F Tennyson Jesse, which has an equally grim denoument.
Women touched by madness who turn on their cruel husbands appear in other works of fiction, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Both meet sticky ends, whereas their husbands survive, albeit scathed.
In real life, the last woman to be hanged in the UK was Ruth Ellis. She killed her abusive lover, handed herself in to the police and stunned everyone including her trial jury and executioner with a dignified acceptance of her fate.
Why can’t the police see through Rob?
I’ve been puzzling about this. Of course, it works for the story that Rob remains plausible for the time being. But is he faking it? Probably not. People like Rob, ie narcissists, really do believe their own hype. His reaction, being pathetically sorry for himself and yet capable of sticking his own metaphorical knife into Helen as soon as he gets the opportunity, is not how most of us would react to being stabbed by our partner. We would be deeply traumatised, shocked and inarticulate. Like Helen. I am really hoping that Borsetshire’s finest have got a good psychological profiler on the team who will help them see through his glib account.
Is it better for Helen that Rob has survived?
Initially, perhaps not. Rob is now a witness. The police must listen to his story and he will do his best to implicate Helen as a mad, bad attempted murderer. Plus he is allowed to see Henry and so has the opportunity to manipulate him and plant untruthful ideas to confuse the child about what he may have witnessed. Which at the very least was that Rob got the knife out and was inciting Helen to cut her wrists just before the incident occurred.
On the other hand, attempted murder is better than murder. At some point, Helen will start to remember how Rob made her feel. Without the guilt of having killed him, and with the help of her legal council, she will hopefully start to judge herself less harshly than she is doing at the moment. And the pain of Rob being allowed to see Henry when she cannot may just be the motivation she needs to make her fight for herself. As she was doing when the incident occurred.
What could happen to Helen?
I’m no legal expert. But I know a bit about mental illness. If Helen is convicted of attempted murder, I hope she would be assessed not to have been in her right mind at the time of the assault. She would then hopefully be sent to a secure mental hospital to receive expert treatment and care. With the right help, she could be released on licence within a few years. And with luck, she would see the children while she was in hospital and get help to look after them when she comes out.
But in reality there are not enough places in secure hospitals for women. And in any case Helen already seems to be being led down a criminal justice pathway rather than a mental health one. And so the likelihood, if she is convicted, is that she would go to a women’s prison and spend a number of years behind bars. The baby would probably be removed from her soon after birth because she would be considered a risk, based on the nature of her offence. And Rob would go to court and probably be successful in getting full custody of both boys. Helen is already at high risk of suicide; this outcome would increase her risk level.
But the most hopeful scenario is that, with support, Helen will be able to mount a successful defence that she acted in self defence and/or provocation because of the abuse. She might then be given only a suspended sentence.
But she will still have to fight Rob for custody of her own children. She faces a long, hard battle. And we all know her resources are already depleted.
What does the story tell us about the way we treat women?
For me, this is the key question. There are numerous real life cases of women serving sentences for the murder or attempted murder of abusive partners, despite suffering years of cruelty and abuse. When partners, usually women, act as Helen did either in self defence or because something finally snapped, they are judged harshly by the media and by juries.
And is it also disturbingly the case that only a fraction of those who abuse their partners are ever convicted of assault. The new offence of psychological abuse has only seen a handful of convictions. Plus it will only apply in Helen’s case as a defence – Rob is not the one who has been arrested and charged.
There are no winners in domestic abuse. Victims often get blamed not only by the abuser but also by others. If there are children, their long-term mental health can be permanently affected by living in a culture of fear and violence or even being separated from their mothers, like Henry.
We need a more humane, honest approach to domestic abuse. We need to talk openly with boys as well as girls about what loving relationships are. And what they are not. And we need to find better ways to challenge the way partners, male or female, are treated by complete and utter tossers such as Rob.
The next time someone you know puts their partner down in public, speaks dismissively about them or seems overly possessive, remember Kirsty. Maybe you could find a way to speak to the person you are worried about, and ask if they are ok. Even if they brush you off, know this: at some level they will have been listening.
And that might just be the catalyst for them to get help. Before it is too late.