“We had a close family unit,” says Dr O’Leary, something that many children growing up in the families she studies don’t get to experience. “We also had a very strong cultural identity. For my mum and dad, Irish folk music was a way of reaching back to Ireland.
“We inherited that interest in music from them. I always wanted to be cool, liking Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham! – Dermot’s taste was more eclectic, although for him Bruce Springsteen always really was The Boss.”
Springsteen himself has spoken of the abuse that people can experience from those closest to them, writing in Born To Run, his 2016 autobiography, that his own father had passed on “a misogyny grown from the fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives crossed with the carrying of an underlying physical threat, a psychological bullying that is meant to frighten and communicate that the dark thing in you is barely restrained. You use it to intimidate those you love.”
It’s a description with resonates with what Dr O’Leary’s studies have revealed and what she has termed “intimate terrorism”.
“It can be small things to start with, with perpetrators using a softly, softly approach, with what you are told to do or not allowed to do. They control a woman seeing her friends and family until she is trapped in her own home. She can only rely on her abuser in the end. He is all she has.
“Your home is where you have the right to feel safe, and this feeling of safety in your sanctuary comes from the people you surround yourself with.”
And in this year’s pandemic lockdowns, Dr O’Leary warns, with more people stuck at home, “if there are dangers, these are going to be ramped up”.
Certainly, figures suggest that domestic abuse has got worse during lockdowns. Messages to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline increased by 120 per cent on just one night early on in the first lockdown and increased again during the second recent lockdown, according to Refuge, which runs the service.
So does Dr O’Leary think lockdown has pushed people over the edge who had never exhibited violence or coercion before? She’s not convinced this is what has happened.
“The situation has exacerbated existing tensions in relationships, but that’s very different from developing into what we would think of as an offence. There is a narrative with abusers saying ‘I reached boiling point’ or ‘I just snapped’ or ‘I lost control’, but that worries me because it removes responsibility. This isn’t about loss of control. Abuse is about actual control and the environment where abusers instill fear and power.”
Dr O’Leary is talking from her book-lined study at home in York, its calmness in stark contrast to the turbulent homes we are discussing. She moved there from London after switching careers from publishing sales to academia. Her first interest was media reporting of crime and for her PhD she studied the impact on local communities of the 1996 Dunblane massacre and the 2002 murder of two 10-year-olds in Soham. It was unlike anything she herself experienced while growing up with Dermot.
“We’re still very close,” she says, and they share the ups and downs of their careers. While Dermot was always loved gigs and festivals, she didn’t – “I’ve never been moved to wade through mud and live in a tent” – but she and her parents would always support his career by attending an X Factor show every season, often taking in a rehearsal where they would mix with judges such as Simon Cowell and fellow Irishman Louis Walsh.
“We both share an interest in the media and how it can shine a light on dark places. Dermot’s very aware of my work and criminology, certainly on victims and survivors.”
When she thinks of her past, she says: “I look back on some relationships I have had, I can see how they might have spiralled into something more problematic.”
Domestic violence is now recognised as a problem by both the public and police. But convincing people of the existence of coercive control has proved much more difficult, even though it became an offence five years ago. Dr O’Leary says her research shows that coercive control is still not understood.
“The police have had training in this but it’s still very difficult. They are used to dealing with domestic violence, but they are unlikely to be called to a case of coercive control. Sometimes, even the victim might not see it that way. And there is still a lot of work to be done with other professionals. Often, the issue with survivors of abuse is how they can access help without the abuser finding out. A GP appointment might be the only time they can say to their abuser: ‘You don’t need to be in the room.’”
Yet she is heartened by the resilience that victims can show and the efforts of organisations like Refuge to help them. “What is really important,” she says, “is that victims can regain their agency so they can choose what to do.” In other words, they are women who can rediscover their precious liberty and live their lives without fear again.
* Name has been changed
Refuge is one of four charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Carers UK, Macmillan Cancer Support and Cruse Bereavement Care. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/appeal or call 0151 284 1927