#SheInspires Karen Jacobsen

July 18, 2018

The voice we listened to every day is now giving voice to domestic violence survivors

Karen Jacobsen, the original Australian voice of Siri, is now lending her voice to survivors of domestic violence in a new audiobook, Broken to Brilliant: Breaking Free to Be You After Domestic Violence, Stories of Strength and Success.

The epidemic of domestic violence against women in Australia cannot be overstated and the statistics cannot be reiterated enough. We have heard these numbers so many times it seems their true meaning has been muted; the horror has lost its lustre. Though domestic violence against Australian women is so startling in its prevalence and severity we need to repeat these figures over and over again to ourselves: on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner; 75% of victims of intimate partner homicide are female; 72,000 women sought homelessness services in 2016–17 due to family and domestic violence; and intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor for women aged 25–44.

These numbers are a clear call to action. And while the onus does not lie solely with the individual, Jacobsen is responding in her own way, supporting the women who have survived domestic and family violence by sharing their stories with as wide an audience as possible.

It was through the motivational speaking circuit that Jacobsen heard about Broken to Brilliant, a charity and mentoring program run by and for domestic violence survivors that helps survivors begin a new chapter in their lives after the initial crisis period.

A friend and fellow speaker, Shirley Dalton, told Jacobsen about a book the charity had released in 2016. Through ten anonymous stories of domestic violence survival, the book acts as a guide to survivors on how to recalculate their path after abuse with practical steps on how to overcome adversity. The theme of empowerment instantly spoke to Jacobsen, so when Dalton suggested she collaborate with Broken to Brilliant on recording and releasing an audiobook version, she instantly jumped on board.

It is fitting that the voice of Siri – who could perhaps be considered the ultimate anonymous female, generic and disembodied – will now give voice to ten anonymous accounts of women who have survived domestic violence to create new lives for themselves.

The intimacy of the act – reading in first person another woman’s account of abuse – lingered with Jacobsen long after recording had finished.

‘The material is so intense and I wouldn’t for a second say that my experience of recording those stories could compare in any way to living those stories and those very difficult experiences, but having to share those stories and read them in first person wasn’t for the faint of heart.’

‘The depth of respect I have for the level of courage of those women to take such incredibly challenging circumstances and then find a way no matter what to get out and then to create a free life, a new life for themselves, really no words can express how incredible that is.’

The experience of giving voice to the women’s stories has affected how Jacobsen operates in her own life. ‘I pay much closer attention to my own words and situations I’m in. I don’t just go along with certain things, not really calling things out.

Jacobsen believes that it’s these simple, everyday behaviours – when a voice is raised, when someone is ridiculed, or when a disrespectful comment about a woman is made in what she calls an ‘in-good-fun tone’ – that can be the beginning of the escalation towards violence.

Jacobsen stresses how crucial this is, to create a society that rejects not only violence against women but the culture of disrespect towards women which is all around us.

‘I’ve certainly been in relationships where I didn’t feel fully able to be myself, but nothing like the fear all of these women have lived with. I think we’ve tolerated bad behaviour for too long. It is a slippery slope – it’s documented. You don’t always seem like the fun, cool, popular person if you do call [disrespectful behaviour] out and it’s tough because of course we all want to belong and be a part of a fun crowd.’

The ultimate message, for Jacobsen, in the Broken to Brilliant stories is that ‘it’s never too late to recalculate and it’s never too late to go for what you want.’

Jacobsen has had her own winding path towards success. Originally from Mackay, she later studied voice and piano at Griffith University’s Conservatorium in Brisbane, before moving to Sydney and then later, in 2000, to New York to pursue a career as a professional singer.

‘I always knew I wanted to live in America,’ she tells me. We chat over the phone while she’s in Australia for a series of events – her voice arrives clear through the speaker (it’s Siri with a little more melody).  

A year after living in the States trying to find work as a professional singer she auditioned for, and landed, a job as a voice-over artist for a text-to-speech voice recognition system. For almost fifty hours she read from a script of different words, phrases, and whole sentences devised by a team of engineers that ensured they would capture every combination of syllables possible. After recording, she says, ‘life returned to normal.’

It wasn’t until years later when she received a call from an astonished, road-tripping friend that she realised her voice was being used in GPS devices. Getting the call from her friend was very unexpected, she says. ‘I had no idea that this had even happened let alone that this would be the pathway of my life.’

Her voice has now been used in over one billion GPS and smartphone devices, and she is regularly recognised by fans when they hear her speak.

Jacobsen decided to develop her own ‘empowerment brand’, The GPS Girl, around this unexpected turn of events in her life.

‘It took me a little while but I realised there was something in it, that there was something to create from this opportunity. I made this connection between directions in car and directions in life and now I speak and sing at events about how to recalculate your life or your business and how to navigate change powerfully.’

She admits that it was ‘a very unexpected development in my singer-songwriter career.’

Though it’s never too late, she says, for an unexpected development, a sudden turn in course, or a new chapter altogether.

This is her advice for people unsure of direction in their life. ‘That’s really the bottom line. It is never too late. We might think we’ve missed the boat if only we’d figured it out when were at high school or if only we’d studied the right degree, or now we have kids or you’re over sixty and you think it’s too late. It’s never too late to really sit and think how would my life be if I could have it any way I would want it.’

Her inspiration is grounded in practicality. ‘That doesn’t take away from having real commitments and circumstances,’ she makes sure to note, ‘but there are always small steps we can take on a daily basis toward more of what we want and creating a life that we really love and making peace with some of the choices we’ve made in the past.’

You can support Broken to Brilliant to reach domestic violence survivors by buying a book to give to a woman in a refuge or by making a donation http://brokentobrilliant.org or suggesting your local coffee shop join the Funds for the Future Campaign by giving a tip when you buy your coffee. Tips are donated to Broken to Brilliant and support the Give a Book program.

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