Reflections on the Rob and Helen storyline from the Archers.
Perhaps a daily soap opera is the only way to tell the Rob Titchenor story. It is hard to know what is more interesting, listening to the story itself, or watching the growing group of people who are actively sharing the listening experience and working through their powerful responses to it on #thearchers.
We don’t know what the story writer has in mind, or just how dangerous this clearly damaged man will become, or how and when the tower of lies will come crashing down.
We worry about the impact of his behaviour on all those around him, the wife just beginning to fight back, the child living in the shadow of it all, and the unborn baby.
For many of the listeners the priority is that this character (who we constantly have to remind ourselves is just fictional), should be found out, stopped, shamed and punished.
Because this is a soap opera it has to have a daily cliff hanger, and maybe at times this risks tipping Rob into being a pantomime villain, a monster that we can hiss at and hate. For me the worry is that if you strip away the demands of the drama we may not be looking at a unique monster at all.
The story coming to us now is perhaps in the tradition of public service broadcasting, It is telling us about a change in legislation. It is aimed at changing behaviour. Rob is of course an extreme figure, but many of the elements of “coercive control” may be far more common than we could like to think.
I wonder about the circumstances that created Rob, and about the right way of dealing with men who may tend to behave in these ways that we have now legislated against.
We are getting clues about the back story of what made Rob Rob. There was trouble, as yet unspecified in childhood, He was bundled off to prep school far too young. He learning how to act tough, learning how to bully in the process, and he found a way to shine through competitive sport.
We guess at the level of expectation which fed into his notions of what a man should be. We guess at his employment history , leaving one job after another in difficult circumstances, a trail of failures, and maybe also of criminal behaviour waiting to find him out. We see a confused, inadequate man acting tough.
We know that this is someone to whom deceit comes quite naturally. Whenever there is an error, or a flash of temper, there comes the automatic cover up, so rapid he may not even know he is doing it, adding to the tower of lies that looks ever more precarious.
He must be desperate to keep control, and the anxiety makes him more prone to mistakes, which means more cover ups, more vulnerability.
We live in a culture that puts a premium on being tough, manly, in control, being a winner. There is no shortage of people who will play act this part, to do this they must first deceive themselves. Building a narrative of the person they choose to be.
There are moments when the clash between this self-image and the reality can become intolerable. When Rob hits Helen he cries. He knows this is not the way it is meant to be. Men should not hit their pregnant wives, but within seconds he has persuaded himself that it is not his fault, he is the victim of the impossible situation created by her supposed illness.
Having shared in the collective experience of seeing Rob, I find myself seeing flashes of Rob in people around us. There are the manipulative charmers, the over-persuasive salesmen, the CEOs, trying to hold together shaky organisations, the managers who blagged their way into jobs they are not up to, the politicians who have to persuade both themselves and us that they have it all under control, the aggressive interviewers or presenters trying to frame arguments.
We glimpse also the homophobia, and the distrust of women and the discomfort at the growing presence of women in positions of power. We sense their fear that these women, given half a chance can prevent a man from being a “real man”.
Someone like Rob does not come out of nowhere; they are part of the fabric of our world.
For Rob, the chances are that this will all end pretty badly, but should we be satisfied with that? Men will only end up in prison for domestic abuse if their behaviour becomes pretty extreme, and they will then probably only be locked away for a short time. They will emerge still young, still able to do it all over again, and probably more damaged and dangerous than when they went in.
So my questions are “What is Rob’s problem?” and “What is the way to prevent people becoming like Rob, or helping them to escape from the dangerous and destructive behaviour?”
Rob’s problem may be that his idea of being a real man might have seemed “almost normal” in past times, but is now a very bad fit with our idea of what a man should be.
Rob is not without courage or skill. His qualities or recklessness and aggression would have been valued at a time when our ancestors needed to band together for the task of hunting and killing a wild boar. He would have had the esteem that clearly matters to him freely given, but now we do not have a use for him, and that is a problem.
Here we are looking at an expensively educated young man, who is not able to find a way, and is stumbling from job to job, becoming a dependant parasite, but there are so many other young men, so much less equipped to look after themselves or families in the way that they think they should. The frustration this brings is corrosive. This can be a tragedy for them, and dangerous for those around them. Many of the people who will be caught up in coercive control cases will not have had the supposed advantages of the fictional Rob.
I do not know where the Archers story will take us, I hope we will find out how Helen can gradually heal from the damage done to her, but I also hope that we will understand more of what created this character, and how men like Rob can be helped to find a positive role for themselves in our challenging and changing world.