real life

'No phone, no access to money.' For 4 years, Zoe Marshall was in an abusive relationship.

Content warning: This post discusses domestic violence and may be triggering for some readers.

As she was lying in a hospital bed, bruised and broken from a serious car accident, the veil lifted from Zoe Marshall's eyes.

Having been in an abusive relationship for four years with a man [who she cannot name for legal reasons], she could finally see him for what he was.

"I was in a back brace in the hospital in the emergency ward. And he had manipulated the situation where I didn't call any family members because he was like, 'Don't f***ing call anyone like, this is actually going to be a legal issue, and you could go to jail for like reckless driving'. Even though I hadn't been driving recklessly. He said, 'I'll let your family know'," the television presenter and podcast host tells Mamamia.

Hours passed by and still none of her family turned up at the hospital.

"My mental health is deteriorating and I'm really scared," Marshall recalls. "And he's hovering around me being abusive. He was just saying, 'No one is here for you. You could be paralysed, and no one is here'... And I thought, how does somebody manipulate a situation that no one else turns out for me, and then turns it around on me when I'm in the most vulnerable position? This is a life or death moment, and he is still doing this.

"And that was the turning point where I was like, well, if this is where he's at now, where else can we go? It's the bottom of the barrel. I could see through it all. I was like, 'You are a psychopath. This is it. This is done.'"

Watch: Where is the most dangerous place for a woman to be on a Saturday night? Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

Having spoken briefly about the domestic violence she suffered in 2017, it's only now that Marshall feels ready to talk about the severe physical, emotional, and mental abuse she suffered at the hands of an ex-partner in greater detail.

The impetus for this was her popular podcast, The Deep, where she interviews people from a variety of backgrounds - terminal parents, sex workers, drug addicts - in order to explore the world and the people who live in it. To have those "deep" conversations that often don't get told.

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In her recently released subscriber-based podcast The Deeper, she turns that reflection onto herself and speaks about the trauma in her own life.

"I felt like I had earned the trust of The Deeper audience over time. And I had, in a way, proven myself to them. I was able to have really difficult conversations and be empathetic and support those that I was interviewing... and there was this constant calling for me to share my experiences and I just felt like, 'No, this isn't about me, I want this to be about other people'," she says.

"Then I thought, what if I created a place that I felt safe enough to share with people that were willing to hold the space for me? And I think that is why [I have spoken about the abuse]. It wasn't like I just went to mainstream media and said, 'This is the explicit detail of what happened to me.' It was with this community that I had had a relationship with for two years. I felt they could give me what I needed to be able to share that."

Zoe Marshall. Image: Supplied.

Sharing has meant talking about a person who hit her against a wall, cracking her skull. Who sexually abused her. Who pulled her hair so hard that chunks came out. Who threw plates at her. Choked her. Threatened to kill her. 

He was careful never to leave bruises where other people could see.

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"I know these perpetrators are incredibly smart and manipulative and well-respected in their communities. They're charming and friendly and kind and all of those things. So when they choose to inflict abuse, it has to be done in a way where they can continue on with their character not being tarnished," Marshall explains.

"It's very cunning the way things are done. I know I'm definitely not alone here. I know a lot of women have that experience where the bruising is covered so they can walk through everyday life and not be questioned. Because the perpetrator doesn't want the woman questioned. The perpetrator doesn't want any kind of attention. So a big bruise on the face is gonna cause a lot of attention."

Aside from the physical abuse, the coercive control exacted over every aspect of her life was also extreme. She was alienated from family and friends, cut off from her finances, and told to leave her job.

"I was at lunch with my girlfriends that were with me through this period of time and I still have this very weird veil of like, 'Was it really that bad?' Which is such a trauma response. Coercively was it, you know... those things are so hard to pinpoint or to name or to express because it develops in so many insidious ways. It's different from sexual assault or physical assault. It feels super tricky, very slippery, very grey, and really easy to mask a lot of the time," she tells Mamamia.

"Threatening or manipulating or forcing someone to do things can always be camouflaged in love bombing. That often happens very much at the start. When you're with someone for a couple of years, you're so used to the way things are, you don't even step out of line. Something that he would often use was the word 'leash', like 'You're on a long leash', or 'We've got to tighten the leash'.

"It becomes such normal conversation within the home that you think, 'I haven't earned any money, I'm not allowed to spend money without permission, I'm not allowed to choose what I wear, I can't see a friend, I can't make a phone call, I don't have a phone, I have access to no money, I have to ask for permission to leave the house.'

"All of those things are veiled in 'I love you, I'm protecting you, everyone in the world is really bad, I can't let anything happen to you.' But when you step outside of those boundaries, the onslaught of punishment that comes with it - as well as just the coerciveness being incredibly abusive - is compounded. All of those coercive traits are so deeply ingrained. And I still carry a lot of that now."

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During that time, she was also increasingly estranged from her family and friends.

"I had a friend call me yesterday that went through this with me, or kind of observed it, I should say. She was saying that she remembers how tricky it was to be my friend because there were all these boundaries and rules in which I could see her or couldn't see her. And eventually, I couldn't see her at all," Marshall reveals.

"She wanted to tell me how this isn't normal and it's not safe. And she remembers me saying something along the lines of, 'You need to stop pressuring me or I will have to stop talking to you altogether'. And she took that as a signal of 'This is really serious. I need to stop what I think I need to do to keep her safe and I just need to be available for when she's ready to go'."

For Marshall, that's how help from family and friends can be provided.

"It's the part of not inserting yourself too strongly that they push away and move the opportunity to have you when they desperately need you. It's a very thin, grey, tricky, awful area to be a friend because you just want to shake them, you want to help them, you want to save them and it's a lot more complicated for the person that is in the violent situation," she says.

"It's almost that scene with Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible with all those laser beams all over - the way in which you need to slip and slide your way out of danger cannot be done by brute force from a friend. It just doesn't work."

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As for the question that is so commonly asked of victims of domestic violence - Why didn't you leave? - Marshall understands the need for people on the outside looking in to ask that question.

"It's the one I used to think too. I don't judge anyone for not knowing what they don't know... If someone just came up to you on the street and said, 'Hey, I want to be a boyfriend' and then punched you in the face, you'd leave of course. But it's not the way that this happens," she explains.

"This wooing, this romance, this passion, this sex, this connection, this intimacy, is created prior. The abuse is kind of like hovering underneath. But there is a real connection for these two people before this stuff begins. So now there's an attachment, potentially pets or children or finances or things that are ingrained. And saying something cheap, like 'Just leave', is the most incredibly unhelpful thing that you can do. Because they would, of course they would.

"We also know that when a woman tries to flee is the time that she's most likely to be murdered. So she is thinking, this is a life and death situation. She is thinking, can I? Will I survive if I leave? So asking why she doesn't leave is a big smack in the face of these women that are trying to survive a horrific situation and trying to find the moment to leave."

When her moment came - after that terrible car accident that somehow strangely put her life in danger and simultaneously saved it - Marshall had to start all over again.

She had nothing; no money, no job, no CV, no home. She was not in a good place physically and mentally.

Listen to the No Filter podcast where host Mia Freedman discusses domestic violence and coercive control. Post continues after audio.


She asked her father if she could move in with him temporarily, to which he of course agreed. He did not know then the extent of what had happened with her ex-partner.

"My goal was to find a safe place for myself - not that I wasn't safe at my dad's, but I also needed privacy to recover," she says.

"I hadn't even accessed the internet for a long period of time so I didn't have a gauge on anything, like what rentals were like and everything was in Sydney is exorbitant... I was like, 'Holy shit. I don't have any money.'"

Marshall started babysitting to make ends meet. It took a while, but once she had one family that trusted her to babysit, she used the reference to get another and then another. Finally, she got to a point where she saved enough for a rental bond.

It was empowering to be able to work for money and have her own place to live. But once she felt safe, that's when all the trauma came flooding to the surface.

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"That's when you're like, what happened? What did I survive? Because I think what happens is you go, 'Oh, do I want orange juice or apple juice? Do I want to wear a skirt? Oh my God, that's ludicrous.' Because you never had a say," Marshall reveals.

"All of these things that bring tiny moments of joy also bring rushes of incredible pain, where you're like, how much was taken from me? How much was robbed from me? How many years did I lose?"

With government support, she went for therapy and cathartic workshops, and did everything within her power to heal.

"I really became obsessed with getting out of the pain because it was so consuming," she tells Mamamia.

"The more I moved through it, the better I could sleep, the more I could eat. I could have better conversations, I could connect with people, I could look them in the eye."

As she worked through her trauma, she met her now husband, former rugby league star Benji Marshall, and the couple went on to have two young children together.

She reveals that telling her husband about her past was not easy - for either of them.

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"He and I both came together with a lot of baggage. He had his own traumas. He had the death of his father just after we started dating... and a whole lot of stuff that comes with being a really young footballer in that kind of world," she says.

"It was just a tricky place to navigate. I never, ever wanted him to help me with anything work-wise. I never wanted a handout. Not that he would, but I didn't want him to throw it in my face that 'You owe me'. I've got such a big chip on my shoulder for that line of 'You owe me'. I'm never indebted, even to the point that if a bill comes in, I have to pay bills on the same day.

"All of these things started to become troublesome when someone is trying to love you and support you and be there for you. And you're just like, 'I can't, I need to do things by myself'... so seeing our therapist, who we still use to this day... is important to learn how to communicate healthily. Therapy is such a big part of our healing in our marriage."

Despite the domestic violence she has lived through and the trauma she is still working through to this day, Marshall says she feels very grateful for where she is and who is by her side.

"I was saying to a friend the other day, 'How f***ing blessed am I to be safe, to be healthy, to have healthy children, to have a loving husband, to have a beautiful safety space that is my home, to be creating the work of my dreams?'" she says.

"Can I just revel in that? Can I just love that? Can I just be blissfully walking up the street, collecting groceries in the bottom of the pram, walking home with my chai tea and having that be enough? And it is. 

"Life is gonna keep bringing moments and hurdles and things... so just to get to take it all in. It's just, this is enough. This is enough."

May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Month and, at Mamamia, we're sharing women's stories of bravery and courage. If you have the means, please donate to RizeUp to help women and families move on after the devastation of domestic violence.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at www.ntv.org.au.www.ntv.org.au.