WATCH: In Part 2 of her in-depth interview with Melanie Reid on the eve of leaving Parliament, National MP Sarah Dowie has advice for women ensnared in relationships by manipulative men
If there’s one thing outgoing Invercargill MP Sarah Dowie wants the public to know, it’s how to recognise the warning signs of those who prey on others’ vulnerabilities.
The National MP gave her farewell speech in Parliament this week, bringing to an end what has been a rollercoaster six-year career with the party that became defined by her involvement with one name: Jami-Lee Ross.
She says the then-National MP played the ‘long game’ from the moment she arrived at Parliament as a late-30s mother of two in an unhappy marriage. He was, she describes, like a white knight arriving on his horse – offering sage advice, a shoulder to lean on, even providing her a room in his Wellington apartment.
But by the time Dowie worked out what she was dealing with, it was too late. He had swept her up in his too-good-to-be true fantasy and before she knew it she was in a controlling relationship.
“I’m responsible for making that initial decision, but by the time I realised what it was, I was in too deep. And he’s very, very good at what he does. I have no doubt that he surveyed a whole lot of people within his proximity and worked out what he wanted from me, and assessed whether he could play on my vulnerabilities to get me into his web.”
Mental health professionals use the term ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ to describe those with an inflated sense of self-worth and entitlement who exploit others without remorse, often through bullying, shaming and controlling.
It’s a term that’s thrown around a lot these days, but the complex, multi-layered manipulation that occurs when dealing with a narcissist is quite hard to describe. Dowie says to truly be engaged with a narcissist is like living in a horror story and says if she can warn anyone about it, then she has done her job.
“There are patterns of behaviour these types of characters display and in hindsight, it’s very formulaic. So if we can educate women about those patterns then forewarned is forearmed. I am a smart woman. And every day I question, how could I have got caught up in this? But it absolutely happens. And I’m not the only one. How can predators go unexposed for so long? It’s because they’re so clever.”
She points out certain red flags to look out for: many such relationships start off with ‘love-bombing’ – excessive attention and flattery – before moving onto isolation from close friends and loved ones and becoming more and more controlling.
“These characters put you up on a pedestal and really see you as something special. And that’s when the love bombing comes in, a rapid fire period of contact where it’s almost like an explosion of emotion. Lots of flattery, lots of building you up. And you’re left spinning and thinking, ‘my goodness, this person is so amazing. I’ve never had a friendship like this, I’ve never met a man like this’.”
Dowie says that within six months, the honeymoon phase was over.
“Then you go into a devaluation stage. They gaslight you – that’s where they spin arguments around to make it look like you’re to blame, or they will completely deny statements they’ve made. You don’t understand quite what’s going on. You can’t comprehend what the reality is.”
When Newsroom broke the story of Ross’ multiple affairs in October 2018, followed by further allegations of bullying and intimidating behaviour towards staff, the MP had just exploded his relationship with the National party after being outed as the leaker of Simon Bridges’ travel expenses.
Dowie’s name was then forced out into the open after an anonymous tipoff to Crimestoppers about a late night text she had sent Ross two months earlier that included the words “you deserve to die” after she had discovered Ross’ other affairs.
Two years later and the number of people who have come forward to share their horror stories of their relationships – both intimate and work-related – with Ross now stands at 10.
A Parliamentary Service formal investigation into his behaviour in a new electorate office, issued to the parties just weeks ago, upheld a number of complaints from three of his Botany office staff, including making inappropriate sexualised comments, mind games and lies.
Yet despite a growing tally of victims needing counselling and support, Ross retains a healthy media coverage and continues to work as an MP with staff employed by the Parliamentary Service.
Dowie says Ross is a master of manipulation and an abuser, and will use any tactics he can to get what he wants – including, at one time she says, to be prime minister.
“He is delusional – it’s grandiose delusion. But that is what these characters run. This is their world. This is their reality. And if you don’t buy into it, if you don’t see it the way they see it, then you’re wrong, or you’re not good at your job, or you’re not worth knowing and they’ll cut you or they’ll start a smear campaign to undermine you, or whatever tactics are at their disposal, they’ll use it to completely undermine you.”
One of these tactics is to find people who can be used to meet their needs – whether that was sex, information, attention or “people he could control and then send out to do his bidding.”
“He would constantly survey a situation and look for people that could provide him with something. I call them flying monkeys. You know, people that buy into their narrative and their way of viewing the world and they equally enjoy the attention that he would give them, or the validation they would gain from him if they provided him with information. So he would send them off into the world and they would make it their mission to speak to somebody about something to garner information, to bring it back.”
Once it dawned on her what was going on, trying to extricate herself from the relationship was another matter altogether. “Certainly with me, it was quite clear that if that if I didn’t play his game he would look to destroy my career.”
Her advice is twofold – remove yourself from the relationship for as long as possible, and maintain healthy friendships:
“The antidote is no contact. That’s not to suggest that that’s easy. It’s not, because you’ve still got that psychological pull. All of these people will be going through their own process to recover from this abuse. And, and it does, it takes time and it takes work and it takes effort.
“So if somebody is finding themselves in a situation like this, reach out to your friends and start to confide in them, or just spend time with them. Because it will give you that break in contact with these types of people and give you a bit of perspective and a chance to recharge.”
Dowie also wants New Zealand to have a conversation around the difference between consent and meaningful consent – because if it’s coerced consent, can it really be meaningful?
“I don’t think it matters how intelligent or what your background is or who you are, or your strength. It can happen. If I can take the time to educate other women about these behaviours and forewarn them, then job done, basically.”
The other women
Another woman Ross groomed says it was the outright lies that finally woke her up to his behaviour, and she wants people to understand just how far the politician went to deceive his victims.
But she also says inaccurate reporting of the issue has made her distrust much of what the media publishes and that journalists have a responsibility to get facts right, particularly when it involves manipulators and abusers.
The anonymous parliamentary worker has told Newsroom the full story of her involvement with the MP and explains the lengths he went to protect his reputation.
She says she originally saw him as a close friend and confidant and that they slept together “two or three times”. When Ross was admitted to a mental health facility after the reports emerged about his behaviour, she got in touch with him, eventually meeting up with him after his discharge.
“I wanted him to know that I initially came forward as I was concerned for his mental health.”
But it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to how the woman could do something for him. “He told me if I really wanted to help I could go to the media and say that he wasn’t that bad a guy. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that and that conversation went back and forth a bit before I left saying I would think about it.”
A few weeks later they met at a Wellington café, but this time he was determined to get something out of her he could use against his opponents.
“This was a very different Jami-Lee Ross from the December meeting, someone that seemed quite calculated and determined. I wondered if I had been played at the prior meeting and decided it could be likely knowing the mind games he uses. He again asked if I would go the media and clear his name, which I said I wouldn’t. I didn’t feel comfortable with the conversation and felt he was up to his old tricks and thought this was best to leave now – to draw line in the sand and walk away.”
He asked if National’s then deputy leader Paula Bennett had pushed her to talk to the media, but she told him she had done it of her own accord. She also reiterated she had gone to the chief of staff herself, had offered up her phone and given her story completely unprompted.
“He then spun that and started saying ‘well that’s unacceptable they should ask for your phone and messages, you’re a member of staff being used in their games’. I reiterated that wasn’t what happened but could see he was already forming his own story.”
A few days later the news story came out about the text message from Dowie. In the same article Ross said the woman had apologised and said she had been made to do it, which, she says, “is 100 percent factually untrue”.
“It really annoyed me how the media could talk to him, take a story from him and print it as gospel. Because he has access to the media he can say what he wants and it just gets written up. While I have remained anonymous I know people in Parliament knew who I was and it wouldn’t have been that hard to get my side of the story. And it continues. He comes out with stories time and time again, not necessarily related to this, and it’s bullshit. Do people not fact check? It’s made me distrust everything I see written.”
It was at this point the woman realised just how manipulated she had been by Ross – and how calculated he is.
“I realised that by trying to be kind to someone that had royally screwed up, I had been in fact played again by him. This cemented the fact for me that he really is a narcissist and plays mind games to get what he wants. Call me naïve or stupid but I try to see the best in people and give everyone a second chance, but there are no third chances and now I could 100 percent see him for who he is.”
See also: Part 1: “He said he was going to destroy me .. and here we are”
* Made with the support of NZ on Air *