This column first appeared in Malta Today
The case of 22-year-old Gabby Petito, who was found murdered after being reported missing in Wyoming by her family, has drawn worldwide attention for two reasons.
First of all, she and her fiancé were travelling across the United States in their van, while recording their adventures and regularly posting updates online using the hashtag #VanLife. The use of social media while travelling is not new, but in this case the smiling, happy photos and videos of the couple during their road trip also provide a stark, chilling contrast with what was to follow.
Secondly, an altercation between the couple was intercepted by Utah Police following reports of a fight in which the man’s face was scratched, and the whole thing was recorded on one of the officers’ body cam. Gabby appears clearly distressed, saying she suffers from anxiety and extreme OCD, and constantly apologising for her behaviour, while the boyfriend, Brian Laundrie is relaxed and smiling throughout. At one point she tells them she feared he would drive off without her, leaving her stranded in the middle of nowhere. After calming her down, the Police decide to separate them for the night, admonishing them not to contact each other. That was on 12 August.
On 25 August Gabby uploads her last Instagram post. On 1 September, Brian drives back to his home in Florida with the van, but without Gabby and does not get in touch with her family. Ten days later her parents report her missing. A search for her ensues, until her body is discovered on 19 September. An arrest warrant has been issued for Brian, who has since disappeared, for using a debit card and PIN number which are not his. He is also being considered a person of interest in Gabby’s murder.
The most salient aspect of all this is that it sharply drives home the point that the lives portrayed online are often at odds with what is actually happening behind the scenes. It cannot be stressed enough that too many people are rapidly losing grasp of what is real versus the picture perfect image they desperately yearn to convey to those who follow their Instagram pages. Real life is messy, it can be fraught with tension, and enforced 24/7 closeness during a road trip can often bring out the worst in people. But obviously, in between the squabbles, most people only post photos which show them at their happiest. What is sinister about this story is that, behind the bright smiles and the cute poses at nature reserves, it seems something more was simmering in the real lives of this couple than a mere argument or two.
Domestic violence survivors have spoken about how they were glued to the story the minute they saw the body cam footage. Lauren Krouse, writing for USA Today, said:
“….we latched onto Gabby’s story less because we saw ourselves in her, and more because we saw our abusers in her partner. We had both dated men whom others didn’t see as threatening. They were white men with slim physiques, a passion for social justice, progressive politics. They were immensely Instagram-friendly. They knew how to pick just the right wrinkled T-shirt, faded jeans and smile for the perfect persona, moment and look they wanted to project….Many abusers are exactly who we don’t want to think they could be: charming, conversational, even-keeled, normal. Someone you’d swipe right on in a heartbeat, hoping he will, too, simply because he looks the part.”
On the local front, many Maltese women who have been through the wringer of a psychologically abusive relationship with a man who to the world seemed charming and friendly, had exactly the same instinctive reaction on seeing the footage: “He reminds me of my ex”.
Of course, it’s not just a matter of looking at video footage and jumping to conclusions about Brian and Gabby’s relationship, but the way things unfolded have put him in a very damning light. He returned alone from their trip, and now has taken off somewhere without a trace while she was missing for over 3 weeks before her body was found. One half of the couple is alive and the other half is dead. And the dead person is the woman. Again.
Meanwhile in Malta….
We have had our share of domestic violence episodes which ended up in the woman being horrifically murdered. Then there are other countless episodes we never hear about of psychological and physical abuse; sometimes the woman gets out of the situation and sometimes she doesn’t. This week, however, we had a Court case of a man who was found guilty of stalking, harassing, and violently raping a woman while filming her.
It all started as a casual relationship over coffee which turned intimate but then eventually took an ugly turn. The Court heard how “Xuereb grew obsessed, showering her with gifts, making sexual demands and threatening to spill the beans to her partner if she ever dared to ‘back off’. As the woman sought to break off all contact with the man, even changing her mobile number and blocking him on Facebook, his messages persisted, increasingly threatening as the months went by.”
She gave in to his blackmail and was forced to have sexual encounters with him in his office, little knowing that he was filming her the whole time. As it turned out, it was this footage retrieved by investigators after she filed a Police report which corroborated her story, leading to the man being sentenced to eight years in prison.
As news spread about this story and subsequent jail sentence, the first thing many women did was run a search of the man’s name. Lo and behold, he has no less than eight different profiles on Facebook alone. In one or two of the profiles he adds (George Clooney) in brackets, as apparently he imagines that he bears a resemblance to the famous actor. Now, I have long been out of the dating game, but if I were dating in this day and age and someone reached out to me through FB (as happened with this woman) the first thing I would do is run a search and try to find out as much as I could about him. Those 8 different profiles would certainly have rung plenty of alarm bells.
I am not saying this to engage in any kind of victim-blaming, because this kind of predatory behaviour by men who prey on vulnerable women is inexcusable. However, I believe that unless women of all ages start learning how to avoid such men, especially when they are feeling lonely, we will keep hearing about these kind of stories. There are many articles and books which clearly explain what warning signs to look out for and they should be required reading for all girls and women. Basically, if the dynamics of a relationship put you into a position where you have lost control of your own will, and you are being coerced into doing things you do not want to, then you need to examine why you are accepting this. As women we need to value our worth more, and teach young girls not to put up with being treated badly, grateful for any crumbs thrown our way. A healthy relationship should not make you end up feeling bad about yourself, or force you to stifle your real personality to gain approval or fit into someone’s image of what ‘the ideal woman’ looks and acts like.
Sometimes I think that while we have gained so much “on paper”, in truth we have gained very little, because otherwise we would not keep hearing about this type of abuse. And obviously men too have a crucial role to play, by teaching their young sons that a relationship based on mutual respect and equality does not diminish them in any way or makes them less “manly”. The best way to teach this is through example, for when a boy sees his mother being treated well by a man, that will be his imprint for all his future relationships with women.
It also goes without saying that the way women treat men in front of their children is also vitally important for what the kids’ psyche will wordlessly absorb when it comes to how a couple should behave towards one other.