Real Life

A coercive control survivor shares her harrowing story

Coercive abuse is common, can escalate to violence in a heartbeat, and can be lethal. One survivor shares her story in the hope it will shed light on warning signs and increase understanding.
Coercive control

She describes the final night as a shattering. The eggshells she had been walking on shattered. The invisible tension that warned her anything could trigger a torrent of abuse shattered. And the green ceramic pot that he threw at her head in a furious rage shattered. It split her lip open, causing a deep gash, then broke into dozens of shards on the cold, hard floor.

“I remember saying, ‘I don’t want to go to hospital’. That was part of that deep humiliation and shame. You know, ‘these things don’t happen to us’ … and the fear that he was going to come back,” Rachel recalls.

She’d been living in fear, but the terror had crept into her life so slowly that she hadn’t noticed how bad it was until it was too late. Coercive abuse, sometimes called intimate terrorism, is a methodical process whereby abusers strip away their victim’s liberty and sense of self. Isolation, gaslighting, surveillance and malicious criticism are all symptoms. Rachel’s abuser threatened self-harm if she left. She describes it as like being in a hostage situation.

“Even though people say to you, ‘It’s not your fault,’ you think, ‘Of course it’s my fault. I invited trouble into the door’,” she says.

In the months since the night she was assaulted, she has thought a lot about the manipulation that ensnared her, and what she can do to change things for other victim-survivors.

“My life at this moment feels like those shattered shards of ceramic,” she says. “I’m trying to pick them up one by one. How did this happen? How did I get here?”

Early warnings

Wearing a long, cream dress, her shiny hair cut into a sharp bob that grazes her jawline, Rachel is smart, direct and articulate. She explains that not all domestic abuse involves physical violence in the beginning. She mentions Hannah Clarke, who

was burned to death with her three children in February this year, and whose unthinkable end followed years of controlling, psychosocial abuse. She quotes Rosie Batty, saying: “Violence is always a choice and one that we should not continue to make excuses for.” She sends through photos of her kitchen bench spattered with blood.

“I met him in a hotel lobby in 2016,” she explains, speaking rapidly. “He was immediately very charming – clearly very bright.” He was well-spoken and had a prestigious job title. Before they parted, he asked for her number. “I thought, ‘What am I doing exchanging numbers with a random person?'” But then again, why not? Rachel was flattered by his eagerness to get to know her.

He was based overseas so they built a rapport over the phone. The man he presented as was passionate, a polymath who enjoyed literature and music, though his work centred around the law, ethics and trust.

A Google search confirmed he did have affiliations with the distinguished institutions he named.

So a romance began. He revealed a few things Rachel described as “pink flags”, including two acrimonious, failed marriages and an unstable employment history. But enough of what he said appeared to be truthful, leading her to believe he was an honest person. “I thought, he’s an intelligent person and clearly he has suffered,” she says.

He would fly into Sydney and take her to high-end restaurants. On one occasion he confessed he wasn’t really in town for a business meeting – he just wanted to have dinner with her.

“I was flattered but a part of me thinks, that’s a bit intense,” Rachel says. “It all seemed too good to be true.”

The next time he visited, there was a small hiccup. When Rachel picked him up at the airport, he told her he had left his wallet at home and sheepishly asked her if he could borrow a thousand dollars. Rachel was taken aback but she had no reason to doubt him.

“Now I think, ‘Who gets on an international flight without a wallet?'”

Over the weekend, he spent the borrowed money on Rachel. His hotel room was pre-paid but he used her credit card number for security. After they parted, he sent a string of messages: “So wonderful to find a soulmate.”

“It’s called love bombing,” she says.

Once he was out of the country, Rachel discovered a problem with the hotel bill – $1700 had been charged to her credit card.

“My heart dropped,” she remembers. “I thought, ‘he’s a conman’. I’m shaking, thinking, ‘I have to call the bank to cancel the card’.”

The hotel said the fee was to cover a fine for smoking in the room. She confronted him, but he shrugged off the incident and repaid the money.

The next time they saw each other was at his home. After she boarded the plane, a flight attendant told her she’d been upgraded.

“He’s texting me, ‘Did you get the upgrade? Surprise!’ I thought, it’s a bit much. But it’s who he is. He’s full-on, but entertaining, so I go along.”

By now, Rachel had heard him give public addresses. “He was skilled at putting on a show,” she says. And she put his erratic behaviour down to eccentricity and absent-mindedness.

When she arrived at his home, he had dinner cooking and they discussed his forthcoming move to Australia, where he had accepted a job. He told her he didn’t want her to think he was taking the job for her.

When he went out, Rachel searched his rented apartment for anything suspicious. “I’m not a snooper but I’m thinking, there’s got to be a catch,” she says. But the apartment was spotless. She opened his wardrobe and saw expensive suits and Paul Smith shirts hanging in a neat row.

He was due to start his job in Australia in three months. “Then we got a crimson flag,” she says.

The storm breaks

He arrived in Australia on the last flight on a Sunday night.

“I’ll never forget it,” Rachel says. He texted her straight away: “So excited to finally be on Australian soil!” Then, shortly after his first message, he sent another: “I can’t believe you’re not here.”

Rachel was confused. They were in different cities but had planned a reunion for the coming weekend. Within moments things escalated. He sent another message: “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE NOT HERE.” He then bombarded her with a volley of accusations: “Why are you not here?” “This is outrageous.” “I have just given up my entire life and you couldn’t even be bothered to make yourself available.”

“I was astounded,” Rachel says. “But this is what they do. Suddenly you think, ‘It’s my fault, I’m so selfish. Why didn’t I [make myself available]?” But the rational part of her brain was insistent: Hold on, we discussed this.

Another text message arrived: “Don’t ever speak to me again.”

“I’m horrified,” Rachel says. “Then I become frightened. Then I become genuinely distressed.”

She called and called but couldn’t reach him. She spent a sleepless night questioning herself. The rational part of her brain knew she hadn’t done anything wrong.

“But of course, I’m blaming myself,” she says. The next morning he emailed, apologising. He said he was under stress and overwhelmed by the move. He referred to past issues with his ex-wives and said landing in a new city had triggered old trauma. Eventually, Rachel accepted his apology. She was wary but for the next three months, everything was fine.

Rachel began to introduce him to her world. She brought him to a party where he met her brother, who declared him “utterly charming”.

“He describes himself as your soulmate,” Rachel’s brother told her. “You two are incredibly compatible.”

She overheard him telling her brother: “I promise you, I will never lie to your sister.” She remembers thinking: “Who says that?”

But as the months passed, he became more erratic. At one point he disappeared for three days. Rachel, alarmed, called the police. When he finally called her, he said, “That’s so sweet of you to worry. I didn’t have a charger for my phone.” Rachel thought, “For three days?”

Then, she says, it just got worse. One evening, she found herself searching through his phone in a vain attempt to discover the truth.

“Again I’m thinking, ‘What am I looking for? This is all wrong’. I saw a call list of all these strange names, like Phoenix, Charlize. I woke him up and said calmly, ‘We need to talk. Who’s Phoenix and who’s Charlize?

“He suddenly sat bolt upright, looked horrified and went: ‘I’m out of here’.

“I very calmly said, ‘Clearly you’re having affairs. I think you’re right. I think this is where it ends.’

“Then he started screaming. ‘It’s not what you think it is! Oh my God, you’ve got it all wrong. I’m out of here.’

“I got really frightened. He started throwing clothes [into a suitcase]. He was hysterical. It took about six hours to calm him down. He sort of collapsed in a heap. Then he started pacing. ‘It’s not what you think.’ Eventually he said, ‘It’s cocaine. They’re dealers, okay. I only did it three times.'”

He blamed his high-pressure career. He reminded her of an important research project he’d been working on. “I had to stay awake,” he said, and it was a terrible mistake. “I promise you this is the truth. I’m not an addict.”

Then he lost his job. Rachel was with him when it all blew up. He was accused of misconduct, but he denied it. His employer alleged he’d used his corporate credit card to pay for a holiday he and Rachel had taken together. He had told Rachel he’d paid for the trip with airline points. Now he said he must have accidentally used the wrong card.

“He starts to become really angry and aggressive, and I think, ‘God, I’ve got to get out of here. He’s a conman’,” Rachel recalls.

“But then I think, no, calm him down. Over the next 24 hours I don’t sleep.” Five days later, he told her he had negotiated a departure with his employer. Rachel had returned home to Sydney. As she listened to him on the phone, she thought, “I have to extricate myself.”

Closing in

Shortly after he lost his job, he turned up at Rachel’s house with a doona, boxes of books and clothes in his car. “He says, ‘I’m only going to be here for a few weeks to look for work. Can I stay’?” She was very apprehensive. “He’s pacing up and down in front of my house and I think: This is really bad,” Rachel says.

He told her that if she didn’t let him stay he would drive straight to a notorious suicide spot. Rachel relented, but she insisted he see her GP, who referred him to psychiatrist.

Then he announced that he had just $9 in his bank account. “I can’t even afford to pay for the psychiatrist,” he said, and marched her down to the ATM, where he pleaded with her to withdraw $2100. “Come on,” he barked at her. “The shrink needs to be paid a month in advance.” His mood oscillated between desperate pleading and simmering anger. He was diagnosed with a borderline personality disorder. When he was in a good mood, he swore he was going to do better. “This is my promise to you,” is what he’d say. “It was always, ‘this is my promise to you’.”

Then the violence started. “Suddenly, pizza boxes are thrown at my head.” He’d shout, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like’.” He became paranoid and insanely jealous. “It really started to escalate,” Rachel says.

Every morning, she woke thinking, “God, what’s in store for today?” Her mind was occupied by trying to understand how to cope, and how to escape. “I’m tip-toeing on eggshells,” she says. “It’s like he’s wearing the vest of a suicide bomber and I’m terrified of triggering an explosion.”

One day she found explicit photos and disturbing messages on his laptop and discovered codewords for a sexual subculture. “I was numb with shock, thinking: Who do I call? What do I do?”

She had to get out of the house. “I’m just walking round and round the block thinking, ‘Oh my God, who is this person?’

Suddenly he appeared.

“I just bolted,” Rachel says, but he went after her.

“He’s steering me by the elbow, back into the house, and I’m saying, ‘No, no, no, I don’t want to go into the house’.

“I don’t even know what I’m frightened of. My mind is completely feverish. I’m shaking. I can’t speak for the shock of what I saw and read. He was shouting. ‘F you. What have you done? What the f have you done?’ It was an incredible rage.”

Rachel grabbed her phone from the benchtop. He seized her arm and hissed, “I’ll break your f***ing wrist.”

“I dropped it because I thought: he is going to break my wrist.”

He threw her phone in the toilet. In a flash his mood switched again. He crumpled and started pleading: “You don’t understand.”

“And I’m thinking, you’re right, I don’t understand,” Rachel says.

He told her that the things she’d seen on his computer were the result of a “brief period of madness”. Rachel was appalled. She knew she urgently needed to escape, but now she knew his secret, he became even more abusive. He started threatening her. “He was so menacing I became fearful for my life.”

Rachel spent every waking moment planning how to get him out her house. When she told him he had to go, he flung himself to his knees and said he’d kill himself. “There was so much pleading,” she says. “He said, ‘You have to be compassionate. You’re a compassionate, kind person’. It was abusive on so many levels.”

Rachel had confided in her GP but she hadn’t revealed the full truth. She feared being judged. She was afraid someone would say, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why would you, a smart and capable woman, allow this to happen?”

“I kept hoping he could change. I thought, with the right medical help he would get better.” Despite her fear, she felt a sense of responsibility towards this volatile person.

As 2019 drew to a close, he booked a trip overseas. She knew this was her chance to escape. Sensing a shift in her mood, his harassment escalated further. He found an email she’d written outlining her plans and announced he was leaving.

“He was in such an extreme state of agitation,” Rachel says.

They went for dinner on the eve of his departure. He started verbally abusing her. “I thought, I don’t have to do this anymore. Why am I putting myself through this?”

She left, but he pursued her. Once she was inside her house, she could hear him screaming. “The next thing, the front door flew open. It was dark. I didn’t see it. I heard a whoosh of air and it hit me.”

He shouted, “You fing c.” There was a shattering, as the ceramic pot smashed on the floor. Then he vanished. Blood was dripping from Rachel’s face. After she was taken to hospital, a social worker called the police and she was swept through the legal process. She is grateful for the specialised domestic violence unit at Sydney’s Downing Centre but felt let down by the lack of training and understanding when dealing with the police. The legal process triggered trauma. “The question has always been, ‘Why didn’t she leave?’ That has to shift to ‘why did he do it?'” she says. “What he did was break me down piece by piece. I know now that these acts of violence occur when they sense they are going to lose control.”

Rachel says that a lot of women don’t realise that they are in a coercive, abusive relationship.

“I was groomed by a man who expertly chipped away at me. Trying to explain coercive abuse is really difficult. You’re constantly not wanting to trip a wire. Every time I walked through the door, every time I went out in public with him, there was fear. The cycle ended when that pot shattered. As terrifying as it was I realised he’d lost all control and I was finally free.”

Rachel’s name has been changed to protect her. She shared her story with The Weekly to draw attention to the fact coercive abuse is both commonplace and dangerous, and to increase understanding among police and others who interact with survivors when they are most vulnerable.


1800 RESPECT National Program Manager Melonie Sheehan shares her insights with The Weekly.

“Any behaviour that humiliates, frightens or disempowers another person is coercive abuse. It can be an ongoing issue and it can always escalate. Some of the warning signs can include having your choices taken away, gaslighting, constantly having your activities monitored and stalking on digital devices.

“Coercive behaviour is often central to an abusive relationship, so it can be a sign that someone is in a physically abusive relationship. But abuse is abuse. Coercive control, like physical, financial and sexual abuse, is inexcusable. It doesn’t hurt your body but it can be just as painful and distressing and nobody has the right to do that to you.

“The most important thing is to understand that you’re not alone, and that coercive abuse is absolutely real, it does happen and it’s not okay.”

If this article raises issues for you or someone you know, help is at hand through 1800 RESPECT.

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