In this week’s Czech Life my guest is Pavlína O’Toole, the Czech-American author of a new book called Čas robinsonů. The novel is about an expatriate in the US struggling to escape domestic violence. A website of the same name also exists to help people trapped in abusive and dangerous relationships, to try and show that, with courage, there is a way out.
In our interview, we talk about the book but also about the nature of domestic violence and how difficult it can be for a person who has been victimized to leave.
“When it comes to domestic violence probably 99% happens behind closed doors and the victim feels like she – or he – not only cannot prove anything but also that no one will believe them. It is often the case that family or close friends have no idea what is going on and the victim fears that even if they did, they wouldn’t believe it. Because, abusers often show themselves as caring and loving and funny and charming people: it is hard to believe that they also have another side to them and that they can be abusive in their own homes.”
When someone gets involved in a relationship with an abuser, are there warning signs? Explosive moments or moments which don’t feel quite right which are ignored?
“Yes, I believe there might be in some cases. But you have to remember that abusers can be very smart and they don’t want to show their true ‘face’ until it is too late and the victim is already involved in many ways and it is already a lot harder for them to escape. There are certainly some signs to look out for, you know, a short temper with other people. Trying to boss the other person around, what they should do, what they should wear, how they should spend their money. There are little signs but they also very easy to miss.”
When you are involved in a new relationship there is often this euphoria…
“Exactly. You are more likely to dismiss some of the signs or explain them away, to think it isn’t serious, but it certainly can be.”
When someone finds themselves in that situation, my understanding is that it is a long process, a fight even within, before they can come to terms with what is going on. That it is not right nor their fault: that must be very difficult. Is that the kind of situation that you are trying to break up, to reach those people who need help then?
“The problem is that when you are in the cycle of abuse, the abuser does everything in his power to lower your self-esteem. So you think it is your fault.”
“Exactly. The problem is that when you are in the cycle of abuse, the abuser does everything in his power to lower your self-esteem. So you think it is your fault. You think nobody will believe you and that nobody would even want to help you. And that is their goal: as long as you are dependent on them in any way and trapped, they can continue manipulating you and continue abusive behavior.
“It is very important and this is what both the book and the website are trying to do: to motivate people by telling them they are not alone, we know how it is, we trust you and believe you. But YOU have to make the change: no one else can do that for you. Everyone has to make that decision themselves. But we are trying to raise their self-esteem so they are in a better position to decide.”
In my experience, which is admittedly limited, a new of one young woman in the 1990s who was part of a broader circle, and she was a victim of some kind of abuse by her husband. I was coming from the ‘outside’ so I didn’t really have an overview. But I remember those who knew her well kind of spoke in hushed tones about her situation: he had a temper and was also the jealous type. But a lot of it was like ‘Oh, he’ll calm down eventually’ or even ‘she shouldn’t flirt with anyone when she knows how he is, she shouldn’t provoke him’, etc. Do you think that there is a greater understanding now by the general public that that wasn’t necessarily the right approach to take?
“I would like to say yes, it has improved, but sadly I don’t think it has enough. That is another reason for the website and the book: for the people around the victim to understand how hard it is to live in that kind of relationship and how hard it is to get out. Until they get really, really old, abusers don’t give up and sometimes it gets much worse and can end very badly. The abuse escalates and can end tragically if people don’t take action.”
You talk about the problem… I’ve read that 38 percent of women in the Czech Republic experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives, that seems like a high number and in fact it can be even higher, based on unreported cases.
“Yes, that is the case. We were really shocked by those numbers. In other western countries, like Great Britain or the US, the number is lower – 25 percent. But we have to remember that the problem here was not really addressed until after the Velvet Revolution. There, they have been fighting the problem since the 1960s and have had huge federal programmes since the 1980s. So we are a bit behind and I am hoping that if we talk about it more, that the number will drop and will be similar like elsewhere.”
I would argue that 25 percent is not great either…
“Well, yes. Even that is high. The question is also about approach. A lot of programmes naturally are designed to help the victim at the moment they are leaving, helping them, providing shelter away from the abuser. But we also think a lot needs to be done on the side of prevention. Children need to be taught from a young age about what is right and what isn’t; and that if they see domestic violence, how to recognize the signs, because they are the most vulnerable.”
Obviously the example that we set for our kids… it won’t work every time but it can make a difference. There is a campaign called Slap Her linked on the website where a bunch of Italian kids between the ages of 7 and 12 refuse to hit a girl because they know such behavior is abhorrent and unacceptable.
We’ve often heard that abusers were abused themselves…
“I think that was often the case in the past when the man was the sole bread winner and demanded obedience from his wife and children. It was given by the dominant role of the man in the family in the past. Often, it could slide into abuse and if a child sees that it is okay to break something or to hit another person to solve problems, the chances are they are going to do it too.”
I don’t want to focus unduly on the perpetrator, but is there any hope for them?
“That is more a question for psychologists but from the personal histories I have encountered I would say there is perhaps a chance if the abusers is still young and willing to get help. For someone older, probably not. Someone in their 50s say, I am not so sure. Someone in their 20s, there is maybe still hope.”
Let’s talk about the novel Čas robinsonů, partly based on your own life experience but also that of others. What did writing a novel afford you compared to retelling real testimonies or oral histories?
“Well, with fiction I was able to bring the experience of more people together and make the story is fictional but the situations and reactions and feelings and everything is real. The other motivation is that there are hundreds and hundreds of books about domestic violence where you can read what a psychopath is, or what the cycle of domestic violence is, and so on. But many people who most need it, will never pick up one of those books.
“With fiction, you can get the message across easier. There is a greater chance the reader can get the message and maybe take something from it. If it helps somebody that would be awesome.”
There has already been one public reading that I know of: from what I understand that went over very well, the response was very positive.
“People were very excited. Some got the book, others will buy it. They said the story interested them very much. So that was very rewarding.”
If you tell us a little bit about your protagonist, Petra Tomanová, is she one of the lucky ones? Does she manage to escape the situation she is in?
“Yes. But she has to make a very hard decision and that is either to remain at home and sort of safe. Or to leave with her children, on the verge of homelessness, and just take a chance in a country she is new in, she doesn’t know very well. That is a hard decision and it is one abused women have to take all the time. But if you can do it in a foreign country, without support of friends or any family, without a social network to help you, maybe it is not as impossible as you thought. It can be done.”
In English, the book will be called Time to Cast Off, in Czech the title evokes Robinson Crusoe. Time of the Robinsons. Is it a reference to being marooned? To being trapped?
“When you receive a message that either the website or the book have helped them get a better perspective or chance to overcome their own problems… that is just awesome.”
“To being alone. Because the victim of violence feels alone more than anything else. They feel like they have no way out and there is nobody they can reach out to, even though they are in the middle of society, surrounded by people. They are alone and they have to decide on their own.”
Do you know how many people the website – or the book – has helped?
“I don’t have an exact number but we have more and more visitors to the website and we do have a lot of positive response. And I am really happy about that. When you receive a message that either the website or the book have helped someone get a better perspective or chance to overcome their own problems… that is just awesome.”
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