Jennifer Still
June 16, 2013 12:21 pm

The horrific reality of abusive relationships – the fact that a person could put their hands on another whom s/he purports to love and care for – is one we have been confronting for years. Never was the issue more prominent in our culture than after the Chris Brown and Rihanna incident in 2009, and the dialogue has continued since. Why do the abused stay with and/or return to the abuser? Do they feel as though they provoked their partner’s anger? As though they deserved it, or as though he was just having a bad day and didn’t mean it? More importantly, why does anyone feel the desire to hurt the person they love?

Of course, domestic violence happens to “regular” people every day, albeit with much less credence given to it. Celebrity culture – uncomfortably pervasive as it may be – only serves to kickstart the conversation and hopefully draw more attention to stopping such terrible acts of violence against women (and yes, some men, as well). Today, yet another beloved public figure was unwittingly thrust into the spotlight as the Sunday People published photos – not just one, but several – showing millionaire art dealer Charles Saatchi actively choking wife Nigella Lawson while having lunch at a restaurant in London’s Mayfair neighbourhood last week.

Saatchi is seen putting his hand around Nigella’s throat – first just one, then using both hands – four times throughout the meal, causing her to become increasingly distraught and upset, though “onlookers” have claimed that she at times seemingly tried to placate her husband – perhaps knowing that they were on public display – and get him to calm down. Eventually, she left in tears. (For more photos, you can visit the source here – there are numerous and they are all incredibly upsetting.)

Nigella – a beloved chef known for her wonderfully warm and effervescent personality, her undeniable beauty and her downright delicious recipes which spare no calories – is, by all accounts, a jarring example of the very basic truth that abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of how successful, how powerful she might seem in her everyday life. In fact, anyone who follows Nigella on Twitter would have been especially shocked to see this morning’s news, especially since the stars feed – even less than 24 hours ago – seemed so delightfully normal and, frankly, rather idyllically happy.

Of course, most abuse is not known about, hence the reason it is allowed to continue. Partners will cover up for one another, hide the signs – shading over bruises with make-up, painting pictures of their spouses as loving, gentle creatures – whether because they are under threat for revealing the truth of what’s happening behind closed doors or because they have fallen into the saddening reality of victim mentality, believing that they were at fault, that they can prevent such incidents from happening again in the future if they only change their offending behavior. It is a vicious cycle, in more ways than one.

In Nigella’s case, not even the relatively busy restaurant environment was enough to spare her from her husband’s wrath that day and her fellow diners – of which there were many – offered no solace as they preferred to remain “onlookers” who would later give lively and horrified statements to the press rather than doing something in the moment, intervening and possibly stopping the abuse. This simple fact is, perhaps, the most troubling part of all.

While many would defend the lack of action, to me the response here is clear: I find it disgusting that not one person in that restaurant thought to go over and do something, anything, even if it was only to ask Nigella if she was okay (which she clearly wasn’t). We are so conditioned as a society to “mind our business” in all the wrong situations, but the logical, moral course of action here is simple: if you see someone in trouble, you try to help. That doesn’t change when the person is a public figure or if the abuser looks particularly menacing or any of that. Those things are all excuses. If someone is in trouble, you try to help. End of.

Scotland Yard is said to be investigating the incident (although what investigation is needed is unclear to me given the proof in the photographs themselves), and Nigella’s 17-year-old son was seen moving suitcases into a waiting taxi during the early hours of Sunday morning, with reports suggesting that Nigella has moved out of the family home following the publication of the photos. Whether this decision came as a result of the embarrassment caused by the photos’ publication or by the realisation of seeing in black and white before her eyes the conditions she’s allowed herself to live in for what I imagine is a large part of her 10 year marriage to Saatchi, I believe it’s a step in the right direction.

Of course, many women don’t get such a chance. The embarrassment of being exposed to millions never comes because they are not in the public eye and because they have become masters of disguise to ensure such a thing never happens. Domestic violence is real, and it is happening every day in front of our eyes. We may not often get a chance to stop it, but when we do, why wouldn’t we? In a society that encourages us to be selfish at all times, this is one situation – admittedly, of many – when that rule should not apply. Speak up, do something. Use your power to try and help stop someone who is misusing theirs.

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