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What is 'coercive control'?

A pair of hands holding puppet strings

When someone close to you goes missing, all you can often do is pray that nothing sinister has happened, that there’s an explanation which won’t leave friends and family shattered. But sometimes the worst does happen, and new true crime series When Missing Turns to Murder charts investigations into these cases. It features moving, heartbreaking testimonies from the bereaved, as well as fascinating insights from detectives and other experts who worked on bringing the killers to justice.

One story we discover is that of Natalie Hemming, a young mum who went missing in Milton Keynes in 2016. On being questioned, her partner Paul gave an unusual story: Natalie had apparently been raped and gone away on her own to ‘clear her head’.

But this was not a case of a woman taking time out to recover from a traumatic attack. This was murder, committed by the man closest to Natalie: Paul himself.

There had even been a witness: their young son, who’d woken up in the night and padded downstairs to glimpse his father cleaning up the scene after beating his mother to death. The dark truths of the domestic environment eventually emerged, with the couple’s kids speaking of the atmosphere of fear in the house and Paul’s tyrannical grip on those around him.

Domestic violence vs coercive control

Think ‘domestic violence’ and some obvious images may come to mind: a partner lashing out time and time again, bruises being hidden by their fearful victim, yelling and screaming while children cower upstairs. But abuse between partners can also be far more subtle and insidious – to the point where the courts didn’t even regard ‘Coercive control’ as a criminal act until 2015. It may not be a term you are familiar but it is how criminologist Dr Jane Monckton Smith, describes the way Paul treated Natalie in episode 3 of When Missing Turns to Murder.

Coercive control doesn’t necessarily involve physical violence at all. It can manifest itself as a sustained pattern of verbal and psychological manipulation, with the abuser steadily cutting away at their victim’s self-esteem and autonomy. Coercive control can take many forms. There might be unreasonable demands, outright bullying and name-calling, an insistence on always doing things their way, total control of family finances, constant monitoring and stalker-like behaviour, even food deprivation and gruelling punishments that can leave the victim exhausted and disorientated, doubting their very sanity.

The problem with coercive control is it can lack tangible evidence and can be hard to prove in court. And in some tragic cases like Natalie Hemming’s, it can spiral into terrifying violence.

No ‘black eyes and broken bones’

Perhaps the most well-known case of coercive control involves Sally Challen, the woman convicted of abruptly beating her husband Richard to death with a hammer just after breakfast one morning in 2010. Challen’s murder conviction has recently been overturned and she now faces a retrial, in which her defence team will seek to establish how this mild-mannered wife and mother was driven to murder by Richard’s obsessively controlling behaviour.

Numerous friends of and family members have defended Sally in the media, speaking of how Richard – who met Sally when she was 15 and he was well into his 20s – systematically bullied, insulted and isolated her. There’s even tangible evidence of his behaviour, such as the email he once sent Sally laying out conditions for their relationship such as forbidding her from talking to strangers and ordering her ‘to give up your constant interruptions when I am speaking’.

The back story of Natalie Hemming is even more unnerving, with the children of the household speaking of the bizarre punishments doled out by Paul. One daughter, Kirstie, later told the police of the time she was made to stand in the corner of a room for almost 12 hours because she’d let an apple in her schoolbag go soggy.

The victim’s sister also went on record recalling that ‘Natalie always said Paul had two faces – the face she and the children lived with and the face everyone else saw.’ Natalie excused it, or rationalized it, as a form of obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Natalie was clearly in a ‘hostage-like feeling of entrapment’, to use the phrase of a forensic social worker who testified during Sally Challen’s appeal.

And, while violence may not be a factor in coercive control – compared to what solicitor and women’s rights campaigner Harriet Wistrich describes as the ‘black eyes and broken bones” we associate with domestic abuse – the pattern of control may eventually lead into lethal force, as in the case of Natalie Hemming.

Thousands of coercive control cases have been reported to the police since the new law was passed. Emails, texts, social media posts, bank records and body-cam footage can all be used as evidence to implicate those who put their partners through such anguish. While a thorough understanding of coercive control has been a long time coming, it hopefully means more women can be saved from the sad fate of Natalie Hemming.