Look up “Antoine Dixon trial” on the Internet, and you will see image after image of a man with crazy eyes peering menacingly at you. You will read all about a man who went on a methamphetamine-fuelled rampage through a small New Zealand town on a fatal day in 2003. A man who mutilated two former girlfriends by hacking their bodies with a samurai sword, leaving them in pools of their own blood—their arms and hands hacked, severed and bleeding. You will learn about the tragic end to his rampage—how he shot an innocent in the back with a submachine gun, and kidnapped a terrified citizen before being caught by the police.
In the two criminal trials that followed in the years afterwards, the media frenzy featured Antoine Dixon front and centre—his wide-eyed stare, flicking from side to side. You’ll see the haircut he sported for the trials—shaved completely all around the sides with a tuft sticking up on the top so that he resembled the criminally insane man he was attempting to portray. The media took glee in the absurdity of the persona he put forth—crew-members on a popular TV show wore T-shirts featuring his signature “crazy eyes” look, and bands paid tribute to Dixon’s victims by rapping about the fad of “cutting off hands”.
We all know about Antoine Dixon—we know about his abusive childhood, his drug use, his previous convictions, the delusions he claimed that drove him to his ultimate acts of violence, his suicide the night before his final sentencing. But we know very little about the women he unleashed his violence upon. How did this evil and deranged man manage to woo not one, but two women? How did this cycle of violence begin? And the women who loved him, left changed forever in the wake of his monstrous rampage—who were they? What is it like to wake up in a world forever altered by such a vicious mutilation?
* * *
When Simonne Butler, his former girlfriend, woke up days after the attack, she was in a hospital bed. Her last memory was of cradling her severed hands to her chest, desperately trying to stay conscious, knowing that she was going to die. She looked down to see her arms swaddled in enormous bandages—hiding the deep cuts through the bone that criss-crossed all up both arms. It wasn’t until a chirpy nurse came to check the temperature of her fingers that Simonne learnt the unthinkable—she still had hands.
Surgeons had worked for 27 hours, painstakingly stitching her arms and hands back together. Miraculously, Simonne was whole. But she faced weeks, months, years ahead to get any movement back in her hands. Her next two years were spent in gruelling physical recovery, with daily physiotherapy sessions, and seven hours of exercises each day to recover some of the function of her hands. But the physical recovery was a walk in the park compared to the years of healing she had to go through to make herself whole again.
It is difficult to reconcile the Simonne Butler of nearly 12 years ago with the vibrant, eloquent and beautiful woman I meet on a wintry day in 2014. These days, Simonne is a spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Women’s Refuge, and she is an active campaigner against domestic abuse. She has taken up horse riding, is a qualified naturopath, is studying as an apprentice to a master shaman, and is writing a book about her experiences.
The first thing that she says when I meet her in the idyllic cottage she now calls home, is that the media was so focussed on the sensational aspects of Dixon’s crimes—the samurai sword, the crazy eyes, the drugs—that no one called it for what it was: a case of domestic violence.
When Simonne Butler met the now notorious Antoine Dixon, she thought she had met The One. He was so kind and loving; she had never known a love so sweet and fulfilling before. She knew that he had abused his former wife of 10 years, but Dixon assured her that he had been driven to it. Reflecting on it now, Simonne is vocal about how strange it is that woman do this—that we put all of the blame for our partner’s former relationship sins at women’s feet, telling ourselves that we are special, she deserved it—that he will be different for us.
In the beginning, everything was perfect in Simonne and Antoine’s relationship. Sure, people warned her to stay away from him—but they didn’t know what he’d been through. He might have lost his temper now and again, and sometimes she thought about leaving him. And maybe sometimes he called her a slut, said she was useless, lazy, that she couldn’t do anything right. But that wasn’t anything she hadn’t been called growing up. “I really was in denial for how bad it was,” says Simonne. “I was so concerned with not letting anyone know how bad it was and not letting anyone see the cracks in the façade that I just didn’t ask for help.”
And then the violence began. He would lose his temper, and hit her. But he was always so apologetic about it, so heartbroken about what he had done. He would hold her and rock her gently for days afterwards, telling her that he would never hurt her, that he loved her, that she meant so much to him. And she would think back to how things used to be, to the sweet, loving Antoine she knew was still inside. And she lived on that hope—that with just enough love, her beloved boyfriend would come back out again. So she stayed.
She did try to leave him a couple of times, but she always came back. Leaving wasn’t as simple as walking out the door; she was afraid of what he would do if she left. They owned property together, so leaving wasn’t as simple as packing a suitcase. She was afraid that if she called the police, that she would be the woman who kept going back, and frightened that her leaving could put others in danger. But, mostly, she was afraid to have people know what her life was really like; to learn about the humiliation, pain, and ever-present fear that dominated her life. Antoine’s ex-wife was the only person who ever told Dixon that he was mistreating Simonne: No one else ever asked if she was okay or called him out on his name-calling, put-downs, or violence. Their silence was confirmation that this was something that should remain bottled up, behind closed doors.
Eventually, when Dixon’s methamphetamine addiction spiralled out of control and Simonne was being subjected to constant intimidation and violence, the flame of hope that she had been living for flickered out and died. She was holding down a full-time job, and coming home to the chaos to cook and clean, careful to behave as he wanted her to—her only hope was that he wouldn’t notice her. By the time that the sparks of Dixon’s rage had erupted into his inferno of violence, Simonne had lost all joy in life. She didn’t believe that anyone could help her, and while she wasn’t suicidal, she saw death as a welcome end to the misery of her life. Looking back on it now, Simonne says that she was so broken by then that the only way that the relationship could have ended was with severe violence.
* * *
With 11 years of recovery between the brutal end of their relationship and present day, Simonne has had time to reflect on what could have happened differently to avoid that terrible end. One of the things that she repeats to me a number of times is “If you think he can kill you, he can”. Simonne wants all women to know that they should not feel afraid in their own homes of someone who says that they love you. “That is not love.” she says, “Love does not belittle you. It doesn’t try to wear you down. If someone is doing that to you, making you feel inferior, telling you that you’re not good enough, or controlling what you do—checking your messages, telling you who you can’t see—even if it’s only now or then—that is an abusive relationship”.
Simonne wants women in similar situations to know that there is hope. It’s difficult to leave any relationship—people stay in relationships for far too long because they don’t want to face the situation or have the difficult conversations. They don’t want to face the issues in themselves. When you’re in an abusive relationship, it’s just that much more intense.
But while leaving an abusive relationship is a long and involved process, it is possible. It requires careful planning, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But these days, there are people and organisations who can help guide women through the process. Women Refuges can provide temporary accommodation, and there is legal help for disentangling assets and ensuring that children remain safe. Simonne believes that people should be encouraged speak up when they see someone being yelled at, controlled or hurt.
Part of Simonne’s message is that women need to be taught to spot the early signs of abuse: the controlling behaviours like monitoring your texts, telling you what to wear, when you find yourself having sex because you don’t want to deal with the “drama” of saying no—these are all warning signs.
But Simonne is philosophical about the crescendo of violence that finally destroyed her relationship for good; “A lot of people have to hit rock bottom before they can start pulling themselves up—and you don’t get much further rock bottom than ending up in a hospital room with your hands chopped off!”
Simonne has written a book that traces her life, her abusive relationship, its tragic peak, and the healing journey she went on to piece her life back together. To find out more about Simonne and her campaign to empower women to leave abusive relationships, please see her Pledge Me site: Horrific Experience Inspires Unique Book
Part One of a two-part series.
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