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2 February 2016updated 27 Jan 2023 6:17pm

Helen’s story of abuse in The Archers reminds me of my own

It's hard to listen to Rob Titchener controlling Helen on The Archers. But a new real-life piece of legislation will hopefully make a difference for women like her – and me.

By Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Question: at what point would you pack your bags and leave your partner?

Would it be when you notice the occasional couple of thousand missing from the joint bank account he persuaded you was a good idea (although he walked out of his job before Christmas and remains unemployed)? Would it be when you have your card rejected at the supermarket because he’s emptied your joint account without telling you and bought a motorbike?

Would you leave when he persuades you that it’s not safe for you to drive because you’re pregnant and a woman? Or would you leave when he pins you against the wall by your throat and takes your car keys off you by force? Would you leave because you’re pregnant against your will with a child conceived during an act of marital rape (you think but you can’t really remember because you were drunk/drugged at the time)?

Or would you go when you didn’t leave a friend’s house immediately he told you to and when you got home he dragged you down the hall by your hair and threw you across the sitting room? What about when people start telling you that you look pale/thin/terrible or start noticing your bruised neck/arms/face? Would you leave then?

Surely all the above would make you stop and think? When you read it in black and white it looks appalling, but the main reason I ask is because of Radio 4’s The Archers and the on-going abuse of Helen at the hands of her married-in-haste-repenting-at-leisure husband Rob Titchener. This man is a life-draining tick, a parasite in most senses of the word and so vivid you have to keep reminding yourself that he’s not real.

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Don’t just take my word for it: type #thearchers into the Twitter search bar on any day he’s been up to his tricks and you’ll find it ablaze with exhortations for Helen to take her child and leave the bastard. The Archers’ listening audience are as one. We are baffled and long for his comeuppance. We will not be satisfied until this horrible man is exposed as the manipulative and controlling bully he is, until he suffers humiliation to the max and then (scriptwriters take note please) meets a gruesome end via something sharp and pointy in the agricultural machinery lineWe have spoken.

Yet Helen stays with him and it’s painful to listen to. It’s a difficult story and the timing of it, coinciding as it does with the recent arrival of the law against “Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship” is, I am certain, no coincidence.

It also makes it important that we do listen. Storylines like this are really best covered by the soap genre because they allow an almost real-time development of the plot, in a way that is far more involving and realistic than a one-off 90-minute drama. We almost live the situation with the characters and, according to my Twitter timeline at least, a great many of us have lived it. My opening paragraph lists both the fictional Helen’s abuse and the real Helen’s abuse alternately. The real Helen is me.

I’ve never written about this before, mainly because I try not to think about it. It’s a shock to see what I’ve taken to calling the Titchener Conundrum written down. It makes my continuing denial impossible. The thing is, neither The Archers’ Helen nor the real Helen started these relationships with any other expectation than that they would progress in a normal happy manner. Had there been the slightest inkling of what was to come we wouldn’t have allowed things to continue – we’re not stupid, even though that’s what we often call ourselves.

Helen Titchener ran her own organic cheese-making business and was independent-minded enough to take on having a baby as a single woman using a sperm donor. But it’s hard bringing up a child alone, even with a supportive family and sufficient income, so when Rob appeared in the village – attractive, charming, apparently single – it wasn’t difficult for him to sweep a vulnerable Helen off her feet.

He swept her away to such an extent that by the time it transpired he was actually married (although of course his wife didn’t understand him) it was already too late. She’d told her parents how happy and in love she was, how much he loved her and how his marriage was a marriage in name only, that this was what she’d longed for all her life – to have gone back on it all, to admit she’d got it wrong again, would have been too shaming to contemplate. Once you reach that point you are lost. I know that.

It’s the little things you notice first – the sulks, the sudden irritation, the criticism of your clothes, your weight, your hair, your friends, your family, your work, your slightly flabby upper arms, your A-cup breasts and why isn’t there a meal on the table at 6.30pm prompt when you know that upsets him…? But it’s dressed up as caring and you haven’t learned yet not to trust him. He wants you to wear that dress because you look so pretty in it. He only mentions you’ve put on a few pounds because he loves you. If only you’d let him take care of you… Slowly, slowly your confidence is eroded.

You begin to second-guess everything you do, every decision you make. What begins as someone telling you he loves you and giving you outings, dinners and presents becomes a punishment and reward system. You begin to feel you can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t think. It is when, as is inevitable, you push against the control that the relationship will tip into violence. The first moment you see stars is a pivotal one. It’s odd that the very things that attracted him to you in the first place – your strength, independence, vivacity and intelligence – become the things he uses as a stick to beat you with.

You become compliant to such a nauseating degree, you sicken yourself. You apologise constantly for getting it wrong, although logic tells you that you can never get it right. By the time I escaped (there’s no other word for it) I felt as though I had the physical substance of smoke and yet perversely, I was heartbroken. It took me five years to put myself back together, physically and emotionally, for the second time. Yes, that’s right – twice I’ve done this. I can’t believe it myself. I am still ashamed.

The problem is that the way this happens, the way you are manipulated and coerced and the way it slowly escalates, makes you complicit in your own abuse. This is what’s happening to The Archers’ Helen at the moment. She has a previous history of anorexia and although pregnant there is every sign that she is again controlling her eating to a worrying degree, in part because Rob keeps telling her she’s “blooming”. Helen doesn’t want to bloom. Helen doesn’t really want this baby. It was only after she said she wanted to wait before trying for a baby that Rob forced pregnancy on her. The decision over her own body was taken away from her and she’s trying to take it back.

Helen has already learnt that when she takes an opposing view things rapidly become very unpleasant indeed. Rob hasn’t as yet (suspected marital rape excluded) laid a finger on her, but from my own experience it will only be a matter of time. Men like Rob don’t stop. What they think will make them happy doesn’t make them happy at all so they keep wanting more.

We listeners are frustrated that Helen’s own parents are apparently quite content to hand over care of their daughter to Rob, but why wouldn’t they be? To all intents, purposes and outward appearances he is a husband who cares deeply for her, who bends over backwards to make life easy for his darling wife. Constantly being told she’s overdoing things and must rest by an apparently solicitous husband pursuades her he’s right, but Rob tightens his stranglehold over her life each and every time she agrees with him.

Alongside all this torment, we are witnessing the slow methodical isolation of Helen from her friends and family, and even from her little boy. As the rot takes root in her marriage, one or two friends have begun to notice that something is not quite right and have offered Helen a lifeline, a chance to talk, to admit she’s not living the idyll she’s presenting to the outside world. That happened to me too; only, like The Archers’ Helen, I couldn’t quite bring myself to admit it. I couldn’t honestly believe I was in the situation I was in – this was what I wanted, right?

While I was deliberating, wondering what was going wrong, I was cleanly and carefully separated from my support network until the only person left for me to confide in was my abuser. I’ve no doubt The Archers’ Helen will experience the same thing I did when it was all over (twice): the people who thought they knew me shook their heads sagely and said consoling things like, “well, you never know what goes on behind closed doors”. No, you don’t, but that doesn’t make it right not to do or say anything if you have suspicions. It’s wrong in the same way a child covers his eyes and believes that because he can’t see you, you can’t see him.

The Coercive or Controlling Behaviour offence sets out – in shockingly blunt terms – what this kind of behaviour consists of. Reading it gave me the courage to say yes, it happened to me too and I was vulnerable to a particular type of man for different reasons on both occasions. I know that now.

What I struggle with still are the times when I’m daydreaming on a busy commuter train and a male hand flashes by my head to grab the handrail, and I duck in fear, or when a raised masculine voice sends an adrenaline rush of alarm prickling over my skin. An hour on a train full of loutish football supporters left me unable to leave home for two days.

It is perhaps a mark of just how well the scriptwriters have drawn the character of Rob Titchener that I’ve recently begun to feel nauseous when I hear in his voice the same inflections that used to put me on high alert. A passive-aggressive “heh” at the end of a sentence causes my stomach to contract. I might have to stop listening.

But I enjoy The Archers and I enjoy the Sunday morning omnibus tweetalong. Why should I allow past experiences spoil that? But, Scouts’ Honour, it is, at the moment, a very big ask.

I hope that when it comes, the aftermath of Helen’s toxic marriage will be dealt with sensitively and with care, but until then there is this ringing quote from the third page of the new law’s framework document:

“Not only is coercive control the most common context in which [women] are abused, it is also the most dangerous.”

I’d like to send a copy to Helen Titchener, before it’s too late.

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