Interview with Rebecca Gibson, WOVE (Women Overcoming Violent Experience

by Mary Montaut

We started in 1992 out of MOVE (Men Overcoming Violent Emotion) because the men in MOVE thought their wires or partners needed something. We have since become completely autonomous, because an awful lot of women wanted to join us whose husbands or partners weren’t in MOVE. We felt while MOVE ran a very structured 13-step programme, it wasn’t what the women needed, because they didn’t need to control themselves – the trouble was that they had been controlled so long, so we had to find a different way of working with them.

Jane O’Hanlon started MOVE on her own, and then she asked me and another woman to come with her and now we have six facilitators. At the moment there are two groups going with another one probably starting in May. The amount of people who come to us is small, and the work is very confidential. You can’t put people out in public to say they’ve benefited from WOVE. At the moment we have two women who have come through our ranks for the last two and a half years and have now gone on to further education and jobs. They decided that they would like to stay within the movement and give a hand, and they took facilitation courses and one of them is now helping facilitate one of the groups, which is great for us. One of them separated from her partner, the other one stayed with her partner, which is good as well, because for some people it is good to separate, and others it’s not. That is the way we like to work – it’s whatever the women want at their pace. The only thing we would say to them is to try and keep themselves safe – whatever way they can do that. Now it may be they have to stay in these relationships for whatever reason – they feel they can’t leave. We hope that the women who have stayed have moved, maybe not separated but they have certainly done something within the relationships to help themselves. We only have trained people working in our groups and eventually we hope that they will all come from within the ranks, though I’d say a mixture of outsiders is also helpful.

We like to have about eight to ten in a group, and we don’t advertise it as therapy groups. We advertise them as support groups because that’s what they are. Unique to ourselves, we have ten-week slots for the groups, and after that the women who have been through the first ten weeks, and who would like to do more work in a deeper way, can go on and do another ten weeks and so on for up to two years. Those groups may be only five, but we feel if we can touch five women through this kind of work so that it doesn’t happen again, that they don’t either slip back or enter another violent relationship, it’s worthwhile.

Because we are not funded, we find it difficult to keep these groups going, but we may leave them as a self-help group for the last weeks, before they actually move out completely and stop coming. We wouldn’t like to create a dependency either.

Usually when women come in, they’ve been in crisis one way or another. Something has happened – either they’ve had a particularly bad time, the worst time maybe that they’ve ever had, or their partner may have started on the children, or they have separated from them – then they come in. They say, “I thought that now he was gone I’d be fine, but I’m just getting nowhere, I’m all confused.”

The women in our groups might all be at different stages. It might be the first time they’ve ever told their story to anybody. It can be very harrowing. I was astounded at the kind of violence that women put up with, I really was – I was not prepared for that when I started to do this work three years ago. I could take it and hold it and contain it, but I was absolutely shocked at what I heard, and the amount of sexual violence that is really hidden in marriages.

We have found that, even if they’re only there for three or four weeks, you usually see big movement; maybe one person in a group of five would take longer. One woman took about eight weeks to open her mouth within the group, other people could be talking from the time they come in, and some people would just feel like crying for a week. But everybody takes it at her own pace and, because they’re facilitated well, they’re allowed do that. I suppose my training and Jane’s training would have been in client-centred, non-judgmental kind of therapy, so that’s what we use for the group. Because the men were so controlling, we felt the last thing that the women wanted or needed was control. So we felt that the only way was to let them move at their own pace – to help them to see the things that they could help themselves with – because they felt powerless. Now, they knew rationally that they weren’t powerless, but they felt very powerless, so we had to let them connect up with all of these supports for themselves. They needed to find out what would it be like if they told somebody – who could they tell? What about their children if they decided to separate? What about barring orders, protection orders, how would it affect them?

Everything needs to be very tightly thought-out for them, because their situations are difficult enough, and if they went impetuously or impulsively and got a barring order, say, and then felt that they really couldn’t enforce it, that could set them back another two years, or they might never go again for a barring order. So we really had to think these things out with them, and let them know that it’s not something they have to do, they might find some other way.

They get so much support from each other, and they become friends, they go for coffee together afterwards – you know, if even two or three of them hit it off like that we feel it’s so much support for them, outside of the hour-and-a-half we give them every week. We encourage them to contact each other. It’s good for them to know somebody who can really connect with their experience because that is where they are too. They learn coping strategies from the other women. It’s very powerful – you can see the difference in them after just three or four weeks. The work is very, very hard – it’s just like being in therapy. Looking at yourself is always hard, and the more you go at it, the more you realise how much you don’t know – that’s really difficult. They may miss a week because it was really difficult and they found it hard to come back, but then they will come the next week and talk about what it was like for them.

The men’s group (MOVE) is excellent, but I think that when the 13-step programme is finished, it would be more helpful if they had a psychotherapeutic group to go to. And I think, if a man isn’t aware and doesn’t  have insight about himself he can continue to be very verbally abusive. We have women in our groups who may never have had a physically violent relationship, but the verbal abuse they suffer is horrific. He may be going from room to room abusing you verbally, telling you how awful you are, how bad a mother you are, how inadequate a lover you are, how nobody would be bothered looking at you, and at the same time, saying don’t wear that dress, wear the other one, I wouldn’t have hit you, only you gave me my dinner on a blue plate… I wanted my dinner at three o’clock and here you are at five o’clock and it’s not even made… It’s constant abuse and terribly confusing.

The question of violence suffered by women from their children is a difficult area. Anyone who is working in therapy will tell you that someone growing up in a violent atmosphere like that will either align themselves with the aggressor or with the pacifier, so that’s what the children do. Sometimes they look at their mothers and think, who wants to be a pacifier, look what happens to you; so you become like the aggressor. The people we work with are suffering violence, it could be from a father, from a mother, a partner or a child, it is violence within relationships. We feel that if the sons are violent with a woman, then the partner is usually like that with them too. Or if the partners are like that, then the sons could be, or the daughters – the daughter could as easily align herself with the father. After all, who wants to be a woman if it means being a punchball? Who wants to be that? I suppose consciously I wouldn’t use a feminist perspective in this work, but I think it’s there with me. All of us would be politically aware of where women are at, definitely.

We don’t take women who are themselves violent with their partners, because I think they need a different programme than we can give them. I have come across some men, at the IACT Open Day, who come up and say, I’ve been beaten by my wife and when I went down to the police station they just laughed at me. I thought that was horrifying, but we can’t do it for the men. We couldn’t bring men into our group because they are seen as aggressors.

I know that the same percentage of men and women in gay and lesbian relationships have the very same problems, so maybe it will become a question of domestic violence, no matter whether it’s men or women who are being violent, or men or women who are being violated. Although we don’t see the women who are violent, I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen. A woman may get violent with her children if she’s experiencing violence from her husband, from the sheer frustration of it, or if she isn’t able to contain her own anger, and women will often speak about that. Once they are going through the programme and seeing what happens to themselves and they gain in self-esteem, then they can usually manage their anger, they can talk about it and get help,  but it’s a really difficult area.

We don’t charge the women for the groups, because very few of them would have access to money. We find that a lot of middle-class women are coming to us now. They come with jewellery and beautifully dressed, but they are marginalised in a particular way and they actually are not allowed access to money. And women who are very well paid and have good jobs, find their husbands stop giving them money, so they have to spend their money on the house and children – so they still don’t have any money. So we just take a pound towards tea and biscuits, but even then we would not like to think that somebody wouldn’t come because they hadn’t any money. We would like to keep it a free service and we wouldn’t like to charge, because so many women couldn’t avail of it.

We don’t have any regular funding. Of course, we have to pay for training for our facilitators, we have to pay for rooms for our committee meetings, we’ve had evaluation and we did get funding for most of that, we were lucky there. Certainly I would love to be able to pay facilitators, and pay people for the work they do. They work very hard – it can be very stressful and distressing work and I would wish that people could get paid for it… but that will come. Having said that, the generosity of people is enormous. We are now training six or seven people for our helpline, and that is also going to cost us money. It is attended two hours every week, and has an answering machine. It is a massive commitment, but because the women do so well, it really is nothing compared with what you get out of seeing them. The women are fun, they are really fun to be with – they have such strength, they have such charisma about them, and in all of these horrible stories, they are so witty, joyful: in every way they are a celebration of life.

THE WOVE HELPLINE IS ON 01 830 0153.

Rebecca Gibson is one of the founders of WOVE and works with them as a facilitator.