Battered man syndrome cuts jail sentence

My eye caught an article by Victoria Robinson in the Sunday Star Times (17 June 2012) about Toa Tuau, 31, who was sentenced to five years and six months in prison for wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm in October 2010. His victim was his dad who, from reading the article, had physically abused him, his mother, six brothers and five sisters. The children had been taken into Child, Youth and Family Service care several times. His lawyer appealed his sentence on the grounds that if he were a woman suffering ‘battered women syndrome’ (prolonged exposure to violence), then his sentenced would be lessened by 25%.

The context for the assault was as follows. After a day of drinking, Mr Tuau’s father accused his son of being a child molester. In a fit of rage Mr Tuau stabbed his dad with a boning knife. Mr Tuau had had enough. He finally snapped in that moment and reacted.

This situation is a classic case of the repercussions of living serious and sustained abuse over a long time. Let’s consider what living with abuse throughout childhood does to someone, to their soul, to their sense of self, to their ability to manage in a complex world. I think all of us would agree that reactive violence as in this case, while not acceptable, is understandable. Being pushed to the limit day after day can do things to anyone.

It however got me thinking about where do we draw the line. How many men who end up with issues of interpersonal violence (IPV) in adult life have been in Mr Tuau’s situation, either witnessing or being the direct targets of sustained and serious violence. Should we therefore be surprised that someone would erupt with total fury at some point? I think not. The fuse is there; it is just waiting to be lit. Often others cop the fury. In my experience it ends up in other places, particularly with current family members, rather than where it all began. I also imagine that Mr Tuau’s father learnt his ways from someone, perhaps his father. So violence begets violence.

Should this man even be in prison? While I do not condone his behaviour in any way, it appears a classic case of, ‘We act what we are taught or exposed to’. This raises the whole question of culpability (and while I am not a lawyer), we do need to consider the ramifications of the start we get in life. I hear people making judgemental comments about many of the men who access stopping violence programmes. If we were to show compassion we might well wonder how come they came to be this way. This in no way lets them off the hook for addressing what are often dangerous uses of abusive practices, but it does help to invite an understanding of the keys to change. Taking an oppositional position is the last strategy to work with the likes of Mr Tuau. He will just return the gesture.

This situation got me to thinking more about the basis for IPV and how early life experience  is the common denominator in abusive practices as adults. To reinforce my thinking I came across a really interesting TED talk by David Dow, a death row lawyer. This makes compelling watching and asks us to wonder about the early pathways that shape our behaviour as adults.

I am pleased Mr Tau got at least some recognition for the injustices he received as a child. What do you think?  Love to hear your thoughts.

Published on Sunday, July 1st, 2012, under Family violence, What Ken thinks

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