In a rather succinct book, Erin Pizzey gave the world a simple message that should have changed our society for the better. I will never forget the breathtaking sense of clarity I felt as I read its very first page. Her book was called “Prone to Violence”, and in it she documents her experience of running the first ever domestic violence refuge, Chiswick Women's Aid, which she founded in 1971.
It was my involvement with the men's human rights movement which caused me to read Erin's book and to seek her out personally. Later, it became clear that we shared an ability to view society from an outside perspective, and she and I became good friends as a result. If it surprises you that the woman who set up the first shelter for “battered women” should want to associate herself with men's human rights, then perhaps that's an indication that you need to question the things you've always been told.
In my case, I guess I could say that it was Sharon Osbourne, the celebrity, who caused me to question things with the degree of seriousness required to jolt me out of my oblivious state. I won't be thanking her for it, however.
A few years ago, I stumbled across a clip of a US television show, “The Talk”, which Sharon Osbourne co-hosts. In this clip, Osbourne ridiculed a man over his horrific mutilation and torture at the hands of his psychotic wife – a woman he had been attempting to divorce. As Osbourne mocked his suffering, her fellow co-hosts, all women, laughed along with the audience, which appeared to be all female.
I felt sick at the spectical.
I recognised on an emotional level that what I was watching was very wrong — these women were unable to see this man as a human being. History has shown us time and time again that once we stop thinking of a group of people as human, it becomes acceptable for society to target them. It was the apparent acceptability of Osbourne's behaviour that disturbed me most and, from that moment on, I began to take on new perspectives and new priorities.
Erin initially opened her refuge for battered wives. What she found, however, was that the abusive behaviour she encountered was often mutual between partners, and that men and boys were equally the targets of violence. Her shelter took in boys, and she often enlisted the help of men to look after her women and children, many of whom had never known good decent men. She also tried desperately to open a shelter for abused men but found that while offers of money for women were forthcoming, no one wanted to help adult males.
Most significantly, however, Erin was perhaps the first to truly appreciate how family violence and abuse is generational in nature, rather than gender based. Both men and women can be equally abusive in their personal relationships, and the significant factor in this is their childhood, not their gender. This is what she wrote about in “Prone to Violence”, and its message stood in stark contrast to that of the feminist movement of the 1970s which viewed men as the ones who were responsible for all violence, and that such behaviour is intrinsic to them. This is the belief among many within feminism as well as those outside of it, likely due to the influence of feminist thought, some 40 years later.
What remains of Chiswick Women's Aid today is known as Refuge, the UK national charity. Feminist ideology is now mainstream, and whenever we hear about domestic violence in the media, we are always told that it is “gender violence”, or “violence against women and girls”.
This is a tragedy for us all.
Erin Pizzey was the first person to understand the true nature of generational abuse — that whenever you encounter a damaged or destructive adult, you are almost certainly looking at a battered or emotionally abused child who has simply grown up. In the UK, we express anguish over Baby Peter whose mother, along with her boyfriend, tortured him to death. However, had Peter survived and played out his own childhood trauma in adulthood, society would have a viewed him as a monster — seeing only his abusive behavior as beginning and ending with him. In reality, abuse rarely begins or ends with one person, or with one generation.
This is not about “bad men” or “bad women”; it is about how we treat children. Each generation replays their learned pattern of behaviour to their own children, and the cycle continues. Erin's work was prevented from ever reaching the full light of day, however, and she often recounts a remark a prison governor once made to her. “Every abused child is a point on my pension,” she was told.
Once you grasp the true nature of generational abuse, you are only a step away from realising that if we could ever start to eradicate generational abuse effectively, we could transform the lives of future generations of children. What's more, we would also empty the prisons in the process.
We cannot allow Erin's legacy to remain buried.
Abuse within families and between intimate partners has always been with us. I can trace abusive behaviour within my own family back to my great grandmother. I suspect that it doesn't stop there, that it would go back centuries — an echo from times when life was hard, short, and cheap.
The lesson that Erin Pizzey gave the world in “Prone to Violence” is that things do not have to continue like this — if we could stop the echo of abuse from reverberating forward into future generations, we could transform human society forever.
* The Talk, CBS, July 2011.
** Baby Peter (Peter Connelly) was a 17-month-old British boy who died in London after suffering more than fifty injuries, including a broken spine, at the hands of his mother and her boyfriend.
This article was updated for style and clarity on December 23, 2013.
Ideology to Inclusion, a talk by Erin Pizzey. Sacremento, 2008.
Erin's book, “Prone to Violence” is available as “used” from Amazon. See also Erin's most recent work, “This Way to the Revolution”.