The fictional trial of Helen Titchener for the attempted murder of her abusive and controlling husband Rob has reached its crucial point in BBC Radio 4’s daily soap. Academics Kirsty Liddiard and Katherine Runswick-Cole reflect on how this storyline all too clearly reflects the reality of life for too many disabled women.
Over the last few weeks, the nation has been gripped by a storyline from The Archers. The world’s longest-running radio soap opera seems to have broken free from its middle-class, middle-aged shackles to become, dare we say it, ‘trendy’.
This shift in how the programme is thought of is in no small part due to the dramatic culmination of a long-running storyline, in which Helen Titchener, the victim of domestic abuse and sexual violence, is on trial for stabbing her controlling husband, Rob. The story has prompted a national debate about domestic violence and coercive control.
Over time, the Radio 4 daily serial has offered a commentary on a range of social issues from radical feminism to same-sex partnerships to horrific experience of racist hate crime.
As regular listeners will know, however, there has been limited engagement with disability as a social issue. Usually when disability appears in The Archers, scriptwriters use it as an opportunity to give information about a medical condition (such as juvenile arthritis or Down’s Syndrome). Disability appears but then disappears: no one living in Ambridge identifies as a disabled person.
And yet, in the slowly unfolding story of Helen’s domestic abuse, Helen’s status as a mental health service user has been central to the narrative. Helen has been described as “fragile”, and “unhinged”. Pat, Helen’s mother, also told the police that Helen had experienced mental health issues “in the past” but that she had “never been violent”. Rob, Helen’s abuser, has consistently played on Helen’s past; he told her again and again that she was “fragile” and “not well”. He manipulated her into thinking that she was confused and forgetful and even managed to persuade her to see a psychiatrist.
Helen’s status as a mental health service user, as a disabled woman, is now a key factor in how the story line will develop.
While Helen’s story line is obviously fictional, her experiences are very real for many disabled women. According to the World Health Organisation, disabled people are 1.5 times more likely to experience violence and 4 times more likely if the person has a mental health condition (WHO, 2012). Markedly, disabled women experience sexual violence in greater numbers than both disabled men and non-disabled women.
One disabled woman reported: “He wanted (and got) sex at least twice a day every day. Sometimes we had sex more than twice a day – even up to five times a day. It didn’t matter if I had my period or if I felt unwell or was pregnant. It was easier to do as he wanted. I seldom if ever enjoyed it.”
Violence and its causes
Violence and its causes have social, cultural and economic underpinnings. By this, we mean that our likelihood as individuals of experiencing violence is rooted in society’s unequal power relations. For example, those typically most at risk of physical, sexual and emotional violence are children, women, older people, disabled people and trans people. It is no coincidence that these groups all struggle for recognition and equal rights, in multiple areas of their lives. Violence doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but is steeped in inequity.
When it comes to intimate partner violence – also known as domestic violence – disabled women (we include women with mental illness in this category) suffer in myriad ways. For many disabled women, intimate partner violence goes unnoticed because they are assumed to not be in intimate, sexual and loving relationships at all. Additionally, the types of harm to which disabled women are subjected can be unrecognisable when we think of ‘domestic violence’ in its traditional sense: a denial of care; withholding medication and food; encouraging self-harm; and exploiting and exacerbating incidences of psychosis, mania and depression are forms of violence unique to mental and physical impairment and illness.
As another woman puts it: “He could not cope with me being deaf; as my deafness increased, he found it harder. He did not want a deaf wife. He hit me a few times.”
Even when seeking justice, disabled women face barriers. For example, women like Helen who experience mental distress are seldom supported in ways they need to report violence and give evidence in court. Quite often, women’s testimonies are doubted or disbelieved because of their mental health diagnosis. This is even more likely if women are institutionalised, detained (for example, under a mental health section) or are deemed to lack capacity.
While we – as authors whose lives intersect with disability in various ways – don’t want to emphasise disabled women as inherently vulnerable or as victims, it is important to recognise that disabled people experience less privacy in their lives, have increased reliance on others, services and institutions for care, and experience increased access to their bodies by non-disabled people – all of which increase chances of experiencing abuse, violence and exploitation. We think it is important that we highlight this in our communities – particularly during these very difficult times of austerity where cuts to services and a rolling back of the welfare state mean many disabled people are living in more vulnerable circumstances.
This woman says: “My confidence was at rock bottom. In my heart I knew that what he was saying was wrong but I felt helpless. I had left school with no qualifications, no career. A dead end job and an early marriage and children meant I had hardly any skills outside the home. He isolated me from my friends.”
Importantly, disabled women also experience an overwhelming lack of access and support in leaving situations of violence – often because the majority of women’s services and refuges don’t cater to their needs. This is despite the fact that disabled women, in comparison to non-disabled women, are more likely to experience sexual and physical violence in their lifetime by people close to them (parents, intimate partners and carers). Commonly, mainstream domestic abuse organisations seldom consider disabled women within their remit, and services and refuges themselves can be inaccessible in a range of ways. The pragmatics of disability and care are pertinent here: the ability to leave a situation of violence, or move out of the family home (often quickly, quietly and without raising unwanted attention), can be far more difficult if the support of another person is needed, or if your home has been specifically adapted to meet your needs. The stories of disabled survivors of domestic violence have highlighted a reluctance to leave care packages that have been fought long and hard for, and that care provision is currently not flexible enough to move with women in ways that would protect them. Again, these worries run deeper at a time of significant governmental and local authority cuts to existing care provision.
While Archers listeners wait with baited breath to see how Helen’s story plays out, what’s important is that stories like Helen’s are being heard and given voice. Even though Helen’s story is fictional, her experiences have led to domestic violence being discussed and debated across the country. Her story has made space for and shone a light upon survivors’ own stories and experiences. While talking about violence and hearing such stories is difficult, listening to women – all women – is one critical step we can all take towards keeping women (and others) safe.
Note: The authors have donated their fee for this article to the Helen Titchener Fund, a fund set up whereby all monies go to Refuge, for women and children against domestic violence.
Domestic violence: where to get support
- National Domestic Violence Helpline Call 0808 2000 247 (The helpline is open 24 hours and has Typetalk users for D/deaf people. The call will not show up on your bill.)
- Deaf Hope – Deaf Women’s Refuge and support after domestic violence
SMS: 07970 350366 Voice/Minicom: 020 8772 3241 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Refuge – Get Help Now
- Enable Scotland – Surviving Sexual Abuse – Easy Read (pdf)
- Women’s Aid Federation, Northern Ireland
Photo credit: The Archers: Helen Archer (LOUIZA PATIKAS), Rob Titchener (TIMOTHY WATSON) – (C) BBC – Photographer: Pete Dadds