There’s a scene in EastEnders that sticks clearly in Natalie Curtis’ mind.
‘Chantelle walks up the steps to her front door and before she goes in takes a slow, nervous look behind her,’ she explains. ‘Her eyes are pleading for someone to notice her. To ask if she’s okay. But no one does.
‘I know that look she gave,’ adds Natalie, ‘because I did it too.’
Since EastEnders burst back onto our screen earlier this month, it’s picked back up on several dramatic pre-pandemic storylines. But the one that has made the most noise over the last three weeks centres around the horrendous domestic abuse hairdresser Chantelle Atkins has suffered at the hands of her lawyer husband, Gray, which has clearly intensified during lockdown.
The couple’s story has been played out slowly ever since they arrived on the Square 18 months ago and similar to Coronation Street’s coercive abuse plotline involving Geoff and Yasmeen, it gives viewers a real glimpse into how tortuous behaviours – sometimes in the most subtle of ways – can go on for months, even years.
But unlike the Manchester soap, which saw Yasmeen escape the clutches of Geoff – albeit ending up in prison – there is no escape for Chantelle.
For the last two weeks viewers have anxiously watched as the mum-of-two makes desperate plans to flee her abusive husband, however, in harrowing scenes to be shown this Friday, she will tragically be killed by him.
It’s a move that saw show bosses make the rare decision to issue a ‘spoiler’ beforehand, warning viewers of Chantelle’s fate on the grounds it could be triggering for anyone affected by domestic abuse.
‘It’s absolutely the right decision,’ says Natalie, 40, who worked with producers and cast to develop the storyline and make sure it was as accurate as possible. ‘It’s vital to show that there isn’t always a happy ending when it comes to domestic abuse, but that doesn’t mean viewers, especially those who have experienced it, shouldn’t be prepared when it’s addressed on our screens.’
According to the CPS almost two million people experienced domestic abuse over the last year, while a survey carried out by Women’s Aid discovered that nearly two thirds of women who were living with their abuser during lockdown, said the abuse had worsened.
70% also admitted they felt they had no one to turn to during that time and over three quarters thought Covid-19 made it harder for them to escape abuse. One in 10 survivors revealed that their abuser had actively used lockdown restrictions to stop them from leaving.
Teresa Parker, has worked for Women’s Aid for nearly 20 years. and has advised on numerous TV programmes about the portrayal of domestic abuse, including EastEnders’ first big domestic violence storyline involving Trevor and Little Mo, which ran from 2000-2002, as well as ITV’s Coronation Street.
‘It’s vital to show a variety of experiences and stories as domestic abuse happens regardless of age, background, class or race,’ she explains. ‘Yasmeen and Geoff in Coronation Street are an older couple with grandchildren, and one of Yasmeen’s closest allies in the storyline is her granddaughter Alya.
‘Additionally, this storyline focuses on coercive control and how someone can be controlled in a relationship without physical abuse being present. Plots such as these are really important, as they raise awareness of domestic abuse with so many people, and they start conversations that can save lives.
‘So many women who contact us don’t know that what they are experiencing counts as abuse,’ Teresa goes on to explain. ‘Sometimes they are trying to get support for their partner rather than themselves, as they believe them when they apologise and say that they will change.
‘However, like Chantelle, on average three women every fortnight are killed by a current or former partner, and even more women were killed than this at the beginning of lockdown. Being forced into isolation with an abuser has been a living hell for so many, and EastEnders are telling a story that survivors tell us echo their own experiences of abuse in a relationship.’
Natalie’s abuse started soon after she had moved in with her partner in 2013 after a year together.
‘We first met at work and he he seemed really nice,’ she remembers. ‘There were some behaviours that worried me, like he’d fly off the handle at things but it was never directed at me, so I’d always brush it off as a bad day. However that changed within two weeks of us moving in together.
‘It was very rapid – he began phoning me constantly, up to 40 times a day just to keep tabs on me. Sometimes he’d smash up the kitchen or call me nasty names and throw my stuff about. Once he chucked my handbag out of the door in a rage and it went over the fence into the next door neighbour’s property.
‘After an outburst, he would be full of apologies, buying me flowers and taking me for dinner – but the niceness never lasted,’ she says.
Like EastEnder’s Chantelle, Natalie desperately tried to encourage her partner to get help for his anger issues and even persuaded him to have therapy.
‘He went, but nothing was ever his fault,’ she recalls. ‘His outbursts would be down to me doing something wrong – I was making him behave this way, or he’d simply blame it on his mental health. He even tried to persuade me that he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, but it simply wasn’t true as I knew his therapist wasn’t qualified to make such assessments.
‘I remember him once having a massive meltdown at me in the supermarket because I didn’t know what to have for dinner that night. Everyone just stared and watched, unsure of what to do. Then he muttered that he hadn’t taken his pills that day and I could see everyone think ‘ah that’s what it is. It’s a one-off…’ But it wasn’t.’
In 2016 Natalie, from Essex, married her partner, even though she knew in her heart she didn’t want to.
‘I remember at my hen night my friends commented that I didn’t seem very happy,’ she remembers. ‘But part of me did love him and thought he might change once we were married. He didn’t of course.’
Instead the abuse continued to worsen with her ex threatening to throw her out of their home one minute, while in the next breathe vowing to take his life if she ever left. Sometimes he even threatened to kill her, then himself.
‘When I married him I thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, but it did,’ says Natalie. ‘He stopped working and I slowly got into debt – eventually £85,000 – as I tried my best to keep us financially afloat. Looking back it was his way of controlling me, but at the time I felt I couldn’t abandon him in case he’d kill himself, something he’d say a lot. Then there was the real fear he might kill me if I tried to leave – something else he often said he’d do.’
Recalling another incident, Natalie describes the moment an outsider stumbled upon the abuse she was suffering.
‘A woman had come to view a flat for sale next door to ours,’ she remembers. ‘My ex had just had a massive outburst at me by our front door, which she must have heard, and I will never forget how she stared at me. As I stared back at her, I could tell she desperately wanted to ask if I was okay, but in the end she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t want to get involved or perhaps she didn’t want to make it worse. Who knows.’
Refusing to confide in friends or family, Natalie instead started to keep notes of the abuse on her phone, even secretly filming her ex as he showered abuse on her.
‘In one video you can even see my legs shaking as I’m so scared,’ she remembers. ‘In another I’m literally sitting on the toilet as he screams and rages at me, telling me I’m a useless mess.’
Taking a deep breathe, Natalie recounts one of her notes she still has saved on her phone: ‘He mentioned the other day about double suicide,’ she reads. ‘I can’t take this. I’m a nervous wreck. How I’m still going I don’t know. I’m on egg shells constantly. The abuse just continues every day, it’s always my fault and never his. Various times I go to call 999 as I fear for my safety. I just have not had the strength right now. I know it will come one day.’
It was in July 28, 2018 that Natalie finally found that strength, after her then-husband pawned her engagement and wedding ring so they could pay the rent, and she fled the home they shared with just the clothes on her back.
‘I had never set a date on when I was going to leave, but I remember the night before I felt so anxious I could barely sleep,’ says Natalie.
‘The next morning, as soon as he left for work, I called a friend to come and get me,’ she remembers. ‘And she did, no questions asked. We went to my parents’ and the next day I called 101 to report it. I remember saying that I didn’t know quite how to say what had happened, but I knew that I didn’t want to end up another statistic. From there the police were amazing and arrested him within days. It’s through them that I ended up being introduced to Women’s Aid.’
Latest figures reveal that in England and Wales the police made 32 arrests per 100 domestic abuse-related crimes in the year ending March 2019 – a total of 214,965 arrests. Of those cases, 74% ended up being charged, with three quarters of those prosecutions being successful.
In Natalie’s case, within three months of her leaving him, he was given a two-year jail sentence after pleading guilty to engaging in controlling and coercive behaviour.
As harrowing as her experience was, Natalie has been using it ever since to help other victims and survivors of domestic abuse as a Survivor Ambassador for Women’s Aid. It was because of this role that she ended up advising EastEnders as they developed their storyline involving Chantelle and Gray.
‘When the charity asked me if I would like to talk about what I’d been through with the team at EastEnders, I knew it was incredible opportunity,’ she explains.
‘It was in July last year and I went to the studios to meet Jessica Plummer who plays Chantelle and some of the producers. As I told them what I’d been through they sat and really listened to what I had to say for a good couple of hours. They knew it was really critical to get this storyline right.
‘Of course, it’s heartbreaking that she gets killed, but that’s reality. So many women are dying at the hands of their abusers, especially during the lockdown – we have a duty to tell that side of the story.
‘Like so many women – like me – Chantelle had a normal life to the outside world. But what happens behind closed doors can be absolutely terrifying and this is people’s lives every day.’
EastEnders boss Jon Sen told Metro.co.uk last week: ‘Chantelle’s story is such an important one to tell accurately and upon both characters’ inception we planned her tragic ending with the intention of embedding the stark reality of domestic abuse at the heart of the Atkins family,
‘Being able to shed light on the realities of what goes on behind closed doors has never been more crucial given the harrowing statistics as a result of the current pandemic and hopefully Chantelle’s story will encourage people to speak out to someone they trust and get the support that they need.’
He added: ‘Jessica’s performance is nothing short of extraordinary and even in her final scenes, the audience will be moved by Chantelle’s strength. We’re very sorry so see Jessica go but hope that her impact on viewers is long-lasting.’
But the show’s work with Women’s Aid hasn’t stopped with the storyline – just this month it was announced that Toby-Alexander Smith, who plays Gray Atkins, has been made an ambassador for the charity.
For Natalie, who is still in touch with actress Jessica, life is slowly getting better. ‘My ex has a permanent restraining order, which is rare, but means he can never contact me again,’ she says. ‘I’ve been on a few dates, but I’m not ready for a relationship yet. I’m not saying I would never have one, just not now.
‘I think a lot of people assume that because I speak out, I must be okay, but it’s not that simple. I still have days when I get anxious and I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, but I attend regular counselling and attend workshops through Women’s Aid, which really help give me confidence and understand that none of this was my fault.
‘Sometimes it’s really hard to talk about what I’ve been through,’ Natalie adds. ‘But if this storyline saves one life, then it’s more than worth it. If I can stop someone from being another statistic, I have to do it.’
EastEnders domestic violence – get support
Two thirds of women who were experiencing abuse from their partner/ex-partner in June told a Women’s Aid study that their abuser had started using lockdown restrictions or the Covid-19 virus and its consequences as part of the abuse. (66.7% of those answering question – Women’s Aid Survivor Survey, June 2020).
At the height of lockdown over three quarters of women living with an abuser said they felt they could not leave or get away because of the pandemic. (78.6% of those answering question – Women’s Aid Survivor Survey, April 2020).
You can get support and information from Women’s Aid by visiting the website or contacting the free instant messaging service.
You can get support and information from Refuge – which holds a comprehensive and detailed guide to seeking help on the website.
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