The guest blog season continues with a chat with yet another writer friend, Philip Paris. Philip lives even further up the east coast of Scotland than I do and produces books that are meticulously researched and highly readable. I’ve just finished reading his latest and was so moved by it that I wanted to drag him here to tell us more about it. It’s called Men Cry Alone. It was published in October by FeedARead and it’s now been in their top ten best sellers for several months. The picture, by the way shows Philip in front of Orkney’s Italian Chapel, which was built by Italian POWs. It’s the subject of another of Philip’s books.
So, Philip, let’s get to it. You know how much I enjoyed reading it but the subject matter really is surprising – domestic abuse of men by women. What made you decide to write a novel about such a controversial topic?
Well, in the late seventies I had the idea of writing a stage play about domestic abuse where men were the victims. I don’t know where this came from. It was a time when you simply didn’t read about such things. The plight of women was only just beginning to be recognised and the authorities generally turned a blind eye to ‘a domestic’.
I never wrote the stage play but I’ve still got the rejection letter I received from the BBC in 1984 for the script of a TV drama I’d sent them called ‘Battered Women, Battered Men’. It was only at the beginning of 2011 that I decided to use this theme in a novel. I thought there’d be several novels out there already using this storyline and was surprised when I couldn’t find any. It spurred me on to get writing.
I mentioned in the introduction how meticulous your research is but how on earth did you go about researching something as sensitive as this?
I read and read – men’s stories, women’s stories, the websites of charities for battered women and men (there are several in the UK), newspaper articles, research papers, non fiction books on abuse and controlling behaviour… I was writing and researching side by side and had decided early on to focus on three male characters, with one man being abused because his wife has dementia.
I also contacted a range of local professional people including the domestic violence police officer, the minister, a solicitor I knew who dealt in domestic abuse cases, the Rape & Abuse Line and a social worker. Although Men Cry Alone is a work of fiction I wanted it to be authentic and the comments/advice given by the characters representing professionals are what these people would give in real life. Indeed, when each relevant section was written I sent the text to them for checking.
Yes, when I was reading it, I knew you must have been very careful about the words you put into the mouths of the professionals in the field. I was very surprised, though, by the dementia revelation. I had no idea that a wife with dementia might physically abuse her husband. Is it really domestic abuse, though?
It’s a fair question and one that a couple of readers have brought up. Obviously there’s none of the premeditated aggression that you often get in a ‘normal’ domestic abuse situation, but when old Alfred is being punched and hit it probably feels like abuse to him. Also, like abuse against men by women, abuse against a partner because someone has dementia is simply not acknowledged openly in society. I wanted to raise the profile of both issues.
We all know there are more people with dementia simply because we have an aging population. Some sufferers become aggressive because of the condition so the tragic situation Alfred finds himself in is becoming more common, only people rarely admit it’s going on. They hide the abuse (like most victims) and perhaps don’t always seek help when they could.
In order to cover the subject of dementia I had to do a fair amount of additional research. I had some interesting meetings with the local community psychiatric nurse and the matron of a nearby nursing home, as well as lots of conversations with my wife Catherine who’s a GP.
Well, having read the book, I know the answer to the question I’m about to ask already. But I’ll ask it anyway. Some people might think this topic’s a bit grim and that might put them off reading the book. What would you say to them?
I’ve got friends who happily read thrillers where women are held in dungeons, horribly tortured and then murdered – when I’ve told them about the novel they’ve immediately replied ‘Oh, I couldn’t possibly read about that!’ I think the difference is that they can detach themselves from the former whereas Men Cry Alone reflects what goes on around us every day. However, there are no ‘nasty bits’ in the book. You read far worse in the daily newspaper.
Indeed. So, the book’s been out for several months now; what sort of reactions have you had so far?
I’ve had some great feedback, and varied – from a seventeen year old girl to men in their late seventies. One woman dealing professionally with abuse against women said the book changed her opinion about abuse against men, while another reader emailed me to say that only upon reading the novel did she fully understand the relationship she had endured with her first husband. She had apparently left him twenty-five years ago. What did surprise me was that the book made some readers analyse their own behaviour towards a partner. I had never considered that potential reaction.
Yes, we should make the point that, although the focus is mainly on men, the novel does include something on abuse against women, too.
Oh yes, definitely. I wanted a balance so I created the character of Jennifer, a woman in her fifties who’s escaped long term abuse from her husband. Jennifer befriends young Gordon and opens his eyes to the behaviour of his wife. Often victims don’t realise they’re in an abusive relationship because it’s all they’ve known and they have nothing to compare the behaviour with. Ironically, having written about Jennifer and Gordon I then read on the Internet a young man’s account of his experience of abuse and it was exactly this storyline.
Did you interview people who’d been abused?
Via the leading UK charity for abused men, The ManKind Initiative, I was able to get in contact with men whose previous wives had been abusive (one woman was serving a long prison sentence for her behaviour). By this stage the manuscript was written, though, and I didn’t include any of what they told me, which was never the plan anyway. It was always going to be a work of fiction.
You’ve really become an expert on this, haven’t you? How much abuse against men goes on out there?
I’m not sure ‘expert’ is the right word. Statistics about domestic abuse are one of the most controversial topics you can bring up! Some people will argue that ninety-five percent of domestic abuse is by men against women, with much of the remaining five percent only occurring because the woman is defending herself. The ManKind Initiative quotes lots of figures on its website, including one from a Home Office British Crime Survey stating that for every three victims of domestic abuse two will be female and one will be male. In Australia the main charity for men is called the ‘One In Three Campaign’ to reflect a similar standpoint.
But domestic abuse is extremely complex. I guess all one can say is that abuse against men happens and it probably happens a great deal more often than many people would realise. Even after all the research, I’ve been surprised at the number of male readers who have told me stories about this happening to them or people close to them.
OK, we’ve dwelt (naturally enough) on the pain and shame of it all but I think we should reassure people that there’s also quite a bit of humour in the book, too. Did any funny incidents come about during the research phase?
Oh, there were several. One of the most bizarre experiences I had was being put in a police cell! That scene where the character’s arrested, for example.
That’s Tom, isn’t it? After he’s phoned the police.
That’s it. I wanted to make sure it was accurate. When I interviewed the domestic violence police officer I asked if he’d show me the cells. Walking along the corridor between the cells I asked him why each door handle had a toilet roll on it. Apparently these can’t be left in the rooms because they’re so often used to block the loo! It did look rather odd.
There’s not a lot in a police cell and the officer could easily have told me without the inspection … but then I wouldn’t have known the smells and echoes nor seen the graffiti on the walls, I wouldn’t have ‘felt’ what it was like to stand in the centre of that small, concrete box. You don’t forget the experience and I gained a little understanding of why the police take items off people that they could later use to hurt themselves with while being detained in a cell.
I have to admit it’s a book that stays with you. Well, it’s stayed with me, anyway. How about you? Has being with the subject, inside it even, changed you at all?
It’s opened my eyes to certain areas of behaviour that I only vaguely knew about. I’m also much more sensitive to spotting abusive comments in a wider content. In setting out to write Men Cry Alone I hoped to create, in the form of a novel, something that would help people identify whether they were in an abusive relationship and to spot the warning signs if they were with a new partner.
I don’t think there’s much doubt that you done that, Philip. Thanks so much for such great insights into it all. I hope the success continues.
Thank you, Bill.
Read more about Philip on his website.