Jimmy Bartel really is a gutsy man to have shared his story yesterday in Melbourne’s The Herald Sun. The article details the AFL player’s experience with the domestic violence his father perpetrated against him, his siblings, and his mother growing up.
The article’s pros are that it raises awareness about the insidiousness of domestic violence and the trauma it causes. It centres on a man discussing his recollections of domestic violence as a child. This is not the typical narrative we hear about domestic violence either in the media or in the community. Women are the victims, men are the perpetrators, and that’s that. By circulating the article, a grey area in an already complicated issue is revealed, and a typical narrative is challenged. And that’s a good thing. Further, children are rarely spoken of as perhaps the biggest victims of this type of violence. Children don’t choose the relationships they’re exposed to, but they nevertheless adapt to them, and it’s in their adaptation that their developmental needs are thwarted.
Those are the pros, not necessarily negated by the cons discussed below. So, what are the cons? First, I take issue with the Herald Sun referring to a person’s addictions as their “evils”. Trauma begets trauma, and Jimmy’s father clearly had his demons. By the grace of God, as they say, Jimmy Bartel did not become the man his father was. This could be due to the difference in socio-economic status between the two men, as well as the changing views on masculinity, male and female sex roles, and on the awareness we have around appropriate child-rearing practices. In any case, children learn vicariously, which means they emulate what they see. Thus, we know both from a plethora of research and intrinsically that a person exposed to such violence is far more inclined to perpetuate such behaviour than not. Upon closer inspection, perhaps the article is celebrating Jimmy’s luck as much as his courage.
Jimmy Bartel also makes it clear that his father had gambling and drinking addictions. This makes his father an addict, and addicts are characteristically shame-based people. But people are not inherently shameful; they learn it from their own caregivers, for better or worse. In many ways, addicts are our community’s most vulnerable people. The article thus demonises and victimises people with addictions – vulnerable people – and I take issue with this Us versus Them mentality. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that Jimmy Bartel suffers from his own, perhaps less “traditional”, more socially accepted addictions, such as sex, love, food, or approval (codependence) addiction. Or perhaps his own mental health problems, such as issues surrounding body image or low self-esteem, which he arguably alludes to. How could he not have his own issues given the upbringing he describes?
Understandably, such addictions are still too taboo or poorly defined, collectively less understood, to discuss openly and without reprise. This is unfortunate. But it does raise the question: Would the Herald Sun demonise Jimmy Bartel if we were to learn that he has his own addictions? How swift would his fall from grace be if he were to step out of the lines this newspaper has painted him in to? To take a more compassionate view of addicts, and of the people who perpetrate violence, would probably betray the moral boundaries the Herald Sun has decided should be the norm for its readers, and I take issue with this too.
Indeed, in order for change to occur both at a grassroots and systemic level, people need concrete examples of how one thing affects another, and this article perhaps offers us this. When the Herald Sun and other media outlets responsibly convey the inherent complexity of issues such as domestic violence, then our society can move toward a more compassionate view of the vulnerable groups that comprise addicts, prostitutes, and those we might consider ‘disenfranchised’. This in turn will force governments to create policy that reflects this reality, which can only be a good thing. But we might be waiting a while for that to happen so long as newspapers like the Herald Sun abuse their power rather than use it to educate the public.