The Archers: An everyday story of coercive control and child alienation

rob-timothy-watson-and-helen-archer-louiza-patika

Rob Titchener (Timothy Watson) and Helen (Louiza Patikas)

Even outside the UK, you might have heard about the long-running much-loved BBC radio soap opera, The Archers, and its brilliant plot in recent years that has included two lots of coercive relationships.

One of those coercive relationships – the domestic abuse – is in all the media headlines. The other – parental alienation of the children – has yet to appear.

Now’s the time to get them both trending!

Coercive control No 1: Intimate partner abuse

Over a couple of years now, Rob’s slow and excruciating coercive control and emotional abuse of his wife, Helen, has been brilliantly developed and portrayed in the daily BBC radio episodes of this ‘everyday story of country folk’. All the features are there, including how even Helen’s closest friends didn’t know.

Then, earlier this year in a heated incident, Helen stabbed Rob. She has been in prison since, awaiting her trial for attempted murder. The trial has been the recent main storyline ending with a full-length jury scene in which she …. (uh-oh – spoiler alert! I’m not going to spoil it here!). You can find details of the trial week collected here.

The plot so far could have been inspired by Evan Stark’s real cases of women who murder their coercively controlling partners – read his book Coercive Control.  However, in The Archers, Helen’s defence did not hinge round being the victim of a ‘liberty crime’ as Evan proposes in general for these situations. But it has been his thinking that has led the way in the UK, including the recent law on controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate and family relationships. Scotland is developing its own version.

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-20-04-50

12 angry white identikit etc men … i.e. before “equal opps” was invented!

The hour-long jury episode made me think of the famous old film 12 Angry Men.  Watch that 1957 film here if you don’t know it. It started as a TV show in 1954. The difference 60 years later is that equal opportunities have happened! The Archers’ jury had to have the women in it – especially for a crime of domestic violence!

In the UK and (I’m told) elsewhere too, you can (for 30 days after it) download the show. I like that Omnibus edition each week (5 episodes = 1 hr 15 mins). It’s like binge-watching a box-set on Netflix.  Mind you, the pictures – as they say – are indeed much better on the radio. You can get the Omnibus edition as Podcasts – and I think you can save that version.

If you cannot download BBC programmes, you CAN get the overall picture so far from pages like this one: Helen and Rob: The whole story. And The Archers Trial Week: The Key Players

Coercive control No 2: Parental alienation

Now, what has not featured yet by name – in the script or in the media – is how Rob has also long been turning, and is planning to turn, the two children against their mother. Yes, of course, that’s commonly known as Parental Alienation (PA). It’s the show’s other family pattern of coercive control and undue influence. This other alienation storyline has been equally stomach-churningly and subtly scripted and acted. Brilliant stuff! Listen to any of the Omnibuses.Linda_Gottlieb_PA_Book_Cover

Now that the trial has ended there is still a custody battle in the family courts brewing. The little boy, Henry, has been skilfully coached by Rob to say the right (ie negative) things about Henry’s mother, Helen. He’s ready to say enough to make it seem in court like it is in his best interests to stay with his step-father.  And there’s their baby too … Rob has firmly given him one name, Helen has firmly chosen another name.

And here’s a question: If the law in England and Wales, and soon in Scotland too, is called: Controlling and coercive behaviour in intimate and family relationships, shouldn’t that somehow also be able to tackle Child and Parental Alienation?!

This one could run and run!

So now is the time to get Coercive Control and Parental Alienation into the headlines and the social media as well – in the UK if not across the world. You can Like and Tweet and ReTweet this important headline news across the world. Even if you don’t get BBC Radio 4, you’ll be doing a great service to help us raise these profiles in the UK.

And even if we cannot raise an urgent profile, we think there may be quite a few years more for us to do that in! The script writers say:

” … We deliberately decided to use the dirtier route and not have [Rob] die, because now [he and Helen] are umbilically linked together as long as they have those children together. So I think they have another 20 to 30 years of the story.”  

Sunday night’s episode hinted at this. A custody battle is due to take place on 14 September. And at the end of the [last] episode Helen had a chilling run-in with Rob:  “Did you think you could tell all those lies about me and I’d just disappear?” he said. “Well, you might have fooled everyone else, but we both know the truth … You haven’t got rid of me. As long as we have a child together, you never will.”

Uniting against coercive control

The Archers plot does go with the stereotype of men as always the villain of the piece. But there is a silver lining for the understanding of Parental Alienation in that it shows that Alienation is not so gender specific as so many people think it is.

Most powerfully, The Archers unites two family coercive patterns in one go. We see how closely linked the two patterns are through the damage that undue, or harmful, influence does. Read more about the whole range of undue influence patterns here with Learning about a common enemy, and also on the website of the Open Minds Foundation.

Those who deny or rubbish Parental Alienation are also those who strongly hold to the so-called ‘gender-based’ coercive control view of domestic abuse, that it is essentially based in patriarchy and male power everywhere. See Evan Stark’s Coercive Control for more on that.

But even so, The Archers presents the most wonderful unifying moment for these two close and often furiously gender-opposed fields – domestic / intimate partner abuse and Child Alienation. Both of these are forms of family coercion or undue influence – and both feature the essential element of the isolation and the alienation of the victim by the coercive controller from their other family and friends .

A treble chance headline hit

So please talk about or otherwise promote this boost for awareness of all these three important issues.

1. Coercive control in Intimate Partner or Domestic Abuse,
2. Coercive control in Child and Parental Alienation. and
3. Coercive control as found in all kinds of Undue Influence.

Use any social media you can. You’ll find me on Facebook (search for Nick J Child) and Twitter (search for @Nick234678). There you will find my Posts and Tweets that you can Like, repost or ReTweet. And/or you can Follow me too.

I’ve suggested we all keep using this hashtag:   #TheArchersTargetKids   Or make up a better one yourself!

Nick Child, Edinburgh

Advertisements

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

10 comments

  1. Liz Burns, family therapist, responded like this:

    I think you are right about the potential for the Archers story line to highlight important themes for us as therapists and the families we work with.

    One of the issues which has disturbed me during what I agree has been a riveting plot development has been the real difficulty in keeping the needs of the children in the centre of the story. We know this has been a horrible tale of coercive control and systematic persecution of one partner by the other (who actually seems deluded) but the even more horrible plight of the children in the middle, and the potential for this kind of pattern to be passed on down the generations, seems only to be remembered intermittently.

    I am not surprised that this is the case as, in real life, most adults tend to think of themselves first and children later, even if they do not intend to do so.

    So, I would like to suggest that the Rob/Helen, Archer/Titchener narrative will inevitably highlight the ways in which adults manipulate children in adult feuds. Could we perhaps also use what resources are at our disposal to highlight the desperate plight of these children, who are not only pawns in the adults’ game, but individuals in their own right, whose development is being jeopardised, albeit unwittingly (maybe), in their elders’ fight?

    A bit of a challenge for scriptwriters, I know, but they are a talented bunch! Maybe we could even have some sensible interventions from social workers and other responsible professionals?

    Best wishes, and thank you for raising the issue.
    Liz

    Like

  2. My reply to Liz Burns:

    … keeping the needs of the children in the centre of the story.

    Absolutely and indeed. Keeping the needs of children paramount is so often paid only lip service – or done by the craziest versions of incorporating “the voice of the child”. The gender-based debate between men’s / fathers’ groups and women’s / mothers’ groups escalates like a tribal war zone. All of this gets in the way of putting the child’s welfare and needs first.

    If you want to see how strongly many of us in the field of high conflict family separation agree with you on this, read my overview here: http://tinyURL.com/NickChildPA. And browse some more on this blog too.

    Some more thoughts. If anyone knows how to get through to the script writers of those that manage the media around the Archers, let’s do it!! I guess they’ve already shaped the script and plot up far far ahead. There’s the family court hearing this week, so we will see how well the system works for children. In July the lawyer herself was distracted by flashbacks from her own life experiences and apologised for not doing a good job preventing Henry going to his coercive stepfather.

    The Archers is mainly entertainment. The child actors are pre-recorded sound-bites. So that echoes their unreal place in the story.

    The original educational remit was about agriculture not family abuse!! But it has certainly been solidly educational about it now – so they should be pushed to get all aspects right.

    Like

  3. I have been following the story line with some concern…as it has been brought out in line with the new legislation in terms of coercive control, which appears to have been designed almost entirely with men in mind assumed as abusers of women.

    I was in court a while back in public gallery and overhead a police officer talking about this to a defense lawyer during a break – suggesting that there would be plenty more work (defending men) coming his way soon…

    As such, then – the story line simply mirrors the way domestic abuse has overwhelmingly been perceived as a ‘male perpetrator on female victim’ issue.

    However, interestingly – the police officer (who appeared to me to be gay) went on to say with some irony that in his estimation most of his male colleagues – if they were to be honest – would have to admit that they continually lived in coercive control relationships…with their women the ones in control!

    Seen in this light, it could in fact be suggested that many and indeed possibly most heterosexual relationships have this element of coercive control by women over men built into them, and that the coercive control legislation is only designed to pick up those few exceptions to the rule, in order to further substantiate the increasing power of women over men.

    This reality is strongly alluded to in the attitude of the middle class ‘Foreman of the Jury’, who ends up describing the injustice he has received…however this small resonance is immediately overshadowed by his consequent inability to perceive the likely innocence of Helen Archer in this story.

    Perhaps we can only have one story line at a time – perhaps it would seem too contrived to have more than one…but a considerable imbalance is felt here. Would it be conceivable to spend an equivalent amount of time (2 years) relaying the step by step process of coercive control by women over men?

    Meanwhile, the hero of the story here is the middle-aged middle-class woman juror who is able to dramatically turn around the whole scenario of a seeming guilty verdict with her calm and brave reasoning.

    When it comes to the subject of parental alienation, although there are certainly female victims of this…for which we should be truly appalled, the basis for this is simply the removal of one parent from the home…and this is overwhelmingly the male. This coup of removing one parent in this way, and leaving the child with the other one, immediately indicates to the child in a manner far more powerful than words alone can do – that one parent is now infinitely more important, and the other infinitely less so. The stage is automatically set for parental alienation unless the now resident parent actively works extremely hard to counter this.

    The majority of resident parents (i.e. women) do not do this, and so an element of parental alienation is likely to creep into most of the hundreds of thousands of separation situations we have, making it one of the biggest social problems (and yet almost unrecognized) that we have today…with millions of children suffering from devastating levels of “father deprivation”, but who will often not even understand what has happened to them, until it is too late (i.e. by that time many of their fathers will be ill or dead, and even if not, those critical years can never be brought back again).

    But none of this can be brought out with the current story line as it is….instead, once again, men as a whole are going to be demonized when in reality they (as well as the children) – are largely the victims of women.

    The whole thing seems a mess, and nothing has yet been said to challenge this at all.

    Like

  4. Reflecting further on this, I was reminded of the guest appearance of a serving police officer at the first meeting of a new men’s group recently. He was there to talk about his significant struggles with depression – his “black dog” – he described it, as Churchill had. But it was obvious that his depression centred around his wife (a wpc) – long before any damage caused by the breakdown of his relationship, in financial and career terms.

    This fits exactly with the observation by the (gay?) PO mentioned above. Perhaps, the more “macho” the man in his work environment, the more likely he is to be subject to coercion and control at home?

    Rather than being an exceptional phenomenon, coercion & control would appear to be something of a norm which exists on a spectrum – with only the most extreme examples gaining attention.

    In my community development role I am coming across many examples of elderly men in particular – who instead of being able to live peaceful lives in retirement, are being tormented by their wives (and sometimes children) in this way.

    In my own situation, my daughter was able to say at the age of 11 that she had “one gentle parent (she meant me) – and one rough one (her mum)”.

    I guess this whole scenario is partly to do with individual character failings and the effects of childhood abuse, etc – but just as much to do with cultural expectations in regard to gender relations which have been in such turmoil since WW2.

    Like

    • Thanks for these thoughtful reflections. I’ve had my own family reasons recently to think about gender and work and family home-work and more ordinary conflict and coercion and need and lack of collaboration, negotiation, acknowledgement or thanks.

      But I’d add that I know many stories of powerful women at work who find they’re totally the opposite at home and in their personal relationships. And no one can believe that their work skills don’t apply in their private lives.

      And we know don’t we of that old saying of spouses who face the retirement of their loved one: “I married him for life not for lunch!” I guess that too is not as gendered a saying as we’re used to!!

      Nick

      Like

  5. Reblogged this on Parental Alienation and commented:
    #TheArchersTargetKids

    Like

  6. alisonom

    I fear coercive control is much more wisepread than the figures suggest. My experience is that it is quite common, not just in divorce but in families everywhere. When Mum or Dad says to their child, “See, look what your Mum or Dad is doing now – he/she is so stupid” it begins to knock a child’s respect for the other parent. And from there it is a slippery slope.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s great when parents are on the ‘same page’ as far a values go, but as often as not there can be a significant mismatch. These kinds of issues can only stand a chance of being resolved in couple counselling – which I consequently believe should be promoted as a normal part of childcare provision as soon as children come into the picture at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Alison, there is now some evidence of how widespread alienating behaviour is. See our Links page, for example, for evidence that one in three kids of separating parents say that one parent tried to turn them against the other parent.

    Meanwhile, this is an interesting article from Family Law Week – four real family barristers comment on the fictional situation in The Archers.

    Do we understand them? Do we agree with them? They don’t mention Alienation … so does that matter?

    Comments below please! Thanks.

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: