It was difficult to look away from Don Burke’s face as he was grilled – annihilated – by the inimitable Tracey Grimshaw on A Current Affair on Monday night. Like the other 800,000 Australians watching I scrutinised his expression for some sign of his inner thoughts. Did he look guilty? Shifty? Defiant? Repentant?
I saw little of any of that. The primary expression on the former Channel Nine star’s face was one of blithe dismissal. He knows he said the things that he’s alleged to have said. As Grimshaw bludgeoned home to him again and again, those first-hand, primary accounts couldn’t all be lies. He knew it. His eye would twitch, his ingratiating smile towards “the Australian people” would falter. Yet he projected little beyond denial and disdain. He may have made a few ‘ribald’ quips, his expression seemed to say, but he’ll be blowed if he can understand what all the fuss was about.
Better to deny it all than bow and scrape to a confected “witch hunt” drummed up by “fragile” women with a “victim mentality” who can’t handle the rough-and-tumble of prime time TV and can’t take a joke.
Here’s what Burke and men like him don’t understand about the damage they inflict on women. The wounds don’t come from the words themselves. They don’t happen in the moment. They don’t come from the immediate indignity and discomfort of the single lewd comment or the sting of the sleazy suggestion.
It has nothing to do with fainthearted women reaching for the smelling salts because they’ve heard a naughty word.
The real suffering happens afterwards. It happens when the woman on the receiving end of his power game is forced to question her entire worth in his eyes – and even in her own eyes. It’s in her growing sense of leaden dread when she turns up to work each day after the encounter, wondering how she can prevent it happening again. It’s when she lies awake torturing herself – is she really good at her job? Or she just there because she has a nice pair of tits?
The real fallout is when she exhausts herself with the hyper-vigilance of trying to do the work she’s paid for while preventing the situation from happening again. Can she approach her boss with a legitimate work question again or will that place her in the firing line? How will she be perceived by the team? Should she tell someone? Or was everyone else laughing along with him? Maybe she imagined it? Should she quit? Avoid him? Confront him?
It’s a horrible burden. It’s quite simply an awful way to have to live your life.
During the ACA interview, Burke seemed almost entirely unmoved by Grimshaw’s punches. But perhaps, today, some of her blows have found their mark, and she’s delivered some small shred of justice to those Burke tormented.
Like the women he flattened when he was in his prime, maybe today Burke is waking up with a cloying sense of dread. A murky fug of confusion. A jackhammer of contradictory thoughts and the grim certainty that this mess – one that is self-inflicted, unlike that which he forced upon his victims – is going to cloud and taint the way he moves in the world from now on.
Perhaps, for the first time in his life, he knows how it feels to have to carry a dreadful and lasting burden.