I have a friend. At her best, she’s bubbly and creative. Strong. She fell for a man who is powerful and charismatic. Popular in the cult-like way that can (and does) refract reality.
The two have become inseparable.
But these past few months, my friend has also become unrecognisable.
Strategically isolated from her family, friends and resources, she’s been forbidden from working and generating income unless it’s ‘approved’. Her every move is watched and controlled. Once the proud owner of a solid constitution, she now can’t even breathe without strict instruction.
At the slightest pushback she’s called ‘selfish’. ‘Not smart.’ Threats and punishment ensue. But only for her own good …
If even one person described this scenario, there would be big, billowing red flags stabbed in the sand. A swift intervention or two. A collective effort to engage and rehabilitate the perpetrator.
So if I reveal that my beloved ‘friend’ is in fact my city, Melbourne, alarm bells should also ring.
Melbourne is, after all, not just one person, but 4,485million of them. Male and female. Now deeply co-dependent with our Premier Daniel Andrews. Good ole’ Dan, whose phrases we parrot verbatim. Who we see every day now, more than our friends and family, in fact. Though exactly when that became the norm, we’re not quite sure.
All we know is that, every day, some time around 11am, we sit nervously attuned to Dan’s press conference. Trying to guess, then guess again, whether today will be the carrot or the stick. North Face jacket is on. That’s a good sign. He’s relaxed. Maybe he’ll ease up a bit …
Emotional abuse is not the easy analogy to use. Not in a country where 1 in 4 Australian women have suffered it. Not with a man who clearly believes he is doing more good than harm. Not with a pandemic that has claimed more than 800 Victorian lives.
But emotional abuse is the right analogy. Or more specifically, coercive control is.
Defined by researcher Evan Stark as ‘domination in personal life based on fear, dependence and the deprivation of basic rights and liberties’, coercive control is the most common tool of abuse. It is insidious, incremental, dangerously effective.
In See What You Made Me Do? The award-winning book about domestic abuse, author Jess Hill explores the topic.
Hill first contextualises coercive control not with an individual, but with a system: the North Korean camps of the 1950s. The American prisoners of war returned from them. Physical bodies intact. Mind and outlook radically changed, in some cases to the point of defection.
Researchers put this down to coercive control, which has three primary elements: dependency, debility and dread.
These ‘three Ds’ are achieved through eight techniques: isolation, monopolisation of perception, induced debility or exhaustion, cultivation of anxiety and despair, alternation of punishment and reward, demonstrations of omnipotence, degradation, and the enforcement of trivial demands.
Almost all of these elements can be mapped onto the dynamic between Dan and us, his exhausted, beleaguered partner in this brutal second wave of COVID-19.
Melburnians need only think back to that cold Sunday in early August, almost halfway through stage three lockdown, when Dan took our collective hand and upped the ante to stage four, saying he felt cautiously optimistic that the lockdown would just be for six weeks. (isolation)
Fifteen weeks later, that same lockdown drags on in mutated form for Metropolitan Melbourne. (exhaustion).
But, sensing our frustration, Dan vaguely swears we are so, so close to driving case numbers down to his strict target for a significant reopening: no more than 5 cases or mystery cases in a fortnight. Or worse – something as vague as ‘the story behind the numbers’.
Brutal, outsiders who don’t know us think. But they don’t get it. They don’t get us. It’s like Dan says: we’re not just dealing with a virus. More of a wicked, wicked, enemy that is silent and deadly and does not discriminate, even though national data shows the majority of deaths have been reported in people aged 70 years and over. (cultivation of anxiety and despair).
In the face of such a threat, Dan makes it clear that he is ‘so, so proud’ of us (reward). But not so proud he can resist ominously reminding us that ‘Victoria Police are out there.’ (punishment)
He assures us that thinking otherwise is simply ‘wrong’ – ‘just not smart.’ (degradation).
When we feel particularly not smart, Dan helpfully reframes the complexities of COVID-19 into simplistic binaries – the right vs the wrong thing; heroism vs selfishness; human life vs human rights – which by the way make Dan particularly angry: seriously, one more comment about human rights …
Annoyingly, there have been more than one comment about human rights. There have been questions, too. And they revealed that the unprecedented 8pm-5am curfew Dan imposed on us was not based on medical or police advice, but was simply Dan’s desire to ‘operationalise’ his police response. (demonstration of omnipotence).
Things came to a head when Dan dismissed concerns from 14 retired judges and QCs, whose combined decades of legal experience led them to fear that the arbitrary detention powers Dan wanted in the COVID-19 omnibus bill would be open to abuse.
Dan did what he often does to great effect: disagreed the problem even existed, then focused straight back on COVID-19 as an unprecedented one-in-100 year event. Justification for what would have been a massive over-reach of civil liberties. (Monopolisation of Perception).
Luckily someone, somewhere, disagreed that Dan disagreed that arbitrary detention of citizens was a problem. And those powers, Dan quietly tells us, have been dropped from the bill–for now…
The pattern here is clear. Not that difficult to establish. While Dan probably wouldn’t agree with this characterisation, it’s worth returning to Jess Hill’s book, which reminds us that in some of the worst relationships, physical violence is barely present.
The better gauge is to instead ask yourself: is there someone in your life making you afraid?
And the clincher: is someone in your life controlling what you do or say?
As Dan, (Old Testament) dad-like, often scolds the journalists whose job it is to hold him to account: ‘guys seriously … don’t all shout at once.‘