by Soffi James
It will happen to 25% of us. It happened to 1.4 million women in the last year. And it will happen on average 50 times before we go to the police.
Domestic abuse is often reported like this; in cold, hard statistics that never seem to shock us as much as they should. In the documentary Behind Closed Doors, the BBC tells the stories behind the statistics, following three women – Sabrina, Jemma and Helen – who have bravely waived their right to anonymity to expose how domestic abuse crimes are investigated. The documentary follows the women from the moment they contact Thames Valley police through to their journey to justice.
The documentary starts with a woman screaming. She’s being beaten to death by her partner and has managed to call 999 and throw the phone under the bed as he continues to hit her. “You’re almost resigning yourself,” she recalls, “to ‘This is it, I’m going to die. Let it be the last punch, let it stop and I won’t feel it anymore.’”
Sabrina’s abuser pleaded guilty to actual bodily harm (ABH) . Despite the six hour beating, she did not have any broken bones or stab wounds that would have qualified for a more serious GBH charge. Paul Hopkins, her boyfriend and abuser, was sentenced to two out of a possible five years in jail and will be out in May, having served less than half of his sentence.
Helen doesn’t remember the first time Lawrence hit her. “He was so nice 90% of the time but so absolutely vile 10% of the time,” she remembers. He hit her as she was leaving to scatter her mother’s ashes. She had to stay in to hide the bruises from her family.
The above image shows the imprint of his shoe on her face. Her 12-year-old son had to run for help, not for the first time. When it came to the trial, Lawrence jumped bail and fled to America. When he returned to the country, he pleaded guilty and was fined £1,700 – less than a month’s salary on the minimum living wage.
Dwayne punched, kicked and strangled Jemma until she passed out. He’d wait for her to regain consciousness each time before he started again. He continues to send her threatening text messages throughout the year: ‘You leave me? Someone leaves you. How about that. I’m sick, so what.’ Lawrence ultimately only received four weeks in prison and a £1000 fine. Because he’d already served time on remand, he was released after two weeks.
‘Amazingly, these are not the most shocking images in the documentary. The moment when Sabrina falls to the floor in tears when she hears her partner is being sent to prison, is the moment that took my breath away. She’s not crying from relief, she is crying because she loves him.’
“I want to wrap my arms around him and tell him I’ll be here when you get out,” she sobs. “I’ll be here and we can try again.”
In another moment Helen is shown on CCTV footage jeopardising her own case by meeting up with her abusive partner Lawrence for lunch with their young son. Why? “He’s like a drug,” she explains.
The Detective Inspector on the case reports that 43% of victims will be a victim of another attack within a year, and most of the perpetrators will be the same partner. It’s hard for those of us who have not been victims of domestic violence to understand why. Why would she stay?
Produced and directed by Anna Hall, the Behind Closed Doors documentary begins to unpick that question. It highlights the intense complexities of these women’s situations and how years of psychological abuse has stripped them of self-esteem, making it extremely difficult to just ‘walk away’. Olivia Colman who narrates the documentary told Rebecca Reid at the Telegraph:
“I want all children to be empowered, to know that they can break the cycle. I want everyone to know what they deserve in relationships: that they can demand equality and kindness. Because everyone will have a relationship at some point in their life. It’s what we all do, every day, and we need to know how to do it. At the moment, the odds aren’t great… and that’s not good enough. Not for my children. Not for anybody.”
Jemma is now finishing a degree in Social & Political studies. Sabrina has decided she does not want to be reconciled with Paul. Helen realises she doesn’t love Lawrence anymore. But their scars are still evident and you know that their experiences have changed them forever.
Your thoughts wander to those other women who are about to meet their Paul, their Lawrence, their Dwayne. I’d like to see another episode, or a series even, examining the impact of domestic abuse and why people are still, literally, getting away with murder.