Writing Coercive Control into Fiction (very, very carefully)
September 2019 saw the paperback publication of my first legal thriller, Degrees of Guilt, under the pen name HS Chandler.
It was difficult to write for a number of reasons, but the most immediate of them was having proper consideration for the real victims of coercive control. Last year saw the overturning of a conviction following the defendant’s account of living in a coercive control relationship. The subject has taken on a new importance, and public understanding of the subject is - I’m delighted to say - at an all time high. What we don’t have figures for, or a solution to, is the number of such relationships that exist behind tightly locked doors. And I never forgot that for one moment when I was writing the book.
I view it as a privilege to write books that are traditionally published, that people review,
that they comment about on social media. My job is to entertain my reader, to wrap them up in a different world, to make them think, cry, gasp or laugh. To transport them. For this reason, it’s inevitable that my books contain an element of the shocking, the unfathomable and the terrifying. It comes with the territory when writing crime and psychological thrillers that you use people’s fears and nightmares, the worst that humans can do to one another, as subject matter. Yet there are real victims out there. Some survivors, some still fighting for a chance to survive, and others who have yet to encounter the monsters who will harm them. As a writer, balancing the need to entertain against the moral requirement to be respectful to victims, can be a tough one. For me, the question of getting that balance right, boils down to one simple question: Am I glamourising the criminal behaviour?
In a coercive control relationship, the behaviour can take a number of different forms. These
are usually long term relationships, and often there’s a power imbalance from the outset. I believe that power imbalance is rarely a coincidence. My professional experiences as a barrister showed me that abusers actively seek out partners who have personality types that they can manipulate and dominate. In Degrees of Guilt, the abuser went out of his way to find a partner with a history of self-harming. That may be an extreme example, but it worked for my plot, and it’s an obvious case where someone is already suffering or has suffered in a way which might make them still vulnerable. Coercive control, though, is often better hidden than that. It’s a chipping away at the confidence of a victim who might not even have recognised their own frailties until they are powerless. By nature, coercive control is shrouded and secretive. If it weren’t, it would fall more readily and firmly into the category of domestic violence. The other issue with coercive control is that there may or may not be any physical violence in the relationship. It might be purely verbal abuse or long term psychological torture. It might be only the threat of violence, or blackmail about past events, or the threat of harm or disclosures to family members. Coercive control is the ever-
present ghost of violence, pain and unhappiness. And it is terrifyingly real.
So the challenge for me was to write a book which brought the issues to the surface, without
making them nastier than was necessary. I needed to make the fear and horror tangible whilst making it clear that often the torture amounts to nothing more than looks, comments, tuts of disgust,a refusal to acknowledge another human being, a way of having sex, a way of making the victim feel worthless. Being ignored can be more demeaning than being shouted at. Being given a nickname that the abuser knows you hate, when they pretend it’s your failure to have a sense of humour about it that’s the real problem. Taken individually these behaviours may not be fast-paced and suspenseful thriller fodder, so I had to wrap them into a storyline that showed not only the action but their internal impact on the victim. In addition, I used a secondary character - Lottie - who is living a very different life, but who quickly also finds herself wrapped up in a toxic relationship. It was the parallels between their two stories that allowed me to write a more nuanced story where there didn’t have to be so much abusive “shock” value to the scenes when the coercive control is shown.
For anyone wondering why coercive control has suddenly become such a big deal, the
answer lies in the available defences to murder. Traditionally the courts have applied self-defence as a legal defence only where the circumstances leading up to the use of self-defence were immediate rather than long-term slow build up. In coercive control cases these days, the courts are starting to recognise when a defendant suddenly snaps after long-term abuse, effectively causing diminished responsibility, which is an unbalanced mental state that is short of insanity. It’s a huge leap forward in a culture which has been late in understanding and applying the effects of long-term abuse in court proceedings. These big cultural and legal issues need closer examination, both in non-fiction and fiction. We just need to be sensitive in how we handle them. Writing the book was, at times, harrowing. I only hope I’ve done the subject matter, and the very real victims of coercive control, justice.