Wellness

Rosie Batty: What I’ve Learned So Far

Family violence campaigner Rosie Batty shares her life lessons at FW X Westfield: Women in Conversation event.

By Natalie Cornish

Wellness

Family violence campaigner Rosie Batty shares her life lessons at FW X Westfield: Women in Conversation event.

By Natalie Cornish

Few people know pain like Rosie Batty. In 2014, her life was turned upside down when her former partner, Greg Anderson, murdered her 11-year-old son Luke following a cricket match.

Since then, she has become an outspoken and dynamic campaigner against family violence, calling for both systemic and attitudinal change in Australia – where one woman a week will be killed by domestic violence and one in four children will experience it at home. This advocacy led to her being named Australian of the Year in 2015. 

Here, Rosie talks the stigma of grief, how losing Luke affected her friendships, finding purpose again and her plans for the future as part of our FW X Westfield: Women in Conversation series in partnership with Dove, at Queensland’s Westfield Carindale.

On Speaking Up

“The opportunity to talk to other women is a really important part of my journey as well. It can be really isolating if you’re a mum, it can be isolating if you’re recovering from loss or tragedy. I think the more we are able to share our experiences and our views of life how we cope, how we push through it gives us further strength and I think that’s what’s really important. Gaining strength from each other.”

On Finding A Sense Of Purpose

“When we see something on TV and I think a lot of people here today probably remember seeing me on the news you can’t imagine how you can ever recover, or cope, or live through something that’s so hideous. It does change your life and it will never go back to being what it was, and you would change it if you could in a heartbeat, but we have enormous strength within us. With the support of the people that love us, our families and our friends, we can reach a place that we don’t just survive, we actually find a sense of purpose and meaning that can change your life in positive ways that you would never anticipate. Although my journey I would never wish on anybody, I have never had so much purpose and meaning.”

On What’s Got Her Through

“The hardest part when you experience something so horrific is that people don’t know what to say and they don’t know how to look at you. And when they look at you, they look at you with pity, dread, fear that they will upset you. Many people will avoid you. Or deliberately not speak. Life changes and your relationship with people change. But I’m still that ordinary person that needs friends, that needs family. What I hope I have been able to achieve is now people greet with enthusiasm. They see me and they are pleased and happy to see me, and they don’t fear coming up to me and saying, ‘Hi Rosie, I admire you’. I’ve not had anybody come up to me yet that sits behind the Facebook pages trolling me. So the positive reinforcement I get, the encouragement I receive has lifted my spirits on so many occasions I couldn’t count. It’s really what’s got me through.”

On The Stigma Of Grief

“We don’t talk about grief. We don’t talk about anxiety and PTSD and all the things that so many of us are dealing with. One of the things that has always concerned me is that people see me on the TV and see me as this very calm, collected person. Yet many people very good friends and family have seen me utterly distraught, screaming, shouting, so confused because I couldn’t even explain the extent of my behaviour, the remorse and self-loathing I experienced afterwards. So many people would never know because that was in my bedroom at night on my own. Where you go and the braveness and the projected image of yourself crumbles. You’re left alone with just you and your pillow. And that’s when a lot of the braveness falls away and you can cry. For me I’d like to think I’ve always been authentic. I’ve always tried to be open and honest because I’ve always been that person. But what comes with being recognised is people’s judgement: how they expect someone like me to behave. I’ve always compared myself to Lindy Chamberlain. We did not like the way that Lindy behaved when she lost her baby, we couldn’t believe a dingo would be capable of such a thing. Her stoicism; we judged her for it, and we put her in prison. And I think that if I’m able to debunk some of those myths that go with what grief should look like, how people can and do recover, they may never be the same person. You’ve got wonderful examples like the Morecombes who through their pain and their loss, seek to make change for others and it gives you more than you can ever imagine. And the people who come with you on that journey, and the people who identify with you because of that journey, mean you’re not alone. Because it can be an incredibly lonely, isolating path.”

On What To Say To Someone Who Is Grieving

“I think it’s being authentic, not trying to be somebody that you’re not. And I can tell you that in those immediate moments, the Salvation Army, your neighbours and the community do an amazing job with casseroles and toilet paper, groceries their kindness is overwhelming. The physical need to do something. You know my windows were cleaned, my toilet was repaired, my grass was mowed, everything was done for me in a practical sense. But the emotional support you need is more complicated, more difficult and more challenging. And that’s where it starts to become difficult because people do move on with their lives and you hate them for it because your life can’t. You are stuck. As the reality of what you’re stuck with continues to sink in over the weeks and months and then the years.”

On How The Loss Of Luke Affected Her Relationships

“Guilt is exactly the wedge that can creep in with some of the people that you’re very good friends with. I think of the groups of mums that I knew because we shared our children, starting school together in prep, so the pain I felt as I saw them in that first year as 11-year-olds turning 12 and looking at graduating primary school and going into secondary school. I could not believe how much the children changed in one year. It was so painful for me, and yet the children needed to see me because I was their connection to Luke. And they were little kids affected by a tragedy, no-one knew what to say to them, how to support the kids. And so that first year was incredibly difficult. And all I think you can do is be as honest as possible and say, put the elephant in the room, have opportunities to talk, if tears come, it’s not about avoiding pain. It’s not about not making me cry; it’s about being comfortable with those tears. It’s being comfortable in realising that opportunity for emotion instead of having to suppress it and be brave is okay and to sit with whatever is coming. And being that person that sometimes is just there at what they would think is the wrong time, but maybe is the right time for emotional stuff to come out. But not everyone can handle it and I honestly don’t know whether I could myself. But I do know I’ve learned a lot through what I’ve needed. People have been amazing to me. In the end we are humans, we need social connection and, when you are depressed, that’s when you don’t reach out. You sit at home alone feeling like everyone has forgotten you, when really they don’t know that you’re sitting at home alone feeling self-doubt, that you’re not good enough and all the other negative self-talk. I’ve also learned over the past year particularly, as I’ve felt more alone than ever, it’s up to me to take those steps and that’s what I continue to do. Now that I’m able to do that more, the quality of my relationships and where I’m sitting is so much better.”

On The Assumption That Women Should Just Leave A Violent Relationship

“One of the things I always correct people on is that I never married this man and I never, ever lived with him. I never did leave because it was my home and I raised my son as a single mum. So I find the assumption that I was doing all the right things by leaving something that’s really important to understand is that when you share a child together there is no leaving. The violence follows you, it takes different shapes and there’s no guarantee that it will end. When I started talking there was a lot of victim blaming. I was very determined that we would move from the question of ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ to ‘why is he choosing to be violent?’ The reason that question of why doesn’t she just leave is so disheartening is because that is when you are most likely to be murdered – where the violence is more likely to escalate and you are at higher risk. And the one woman a week that is being murdered is when she has done that or is planning to do that. So the degree of fear and risk is incredibly real. And it is something that you’ll be encouraged to do. You’ll be encouraged to take those steps, and you know what, when you’re in an incredibly dangerous situation, sometimes you don’t even know the danger you are in. There are no other options, but it doesn’t guarantee you’re safe. One of the pressures women have faced through child protection, through police and other sources is the assumption that when you leave all of a sudden your life gets better. Well then we get dragged into family law courts, then we get dragged in to other court systems. And you find the violence takes on other forms and becomes systemic abuse. So the journey is an incredibly difficult one and, perhaps the perception of being a victim somehow implies that you are weak or vulnerable, when the reality is you’re incredibly courageous, incredibly resilient and resourceful, have enormous guts because you’re managing what other people would be managing in a war zone. And so I think it’s really appreciating that this is an incredibly complex area, and a very difficult place, when you understand the impacts on children where whether they are being directly experiencing violence or not they will always be affected and traumatised, and it will always have an effect on their potential and their wellbeing.”

On Victim-Blaming

“One of the things I think we are shifting is an appreciation of how prevalent this situation is: one in three women will experience physical violence. We’re now starting to see people who would have blamed that woman for being out in the park late at night or wearing a short skirt. We’re now starting to realise that’s victim blaming. Actually as women safety is a right that we should assume, but we are all born, and at the start of our birth, we are conditioned to take responsibility for our safety. And the man, through his privilege and entitlement, sees us potentially as possessions and property. That is very definitely shifting, but as that shifts and our society is more and more threatened by women being empowered, having equality, it really challenges everybody, including us. These are really great conversations to have. We need to be having them with our grandkids, our children, we need to be having them with our peers and our friends as we view the world with more openness and insight. I’ve realised that a more gender equal world will mean less violence against women, but it will take generations to see this change and that becomes overwhelming for me when I’m contacted daily by women caught in the system or experiencing violence that they don’t feel they can ever escape from. And when I meet women around Australia, as I do, who have had to change their identities, relocate and hope they’re never tracked down because they will never be safe. To be tracked down by social media, to not being able to be seen in a public space, it’s a world that a lot of us would never understand or realise and yet it’s so common.”

On The Collective Strength Of Women

“I think that women have amazing talents, women have amazing qualities, and untapped potential. For some it’s about recognising and believing in that, for others we are further along the journey. But collectively as women we need to be supporting each other, and we need to be encouraging each other to aspire to be all that we can be and not holding ourselves back because we do struggle with a lot of self-doubt. We are more likely to think we think we can’t do it than assume, of course we could. This opportunity to embrace their potential to be encouraged to think it’s collective and that makes a big difference for some of us and I know it does for me. But I think we also get a lot from sharing and that’s a woman’s strength: we are able to share. We know when we become mums, we share tips around the journey of pregnancy, the journey of raising children. We share information and support each other in ways that men have not. And when we look at the crisis of mental health, and the astonishing statistics of men taking their lives, we can blame that a lot on toxic masculinity where men are tending to be this stoic, strong, silent type who cannot voice and cannot share what’s going on inside. For me, I think the sharing women have is why we can be, and we are, so resourceful and strong, and we need to look at how we encourage our men in our lives, and young men and our children, to also have that emotional access to the vulnerability where gender is no longer a badge of honour or an obstacle to overcome.” 

On People’s Assumptions

“People assume that because I speak out about family violence and I don’t shy away from the fact that is a gendered issue that affects way more women, although it can affect men, it’s way more women there’s an assumption that I must dislike men. And I find that infuriating because, how could I hate men if I have a son that I adore, and adored and was proud of? How could I hate men when I have three brothers who were fantastic? How can I hate men when I have an amazing father? And how I could I hate men when I had a man that helped me write my book [60 Minutes’ Bryce Corbett]? And great male friends? How do we have conversations that are difficult to have because they’re supposed to be a dirty little secret kept behind closed doors and the shame was placed on the woman for being the victim? How do we include men in this discussion without alienating and appearing to blame, but not shying away from the reality?”

On Dealing With Notoriety

“It’s a really strange position to find myself in. Sometimes people recognise me but aren’t sure of my name, then when I say who I am, they say, ‘Oh my god, you’re that woman’. Most people, even if they don’t recognise my name, remember what happened to Luke. So I find myself in a strange, dare I say celebrity status, where if I decided to go on Survivor or I’m A Celeb that would be so inappropriate. I can’t be too funny, I can’t appear to be too happy. I can still remember don’t smile so much on photos, but I think I’m through a lot of that to be able to be more me. And I have to say that the first year was very much coming to terms with the fact I couldn’t change this. No matter what I tried to do, and how hard I worked, I couldn’t undo the reality I would never see Luke again.”

On The Demands Of Being Named Australian Of The Year On Her Mental Health

“I don’t think anyone would ever know, except a few people who were around me, the demands on me. I had well over 2000 requests to speak. I couldn’t cope with the volume of demands and requests. I hadn’t got an entourage of people, I wasn’t prepared or equipped and I didn’t have the previous experience, but that year I spoke at over 250 events and that meant every day I was at the airport; every day I was travelling somewhere, like a ping pong ball across Australia. And I was determined to speak in front of all those professionals that should know more about family violence. That should have a better professional understanding. And instead of judging and blaming they need to understand the complexities and have better training. So I spoke in front of teachers, principles, nurses and doctors, police and judiciary, I spoke far and wide. I tried to create a ripple effect, but it took an enormous toll on me. Some people close to me saw what was happening, and the second year I was still compelled and I spoke at 180 events, a little bit less. But by this point a lot of people were starting to get worried about my mental health and worried about what was happening but I was so focused, and maybe I was scared about slowing down and stopping. Because whilst I could be so consumed it meant I didn’t have to stay at home alone, and maybe it was my way of coping. But it didn’t go without sometimes chain smoking, a bottle of wine, self medicating, breaking down with friends and family but I got through it. And I wouldn’t change that. But I wouldn’t be able to do it again. And now I have spent the last 18 months putting better balance into my life, where I have had to sit home alone very uncomfortably with depression, desertion, abandonment; all of the things I have struggled with nearly my whole life, since my mum died when I was six. I’ve had to understand that no-one can fill that gap, friends were there for as long as they could be and did the best they could, but they have their lives, they have their tragedy, they have their illness, they have their partners, they have their kids. I’m challenged with the new relationships I need to find with those friends that have their kids, and for quite some time I didn’t want to see my brother’s children: my nephew and my nieces. I couldn’t bear to see my parents being grandparents to them. And I felt incredibly guilty for having that resentment, but you know what I went back to the UK at Christmas and I was the good aunty. I hid in cupboards playing sardines, I went to the play parks and slid down slides and I loved being the aunty. I am re-development some friendships, re-defining some and I think that I’m now in a space where I’m not looking for people to meet my need. It’s about me being a friend too, and being somebody that people want to be around. Not duty felt to support me, that they want to be in my company.”

On Navigating A Second Wave Of Depression

“I think it’s when you become so much better that you realise how bad you’d become or were. Each time you think you’re enough okay, then you think ‘Wow, I really wasn’t but I was doing the best I could’. Somebody that’s here today, Lisa, she saw all of those dark times and it was tough, it was really tough because not many people did. I grew up learning to be brave from the age of six via a family that didn’t know how to express themselves emotionally, you didn’t share your feelings. Typical of being English. I think there have been other times in my life where I have been depressed or struggling: moving to Australia, feeling isolated from family and friends I had grown up with and having to carve a lifestyle for myself here I’ve always been very conscious that all my family live in England so my friendships are more important because I rely on them for company in ways that other people have family around them. So I’ve often felt a sense of isolation. I’ve learned that losing my mum in the way that I did, I have attachment disorders that have played out throughout my life. What I realised was I was struggling with attachment problems about people that could no longer afford to give me the degree of attention they had been after Luke’s death. Where people were checking in on me all the time; when that stopped I felt deserted and abandoned. I read a book last year that was gifted to me called Lost Connections. And that was a real turning point for me. It made me realise that what was connecting me to the relationships I was grieving, the loss of those relationships, the connection was Luke, he’d gone but to celebrate and to look at the new connections I’ve made. I’ve made some amazing friends, people who I have a lot in common with not just because of family violence but because they’re inspired, they’re committed a lot of those are politicians actually, and people that genuinely want to be part of a positive community. It’s easy to be disparaging of anybody out there doing the best they can and it’s easy to be judgemental and critical but there’s a lot of people out there doing amazing work. And they recognise the challenges, they can be there to help you, help support that journey.”

On Enjoying Life Again

“I still enjoy going to concerts, I’m going to see Elton John, I’m going to see U2. I still like to go to the theatre, I like good food, I like good wine and I can enjoy my life – and five years ago I wasn’t sure I would ever enjoy it again. But through good friends, it’s amazing how your humour doesn’t leave you. Even in the darkest of moments you can laugh. And those friends that can bring that out of you are worth their weight in gold. I’ve needed to take ownership of my own behaviour, I don’t want to upset people or feel entitled that they should understand, that they should feel sorry for me, should excuse me for just being angry. I don’t like hurting people, I continue to try to be that better person, and I’m much better at it now. Realising I have been severely affected by this not just at the time of Luke’s death but during the 11 years of psychological torment. And I am and did suffer with PTSD and trauma and acute anxiety. And although I don’t know that I have all of those now, I will probably be affected by trauma for the rest of my life, but it no longer has me in its grip. I think I will always be anxious for the rest of my life but I can manage that much better. I can take steps so it doesn’t overwhelm me and I can feel it growing and I have more choice in how I handle that.”

On Struggling With Perfectionism

“I am my worst critic, my greatest judge. The biggest thing that people can ever do for me is when they say, ‘You’re just being human Rosie, you’re just flawed like the rest of us, you’re allowed to be angry, or you’re allowed to be sad’. For people to reassure you that that’s normal, that’s acceptable, it’s okay, god that helps me because you feel like you’re failing to show vulnerability or you’re failing sometimes and that voice back, or that balance, that’s where we can be really great support to each other. Allowing people not to be perfect. That tough love as well, the tough love that says, ‘You know what that really upset me and I really don’t know that I think that was fair’. Because one of the things I had to learn was that I thought people could see my pain and understand what was coming out was pain, but it wasn’t them. I’ve had to sit and watch people leave my life because of the way I treated them. What’s been great is that some of those people have been able to come back. I realise that everybody does the best they can, and sometimes we have to make our own judgements about what’s right for us. What we can deal with and put up boundaries because that’s what we need to do at that time. 

On Facing Life’s Ups And Downs

“One of the other things when you’ve experienced a tragedy, doesn’t mean you don’t have to go through anything again. Two years later, Luke’s dog died and in the same 24 hours my puppy was killed I had two dogs die in 24 hours. I was a basket case. It doesn’t give you a ticket for the rest of your life that you won’t experience sadness and loss again. I’m very aware I’ve got an elderly father and my aunties and uncles, people are not on this planet forever. Just because you have something happen doesn’t guarantee that you don’t get sick. One of the greatest sadnesses for me was one of the police that was with me on my journey, that stood out heads and shoulders above the rest for being there for me killed himself on January 1st. The tragedy of Luke’s death affected him. And I think how many people are impacted. And how do we work with this to find peace, to keep hope so that those dark places that we find ourselves in, we can come out of. It’s really difficult.”

On Dating

“I don’t think for one moment I’ve ever considered a relationship. I felt that my feelings were consumed constantly thinking about Luke. When I’m not thinking about him, I’m thinking about him. But now, I have to say those memories are not so painful and there are gaps that I haven’t thought about him and other things have been occupying me. I now feel I have the space to care, but I don’t know if it’s just me but there’s not many decent looking men around! It wouldn’t have been right before now, but I’ve had to find and this is the same for everybody I have to be happy in my own company, in my own space before it’s healthy or right to look for somebody else. Possibly the timing is better than it’s ever been, but I think I need to be very discerning and I’m not going to go on any of the dating sites because how tragic would that look!”

On A Second Book

“We just talked about that night, so now it’s putting Bryce under that spotlight and pressure because he’s the master of the wording and shapes it all, but gives me all the credit which is very important! The time is right now. I think it’s important. I didn’t have any expectations about my first book. I was honoured to be given an opportunity by a recognised publisher. Reading for me has always been healing since I was a little girl. For many years, I’ve never read anything that’s been fiction, so reading is very important and the thought of having my own book, I thought how astounding that would be. But I was worried about why would I do that. The reason I wanted to do it was to give people a greater insight into family violence and how a woman like me living in a nice house defied all the stereotypes we used to think or believe. Family violence is amongst all of us. I’m sure a lot people are here because they’ve been touched by it. I wanted people to learn from my book. It’s sold 62,000 copies and it’s achieved way more than I ever imagined. I have it being read by professionals, by police, by people who truly need to understand how the journey could end that way when everything was done within what you can do. So the motivation for writing another book needs to be something that people can gain hope from and that’s what we landed with. If I can give some people hope, by sharing what worked for me or is working for me, how amazing is that that I can do that again?”

On Being Awarded The Order Of Australia

“I have been given more rewards over the last five years than I ever had! I was never made school prefect, I was naughty at school and couldn’t wait to leave at 16. So it’s been very bittersweet for me, but what an amazing honour. I have letters from Julia Gillard, the prime minister, politicians, people, Dame Quentin Bryce people who really take the time to acknowledge you. I have a lot of self-doubt, so I often think I’m not worthy, but how amazing. I feel incredibly honoured. And I’m more honoured by how highly they regard that, makes me realise how special it is. I can say I feel incredibly proud, And I don’t know that there’s anything left for me now, I think I’ve got most of the honours. I don’t know what else there is really!” 

On Working With The Media

“I’m always frightened that sometimes I’ll stuff up. That at some point, people will work out I’m not deserving of all this, and I’m really one step away from saying something that could be misquoted and used against me, so with this recognition comes fear that I could get it wrong and be vilified like so many other people that do stand up and try to make change and then it’s held against them. That’s one of the reasons at the very beginning my friends very protectively tried to dissuade me from standing up and talking to the media. How that can work for you, but how that can work against you. So I feel incredibly fortunate that the media have worked incredibly well with me and there’s no doubt that through that media support, the articles that I’ve done, the radio and television, that has helped give me all of that acknowledgment. What I would like to do is continue to, selectively, keep family violence as a mainstream issue but it is so exhausting and there are so many people working in the family violence space that have done so for decades, police, front line workers, people in refuge, it is unrelenting and it is so hard to keep going.”

On Criticism

“One thing I learned at the very earliest stages was do not find yourself from the online news. Do not go there. Never read the comments, because they start off fairly well and then there’s this ‘arghh’. Initially I was astonished that people could blame me for not protecting Luke, blame me for letting him have access to his father, blame me that my guilty conscious is why I’m speaking out so much. All of these horrid things, but you know what? It’s always more of the same. There’s nothing new and really once you’ve seen that, and can be surprised at people’s perception can be so negative about you, you realise they are not the majority. The majority are people like yourself who have chosen on a Saturday afternoon to come here out of interest, respect, intrigue, validation well that’s why I do this.” 

On Learning To Put Herself First

“The support I get and the acknowledgement I get, I often wish I could do so much more. I’ve had to understand there’s just one of me and for three or four years, I couldn’t have done anymore than I did. For my own sanity, and the cost of valuing friendships, family and my health, I have to work out what is Rosie Batty other than family violence. I have to have more in my life than the grimness, the darkness, the pain so I love to trek. Something to look forward to. This year I was in Portugal, I’m going to Scotland in September. I’ve done some great trips, that I could never have done if I was still a single mum supporting my lovely child. I wouldn’t have resented it in a heartbeat, but now I can go you know what, 20 years ago I wanted to walk the great walks of the world. Well guess what I’m on my way ticking them off. But I have to have the opportunity to, because when you’re enjoying something that’s taking your breath away (literally when you’re struggling!) it’s beautiful, cultural, great people around you, the camaraderie, you can’t be unhappy in those moments so it’s about making more happy times. The sad times will still creep in, they’ll still come but they’re not going to be the majority of your time. 

On What’s Next

“I’m still working out how I can bring more people on the journey with family violence, challenging attitudes, switching from victim blaming to conversing about men’s behaviour, to inspiring more women to recognise their strengths, their unfilled potential, their dreams and aspirations. Not settling for less. That’s lots to continue to do. I’m like everyone else; I have to pay my bills, I need an income. It’s another 10 years or so before I can retire. My super is crap. I have never bothered about my financial health… Its up to me to become financially independent and astute, to exercise my brain by taking an interest. The fastest growing area of homelessness is women over 55. Why? Because of all the financial inequalities that went from you being a primary carer, or taking part-time work whilst we were so invested in our children, so our super annexation is sadly lacking. These are the realities so many women are facing now and it’s really challenging for so many of us. If you’re a single mum, scraping together what you can, you don’t have the luxury of putting more into your super for another time, another day. All of a sudden here we are in our mid-50s saying it’s not that far away. It’s really worrying.”