Funded by the State Library of Western Australia, 16 Days, 16 Stories is a courageous new collection of stories presented in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence, recorded for the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

The tall, funny, muscular man Catherine met at a party would months later try to drown her in the Swan River. Here, she talks frankly about surviving violence, living for herself, and rewiring a childhood lacking love and respect. “This isn’t my shame,” she decides.

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following story contains themes of family and domestic violence that some listeners may find distressing. If you have been impacted by family or domestic violence and are in need of support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.

Photograph of Catherine Eastman

[Transcript]

My name is Catherine Eastman. I’m here so I can tell my story and advocate for family and domestic abuse. I think that by telling my story will encourage other survivors to feel empowered and come forward and maybe we can educate survivors and perpetrators and hopefully find some change in society.

I’m going to tell this story of the last abusive relationship that I was in. I was engaged. I met my now ex-fiancé when I was at a friend’s house and it was that instant attraction, love at first sight thing. He walked through the front door and he was tall and muscular. He was dressed really well, he smelled amazing and I just, we made eye contact and straight away I was just so attracted to him. Got up, shook his hand and he picked me up and spun me around the room. It was just intense. It was funny. It was fun. It was electric. And that’s kind of how our relationship developed. So, it was quite a passionate and things moved really quickly. We were both really into each other and he moved into my place quite quickly at the time.

One of my best friends who has a young daughter was in a violent relationship herself. And when he found out about it, he gathered a group of his friends together and helped her and her daughter moved out all in one day. So immediately they just got together, moved her, and he put the fear of God into her then-boyfriend and just said, “You leave her alone. You’ve got to let her go. There’ll be trouble if you don’t.” So, I thought he was this magnificent hero, but as it turns out, he was in a gang. And I found that out later. Once I did, I was already so involved, and I had this perception of who he was. So, it didn’t really matter to me. And people still question me about that. But this is just one story of one relationship I’ve had with a man in my 35 years of life.

And I think if you look back at a woman’s past and childhood, you will find that growing up, perhaps relationships with men, even their own fathers, that standard of how well men treat women isn’t that great. So, when they, when you go forward and start to get relationships yourself, you’re only going to reach the standard that you’ve always known. So, for me, just seeing the relationship between my parents, which was very disrespectful, and more, which I won’t get into now, it really paved the way of what I would accept in my own relationships in the future.

So, one night my ex didn’t come home and the next day there were news reporting that someone, a man had been shot and murdered and that it was gang-related. And instantly I thought, it’s him. He’s been involved somehow. So, my ex had gone on the run, but he wasn’t gone very long. When you are in that kind of lifestyle, your community becomes very isolated. First of all, you can’t tell many people, “Oh, my partner is a gangster.” So, you end up, isolating from family and friends, work colleagues, and then within that group of people talking about things that occur, criminal-related things, they don’t talk about it either because there’s a lot of suspicion, a lot of paranoia. So, I couldn’t really, I knew he was involved, but I was able to come up with the, with varieties of stories in my mind as to what possibly could have happened. And of course, I was in love with him, so I was excusing that what had happened. You know, likely wasn’t his fault, which was ridiculous.

Now, he went on the run, he came back and it wasn’t long before the police caught up with him. So, 4:30 in the morning one day, the tactical response group rocks up at the front of our house. There are spotlights on, police all out the front, a megaphone asking for all the residents of our address to come out with your hands up. So, at the time he was living with a flatmate, so there were four of us in the house at the time. I was the first person to go out, hands over my head. Rifles pointed at me. It was terrifying. The police kicked me to the floor, kicked me behind my knees, swearing at me. It was disgusting behaviour. He was taken away. I saw my friends and my fiancé treated in the same way, worse. He was taken away. He ended up being in prison for six months while they carried out the investigation and at the end of it there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. So, after six months in the special handling unit, which is kind of an isolated part of the prison, he was released.

That’s a whole other story. But the way that our prison system works, releasing someone who has been in isolation and without any kind of rehabilitation is very dangerous. So, the third night of his release, we were at a friend’s house. We were looking for a rental property. We just had dinner. I was in the shower and he’s come bursting in, dragged, drags me by my hair from the shower into the kitchen. My friends are standing there, I’m naked, I’m wet, and he just is pushing me to the ground, kicking me. He won’t let me stand up. I don’t understand what’s going on. He’s swearing at me, calling me all sorts of names. I don’t, I don’t get it. He calls me a slut and he wants me to get dressed and I’m not computing because he’s the one that’s forced me into the kitchen. Eventually he lets me go.

So, I stand up, I get dressed as soon as I’m dressed. He runs in with a knife and there’s his, one of his friends comes in and, and gets the knife off him, but then he gets me by my hair again. We’re in an apartment, we’re in an apartment block in this city. He drags me out by my hair again and just pushes and kicks me and drags me by my hair down six flights of stairs out into the city streets. And I can’t help but think, you know, he’s not even giving me the decency to walk down. This is this is a man that swept me off my feet when I first met him, and now I’m not even given the choice of walking down the stairs to God knows what. I finally get down, he drags me to the Swan River, pushes me in. It’s winter, it’s dark, it’s cold, the water is choppy. He jumps in after me and swims over and holds me under. And I’m underwater and I don’t understand what’s happening. I’m terrified. And finally, he lets me off a few times, finally, the police have attended. Just before they drag us out of the water, he looks at me and he threatened to kill me if I say anything. And so, I don’t. The police help us out. They ask what happened. I say that we’ve just had a few too much to drink and we’ve gone for a swim. They don’t explore it any further and yeah, we go back to the apartment and I stay with him.

I was now in a situation where I was terrified of him. Of course, I’m linking his behaviour to that ongoing murder investigation, but also there’s a part of me that still absolutely loves him and now I’m excusing his behaviour with possibly it’s the mental health issues caused from being in isolation, giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Three weeks after that we finally had our own rental. I’m cleaning, doing the dishes. I’ve just put my daughter to bed. It’s about 9:30 at night, and he calls me into our bedroom. As soon as I step through the door frame, he just punches me in my face. I can feel the engagement ring I bought him, connect with my jaw, and he proceeds to torture and beat me for hours and hours and hours. I’m in and out of consciousness. I’ve got massive bruising. I can’t see anymore, and my eyes are swollen. And he tells me that he did murder that person, that man. And that he’s now deciding whether he’s going to murder me. I know at one point he’s got me in a headlock. We’re sitting on the edge of the bed and there’s a full-length mirror in front of our bed. I’m passing in and out of consciousness and I’m sitting on the edge of the bed. He’s behind me. He’s got me in a headlock and he’s just weeping silently. And I’m looking at his reflection and he’s not saying anything. He’s just crying and crying and crying and, and I’m thinking, “That’s it. He’s, he’s going to kill me. He’s going to kill me tonight. What’s going to happen to my daughter?”

And at some point, early in the morning, I’m aware that there’s a knock on the bedroom door, and it’s my little girl. And she says, “Mum, are you okay?” And I remember looking at him as she spoke those words and it’s like his eyes change and he suddenly looks afraid. And I say, “Yes, baby, I’m fine. Go back to bed. Everything’s okay.” And there’s a few seconds of silence. And then we hear her walking back to her bedroom and closed the door. And that was what broke that assault from continuing to happen that night. And after that we did, the relationship did end. And I want to make it clear that I still did not leave him. I didn’t break up with him. I think it’s important to understand that men like that are not men that you leave, they release you or you escape. People, men like that are so controlling that you don’t break up with them. It’s not a possibility. So, he released me, and he did because he had started a relationship with a lady who lived at the apartment that we were at when I was assaulted at the river. So, he found or moved onto someone that was better. And I’m not saying that to put myself down. She’s a criminal lawyer and I’m a dental hygienist. So, for someone like him, it just made more sense, and wonder every day how she’s doing. So, I guess coming out of that, I experienced a lot of mental health issues, depression, anxiety, PTSD. I couldn’t work. I wasn’t functioning as a mother or even a human being. I was terrified all the time, every moment of every day. I thought he was going to find me and put a bullet through my head. You can’t live your life at that level of terror.

It wasn’t until the relationship had ended and I needed support that I reached out and then started to learn and become educated on family and domestic violence. And also, the police played a huge role in that. I remember being, I was, I’m so blessed, lucky for me, that I worked only with detectives because of who my ex was involved with and they checked on me all the time because I was so scared. I didn’t want to answer my phone. I didn’t want to leave my house. Even the thought of going to therapy for something I did, I knew that I needed it, but I was so hurt. I couldn’t step out of my comfort zone even though I was uncomfortable.

But the detectives who supported me would check on me all the time and were very encouraging with me and they would always try to get a conversation started–“How are you Cat? No, really, really, how are you?” “I’m not, well, I’m using drugs now. I’m drinking every day. I’m having really suicidal thoughts.” And they’d stay on the phone and talk with me about it all. “Cat, please, I’ve referred you here. Please go for help. Will you please, please, please?” And so eventually I did, but it probably took seven or eight months after the assault for me to reach out. I’m so glad I did.

There were a lot of things that I did to, to move on from that person I was then. And it ranges from exercise and meditation, a lot of therapy, one-on-one therapy, group therapy. And of course, I’ve started telling my story and that started almost straight away after that second assault. I just, I just thought, I’m going to tell, I’m not going to be ashamed of this. This isn’t my shame. And I started telling whoever would listen. And now I’m in a situation where I’m quite comfortable. My, my colleagues know. Sometimes I’ll need a mental health day off work. And they’re very understanding. And that’s a wonderful thing for survivors. I think we have this perception that people are going to judge us, but they really don’t. People are wonderful and they just want to understand where we’re coming from.

My message to other survivors would be: try to find a support group. Not every group is going to work for you. Do what you can and try everything you can to find some wellness, whatever that may be. And also, for just everyone hearing my story, have a look at your own relationships and, and analyse whether what those relationships are really reflective of love. Because I grew up and I had no idea what love was. To me it was quite normal or even acceptable to treat people or women with disrespect. Is your partnership one of two equals? Is it respectful? Are you ever scared? Because love and fear can’t exist side by side. And if you can look at love, and sometimes we, sometimes we learn from what we experience and other times we learned because we have to develop ourselves and educate ourselves. And that’s what I’ve done really tried to understand the psychology behind family and domestic violence and depression and anxiety and PTSD.

And I really wanted to put a lot of research and time into understanding how gender inequality can contribute to family and domestic abuse. So, do what you can to understand your own relationships and remember the relationships that we’re, the romantic relationships that we’re in, if we’re parents, play a huge role in shaping how your children will grow up and be in their own relationships. The worst thing I can imagine is having my child abuse her partner or be abused by her partner. And let’s all just take a little bit of time and have a look at our own lives and our relationships and let’s try to make them loving.

Copyright © 2019 Catherine Eastman

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Catherine Eastman. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

Production by Rita Saggar and Claudia Mancini. Recording by Terri Bellem.

Photo by Claudia Mancini.

© 2020 Centre for Stories / Site by Super Minimal