To outward appearances, Nigella Lawson has things all figured out: she runs her own media business, has a successful publishing career, and makes frequent public appearances looking impossibly glamorous. She’s everything that an ambitious woman is meant to aspire to be. And, it emerged on Sunday, she also appears to be a victim of domestic violence.
At first, the images published by the People were shocking, as you’d expect of any depiction of violence against women. But then we started to think about what happened, started to ask questions, and a more insidious suspicion took root: the casual and callous way in which Charles Saatchi laid hands on his wife in public led some commentators to suggest that this wasn’t his first attack on her.
For him to so brazenly attack Nigella in full view of both passers-by and fellow Scott’s patrons, without trying to conceal or disguise his actions, implied much about the dynamic of their relationship. Witnesses told the newspaper that Nigella had attempted to placate her husband by speaking reassuringly and kissing him on the cheek; many readers will be able to identify this as the classic response of a woman threatened by her spouse.
But Nigella doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a victim of domestic abuse: she has economic independence, makes regular trips overseas on business, and presumably does not lack the resources to move away from her abuser. So, we wonder, why does she stay? A 1998 study reported by Psychology Today may provide some answers: “Emotional abuse plays a vital role in battering, undermining a woman's confidence.”
While it seems that Nigella and women like her have sufficient self-esteem and personal agency to succeed in business and personal endeavours, their intimate relationships are far less clear-cut. What the events of this weekend demonstrate beyond anything else is that even independent, capable women can be bullied and manipulated into accepting physical and verbal attacks that, for whatever reason, they won’t or can’t walk away from.
The emotional manipulation used by abusers is well-documented and wholly discomforting; their victims are isolated from friends and family, deprived of the resources that would help them escape, and worn down to such a low ebb that they accept violence they would never have tolerated previously. In the case of successful or high-profile women, their visibility might discourage them from seeking help; the gap between their private and public personas might seem so great that to report being abused feels like admitting a weakness.
At the time of writing, the UK press is reporting that the police are investigating Charles Saatchi following the publication of these images. Saatchi may later face charges; in spite of his wealth, it seems unwise for him to pursue a libel case when the evidence is so damning. It’s inappropriate to conjecture on the future of Charles and Nigella’s marriage – perhaps she will remain with him in spite of public condemnation of his actions.
If nothing else, we can hope that the story – so shocking when presented against a backdrop of middle-class media comfort – inspires other women to seek advice and assistance if they find themselves in similar situations. This week, like every week, two women in the UK will die at the hands of their violent partners. This week, like every week, all women deserve better.