There is never, ever, a good time for a person to kill their partner. It’s a fate no one should meet. Unfortunately it’s a fate that at least one Australian woman encounters every single week. Because of that, however horrific the circumstances, however much we wish we could reverse, or erase, those circumstances, a guilty verdict against a man for perpetrating such a crime is welcome. Because it makes those statistics real. It puts a face to the crime and is immutable proof that domestic violence is not an abstract concept. It is tragically real.
Against that backdrop it is somewhat fitting, then, that Simon Gittany would be accused of murdering his then-fiancee Lisa Harnum this week. The week in which White Ribbon Day and the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, fell. In the middle of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.
Yesterday, at the NSW Supreme Court in Darlinghurst, Justice Lucy McCallum took four hours and 16 minutes to read out her judgement. She found Simon Gittany guilty of throwing his then-fiancee Lisa Harnum over the balcony of an inner-city apartment in 2011.
“I do not think there can be any doubt that the accused was controlling, dominating and at times abusive,” Justice McCallum said. “I am satisfied by the end of July 2011 [the date of Harnum’s death], those tensions had reached a point of crisis.”
The three-week trial and yesterday’s judgment exposed the shocking realities of a controlling relationship — the extent to which Gittany attempted to manipulate and control his fiancee. This murder was not merely a case of a man physically abusing his partner to death. It was a case of a man emotionally abusing his partner to the extent that it culminated in her death.
“[The] guilty verdict is bittersweet and this tragic case clearly highlights how non-physical abuse is a silent killer in domestic violence,” the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW Tracy Howe commented. “[The] ruling once again highlights the fatal risk to women living in abusive relationships and the importance of leaving such situations before they escalate.”
The cruel tragedy is that Lisa wanted to leave the situation. She had told her mother of her plans to leave and it was her first steps to do this – putting some of her belongings in storage — that sealed her fate. From the outside of a relationship like this it is easy to think “Well, if she wanted to leave why didn’t she just leave?’ From the inside of a relationship like this, the answer is nothing is easy.
I say this with some certainty because last year I caught a glimpse inside a controlling relationship. Through a very close friend’s experience I witnessed firsthand how insidious and devastating the consequences of an emotionally abusive relationship are. My friend was lucky to escape but she left in tatters. She was emotionally battered and unbelievably fragile. More than a year on she is still recovering.
The circumstances are like many you have probably read about. My friend is smart and successful, with lots of friends and a close family. He was good looking, with a good job and seemed to fall in love with her very quickly. Their relationship became intense and consuming very quickly but it came with extreme highs and extreme lows. In a short space of time she started to withdraw from her family and friends and she felt she was living on eggshells. He was jealous, manipulative and critical. He would lash out and then apologise profusely. I didn’t learn the true extent of his behaviour until after it ended. It was appalling.
If I hadn’t seen it myself I probably wouldn’t have believed the damage was possible. My friend very nearly quit her job, a job she has always thoroughly enjoyed, because he had convinced her it wasn’t a good place for her. Her self confidence was almost non-existent and from that position the idea of ending the relationship was a terrifying prospect. From the outside it seems difficult to comprehend: how could she succumb to his power when he was obviously behaving so unreasonably?
The answer is abusive relationships are vicious cycles that warp an individual’s perspective. When you are in that position it is impossible to judge what is reasonable and what is unreasonable. That is the danger. A victim of abuse – emotional or physical — believes the construct that the perpetrator creates. It took a very long time for my friend to understand that she wasn’t to blame for his behaviour. That she didn’t make him insanely jealous or do anything to cause him to control her. She was a victim of his abuse.
A few months after their relationship ended my friend was at our house for dinner. She told us that something quite amazing had happened to her that day. She was sitting at her desk having fun at work: she realised she felt happy and herself. That feeling happy was a milestone was indicative of what she had endured.
Reading parts of Justice McCallum’s judgement reminded me so much of what I learned went on in my friend’s relationship. In her words the similarities were sickening. To me the parallels were terrifying; not just the prospect that my friend’s relationship could have been worse but that his behaviour is not isolated. It is more common that any of us would hope and as the Gittany case proves it can have fatal consequences.
Lisa Harnum’s mother, Joan, says she hopes Lisa’s death saves at least one woman from an abusive relationship.
“To the girls: if something doesn’t seem right, try and get help, someone you can talk to,” Joan told the Sydney Morning Herald. “You gotta reach out to somebody, to share it with, to help you deal with the situation [because] you can’t do it alone.”
Last night I checked whether my friend would mind if wrote about her experience. She said it would make her proud and she also said this. “To other women I would say look out for someone who seems too good to be true. Someone who thinks you’re “perfect” and is seemingly in love and attached to you within weeks. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the romance because you feel so special. But once you’re in, you’re in and that’s when the controlling behaviour begins.”
DVNSW has this advice for anyone who knows someone living in an abusive relationship:
It is crucial that we communicate to anyone living in an abusive relationship that they first need to recognise the signs of threats and to know that there is support available.
There are also ways that family, friends and neighbours can assist without the threat of harm.
It’s important for us to push through that “other people’s business” block that stops us stepping up. It’s our fear of rejection from the victim that does it, as much as fear of repercussions from an abuser.
If a woman has been disclosing to you that she is fearful and a victim of abuse, and then for some reason a turn of events (such as partner realising your confidential relationship) you are told to mind your own business, you need to hold fast, maintain that connection and don’t assume the problem has disappeared.
Be aware that it may take a victim of domestic violence several attempts before they leave, so don’t judge someone’s decision to return to an abusive relationship. Stay close, offer support in whatever way you can and make them aware that when they are ready to leave you will be there.
You could call the police Domestic Violence Liaison Officer at your local Police station, discuss what you know and they can make some kind of risk assessment on how to proceed.
You could also make an anonymous report to the Police Assistance line on 131 444. The NSW Police have today launched their new Domestic Violence campaign encouraging bystanders to call 000 if they witness abuse.
In some situations, this could save a life.