why I made my life’s work ‘intimate terrorism’

“We had a close family unit,” says Dr. O’Leary, something many children growing up in the families she studies doesn’t experience. “We also had a very strong cultural identity. For my mum and dad, Irish folk music was a way of coming back to Ireland.

“We inherited our interest in music from them. I always wanted to be cool and I liked Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham! – Dermot’s tastes were more eclectic, although Bruce Springsteen was always the boss.”

Springsteen himself has spoken about the abuse people can experience from those closest to them by writing born to run, his 2016 autobiography, that his own father “passed on a misogyny that grew out of a fear of all the dangerous, beautiful, strong women in our lives, crossed with bearing an underlying physical threat, a psychological bully, that Frightening and communicating that the dark thing inside you is barely being held back. You use it to intimidate those you love.”

It’s a description consistent with what Dr. O’Leary’s studies have revealed and what she has termed “intimate terrorism”.

“It can be small things in the beginning, with perpetrators being gentle, gentle about what you are told or what you are not allowed to do. You control a woman who sees her friends and family until she is trapped in her own home. In the end, she can only rely on her perpetrator. He is all she has.

“You have the right to feel safe in your home, and that sense of safety in your sanctuary comes from the people you surround yourself with.”

And in this year’s pandemic lockdowns, Dr. O’Leary, as more people are stuck at home, “if there are dangers, they will be magnified”.

Certainly figures suggest that domestic violence has worsened during the lockdown. According to Refuge, which runs the service, messages to the UK’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline rose 120 per cent in just one night at the start of the first lockdown and picked up again during the second recent lockdown.

believes dr So O’Leary that the lockdown has marginalized people who have never used violence or coercion before? She is not convinced that this happened.

“The situation has exacerbated existing tensions in relationships, but that’s very different from escalating into what we would consider an insult. There is a narrative where perpetrators say, “I’ve reached boiling point” or “I just freaked out” or “I’ve lost control,” but that worries me because it removes responsibility. This isn’t about losing control. Abuse is about actual control and the environment in which abusers spread fear and power.”

dr O’Leary speaks from her book-lined study at home in York, the calm of which stands in stark contrast to the turbulent homes we’re talking about. She moved there from London after changing her career from publishing sales to science. Her first interest was media coverage of crime and for her doctoral research she examined 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 had experienced growing up with Dermot.

“We’re still very close,” she says, and they share the ups and downs of their careers. While Dermot had always loved gigs and festivals, she didn’t — “I never moved to wade through mud and live in a tent” — but she and her parents would always support his career by attending one X factor show every season and often attended a rehearsal where they met with judges such as Simon Cowell and fellow countryman Louis Walsh.

“We both share an interest in the media and how it can light up dark places. Dermot is very aware of my work and my criminology, certainly in relation to victims and survivors.”

Reflecting on her past, she says, “Looking back at some of the relationships I’ve had, I can see how they might have evolved into something more problematic.”

Domestic violence is now recognized as a problem by both the public and the police. But convincing people of the existence of compulsory control has proved much more difficult, even though it became a criminal offense five years ago. dr O’Leary says her research shows that coercive control is still not understood.

“The police have been trained to do this, but it is still very difficult. They are used to dealing with domestic violence, but are unlikely to be called to a coercive control case. Sometimes even the victim doesn’t see it that way. And there is still work to be done with other professionals. Often the problem for abuse survivors is how to access help without the abuser knowing. A doctor’s appointment may be the only time they can tell their abuser, ‘You don’t have to be in the room.'”

Still, she is encouraged by the resilience victims can show and the efforts of organizations like Refuge to help them. “What’s really important,” she says, “is that victims can regain their agency, so they can choose what they want to do.” In other words, they are women rediscovering their precious freedom and living without again live in fear.

* 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 or call 0151 284 1927 why I made my life’s work ‘intimate terrorism’

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