Friday, November 20, 2009
The battered husband who snapped
Anthony Sherna killed his partner after suffering years of abuse.
For almost 20 years he submitted in order to keep the peace. When she demanded he change his surname to prove he loved her, he agreed.
When she insisted he not see his friends or family, he complied. When she taunted him by resuming an affair with a former boyfriend and suggested he ''grow some balls'', he swallowed the insults.
When she said he was too smelly to use the toilet at home, he restrained himself until he arrived at work. When she refused to let him sleep in their double bed, he dossed down in the spare room on a camp stretcher.
He was sole breadwinner but she rationed his cigarettes - just 12 each day - and controlled their money. Each week after withdrawing the housekeeping money he handed over the cash, his ATM card and receipts.
Now, compliant as ever, Anthony Sherna, 41, is in the Homicide Squad offices with nothing to hide. ''I then lost my temper,'' he tells detective Nigel L'Estrange. ''I lost my temper, and I strangled her with the dressing-gown cord until she could no longer breathe.''
The trigger, he says, was when Susanne Wild stormed into the laundry of their Tarneit home, in Melbourne's outer west, where he was rocking Hubble, their pet terrier to sleep. That was part of his routine. She was drunk. That was part of her routine.
''Hubble just shook like a, really frightened … that upset me very much [and] she started mouthing off at me again,'' he says.
''She - God, I couldn't believe what I had done. Her legs come from under her so they were back from the knee. She was just lying there.''
Almost three weeks ago Sherna was acquitted of murder, and convicted of manslaughter. It was not only about the dog. She was abusing him about a mobile phone bill, too. Angry, drunk and not wanting to stop himself, he killed just after midnight on February 2 last year.
Today, the last act of their tragic relationship will play out when Justice David Beach sentences Sherna.
Before Victoria's homicide laws changed in 2005, Sherna might have used the abuses of his 18-year relationship to invoke provocation as his defence. Provocation - a partial excuse for homicide intended for less heinous killings - could result in a manslaughter conviction. It became discredited when relied on by spurned lovers to justify killing their partners.
Its abolition was accompanied by the introduction of ''defensive homicide'', which was conceived to account for killings in the context of sustained domestic violence, such as a battered woman killing her tormentor.
Sherna's barrister, Jane Dixon, SC, said during the pre-sentence hearing that with provocation abolished, Sherna's case was ''uncharted territory''. His sentence would ''have to sit well against cases where the accused is a female and has been subjected to psychological domination or abuse''.
After the killing, Sherna fled the house, played poker machines for several hours, spent an hour with a prostitute at a brothel and drank himself into a stupor, sleeping until midday. He woke asking himself: ''Shit … what the hell have you done?''
''So I went and saw … so … because I don't have family or friends, I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who I should speak to. I didn't know anything.''
Indeed, it seems that soon after the 23-year-old Chernishoff - his family name before he changed it at his partner's insistence - met the then 35-year-old Susie Wild, he lost any sense of autonomy.
His story poses the question: why did he not leave some time in the 15 years he was sleeping alone in a spare room?
Healthy relationships do not necessarily require equal power sharing, says a family therapist, Sue Jackson, but over time it does tend to be roughly divided between couples.
''It's not like there is a template where you can say in healthy relationships power is always equal,'' Jackson says. ''But when you are talking about a situation where there's extremes, you do find often that there's a power differential that insidiously over the years becomes more extreme.''
And with the exercise of power, the dominant partner can become ever more controlling. Central to this, Jackson says, is the isolation of the less powerful. ''Over time their self-esteem diminishes, and if isolated long enough, they blame themselves for their position.
''It can become very hard for some people to acknowledge what is happening to them at home because they feel so foolish and full of shame.''
In another life, Tony Sherna would at least have had someone in whom to confide. That was the life centred around the Clayton Youth Club and a tight circle of mates from schooldays.
At 23, Sherna was an avid suburban cricketer. The seventh-born of eight siblings, he was buying a house with his brother, Peter. Two friends shared the place to help with expenses.
He was the antithesis of the isolate who was presented to the Supreme Court charged with murder. He had ties to friends and family, but his complete recollection of his love of sport is telling: ''I loved cricket. I never missed a training or a game, prior to meeting Susie, and then I stopped altogether. She did not like me sharing my time with others. Eventually, she made me choose.''
They met in 1989. Wild had left one life - in Tasmania - after losing custody of her six-year-old son.
She was estranged from her family - she would have no contact with her mother for many years, only phoning her late at night when she was drunk - and while she told Sherna she once had a son, she said the boy was killed in a road accident. Sherna would be shaken years later to learn the boy was alive.
Initially, Sherna was infatuated with Wild. She moved in with him and his life changed utterly.
During a party at his mother's house, Wild claimed that Peter Chernishoff and two of Sherna's friends had made passes at her.
That was the start of a process which ended with Sherna as estranged from his family as she was from hers.
They moved often, sharing 13 homes over the 18 years they spent together. He was barred from using the toilet at home: ''Susanne said I stunk and I was filthy if I used the toilet for number two. She made me go to the Glen Shopping Centre.''
She was agoraphobic, refusing to leave home for long periods, but also an obsessive shopper for furnishings. Retail excursions were their only outlet: he would chauffeur her because she did not drive.
They were friendless but shared a crutch: he drank eight cans of beer daily, while she drank up to eight bottles of red wine a week.
A forensic psychologist, Jeffrey Cummins, testified that Sherna suffered a chronic mood disorder, was depressed, and compensated by becoming a workaholic and alcoholic.
Early in their relationship Wild openly resumed an affair with a former boyfriend, Michael Bennis. Wild called Sherna ''a weak little bastard'' for tolerating the liaison.
However, Wild regularly accused him of infidelity, calling him at work and telling him to ''pull his pants up and put the bitch on'' the phone.
The account of their lives together is his alone, but there were witnesses to parts of his story. A co-worker corroborated Wild's frequent, harassing phone calls. Wild rang up to 12 times a shift, the co-worker said. The interference cost him the chance of promotion.
At irregular intervals Wild worried Sherna's mother in the early morning with drunken, abusive phone calls.
Nor did Wild spare the neighbours: one said he tried to sell his house because of Wild's abuse and aggression; another recorded Wild's protracted abuse after he installed a spa and Wild shouted that he was ''a lazy prick'' who should get to work.
Another related how Wild acted as overseer as Sherna weeded the garden, directing him to weeds he had missed, and of her dominance: ''[Susie] would always have a say and he would be in the background''.
Still another said Sherna and Wild had to be evicted from his house after Wild forcefully insisted the man and his newly pregnant wife rid themselves of their dogs for the baby's sake.
By the time of the killing, the court heard, Sherna had endured 18 years of daily humiliation, degradation, embarrassment and put-downs.
Cummins said Sherna showed signs of ''battered woman syndrome''.
A counselling psychologist, Jo Marston, says men and women stay in abusive relationships for similar reasons: fear of loneliness or financial hardship, the hope of change, or a commitment to the relationship. ''I have worked with a lot of domestic violence cases and it's not always the woman who is being abused, but almost always they are lonely, isolated people with very low self-esteem [without] the ability to assert their own wants. Their whole lives are about acquiescing in the hope that brings some sort of reward.''
The Chernishoff family - Sherna's siblings - knew about domestic violence and impotence. Their mother was abused by their alcoholic father, and divorced him when Sherna was a toddler. Sherna's vision was damaged in-utero when his father punched his mother in the stomach.
Sherna did maintain episodic contact with his family. That is how his first confession of the killing was days later to his mother, and how the police came to be knocking on his door.
His mother having since died, his trial was observed by a loyal and solemn extended family of aunts and siblings. Perhaps when his time for release comes, he will revert to the name Chernishoff.
For now he appears eminently fit for rehabilitation. He has taken a life, yet is an unlikely candidate for the company of killers. But account must also be made for those moments when he closed on Susanne Wild with a cord in his hands and chose not to hear her terrible plea: ''Tony, no. Don't do it.''
Abused husbands are seldom reported to the police, NGOs or media. Men have too much pride to allow their secrets to be known in public.
I am aware of four men who are being abused and belittle by their wives. Tan Sri, A Tan Sri's brother, Tun and a Tun's son-in-law.
The stories are told by the abused men themselves, from the high society wives' relatives and being witness to some of the abuses.
For the past thirty years or so, our society have changed from a family oriented to materialistic. Everything is about money and position.
Money is important to survive but too much money bring about abuses of different kind.
The four abused men are not from middle class society but the cream of the elite class. They have no worries for money or position. Their wives can call up the media and their pictures and humble good work would be in the news the next day.
There was this one time that this particular wife was not happy with the dinner meal that was bought by the husband. She threw the meal onto the kitchen and dining floor. She called me to the house to witness how stupid and ungrateful her husband was. She yelled and scolded her husband with sarcastic words and condemn his family members etc. It took me five hours to calm her down and she insisted her husband clean up the mess she created. For the next ten days she continued to verbally abused him and pegged his penis with a clothes peg.
The second is an incident that was uncalled for. This husband just returned from a meeting. As it was late he locked the front door and went to sleep, not knowing that the wife did not take the house keys with her. When she came back, she could not get in. As the house is almost sound proof the poor man did not hear the shouting and banging. The woman got hold of some relatives and broke the front door. She then proceeded to the master bedroom to beat the husband. The poor man aroused from his sleep not knowing what happened got a thrashing. They fought for three days and two nights without sleeping. The wife is bitchy and arrogant thinking she is Lady Diana, cannot get along with her husband's staff and many of them left though they had been working for many years. I often see her begging the staff on the roadside to come back because after some time nobody could work there. Even the maids in the house cannot last long. So the poor husband got to wash the dishes and clean the toilets.
There are many more stories to be told but these two are upsetting enough for now.
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