Recent High Profile Male Disclosures of Childhood DVA

Over the weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger put out a very powerful video speech in response to last weeks events at the capitol building in the USA. He recounted the impact of his own experiences in childhood growing up in the shadow of the Nazi era in Austria. As part of this he talked about his own experiences on domestic violence and abuse (DVA);

“I’ve never shared this so publicly because it is a painful memory. But my father would come home drunk once or twice a week and he would scream and hit us and scare my mother. I didn’t hold him totally responsible because our neighbour was doing the same thing to his family and so was the next neighbour over. I heard it with my own ears and saw it with my own eyes.”

When reflecting on this disclosure, from a 73 year old man in the very public eye, I started to think- why now? And thinking back over the past year I can recall some more examples of similar older white men in the public eye who have started to disclose childhood DVA in recent months.

In October 2020 Conservative MP Mark Fletcher (35 yo) disclosed his experiences in a debate about the Domestic Abuse Bill and again on the radio, noting that

“Has it made a lasting impact? The answer is almost certainly yes. I’ve spent pretty much my entire life terrified of overtly aggressive men.”

Interestingly, he talked about the way that his aversion to conflict and uncertainty about confrontational men has caused him to be “left in pieces” by aggressive male bosses in the past. This is part of the impact on men that has seldom been talked about- how male child survivors deal with masculinity as a result of their experiences. He said he “never wanted to be a poster boy” for the legislation but that he hopes speaking out has shown domestic abuse is not just “a women’s issue”.

Boris Johnson himself has been outed as a child survivor of DVA this year as well in a biography about him. His mother was interviewed and made the disclosure;

“In the book, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, 78, says that she wants “the truth to be told” and claims that her marriage to Stanley Johnson was violent and unhappy.”

Although he hasn’t publicly responded to this, possibly complicated by Stanley Johnson’s role in the public eye, appearing on celebrity programmes, as well as Boris Johnson’s police call outs to his own home within the last few years which suggested there may have been DVA occurring within in his own relationship.

In December 2020 Patrick Stewart, actor aged 80, disclosed in the media that he is still receiving therapy to deal with his traumatic childhood experiences.

‘I am 80 years old and I am still in therapy,’ Sir Patrick told The Telegraph.  ‘I see someone every week here in Los Angeles, who I have seen on and off for nearly 20 years. I’m still searching myself, still asking questions of myself, and that is certainly the case when I try to recall what it felt like to be in the middle of violence, and there being nothing I can do.’ 

‘I knew that all of our neighbours knew what happened in our house, and it humiliated me, shamed me. My brother and I felt ourselves responsible for what happened, but of course we were not.  ‘To know that you were surrounded by people who were aware of the horror stayed with me, and that’s why I never talked about it.’ 

Where he noted that he felt humiliated, shamed, and responsible it is both suggestive of him dealing with the powerlessness of childhood and subordination to the perpetrator, but also he is alluding to the pressure that boys can feel that they ought to be able to challenge the perpetrator- that in terms of masculinity ‘real men’ should fight back, stand up for themselves. These are messages that wider society give boys and men which are simplified into portraying an innate desire to fight- which is very much complicated when boys are vulnerable and scared in childhood.

We are in a very interesting time in terms of masculinity performance through seeing disclosures of past abuse by men who are outwardly successful, high up on the scale reaching towards hegemonic masculinity ideals. These are men who the public look up to as film stars, actors, parliamentarians. Notably both Arnold S and Mark Fletcher have been politicians on the Conservative/Republican side of the political spectrum which is not necessarily most associated with the presentation of masculine vulnerability. What was notable even in the short excerpts discussed above was that they talked about working through masculinity in terms of how they coped in childhood, as well as since (not fighting back but feeling enduring pressure to do so, feeling scared of aggressive men). Mark Fletcher talked about struggling at work at times as an adult where he had aggressive bosses- taking a role in workplace banter which sought to diffuse tense situations- placing him not as a threat to the dominant men but sidestepping the conflict.

Arnold Schwarzenegger has spent his life portraying a tough guy hypermasculine persona in films, however in later titles in the 1990’s and 2000’s this has changed somewhat, which has been written about by Messner (2007);

“Schwarzenegger forged a credible masculine imagery by introducing characters who were humorously self-mocking and focused on care and protection of children. Schwarzenegger’s resultant hybrid masculinity, the “Kindergarten Commando,” represents an ascendant hegemonic masculinity always foregrounding muscle, toughness, and the threat of violence and following with situationally appropriate symbolic displays of compassion. The equation of toughness plus compassion composing the Kindergarten Commando is asymmetrical, with toughness eclipsing compassion; this has implications for the kinds of policies that U.S. elected leaders advocate. Republicans utilize this masculine imagery in national politics to gain voters’ trust in times of fear and insecurity and continue to employ a strategy that projects a devalued feminized stigma onto more liberal candidates.”

So here we can see that it is the overt invulnerability that Arnold S portrays, both through the type of films such as The Terminator, but also his physicality as a muscular and strong man, have given space for him to present a compassionate side which is even more endearing due to the contrasting masculinity performances. Messner talked here about this dual portayal of tough and vulnerable masculinities could have been key to his election as a political figure- he has embodied the tough yet compassionate protector in his roles.

The UK context of the new Domestic Abuse Bill has been rumbling on for several years and in this bill children will be outlined as victims of DVA in their own right. This change has been evolving partly due to a move in academic research towards framing children as experiencing DVA rather than witnessing it (Callaghan, Alexander, Sixsmith, & Fellin, 2015; Överlien & Hydén, 2009). When I last worked in front-line practice five years ago this was still a minority view then. However Gill Hague published a book in 2012 noting the ongoing impact of childhood DVA on adults (Hague, Harvey, & Willis, 2012). We are certainly seeing a new moment that adults can start to claim their own histories of abuse and be taken seriously. But as I have discussed in my own research, this has been previously gender-neutral, considered as a “women and children’s” issue which has been under the bracket of the ‘Violence against women and girls strategy’ (Home Office, 2016). However as Mark Fletcher wanted to highlight from his experiences- this is not just a ‘women’s issue’, which is being reflected and reinforced in the increase in disclosures in the public eye by men.

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