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Artillery Row

Hatred and mental illness are not mutually exclusive

Violent men being mentally ill need not make broader societal phenomena irrelevant

Did Joel Cauchi, the man who killed six people in a Sydney shopping centre, do so because he was mentally ill? Or did he do it because he hated women?

Five out of six of Cauchi’s victims were women, which does seem targeted. Nonetheless, according to his family, Cauchi, 40, “battled with mental health issues since he was a teenager”. For this reason, some have found talk of misogyny unseemly, if not exploitative. To categorise Cauchi’s act as male violence against women, if not terrorism underpinned by misogynist ideology, can be appear dismissive of genuine sickness. Sometimes, bad things just happen because people are unwell. 

For women who live with men who have severe mental health diagnoses, there is little comfort in discussions such as these. On the one hand, there is an enormous amount of pressure to downplay the idea that mentally ill men are more likely to be violent than other men (they are, but to say so is viewed as contributing to stigma). On the other hand, is it fair for a man with severe mental illness to be judged by the same moral standards as other men? Shouldn’t we be recognising that they cannot control their perceptions and fears?

Thus we end up with a situation in which a group must not be identified as particularly violent, but if and when they are, it is because they belong to this group, and not because they are morally culpable themselves. How does this make those closest to them feel? I ask this, because I think it is rarely discussed.

If others then see him as a gentle giant, a victim, then you have done your job 

If you live with a severely mentally ill man, even if he is physically healthy and dominant, you are in the role of carer: the privileged person, the well one, the one who has all the control. Even if you find him threatening, you may be unwilling to share this with others. If he insults you in ways that are hateful or misogynistic, you may not want to say. It’s the illness talking – why tell anyone else? You are his protector, the person who can do most to facilitate his engagement with a world he finds frightening. If others then see him as a gentle giant, a victim, then you have done your job. 

Perhaps, though, in the back of the mind, there is the thought: “if anything truly bad happened, I wouldn’t count. It wouldn’t be proper violence against me. No one would know the history. It would be his tragedy, not mine”. 

I used to be much more defensive of the belief that, one, we should not associate mental illness with violence, and two, that when mentally ill people are violent, we should be more forgiving of them. Having got to know women whose mentally ill male partners have hurt or threatened them or their children, and/or behaved in ways which are incredibly manipulative, I am much more conflicted. To the outside world, these men are tormented souls, while their partners are, if not privileged, then safe and fortunate enough not to be unwell too. As in all cases of domestic abuse — although in these cases, we are not allowed to call it that — there is so much that outside observers simply do not know. 

I thought of these hidden stories when reading of John Pryde, who last week was found unfit to stand trial for the murder of his wife Catherine due to his dementia. I have no criticism of the decision, but much of the language used by the judge – “out of character”, “a loving and fulfilling relationship” – struck me as extremely similar to that which is often used when men who kill their wives are deemed to have “snapped”. For instance, Lawrence Franks, who did not have dementia but killed his wife who did, was described as having committed a “spur of the moment act” out of “mercy”. As the 2020 femicide census showed, older women with degenerative brain conditions do not tend to kill their male partners, but are often killed by them. Either way, it is assumed that the wife killer — regardless of whether he is ill or she is — is a loving person who has never acted like that before. 

This may be true in some cases. We should not assume it, though. Describing violent men as loving men acting out of character, or motivated by demons which they cannot control, is absolutely standard. When Marelle Sturrock was bludgeoned to death by her fiancé, the latter was described as “soft, gentle and kind”, if sadly struggling “with his mental health”. When Ceri Fuller slaughtered his three children before killing himself, even his father-in-law claimed there were “no villains” in the story, only a “man who worked tirelessly to support the family he worshipped” (Fuller had in the past grabbed a telephone cord from his wife when she attempted to phone the police about a domestic incident, wrapping the cord around his hand “in a motion which suggested he would strangle her”). 

In writing this, I do not wish to suggest we should therefore treat all men with bipolar, schizophrenia or dementia diagnoses as inherently suspicious

Most of the time, we do not know whether a genuinely unwell man who kills a woman or child – or multiple women or children – has hurt or threatened them before. In writing this, I do not wish to suggest we should therefore treat all men with bipolar, schizophrenia or dementia diagnoses as inherently suspicious. What I do wish to point out is that there are women who are under intense pressure to defend and protect the more violent among them, and for whom sympathies are divided or muted when something does go seriously wrong. 

Mental illness does not exist in a social vacuum. Misogyny is in the air we breathe; pornographic narratives which justify male violence against women are utterly mundane. I have seen it suggested that had Cauchi targeted another group, we would be less hesitant about declaring his rampage an act of hate. Certainly, I think there is a feeling that hating women is normal; killing them, on the other hand, is insane. 

However ill Cauchi was, it will not have made any difference to his victims. It will not have made their terror or pain any less. It is their tragedy, not his. Even if we cannot know what was going on in his head, we can know this.

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