The thing about domestic homicides is that you can always see them coming. There is a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviour consistently adopted by abusive men towards female partners that always begins with love-bombing and, if left unchecked, ends in murder.
A woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner every four days in the UK. And the myth persists that these murders are spontaneous — just the result of two people having a fight and one of them ending up dead. But, as renowned criminologist Professor Jane Monckton-Smith makes clear in her new book, In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder: “They are the most predictable homicides, which is why we can and should be preventing them.”
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To prove her point, Monckton-Smith has developed a method for detecting and intervening in these relationships. According to her eight-stage time-line, the escalation of risk can be tracked and halted before it reaches a deadly conclusion.
She formulated the model during a research project based on 400 intimate partner homicides. Drilling down into each of these cases, she realised they all played out in the same way — even the four incidences of women killing men. When published, her research was naturally greeted with a frenzy of enthusiasm and attention so she decided to develop it into a book.
In Control is a devastating read. It opens with as powerful and heart-breaking an account of the complexity and deadliness of domestic violence as I can remember reading. It is a story from the author’s early days in the police service, an account of her attending the scene of a “domestic”. Monckton-Smith arrives to help a young woman who had been hit on the head with a lump hammer. “Her boyfriend – her assailant – had fled the scene before any of us arrived. The woman was simply gazing at the floor, quiet and very still. There was blood trickling down the back of her neck and onto the carpet.” Despite her serious injuries, the woman refused to go to hospital.
It left me in tears, keen to know what had pushed Monckton-Smith to submerge herself in the horrifying details of these hundreds of homicides. “Anger,” she tells me.
After joining and leaving the police service, and fronting a heavy metal band for a decade, she then went back to school. “That’s when I started studying criminology,” she tells me. “And that’s when I started getting angry.”
Focusing on male violence while studying for her PhD, Monckton-Smith read the work of feminist criminologists such as Sue Lees, whose work exposed the misogyny within the criminal justice system. But it was meeting Frank Mullane, the CEO of Advocacy After Fatal Abuse, whose sister and nephew Julia and William Pemberton were killed by her former husband in 2003, that led Monckton-Smith to focus on domestic homicide.
“Frank took me to meet a family where the mother had been decapitated in front of her children,” she says. “Every single one of the stories I heard when we visited these families had a ring of ‘I’ve heard this before’. Things that hardly ever came up in court, such as his controlling behaviour, such as how she wasn’t allowed to have the lights on, or how he always had to know where she was.”
From there, she went on to develop her now widely-taught forensic model for the identification of domestic abuse. But she isn’t your conventional academic. She prefers her work to be read by those outside of the elite institutions rather than churn out papers for academic journals. But even though this work isn’t gathering dust on university library shelves, there are certain of her colleagues who are dismissive.
“Am I looked down on by some academics? Oh yes!”, she says, describing one conference at which she was presenting a paper on violence against women. “Some male academics were sneering at me, saying that my work was ‘voyeuristic’ and that there wasn’t a proper academic angle. So I thought, ‘Right, fuck you, I am going to give this the forensic attention that it deserves’. It made me realise how dismissive some people are of women being killed.”
Her book is neither academic nor voyeuristic. It is one of the most important books on abuse you will read, detailing each of the eight stages from first inkling to murder. It starts with the best advice that you can give a woman at the beginning of a relationship: “Don’t ignore what his ex said just because he says that she’s lying.”
These men are a type, says Monckton-Smith. It is not a crime of passion and they do not “just snap”. We can often predict how things are going to go by looking at his history. So any allegations of abuse in previous relationships, or any criminal records should set alarm bells ringing. This is stage one of the eight.
Stage two, she says is the abuser pushing for a commitment from his victim, such as a baby or moving in together. “Once they’ve got that commitment, it’s written in blood as far as they’re concerned,” says Monckton-Smith. “When they say, ‘You’re mine’, it can sound romantic. But what he is saying is, ‘I own you and you can never leave me’.”
By stage three, the abuser begins in earnest to create a situation where the woman would find it almost impossible to leave. At this point, coercive control at different levels is happening in practically every case. At stage four, he feels his control slipping. This happens almost always when the victim leaves or attempts to leave the relationship. This morphs into stage five, during which he will escalate the abuse in order to regain control.
“If she has left him, this is where the stalking comes in,” says Monckton-Smith. “There may be more threats of suicide, more acts of coercive control.” Or the perpetrator may decide to go back to stage one and love-bomb her in an attempt to remind her of how things were, or he could circle back to stage three and reassert his control.
“Stages three, four and five can be revisited over and over again for years,” she says. “Alternatively, he moves on to stage six, which is where the real danger of homicide begins.”
Stage six is when the perpetrator will decide how he is going to resolve things, having decided he may not regain control unless he kills her. If this is his decision, stage seven is the planning stage. “Some plan for months, years even, others for a few hours, but the important lesson to learn is that they do plan,” says Monckton-Smith.
The homicide is the eighth and final stage: “It is rare they fail. Forget what you hear about how he ‘just snapped’, that’s bullshit.”
Despite its harrowing subject matter, In Control is very readable and extremely accessible. She brings the eight stages to life using real case histories — interviews, police files and court documents — to highlight the methods and motives of the killers.
‘Vincent’ is one such murderer. “Vincent is ordinary,” writes Monckton-Smith. “He has never sought to be otherwise. His three-bedroom semi-detached house on a pleasant urban street … is well maintained, as is his ageing four-door estate car – precious emblems of the life he considered any man could expect. He claimed his entitlements and nothing more.”
Vincent stabbed his wife, Donna, 38 times because she had planned to leave him. He wasn’t usually a physically violent man, but he did control the movements and behaviour of Donna and their children. According to Monckton-Smith, who visited him in prison, Vincent saw himself as the victim. “He is not unlike so many of the other men I looked at.”
Monckton-Smith brings Donna, and all the other dead women in this book back to life with respectful scrutiny as she tells their stories with the help of 999 calls and the recollections of family members. She pores over medical records, text messages, social media and letters written by the victims that describe their abuse. She allows their cries for help to be finally heard.
Monckon-Smith says wants this book to save lives. “I don’t want people saying, ‘Oh, he was really jealous’ or ‘He was depressed, isn’t it awful?’ I want them to be saying, ‘Why wasn’t it recognised before? Why didn’t somebody say something? Why wasn’t this stopped?’”
After a year of lockdown, during which calls to helplines have risen significantly and household tensions have been unescapable, this book is more important than ever. If people hear these dead women’s stories, if people learn from them, then maybe others will be spared a similar fate. For until these domestic deaths are seen as the cold-blooded murders they are, the morgues will continue to fill with the bodies of women who could — and should — have been saved.