IT WAS the summer of 1976 when Helen Cummings found the courage to leave her violent husband, take the children, pack the car and head for a new life.
Her husband, Stuart Wynter, was a respected doctor but in the privacy of his home he was a tyrant. His tirades, physical abuse, need for absolute obedience and a growing interest in guns finally compelled her to escape. Eight years later, his second wife and their child were not so lucky. He killed them both and then himself.
Now Ms Cummings wonders whether she would leave that marriage today given the Family Law Act's emphasis since the 2006 amendments on children maintaining a ''meaningful relationship'' with both parents. She thinks she would probably stay rather than leave her two children alone with their father in some shared care arrangement the court might order.Read an extract from Helen Cummings' memoir, Blood Vows.
''What scares me is that today I would not have left. It was easier to leave then; family law in the 1970s and 1980s offered a degree of protection to women like me.''
She describes herself as the daughter of a famous mother and the mother of a famous daughter. Her mother was the late Joy Cummings, Australia's first female lord mayor, and mayor of Newcastle from 1974-84; her daughter is the US-based actor Sarah Wynter.
But with the publication of her memoir, Blood Vows (The Five Mile Press), Ms Cummings, 61, is achieving fame herself. Her graphic account sheds light on a particular kind of domestic despot, the middle-class professional, much admired by outsiders, who treats his wife as property. It also shows how a woman can blame herself for a man's violence, look to her own behaviour as a possible trigger and live in fear. And it is a valedictory to Rakentati Wynter, Stuart's second wife, and their four-year-old daughter, Binatia.
''In writing our story, I hope I've resurrected a little of the life that was taken from them.''
It took Ms Cummings six years to leave. She was 20 when she married, madly in love and in awe. He was a leader in the anti-Vietnam war movement. She was an accomplished singer. They made their home in Gloucester, north of Newcastle, where she devoted herself to Sarah and son Brendan while her husband won the esteem of his patients.
He rarely left bruises but he pushed her through cupboards, held her down to the floor, yanked her hair, chased her with a fishing knife and kept guns. He smashed furniture and, at one time, her precious guitar. More often he ruled through verbal abuse. ''It was like being in a war zone, only in a war zone there are mates to share the experience.''
In today's family court system it would be her word against his, says Ms Cummings, who later worked in the Newcastle registry of the Family Court for 20 years.
She had no proof of his violence and her husband presented so well he could have made out it was she who was unstable. He did not think of fighting for custody then; today he could grasp shared care as a weapon to use against her. ''Today, he would not have let us go so easily,'' she says.
Today she would be required by law to force the children to stay with him even when they were too afraid to go, she says. She would be told that he had never hurt the children. ''Men hurt the children when they hurt their mothers,'' she argues. ''Stuart never hit a child but in the end he took Binatia's life.''
The Labor government recently announced proposed amendments to the Family Law Act that will address some of Ms Cummings's concerns. A Senate committee is assessing them. But she believes the changes do not go far enough and that the court should be given powers and resources to properly investigate claims of violence so that women's and children's lives are not put in danger.
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