People

The discourse around Hannah Clarke’s death exposes just how far people go to deny male violence

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Kayleigh Dray
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Hannah and her children are the victims in this terrible story. Let’s not forget that, or them.  

On 19 February 2020, in Brisbane, Australia, ex-National Rugby League (NRL) player Rowan Baxter allegedly forced himself into the car of his estranged wife, Hannah Clarke, as she was preparing to drop their three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, off at school. Local news outlets have claimed that he then doused them in petrol and set them on fire, before killing himself.

As reported by BBC News, all three children were found dead at the scene. According to witnesses, Hannah jumped from the car yelling, “He’s poured petrol on me”. She was rushed to hospital in a critical condition, but died later as a result of her extensive burns.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted that his “heart goes out to the families and community going through this tragic time and the emergency responders confronting what would be a shattering scene”.

It remains, at the moment, unclear as to what happened. Indeed, officers reminded the press that “how the fire actually occurred has not been ascertained at the moment”.

Despite this plea for caution, certain tabloid outlets have declared that Baxter killed his family. That he and his wife had separated after reports of domestic violence. And yet, within these same articles, journalists have sought to justify the athlete’s actions. They’ve noted that “his Facebook page was filled with adorable posts dedicated to his children”, and they’ve spoken with his friends about what they believe Baxter’s motives were.

And these friends have delivered the goods. They’ve talked about what a “good dad” Baxter was. About the fact that he was “struggling” after being “denied access to his children”. Above all else, though, tabloids have seized upon the fact that Baxter’s heartbreak was over the fact his “wife left him for another man”. 

Meanwhile, a police officer has been removed from the investigation after he suggested Baxter was an example of a husband “being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered”.

“To put it bluntly, there are probably people out there in the community that are deciding which side to take, so to speak, in this investigation,” said DI Mark Thompson.

“Is this an issue of a woman suffering significant domestic violence and her and her children perishing at the hands of the husband? Or is this an instance of a husband being driven too far by issues that he’s suffered, by certain circumstances, into committing acts of this form?”

As a result of all of this, Hannah and her three children have been reduced to the role of collateral damage in the life and death of Rowan Baxter.

Looking at the comments underneath these articles, it’s clear that this sort of one-sided coverage has a disturbing impact on readers. Indeed, some commenters are now finding excuses for this act of femicide and filicide, as if there’s any excuse that could ever be deemed acceptable.

“This is what happens when women try to take children from men after divorce. The system failed this loving father,” read one such comment.

“The system kills innocent lives yet again,” added another.

And yet one more said: “He did what he had to do to be with his children. That’s what separations produce – a desperate parent and a winning parent. He decided he couldn’t live without his kids. That’s a committed parent. Good for him.”

Setting aside the fact that the “system” wasn’t involved in this family’s case in the first place – there were reportedly no parenting orders or proceedings before the Family Court at all – the outpouring of sympathy for a violent man is, disappointingly, not without precedent. 

When Brock Turner was first accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus, reports focused on his straight A grades, his wholesome good looks, and his future as an “All-American swimmer”.

His victim, on the other hand, was described as an “unconscious intoxicated woman” – a fact which she herself later pointed out in an open letter to her rapist.

Similarly, when Reeva Steenkamp – a law graduate, television presenter and women’s rights activist – was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Oscar Pistorius, she was consistently referred to as nothing more than the world-famous athlete’s “model girlfriend”. And when school teacher Alan Hawe stabbed his wife, Clodagh, in a violent murder-suicide, reports focused on his role as a “valuable member of the community”, and a “quiet and a real gentleman”.

They reminded the public that he was “very committed” and the “most normal person you could meet”, and that he must have been in a very “vulnerable state of mind” at the time of the murders. Clodagh, however, was referred to as the “murderer’s wife”: her photo was not included in the news reports, and nothing was said about her role in the community (she was also a teacher).

All of these men were portrayed as complex and troubled individuals. Their mental health was questioned by armchair psychologists (over a third of the public already believes that people with a mental health problem are likely to be violent – despite the fact that people with severe mental illnesses are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violent crime). They deserved context, we were told, and understanding. They needed to have their side of the story shared with the world.

The women they’d beaten, raped and killed did not get the same treatment. They were footnotes: their entire existence reduced to the role they played in a “complicated” man’s life.

“Did Hannah, the wife and mother, exist?” tweeted one reader on social media. “You’d be hard pressed to know from this article about a good Dad who showered his kids with love and was devastated and depressed when the relationship broke down because she left him for another man.”

With this thought in mind, some words on Hannah Clarke. She was a businesswoman, who had been running an Integr8 fitness facility in Capalaba. She had won gold and silver medals for trampolining at international events. She was a loving parent, describing herself as “an enthusiastic, passionate mother of three”. She and her children were violently attacked and killed on 19 February 2020.

Hannah and her children are the victims in this terrible story. Let’s not forget that, or them. 

If you are worried about your relationship or that of a friend or family member, you can contact the Freephone 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run in partnership between Women’s Aid and Refuge, on 0808 2000 247 or visit www.womensaid.org.uk.

Image: Denys Argyriou

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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