It’s White Ribbon Day this Friday, a timely moment to reflect on the nature of violence against women and families. The steady stream of violent incidents against women underlines that we as men have to take responsibility for our attitudes and actions in this regard. It’s not enough to say it doesn’t involve me therefore I can do nothing. There is something in the psychology of men that we need to explore as a society. As parents we need to learn to watch for the signs in our male children, how they cope with their anger, how they deal with rejection. Are we teaching them the skills to cope with life’s issues and dilemmas? I wrote a piece touching on these questions for The Australian recently. Sandy Rea is one of Australia’s most eminent psychologists combining a background in family therapy with a second career in Victoria’s criminal justice system. Her thoughts are captured in this piece below. Check out the website for White Ribbon Day and consider how you can make a difference in your family or community. Be your brother’s keeper.
It was like breathing a different kind of air on that first day inside Barwon jail. In 20 years working as a psychologist Sandy Rea had worked in all manner of institutions, but nothing could have prepared her for the atmosphere of a maximum security prison.
Walking down “the spine”, the passage that ran down the centre of the units, she felt the eyes of dozens of men boring into her. As she would learn, everyone in jail, the staff included, become expert people-watchers. In a place where little changes, there is intense interest in anything new, a hyper-vigilance for even the slightest shift in demeanour. She was a stranger in this world and would have to fit in quickly or be overwhelmed by it.
Rea moved through the security checks with a growing sense of ill-ease. Up until then her clients had been families and children; now they were some of the worst criminal offenders in Victoria.
As she approached her office, a group of 40 inmates emerged from their cells. She held her breath and shuffled between them, not daring to make eye contact. When she got to her desk she felt rattled. “What do you say to them?” she asked a fellow psychologist. “Just say g’day,” came the reply.
For the next 12 months, Rea spent seven days a fortnight inside Barwon helping to implement a cognitive skills program to help offenders “to identify the underlying cause of their behaviour”.
She spent another year inside the Melbourne Assessment Prison, the first port of call for remand and newly convicted prisoners.
While she dealt with all kinds of offenders, it was those who had committed violent crime against women that drew her attention. Were they mad or just bad?
Among Barwon’s hardened repeat offenders were men who had committed the most heinous acts against their families, before which they didn’t even have a criminal record. These were crimes that baffled and appalled the community and seemed to confirm that old-fashioned biblical-style evil did reside in the hearts of men.
In September 2005, Robert Donald William Farquharson, embittered by separation from his wife, murdered their three sons — who were 10, 7 and 2 — by driving them into a dam after a Father’s Day access visit. He is appealing the severity of the charge.
In March 2004, John Myles Sharpe, “the Mornington Monster”, murdered his wife, Anna, and two-year-old daughter, Gracie, with a spear gun, but pretended his wife had run off with another man and taken their daughter.
In January 2009, Arthur Phillip Freeman, angry at limited access to his three children, threw his four-year-old daughter, Darcey, from the top of Melbourne’s WestGateBridge 58m to her death. Police believe his other two children would have met the same fate had he not been disturbed by a passer-by.
While ethical and privacy considerations prevent Rea from commenting on whether she treated these individuals, she is able to share her general conclusions from working with violent offenders in jail. She has moved from the prison system but still works as a forensic psychologist assessing the mental state of offenders in the court system.
Evil does exist, she says, but only in a small minority, psychopaths, who have a strong predisposition to evil compounded and brought about by the environment in which they grew up.
Working in Barwon, Rea concluded that men who hurt women almost always had a longstanding history of suppressed anger or mismanagement of their emotions. They were in dysfunctional relationships and had poor familial networks. Their social skills were undernourished.
They “ticked all the boxes”, she says. “They rarely have enmeshed strategies and coping skills, the morals and values that most men have.”
Rea came up with three attitudes towards women that sex offenders and perpetrators of violence against woman share: entitlement and a sense of ownership, or proprietorship.
“These define most of the guys who reside in jail and almost all the violent offenders against women. Their actions say: ‘I have a sense of entitlement — I want, I get. I have a sense of proprietorship, you’re mine and I will do what I want with you.’ And there’s a sense of ownership: ‘you (the victim) have no right to object,’ ” she says.
When a relationship breaks down, a man with such attitudes might complain of his partner that “she won’t do what I want”. In extremely rare cases, a man with such attitudes, and without skills for self-soothing, can be moved to murder his partner or children to “get back at” his spouse.
“Arthur Freeman had lost joint custody of his children,” says Rea. “He blamed his wife. He blamed female psychologists dealing with his case. He felt helpless and so he killed his daughter.
“It says: ‘You’re mine and I will do what I want with you.’ ”
Rea dismisses the common defence argument that a man who kills his family members is not responsible because he is in “a dissociative state”. Insanity is not a temporary or short-lived condition, she argues.
“It’s still about ownership and proprietorship, getting back at those women and those children they see as possessions,” says Rea. “At the moment (of the crime) he is in a dissociative state, almost a psychotic state, and there is no connection between this person who is my blood, this child I am nurturing, whom I adore. There are only obsessive thoughts of ‘I’m going pay my wife back big time’.”
She points out that Sharpe’s crimes took place across nearly a week. He murdered his wife on the first night and buried her in the back garden. For the next four days he woke up, dressed his daughter, Gracie, fed her and took her to kindergarten. Then, on day four, he killed his daughter. Two days later he exhumed his wife’s body, dismembered it and disposed of it. Putting aside the horror, he was able to appear on national television to tearfully appeal for his wife to return home with Gracie, claiming she had run off with another man.
“That is particularly difficult,” says Rea. “There is really nothing in the textbook to define that. He is not a psychopath. He is high functioning, articulate. He may have been in a dissociative state, yes, at the time of the actual killing. But there is careful planning before and after, there is . . . knowledge that the act was wrong,” she says.
Remorse is rarely expressed by such individuals because the underlying self-justification is implacable. Rea says any remorse in court is also to be heavily discounted. “There are very few offenders who cry at the commission of their offence. They only cry afterwards,” she says.
So what do we learn from observing these men over periods in jail once the spotlight of the media has waned?
Before their crime they are driven by a high degree of retribution against their wives, says Rea. They have cognitive distortions, they are ruminating on the thought that their wife has had an affair, that their child may be another man’s.
“So they go into ga-ga land. But when they are in the prison, drug and alcohol-free, they often revert to being calm, rational men who are compliant to prison regimes.”
While not suggesting there is a causality between relationship breakdown involving well-adjusted men and these family tragedies, Rea believes we as a society need to examine how male anger is dealt with. Few young men are taught to self-soothe or self-regulate their behaviour, until the effects become anti-social.
Too often only the deterrent of punishment acts as a boundary.
Rea remembers being confronted by an inmate with a long history of violence against women. “He said to me, ‘I’d like to smash your face in.’ So I said: ‘Why don’t you then?’ He replied: ‘Because I know I’ll get slotted (put in solitary confinement),’ ” she says.
While the prospects of rehabilitation for those who murder family and children are remote, there is hope for some categories of violent male offenders. But to be rehabilitated, an inmate must have once been habituated to some degree, she points out. Some individuals have never experienced a functional home life, relationships or healthy role models.
Corrections Victoria has supported the notion of getting to the nub of an inmate’s offending, establishing a violent offenders program underpinned by cognitive skills training.
For many inmates, jail is the first opportunity to reflect on themselves and their lives to date.
“For a lot of them it’s a real awakening to disconnect from the chaotic drug or alcohol-fuelled life they have been living,” says Rea. “They have a chance to connect with therapists and we actually listen to them. They see that we are normal, non-judgmental. They are just not used to women treating them in a good, equal way.”
Group therapy sessions are held at which inmates discuss what triggers their behaviour and its consequences.
One session conducted by Rea involved the men selecting a scene from a set of cards depicting scenes of everyday life. One man with a history of violence against pedophiles chose a beach scene from the 1950s.
“He picked up this card and pointed in this crowded scene and said: ‘There’s me and there’s the pedophile. I’m watching how that maggot is watching those kids and I’m on to him. When he leaves that beach I’m going to slash his face because every time he wakes up he can look at himself in the mirror and know that I have done them in,’ ” recalls Rea.
Through time, some inmates do learn to recognise and manage such deep-seated behaviours. The problem is that measuring the change is almost impossible and Corrections Victoria has no statistics on its effectiveness. The only clear indicator comes in failure, if a man reoffends and returns to jail.
Serial sex offenders are always the most resistant to rehabilitation. Despite the efforts of defence counsel to argue their clients have shown remorse for their crimes, international clinical opinion is almost unanimous in saying that male sex offenders are highly likely to reoffend. Even chemical castration and other libido therapies have proven to be ineffective, says Rea.
“It’s in the head, not the body, I would argue,” she says. “They are addicted to that thrill of domination and power that might have been going on for 40 or 50 years, so just having the snip or chemical castration is not going to alter those learned behaviours. It’s a repertoire of seducing, prowling, stalking that excites them. It’s often about spotting someone who is vulnerable and seeing if they can get the conquest; whether they actually do something with that is another issue. This predatory behaviour is entrenched in them.”
Former ABC television presenter Andy Muirhead, recently jailed for downloading images of child pornography, showed a denial common among child sex offenders, Rea says. “(They say:) ‘It doesn’t hurt anyone. It makes me feel better. It’s work stress-related. I only use it occasionally.’ There is no accountability that every time you download an image you are committing an offence.”
Rea’s time behind prison walls has not left her pessimistic about the challenge of dealing with violent recidivist offenders. Ultimately, she takes heart in the humanity that comes through when one of these hardened men finds the space and time for personal reflection, including regret.
“I couldn’t get over the sense of similarity between us all . . . We need to continue to deal with them on that basis. All except a tiny minority will emerge from jail. It’s simply untenable, economically and socially, to think we can lock them up, throw away the key and the problem will be solved.”
Check out this speech that Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay gave today at a breakfast for White Ribbon Day. It really gives a perspective of the scale of the problem.