Why didn't anyone help?

When Nigella Lawson's husband had his hand around her throat, how come no one stepped in?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 17, 2013 6:31PM (EDT)

Nigella Lawson      (AP/Lionel Cironneau)
Nigella Lawson (AP/Lionel Cironneau)

If ever there were a woman who represented the ideal of homey perfection, it'd be Nigella Lawson. This, after all, is the woman who jokingly titled one of her cookbooks "How to Be a Domestic Goddess," a woman whose television show "Nigella Bites" frequently ended with her triumphantly feeding an eager crowd (or just her two children).

So it came as stunning news Sunday when the Mirror's People page published a series of photographs showing the British food writer and television personality apparently being choked by her husband, Charles Saatchi, during a recent lunch at Scott's restaurant in London. In the series of photographs, the man's hand is seen extended across a table and around Lawson's throat. As the Mirror sensationally describes it, "At first he used only his left hand, then both. At one stage he tweaked her nose then pushed both hands in her face. Twice Nigella jerked her head backwards as if in fear." Strangely, soon after, she reportedly kissed him on the cheek. Another photo shows her apparently crying and visibly upset, leaving the restaurant. Police are now investigating the incident but have not launched a formal investigation.

Saatchi, a renowned advertising executive and art dealer, has insisted the photographs don't tell the true story. In a conversation with the Evening Standard, he says, "About a week ago, we were sitting outside a restaurant having an intense debate about the children, and I held Nigella's neck repeatedly while attempting to emphasize my point. There was no grip, it was a playful tiff. The pictures are horrific but give a far more drastic and violent impression of what took place. Nigella's tears were because we both hate arguing, not because she had been hurt. We had made up by the time we were home. The paparazzi were congregated outside our house after the story broke yesterday morning, so I told Nigella to take the kids off till the dust settled." Hint: If you can acknowledge that you were having an "intense" argument and that during it you put your hands around a woman's throat "to make a point," there's going to be a whole lot of serious question as to how "playful" your actions were, sir. Next time you're looking for "emphasis," try it a little further away from an artery. The 53-year-old Lawson, meanwhile, has only confirmed via a spokesman that she and her two children by her late first husband John Diamond have moved out of their London home, with no further comment. Her rep told Us this week, "We will not be commenting on the images."

Lawson has said in the past of her marriage that "I'll go quiet when he explodes, and then I am a nest of horrible festeringness." And last year, Saatchi was photographed at a restaurant conspicuously clamping his hand over his wife's mouth. Lawson, who has lavishly recalled her late mother in her books and television shows, has admitted that she would threaten, "I’m going to hit you till you cry," and once hit her brother so hard she hurt her hand.

What exactly led to that hand around Lawson's throat – a moment captured by a photographer skulking outside – is unknown. What is known is that British National Party MP and all around dirtbag Nick Griffin quickly took the opportunity to tweet that "If I had the opportunity to squeeze Nigella Lawson, her throat wouldn't be my first choice." What is known is that a member of the paparazzi made money selling the images. What is known is the unbylined Mirror staff were able to find onlookers who said the incident was "utterly shocking to watch," that Lawson "had a real look of fear on her face," and that "He was being intimidating, threatening" and "abusive, frightening and disrespectful" – and yet they couldn't find a single person who'd intervened in the slightest while a woman was being "attacked" in broad daylight.

What is known is that a woman who is beautiful, who is wealthy, who is successful, who is over the age of 50, can have a man reach out and grab her by the throat during an "intense" debate just as easily as a woman who is poor or young or uneducated – and that regardless of who the woman is, it's a lot easier to find some mansplaining troll willing to laugh it off or be dismissive about it than it is to find somebody who will actually stand up and ask  the woman herself what in the holy hell is going on. Or to ask simply, "Are you OK?"

That's why organizations like Ring the Bell, which  encourage men and women to speak up and speak out about violence against women, matter so much. That's why if anything good can come of this, let it be a reminder that whether we're in a fancy London restaurant or a trailer park or a dorm, maybe we don't know the whole story, maybe we don't know what's going on between that couple arguing over there. But when it becomes physical, it's not the time to look away, and then later primly declare how very "shocking" it all was.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Charles Saatchi Nigella Lawson Ring The Bell Violence Against Women