Gender violence and literature: ‘In Her Shoes’ event, Librerie Universitarie Novoli, Florence, February 9th 2018

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Gender violence and literature: ‘In Her Shoes’ event, Librerie Universitarie Novoli, Florence, February 9th 2018.


Harvey Weinstein.
Kevin Spacey.
Woody Allen.

Up until a few months ago, Harvey Weinstein’s name was synonymous with films such as Pulp Fiction, Shakespeare in Love, Gangs of New York.

Similarly, Kevin Spacey, until recently, was the compelling face of House of Cards. A TV series that excavates what drives us when we’re gripped by the desire for power.

It explores the constant companion of that kind of desire – personal and political corruption. Spacey’s character was a modern-day Macbeth to Robin Wright’s unforgettable Lady Macbeth.

And Woody Allen has always been widely regarded as a genius, the adored auteur of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona…I could go on.

Names – famous names – with which the world has long been familiar.

Now, though, those well-known names bring with them a darker, more sinister kind of fame.

On the 10th November, 2017, the New York Times reported:

‘In what appears to be a seismic shift in what behavior is tolerated in the workplace, a cascade of high-profile men, many in the entertainment and news media industries, have since been fired or forced to resign after accusations of sexual misconduct that ranged from inappropriate comments to rape.’

The paper went on to list 51 influential men – politicians, judges, actors, men in positions of power across the news media generally in the United States – who had resigned or fallen from grace as a result of allegations of sexual abuse involving mainly female subordinates.
Other names were listed, too – dozens of them – unfamiliar to us, perhaps, but nonetheless those of men at all levels of society who exercised – and abused – their positons of power and influence, just because they could.
And as I write, the fallout continues. More names, more revelations, more breaking of the code of silence – a very particular kind of ‘omertà’.


This so-called ‘seismic shift’ that the New York Times refers to gave rise to the #MeToo campaign on social media. The tsunami of reports, of allegations, of protest that followed in the wake of the Weinstein revelations have come from every country, involving women from all walks of life, detailing catalogues of abuse that shocked and startled many.

More telling – and indeed, perhaps, even more shocking – is the fact that so many were not shocked or startled at all.
It seems that the great big shadowy secret-that-was-not-a-secret in the entertainment world had been lurking beneath the shiny surface of La La Land for many years, a secret that grew and grew, nurtured by the all-pervasive presence of silent acquiescence.


As a writer, the idea of silence has always fascinated me. Silence in all its forms. The power it has to stifle dissent. How the powerful use, and have always used, silence as a weapon. And how silence, fear and isolation are the deadly, interdependent, destructive triumvirate at the centre of all forms of abuse.


The silencing of women’s voices, in particular, has been a concern of mine in my two latest novels, ‘The Years That Followed’ and ‘The Way the Light Falls.’

Each of these works of fiction draws its inspiration from Greek mythology. In ancient Greece, women’s voices, narratives or concerns were not permitted. The silence around women’s right to be heard, therefore, is not a modern phenomenon. Telemachus ordered his mother Penelope in the ‘Odyssey’ to be silent. He said that ‘talking must be the concern of men’.

By definition, therefore, being heard was also the preserve of men and that tradition has, in many ways, continued down through the ages from the ancient world to us today.

In the classics, we rarely hear women’s voices, which is why in my novels I want to make sure that the voices of my female characters are loud and strong as they attempt to navigate their way through the often murky waters of a man’s world.


The NY Times article refers to a continuum of abuse that might begin with ‘inappropriate comments’ but can end with rape, or other serious sexual assaults. I think that the concept of a continuum is a really fundamental one. Too many times, in my experience, a woman’s challenge to an inappropriate comment is to be accused of ‘lacking a sense of humour’. Of being ‘too sensitive’. Of ‘misunderstanding’ the speaker. Of ‘taking herself too seriously’.

It’s our fault, in other words. The inappropriate comment isn’t the problem any longer.

The way we women receive it is.

In my latest novel, ‘The Way the Light Falls’, I explore another point along this continuum: the exercise of control in an intimate relationship.

Violence against women is an issue of power and control. The ultimate control is the use of physical violence: but there are many, many, more subtle stages of control along the way – a topic I’ll return to later.

For now, it’s enough to say that manipulation – whether emotional, sexual or financial – is a form of control and therefore an abuse of power that is part of that toxic continuum.


Speaking out as a woman, raising one’s head above the parapet on, say, Twitter or Facebook, can evoke a response that is motivated by the wish to silence any challenging female voice.

In many ways, social media have left individuals open to abuse – an abuse that includes stalking, cyber-bullying and intimidation. I have seen too many examples of women who speak out about injustices, particularly on Twitter, become the victims of vile sorts of threats.
Late in 2011, I read an article by a British columnist, Laurie Penny. She wrote:

‘An opinion, it seems, is the short skirt of the Internet. Having one and flaunting it is somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.’

Mary Beard, the wonderful British classical scholar, was the victim of similar abuse when she dared to express an opinion that ran counter to the views of an ill-informed, prejudiced and ‘entitled’ male audience.

Laurie Penny decided to make public the threats she had received, and the response was to show that her experience was far from unique – dozens of women began to share their own stories of harassment, intimidation and stalking.

Such behaviour on Twitter is another indication of the silencing of women’s voices that is so culturally pervasive we often cease to notice it.


The point about experiences such as these is that we cannot separate this kind of behaviour from all the other abusive behaviours, assumptions and silencings that form part of the continuum that leads to violence against women, both on the streets and in their own homes.


Over the years, I have come across many observations about the rules that govern the relationships between men and women, many of them from writers. I have always admired the work of Margaret Atwood, and I have to admit that I was taken aback when I came across her assertion that:

‘Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.’

This startling observation came about as a result of Atwood’s asking men and women, randomly, about what they feared most – a question that was later fundamental to a TV broadcast some twelve years ago in the US about gender based violence.

Men feared humiliation at the hands of women. Or they feared failure, or being inadequate.
Women feared rape, sexual assault, murder at the hands of men.

At the hands of some men, it has to be stressed: not all men, some men. There is also, of course, violence perpetrated by men against men: we see it on our streets all the time. And men have also been the victims of sexual assault in the entertainment industry, as we have so recently learned – and no doubt in other industries, too. The roll-call of unacceptable behaviour, of infamy, is not not over yet.

Furthermore, there is also violence perpetrated by women against men: it is equally unacceptable. But the overwhelming evidence points to the extraordinary prevalence of violence against women at the hands of men, both ‘stranger violence’, and violence in their own homes, within the apparent safety of their own private relationships.


A few years ago now, I came across the work of the American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in which she attempts to unpick the issues that a patriarchal culture doesn’t even see as issues at all. I highly recommend her book, called: ‘Men Explain Things to Me’. One of the issues Solnit explores in her essays is silence, the particular silencing of women’s voices.

I will not bombard you with statistics, but there is one that always gives me pause. It is this – and remember that there are very few differences among the US or Ireland or Britain or, indeed, Italy in this regard – that one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, or be the victim of gender-based violence.


I grew up believing that things such as domestic abuse did not happen in the households of the respectable middle class.
Such things occurred only where there was poverty, lack of education, ignorance. That was a view that prevailed for some time, certainly in Ireland – I think I absorbed it from the ether as a teenager and it took years to dislodge it.

Some thirty years ago now, it took months for a friend of mine whose husband had beaten her to tell me the truth: avoidance, evasion and outright lying were infinitely preferable to the reality that her affluent, respectable, middle-class husband had attacked her.

It would be years again before I learned that most women are assaulted in excess of thirty times in a situation that involves domestic abuse before they ‘confess’ – and I use the word advisedly.

‘Confess’ is accurate here, such is the sense of misplaced shame that the women in these situations experience. There is inevitably the threat of further assault in an intimate relationship that is already violent.

Research shows that the fear of the assault is often more terrifying than the assault itself. When the blow comes, it is often described as ‘a relief’. Often, the violent partner is remorseful after the act. Such manipulation encourages the woman to feel ‘He didn’t really mean it,’ to become reconciled with the abuser and so the entire cycle begins again.


The unhappy truth is that the power of the abuser is such that women frequently assume responsibility for the attack. As one psychotherapist told me: ‘Women assume responsibility to the same degree that men apportion blame.’ It is one of the sad psychological truths of violent, toxic relationships. ‘Why did you make me do it?’ is often the cry.

As though the sin of being attacked belonged to the women; as though the shame were theirs for not being something they were supposed to be, for not obeying some unwritten rules that they had neither made nor understood.

Their silencing is a powerful weapon, used against them to devastating effect. It allows the intolerable to flourish.
In the same way, the intolerable flourished in the reign of Weinstein and his ilk. Stay quiet, or we will punish you. You will not work; you will not eat; you will not succeed. This is our world. Enter it as you will. Challenge it at your peril.
There is more than one form of violence.


I have seen the astonishment on the faces of the men who are close to me when we have conversations like this, conversations about the potential dangers that all women are aware of, even when we step outside our own homes.

Good men, kind men, men who are devoted sons and lovers and husbands and fathers and brothers: the kind of men that I have, mostly, been fortunate enough to know.

Their reaction to hearing about the precautions that every woman takes unthinkingly in public, for example, is one of universal amazement. The expression on their faces when we talk about how women make sure to leave late-night gatherings together, to plan taxi journeys in twos, to make sure our keys are in our hands when we arrive home, to avoid walking down certain streets, to warn our daughters about spiked drinks in night clubs, to beware of the way they dress: suddenly, the differences between the worlds that men and women inhabit become frighteningly visible. It is as though the potential violence that is ‘out there’ must be taken for granted: and that it is women who must assume all the responsibility to prevent it – both in the domestic and the public spheres.

Why else, for example, in a university campus in the US some years ago, where several rapes had already been committed, were the female students warned to exercise extra vigilance, and to be in their dorms before dark, thus restricting their night-time movements?

Why was the curfew not imposed upon men?
Why was the responsibility shifted from the actual perpetrator to the potential victim?
Why indeed?

Just like that other continuum, this one is part of a cultural attitude: if a woman is raped, then she must have been ‘asking for it’. Or the attitude that when a woman says ‘no’ to sex that she doesn’t really mean it: she’s longing to be convinced, so her ‘no’ has no value. It can be ignored, overpowered and silenced.

One of the roles that fiction can play is this: to ask these questions, to force us to consider possible answers, to take issues out of the darkness into the light.


In Ireland, as in Italy, and indeed elsewhere, ‘the family’ is central to the organisation of society. In countries where this is the norm, speaking out about the violence that occurs within that so-called ‘sacred space’ comes with a high price. The very act of ‘betraying’ the secrets of the family, or those of the community, becomes the crime – rather than the crime itself.


Rebecca Solnit wonders why nobody has declared war on the pandemic of violence against women that is playing out in every society we can mention. In the US, the number of women killed in the space of three years – that’s every three years – by intimate partners outnumbers the combined casualties of 9/11.

Every time. Every three years, repeated again and again and again. She notes that ‘spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the United States’.

Looking further afield, the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh on a bus in Delhi galvanised India, and the entire world, to protest about the low status of women in the world’s largest democracy.

Right now, as we meet here today, in 2018, in excess of sixty million girls worldwide are denied a basic education, based solely on the fact that they are female.


Poverty. A feudal society. Ignorance.

It is very clear that such deprivations feed into a violent attitude towards those who are perceived to be weaker, or less valuable, in a society bedevilled by an ancient caste system which has no place in our world. But here are the words of one of the defence lawyers at the trial of Jyoti Singh’s murderers, when probed by the makers of a BBC Television documentary, called ‘India’s Daughter’:

AP Singh declared:

‘If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of daughter or sister to my farmhouse and, in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.’


I think it is now time to shift the emphasis of our discussion. Femicide, abuse, violence against women: we are all too familiar with the many forms it can take. Sometimes, when a problem feels so overwhelming, so out of control, it paralyses us.

We must resist that paralysis.

I spoke earlier about the role that I believe fiction can play in examining the complexities of human relationships. Because fiction does deal with truth – not necessarily with fact, but with truth: there is, after all, a fundamental difference between the two concepts.
I believe that works of art help us access the dark corners of our psyche: they help us to say the unsayable. Novels and films and poetry and plays have an important role to play in exploring the texture of our daily lives in a way that helps us to understand ourselves and others better.

In the larger scheme of things, this role may only be a small one – but I believe it to be significant, and we need all the help we can get.


But art, of course, is only one way of responding to the current crisis. And it is a crisis – violence against women is everywhere, both hidden and ‘in our face’.

Perhaps the more visible we women become, the more independent, the more self-sufficient – the bigger the threat we pose to those who would have us ‘know our place’. That ‘place’ is as a lesser human being, with fewer rights and less ability to be heard. Violence against women is not just a ‘woman’s issue’ – it is an issue of human rights and it is the responsibility of all of us to address it.

Challenging cultural attitudes is an enormous undertaking – as essential in Ireland as it is in Italy as it is in India and Afghanistan. I’ve been watching recently how some really effective campaigns in my own country have successfully challenged some of the old, rigidly-entrenched views.

We had a ‘same sex marriage’ referendum which passed, for example, back in May 2015. The campaign supporting a ‘Yes’ vote was highly effective. It was brilliantly orchestrated, a masterclass in how people with different agendas can suspend their more limited, personal aims and can put aside their differences in order to work with others towards a greater goal.

The campaign garnered the support of respected, articulate members of the community – leaders, opinion-formers in their different fields – who spoke from the heart about their sons and daughters, or brothers and sisters who were denied equal treatment under the law.

The passing of this most recent referendum was, I believe, like a ‘perfect storm’: it was the coming together of already shifting cultural attitudes which were cleverly harnessed by the campaign managers. Public meetings and debates were held, frequently with impassioned individuals, and the Labour Party, in particular, threw its weight behind the country-wide campaign.

Now we need a similar energy and commitment devoted towards Ireland’s anomalous abortion legislation – or lack of legislation – already deemed to be in contravention of the United Nations charter for human rights.


There will be another Referendum in Ireland this year to remove an article from our Constitution, one that equates the right to life of the foetus to be an equal right to that of the mother.

Consequently, we have ‘abortion Irish-style’, which means that thousands of women leave Ireland every year to have safe, legal abortions in the United Kingdom.

Just as in previous times, we had ‘divorce Irish-style’ where men, mostly, abandoned unhappy marriages and disappeared forever into the anonymity and protection of large British cities.


Robust mobilisations of public opinion are the best form of education. If we are to succeed in changing public attitudes towards women, towards turning that ‘blind eye’ to abuse that we know or suspect is happening, then education must have a much broader definition than what happens within school buildings.


And what about the law?

In English, we have a saying that ‘the law is an ass’. Sometimes, legal provisions can make an already bad situation worse. We have, I am sure, all seen situations where seeking a restraining order against a violent partner ends up making the woman concerned even more vulnerable to attack.

The emphasis of lawmakers often seems to be placed on punishing an act that has already taken place, rather than helping to devise strategies to prevent such abuses occurring in the first place.


We need the ‘perfect storm’ around the issue of gender based violence: a shift in cultural attitudes, an end to the silence and acceptance that often accompanies a man’s sense of entitlement to control his partner, and a radical re-education of our communities. Underpinning all of these necessary changes is the need to address the many areas of inequality that still exist for women today.

Am I hopeful that such changes are possible? Absolutely.

Forty-odd years ago, women in Ireland working for the Civil Service, or the banks, had to resign their jobs on marriage.
Thirty-odd years ago, divorce was unthinkable.
Ten years ago, the concept of gay marriage would hardly have been articulated.
And later this year, I hope, I will be able to tell you that the firmly-entrenched, dogmatic Catholic view on abortion – supported by the forces of the State – will equally have changed.

Cultural shifts are possible. But they need to be worked for. And they need to be persuaded into being on many fronts.
It is imperative that we do so. That men and women do so, together, in the spirit of our common humanity.
Violence against women is, after all, the ‘War on Terror’ that must be fought on all fronts: cultural, legal, philosophical, educational, alongside the political, and the personal.

Catherine Dunne

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