Erin: Beyond the Bruises — The Life and Legacy of Refuge Founder Erin Pizzey
“Erin shone like a beacon…”
“She was ahead of her time,” said Dame Joanna Lumley about legendary Refuge founder Erin Pizzey. “This astonishing woman has single-handedly brought domestic abuse out into the open, and changed the course of history.”
Lumley was interviewed at length for Erin: Beyond the Bruises, an upcoming documentary celebrating the Refuge founder's legacy. The actress reflected on the game-changing domestic violence refuges opened by Pizzey in the early 70s, her uncanny grasp of the complex issue of abuse, and the immense impact she has had on women, children, and society at large.
“I first heard about Erin on the radio,” recalled Lumley. “I think it was Capital Radio who put out a newsflash to say there was a fire at the Chiswick women’s refuge, and that the women and children needed help.”
Lumley packed her car with clothes, toiletries, and any household goods from her London flat and rushed to the refuge. “It was so grim, so poverty-stricken. But in the middle of it was Erin, and Erin shone like a beacon. The women felt safe: the squalor didn't bother them because they were there with Erin.”
Lumley goes on to paint a vivid picture of the atmosphere of friendship and camaraderie that existed within the refuge's walls, the sobering discussions they evoked within society, and the media’s fascination with the woman who started it all—Erin Pizzey.
“Keith Moon was so touched by Refuge that it broke through any behavioural pattern he had set up for himself…”
“Erin’s women’s refuge was the first of its kind in the world,” noted Lumley. “There was nothing like it, nothing to compare it to or model it on. It was a stand-alone, and it stood on the shoulders of Erin Pizzey.”
The Chiswick women’s refuge bore Erin’s kindness and natural affinity for those desolate of hope. “Anybody could come in, day or night. Anyone in dire need would just knock on the door, the door would open and there would be Erin. They would have a cigarette. A lot of these people were under pressure; they would smoke and have a cup of tea. They soon felt that they were safe there.”
Lumley soon enlisted drummer friend Keith Moon, and it is thanks to her that The Who would thereafter frequent the refuge. “He [Moon] was known then as the hellraiser of all time,” Lumley says affectionately. “He drove his Rolls Royce into swimming pools, drank everything, took everything and died so young of a drug overdose. But he was so touched by the refuge that it broke through any behavioural pattern he set up for himself; like the bad boy of rock. The pity of the situation touched him hugely, the idea that people could come for refuge moved him deeply.”
Erin: Beyond the Bruises charts the astonishing course of events that saw an ‘ordinary housewife with two kids’ turn into a household name, appearing on top chat shows Parkinson’s and Wogan. Her refuges would be visited by big-name supporters including Spike Milligan, Roger Daltry, Keith Moon, and Stewart Copland of The Police.
Original 70s news clips and newspaper headlines reveal Pizzey’s battles with the law due to gross overcrowding. They chart her compassion, dedication, and defiance even when threatened with imprisonment. There is even a rare, totally unexpected intervention from the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II which meant women could not be evicted from Pizzey’s refuges.
Conversations with Erin Pizzey today, filmed at her London flat, reveal one of the brightest voices to grace our planet. Pizzey’s grasp on human behaviour is astounding and her foresight uncanny. As she reflects on the events of Refuge’s early days’, you see how her ‘controversial’ vision shifted from the fringe in the early 70s to the heart of the mainstream today. Five decades on, the world is continuing to open up to Pizzey’s words.
One example of many is a BBC report on the first woman in the UK to be imprisoned for inflicting harm on her partner. It is a harrowing account. On repeated calls to the family, police officers would find the man to be found physically hurt. Self-harm was said to be the cause of his injuries, but a heroic police officer doubted the couple’s story and on his insistence, the man finally admitted the injuries were inflicted by the mother of his children.
Erin Pizzey is a hero and should be a household name…
William Collins, author of The Empathy Gap, reflects on Pizzey’s courage, compassion and global impact.
“Erin Pizzey is a hero and should be a household name. In the 70s she was a household name, mainly because she was always in trouble with the law, but the fact remains that she started the worldwide refuge movement. Erin offered refuge to women when there was literally nowhere for them to turn, they could stay with the abusive partner or go homeless and have their children taken away from them. Her defiant actions brought about a fundamental shift in thinking, and the perception of family, marriage and children. To this day, there are laws protecting children that she helped to bring about.”
It was a point echoed by Pizzey later on when is asked about her legacy and what she herself is proud of. “I made people understand that adults choose their relationships but children do not have a choice. They are helpless in the midst of a war not of their making. I made it possible to protect children, that is one of the things I am proudest of.”
The film offers a glimpse into Erin Pizzey’s reluctant rise to national renown. We see Michael Parkinson introduce “the woman who started it all” to his chat show audience as a “hero of the underprivileged” to some, but “a pain in the rump” to others.
Interviews with daughter Cleo, granddaughter Amber, and twin sister Kate shed additional light on the sacrifices that Pizzey has made in her personal life, including a forced two-decade exile from the UK. There is moving commentary from Michael Whyte, director of a groundbreaking documentary shot at the Chiswick refuge in 1974: Scream Quietly Or the Neighbours Will Hear.
An honest, candid, and illuminating film shot by then fresh-out-of-film-school Whyte, its original airing on London Weekend Television catapulted the national discussion on domestic abuse, bringing it to the heart of the news and cultural agenda. For the first time, audiences saw battered women whose only options were walking the street with the children and sleeping on a park bench or knocking on Erin’s door. People were shocked by the tens of women and children in the refuge, sleeping in one room, on mattresses on the floor, and the grim reality of their existence.
“We were approached by many companies wanting to make a film about the refuge but we did not want to politicise the issue,” explained Erin. “We discussed it in one of our daily ten o’clock meetings and chose Michael.”
Whyte and his crew were given a free hand along with Erin's blessing. The result is a rare insight into a world where society and family were fundamentally different.
We see the crowded refuge as women and children go about their day, as they share the often agonising journey that led them to Erin's doorstep. “He used to laugh,” says one of the Scream Quietly women. “Where would you go?” he would taunt her, knowing full well she will not leave the children behind. “The things he used to say would make you want to sink to the floor,” she added with sadness. “He is probably in shock now that I left, he thought I'd never do it, but now that I have, all I feel is relief.”
Fear is the common thread running through the Scream Quietly women’s stories. One tells Whyte of her husband beating her unconscious and having to “carry [her] home.” The beatings were so severe that her eye retina was detached, but still, “the fear was worse than the beatings. Every Saturday, Sunday, not knowing what mood he is going to be in—the fear was absolutely terrible.”
Scream Quietly ends with the harrowing tale of a sobbing, highly emotional fresh arrival who was so desperate to escape her husband’s promised beatings as they were walking home that she jumped into a passing truck. “I don't know what made me do it,” she told Whyte. The baffled, kind driver dropped her off in south London and “with no money, no clothes,” she found her way to the refuge.
Asked about the woman’s utter desperation that made her jump into a stranger's truck all those years ago, Erin responded with the chilling words: “Sadly, in those days many of the women committed suicide.”
Whyte’s film brings to light a reality that is hard to comprehend in light of today's #believeallwomen culture, and the welfare networks in place to help women reporting abuse. It is Erin Pizzey’s defiance that helped bring these changes about by ‘shaming’ the society that let abused women suffer in silence for so long.
“Erin brought the soul-destroying reality of domestic abuse into the open,” concludes Whyte. “The horror of it was that everyone knew: neighbours, family members, the police. They all knew but it was widely accepted as a matter between husband and wife, Erin has changed that reality.”
It wasn't just a few women, it was a tsunami of women…
“People keep saying how brave I was, but had I known what was about to happen, I would have run away,” said 83-year-old Erin Pizzey with endearing laughter. "Can you imagine? A young mum with two kids?”
It all started by accident in 1969 when Pizzey set up a women’s group in Belmont Terrace, a place for lonely housewives with kids to spend time together and do good for the community. “In those days,” explained Pizzey, “if you had kids, society just ignored you. This is where the loneliness came from.” Women came from all over, exchanging clothes, toys and life experiences. “We cooked a huge meal for everyone,” recalled Pizzey. “We got free food from local shops … Marks and Spencer gave us cakes and so on, we were in business.”
This all changed when a woman named Kathy came in. She took her top off to show her bruises:
“She was black and blue all over. Her husband has beaten her with a chair leg. Kathy told us that no one would believe her, that no one would help her, so that night I took her to my home and tucked her up in the top bunk of my son’s bunk bed. It is no surprise to me now, but at the time I was surprised when her husband knocked on my door … She obviously called him and told him of her whereabouts—that was my first encounter with wife battering.”
It was an encounter that forever changed Erin Pizzey's life. In 1971, she opened the first refuge for battered women in the world.
“It wasn't just a few women,” she explained, “it was a tsunami of women flooding in. This is when I realised this was bigger than I ever expected. We opened one refuge after another and they all filled up, we ended up squatting, taking over whole roads and even a hotel, again, all filled in as soon as they were opened. I soon realised that I uncovered a serious problem that society had swept under the rug. It astounds me now as it did then, how on earth did society manage to keep something that has been with us since Adam and Eve, a secret for so long? I remember searching for information about domestic violence and finding nothing, it was just not talked about or written about.”
Men are brought into the domestic abuse equation…
Ongoing observation and conversations with the women at her shelters brought home the realisation that domestic abuse is a generational issue. “I knew from the start that this affected both men and women,” explained Pizzey. “But still, in those early days, it was women who were pouring in.” It soon became evident to her that “the black and white view of the situation was wrong, and the idea that it is always the violent, out-of-control husband who is the perpetrator, and that the woman is always the helpless victim was not the reality.”
“The truth is that both men and women abuse and both need help…”
In 1982 Erin dared to air this assertion publicly with her book Prone To Violence. Based on Pizzey’s interviews with women who sought help at the refuge, the book argued that many of these women were just as violent as their abusers, with some even more violent than the men they left.
Prone to Violence was Pizzey’s attempt to look into the very essence of domestic violence and find out why violent people treat others the way they do. She argues that addiction to the ‘thrill of violence’ plays a part, explaining that children who had suffered childhood trauma and were subjected to ongoing drama in the home would turn into adults who engage in violent altercations in an attempt to bring about the high adrenaline rush of their childhood experiences. The book also suggested that these experiences often create confusion between pleasure and pain.
Prone To Violence proved too controversial and Erin was soon subjected to open hostility, requiring physical protection during the book’s promotional tour. The threats and animosity from radical feminists escalated to the point where Pizzey needed to escape Britain, moving her family to Santa Fe where she began a two-decade exile.
This period is briefly mentioned in Erin: Beyond the Bruises by Amber, Pizzey’s granddaughter, but is otherwise avoided. Instead, Beyond the Bruises focuses on Prone to Violence’s message—a message reiterated via the recent Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial.
“I could recognise the violence-prone woman [in Heard] instantly,” said Pizzey. “[During the days of the refuge], abusers had no trouble recalling, even detailing the pain they inflicted, but the genuinely tormented broke down with shame as they told us of their ordeal. It remains my conviction that domestic violence is generational. Some individuals, like Johnny Depp and his sister, manage to transcend it, and not repeat their abusive parent's behaviour. But many do not. Untreated, they will pass the violence on to the next generation.”
Understanding the mechanism of domestic violence against both men and women is Erin Pizzey’s legacy. The ‘hero of the destitute’ did not just provide a safe haven to the women and their children, she tried to fully understand the making of a situation that has always been part of the human experience; its triggers, history, and the psychological aspects affecting it.
“Erin came to it with great compassion,” said Collins, author of Empathy Gap. “It was this approach that made her realise that men had to be brought into the abuse equation. The recordings of an abusive woman have conveyed the message that we have tried to for several decades—that women can be violent, that women can inflict pain.”
That’s why I call it soul murder…
Erin Beyond the Bruises is a story of courage and heroism. It is the story of a woman who when unravelling a fundamental, painful flaw within society, provided immediate relief but also sought a true understanding of the issue. The film powerfully conveys what Pizzey considers to be ‘soul murder’: the reality of an abused person accepting the humiliation because they are trapped.
“It is a soul-crushing process of fear, suffering and constant degradation that eats away at the abused person's very identity, you doubt your actions and even your sanity, you become a husk of your former self: ‘chewed up gum at the bottom of someone’s heel’, as one of the women put it.”
There is a sense of a fundamental societal wrong that was allowed to exist for too long—a historic wrong that Erin has put right. The harrowing clips from Whyte’s Scream Quietly are a window to a cruel past reality that is still unknown to many. The poverty-stricken refuges described so vividly by Lumley were effectively a mirror in the face of society—they shocked individuals and government into real action and brought about real change.
But Erin’s legacy goes beyond providing a safe haven for the destitute and bringing about a reality where abused women are helped. Erin: Beyond the Bruises shows her legacy to be the message that domestic violence is not gendered, it is generational—a message that is now being repeated by the media, professional bodies, and popular culture. The realisation is that very few children growing up in abusive homes can transcend, and that most will grow up to be abusers. This cycle can only be broken with therapy, sometimes probing issues going back two or even three generations.
Erin: Beyond the Bruises ends with Pizzey’s wise and true observation that “the whole point of being born is to love and be loved, it is that simple, people make it complicated using long words, but it is not any more complicated than that.”
Yes, Erin Pizzey is a hero and yes, she should be a household name.