Alternative Law Journal
edited by Jan Breckenbridge and Lesley Laing; Allen and Unwin, 1999; 336 pp; $35 softcover.
Challenging Silence is an impressive collection of extremely current articles and research papers on sexual and domestic violence. It provides the reader with not only an analysis of the issues but a virtual digest of the research
available, as well as inspirational and detailed accounts of new practices in therapy, education and legal areas.
While many of the contributors are now professors, senior academics and directors of centres, many of their biographies indicated long-held interest and work in this and related gender issues. The contributions are on the whole neat and readable but also detailed and well researched. Each contribution can be read on its own or in the context of the broader objectives of the edited collection.
The editors make no apology that the book is structured on the basis of their contention that a backlash has occurred in the 1990s against victims of sexual and domestic violence and against the services provided for their support. They argue that while the 1970s and even the 1980s saw a 'breaking of silence' about sexual and domestic violence the 1990s has been characterised by a silencing and discrediting of victims. The first half of the book documents and analyses this backlash.
Jan Breckenridge looks at the phenomenon of professionals becoming the experts and the problems this has produced, the lack of congruity between practice and research and the exclusion of activists from professional arenas and the discrediting of their approaches.
Catherine Humphreys examines how society has historically viewed mothers in relation to claims of child sexual abuse, the notion of the 'collusive mother' and the 1990s identified phenomena of false reporting of child sexual abuse by mothers in family court proceedings. For lawyers, she poses interesting questions about the influence of such prevailing views on our practice. Similarly the contribution of Shelagh Doyle and Claire Barbato examines the experiences of women in court as victims of sexual assault and provides a compelling argument that the attitudes of judges must be urgently addressed and that legislative reform is not sufficient to tackle the 'misguided, erroneous, discriminatory and biased beliefs' still being aired by the judiciary.
Rosemary Hunter argues that we need less consent and more talk about violence in court and questions the impact of violence being dealt with by orders by consent and without admission. Mailin Suchting questions the 'us' and 'them' approach taken to providing sexual assault services to people of different culture, race and ethnicity while Jane Davidson and Lorna McNamara provide an alarming insight into sexual abuse in psychiatric facilities and the failure of the system to respond to this abuse.
Ann Cossins analyses the controversial issue of recovered memory of sexual abuse including the development of the false memory syndrome foundation in the United States, which has characterised such recovered memory as a conspiracy to destroy previously happy families. She examines the attitude and practice of courts in regard to recovered memory and the readiness of the courts to accept 'false memory syndrome'. She suggests that 'the discrediting of a complainant's recovered memory evidence on the basis of myth and bias can only bring disrepute on the criminal justice system'.
The second half of the book provides a series of windows into strategies and practices that have been developed for working with victims, offenders and the community. Lesley Laing presents research on the impact of the NSW Pre-Trial Diversion Treatment Program for incest offenders. It is a fascinating account of the impact of offenders disclosing the tactics by which they had implemented and covered up the abuse.
Kerrie James looks at a prevailing view in the 1990s that men are the hid den victims of domestic violence and Jane Hutton examines the needs of adolescent victims of sexual assault and describes narrative therapy approach.
Anne-Marie Hayes and Jane Tiggeman describe ways of working with victims with dissociative identity disorder. Frank Astill, Joan Bratel and Christine Johnston describe research that has established ways to improve the reliability of court evidence given by children with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, that are vulnerable to sexual abuse.
Melva Kennedy provides a refreshing account of her work in raising the issue of child assault in Aboriginal communities and argues that this must take into account Aboriginal history. Eileen Baldry and Tony Vinson discuss research that has tried to pinpoint what sort of community links reduce the incidence of child abuse. Elizabeth Shaw, Akirra Bouns and Sheena Pye detail the dilemma faced by Relation ships Australia as to whether to, and how to, counsel victims and perpetrators particularly where the victim requests the perpetrator be counselled.
The final contribution is from Chris Burke, Director of the Jannowi Family Centre who poses a challenge to welfare workers to examine the context of child abuse and how perpetrators shape the beliefs and behaviours of family members.
If you are not familiar with the language of post-modernism you may find phrases such as 'unhelpful dominance of professional discourses' a bit of a struggle and wonder, as I did, why simpler English could not have been found. However the use of such language is arguably necessary with the challenging territory.
I agree with the editors that professionals (including lawyers) are extremely influential in the adoption and reinforcement of views held in society. This book I believe is an excellent (and cheap) opportunity for professionals to make an intelligent assessment of the current debates about sexual and domestic violence and thereby take some responsibility for the views they express.
Ariel Couchman is civil solicitor with the Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Service.