I first met Natalie Collins last summer, when I heard her speak at a conference I was attending. Her presentation on the violent and abusive nature of modern pornography was hard-hitting and deeply unsettling, but insightful and provocative. So when I learned that she had written a book on domestic violence, I was very keen to read it; not least because she is starting from a first-hand experience of the problem. As I anticipated, it was a gritty, challenging and deeply useful read. Collins is frank, outspoken and prophetic. She challenges a great deal of received wisdom and theology.
Yes, theology. Because although this book addresses a general audience, Collins writes as an evangelical Christian who loves God and seeks to see biblical principles outworked in families and churches. She writes in an inclusive way, explaining church jargon when she uses it, but concludes each chapter with a suggested prayer. Indeed, her pastoral concern for those who may be re-traumatised by the book is evident throughout. This is, perhaps, one of those rare books which manages to straddle the divined between ‘church’ and ‘mainstream’ audiences.
The book is well-researched and accessibly written. It is full of information which would be useful for those in abusive relationships, those who seek to intervene in such relationships, and those who ought to be intervening – such as church leaders. As a survivor of domestic abuse, Collins speaks with clarity and honesty about her own story.
Addressing the church, Collins challenges ‘muscular Christianity’, which – she argues – feeds the narrative of toxic masculinity and female submissiveness. She challenges the all-too-prevalent advice to abused women that they should accept and endure their suffering, and win over their husbands by quiet submission (in a misapplication of 1 Peter 3:1). With reference to a case study she has been discussing, Collins says, ‘Jesus’ model for how to pray includes asking “Deliver us from evil”. For any Christian to tell Sarah she should endure evil… seems counterproductive (and extremely dangerous)’ (p.95). I would have liked a deeper treatment of this question, but Collins is not a theologian and it is for others to provide this. Notwithstanding this, she handles the Bible and theological concepts with a dexterity not often found in books of this genre.
The book is above all a practical book, a manual. Collins gives tips for emotional self-care, helpline numbers and many other resources, including a detailed safety plan for protection during several of an abused woman’s most vulnerable situations (a violent incident, the act of leaving, living alone, and when the abuser has an injunction against him).
Also particularly useful are the chapters which ‘bust myths’ about domestic abuse. Collins tackles common misunderstandings such as: there are certain personality types which make particular women more likely to experience domestic violence; debt/ alcohol/ powerlessness drives men to become abusers; a woman who remains in a situation of domestic violence is a weak fool. On the contrary, to quote Collins, ‘abusive behaviour is a choice’ (p.58) based on the abuser’s sense of ownership and entitlement. The psychological abuse often long precedes the physical abuse, and effectively incapacitates the woman’s fight or flight responses, for when the physical abuse begins.
The reader will note that I have been referring to the abuser as male and the abused as female, as Collins does. She acknowledges that domestic abuse is not an exclusively male-on-female phenomenon, but on the basis of the majority experience and her own area of expertise, she makes the pragmatic decision to adopt this convention (p.9). No doubt this will make some readers uncomfortable.
Working within these power and control frameworks, each abuser has patterns of behaviour which seek to gain, maintain and exploit power and control in a relationship. Collins identifies and describes eight such (overlapping, and not mutually exclusive) patterns: the Humiliator, the Threatener, the Exhauster, the ‘Nice one’ (manipulator), the Brainwasher, the All-mighty, the Demander, the Isolator. In describing and analysing these abuser types, she tells some hair-raising stories, some of them her own.
The book is not all doom and gloom. Towards the end, Collins sets out her vision for hope and change: her own story of salvation and redemption; the existence of good men who resist toxic stereotypes and honour and value women; the possibility for abusers to change; the many agencies and individuals who help to resource and restore those who have experienced abuse. But she also throws down a huge challenge to the Church. Abuse in churches appears to be as prevalent as in society at large. What are we going to do about it?
Walter Brueggemann (in Prophetic Imagination, and elsewhere) says that the prophet names injustice; laments and rages against it; and sets out a vision for a different future, inspired and made possible by the in-breaking Kingdom of God. In all these ways, Collins is a prophet, and her words should be heeded.
Director of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence,
Bristol Baptist College