Domestic Violence: A family affair?
The problem of domestic violence has existed since time immemorial. Sadly, we know that it continues to be prevalent in society today, albeit, receiving a great deal more attention. Perpetrators are finally being held accountable and the severity of the issue is being appreciated more today than ever before.
Although we know from historical report that violence in families has always existed and actually accepted as common practice in the 1800s. The well-known “rule of thumb” still said to be in our law books.
Society did not truly seem to pay attention to the issue of domestic violence until the early 70s, coupled with the onset of the feminist movement. America started hearing the cry for accountability for the centuries of suffering and abuse women have experienced. I was in my teens in the 70s and was surrounded by violence in my home and neighborhood throughout my childhood. I was fortunate to have escaped it and the concrete jungle to pursue a higher education (the first in my immediate family) and join this fight.
The domestic violence movement alleged that women have been long-suffering due to the patriarchal mentality of this country and throughout the world. Society newly learned of the antiquated laws, the “rule of thumb“ and the fact that women were considered property (like cattle, etc.) for much of our history. Shelters began to rise all over the country and women were offered refuge in confidential locations, hidden and protected from their abuser.
In 1982, I joined the fight by landing my first position as a Live-in Shelter Manager after receiving my bachelor’s from Cedar Crest College. At Turning Point I experienced such fulfillment by making a difference as I was called out in the middle of the night by a family fleeing their batterer and meeting then at the police station or the corner of a well lighted street to drive them into the safety of a shelter filled with other families and supportive strong women that would become their voice.
There was still the reality that we could not save all. I recall an incident I witnessed from the very window of my room at Turning Point. Across the street from their original site (Turning Point has several successful program locations today) lived a “family” composed of several couples and their children. These particular neighbors were members of an infamous biker gang. From my second floor window, I could see inside their open door on summer days and the riffles and guns that hung on their walls. One sad night, I heard an argument outside and peeked out the window. One of the couples was outside the home and the man was stomping, punching and beating on this woman. Until this day, I can hear the awful guttural sounds she made as he beat her. I was not sure whether it was her lungs or internal bleeding but I knew this was the sound of a potentially fatal beating. I am ashamed to say that because we knew that the family was well aware of “what we were” and knew that if I called the police they might come after us, I did not. All I could do at the time was pray she would be ok.
I was grateful to see that finally “the secret was out”. The fact that millions of women and children were experiencing fear, threats and both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of their loved ones. My experience at Turning point led to years of working with this population, together with other underprivileged and oppressed families for which domestic violence was just part of their story.
Three decades later, there is no doubt in my mind that many lives have been saved by the movement and that it helped to draw attention to this epidemic in our country. We have spent years educating communities, helping women and children escape, seek legal protection and support them as they learned to recognize the signs of a possible batterer, hoping that they did not again fall into the trap of that vicious cycle.
Nevertheless, we are all too painfully aware that the job is not yet done. Women continue to die at the hands of ones they love and communities and bystanders are too often affected. Just this week I read an article on the unfortunate murder of a deputy in Knoxboro, NY , while answering to a “domestic disturbance”. In addition, we know that the risk of danger (and possible lethality) increases once she flees.
So, what is the answer? We may never totally end violence in the lives of women, children and men by significant others but I do believe it is now time to move forward into a more holistic solution.
For decades, we have been addressing the problem by separating the victims from the abuser and keeping them “safe”. There is no doubt that many of these abusers are dangerous and that victims have to escape and remain safe to minimize the chances of further abuse.
Nevertheless, I believe that for far too long we have left out an important factor. That is, the “y” factor. The core of the problem I believe is NOT patriarchy or misogyny, which is what the feminist movement and domestic violence movement suggested for decades. Undoubtedly, a society that has for centuries treated women as property and believed that “man” was the ruler of women may be a significant enabling factor and reason why this problem continues today. This type of societal attitude has allowed us to ignore the issue and turn a blind eye.
Having said that, I have concluded after not only my personal experience but from working to be part of the solution for 30 years, that this issue is a FAMILY issue. We cannot forget the batterer in these circumstances.
The answer, I believe, is not always to treat them as monsters, lock them up and throw away the key. This is a sentiment that many believe. While working at my last place of employment I had the privilege of representing the agency as a speaker at a colloquium held in Strasbourg, Fr. The conference was hosted by a marvelous agency named Association Regain, which was introducing an innovative holistic approach to addressing domestic violence.
The program's Director believes that the key to eliminating or decreasing domestic violence is to work with the entire family on learning "non-violent" communication. Now when I say the entire family I am not referring to putting the family in a room together to do this. In Rene's program, they have a safe shelter for the women, men and child victims of abuse. In addition, they not only provide clinically sound services to the victims and their children, but also offer the abuser the services of a 24-hour hotline and therapy if he chooses to take advantage of it. In France, this too is controversial but learning about their program and touring the facilities, makes me think Rene has something there.
In addition to dedicating the last 3 decades to victims of domestic violence, I have worked as a consultant for a Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP) also known as the "Batterer's Program", for the last 7 years. In that role I co-facilitate a group for men that are court mandated to participate in this 40-week group program. My motivation for working with DVIP was not only motivated by my belief that this is the piece of work missing from what the “movement” has offered but also because I wish, my father would have had the information we are trying to impart to these men.
I have learned a great deal from these men and they have affirmed what I think I have always known. There is more to this issue than patriarchy and apparent misogyny. Now, before I have my feminist sister's crying "foul", let me clarify some things and share my belief for suggesting this.
Yes, there is no question that domestic violence is a matter of power and control. The perpetrators do use tactics that will assure that the victim looses all self-worth, is isolated from her support network (family and friends) and fears him to the point of being both dependent and afraid of leaving him. It is a vicious cycle equated to the tactics used on prisoners of war (I.e. Biderman's Chart of Coercion ). There is nothing "blameless" or innocent about the intent of these batterer's.
As we know, domestic violence consists of emotional, verbal, physical, sexual and financial abuse. The abuse often takes the forms of humiliation, belittling, objectification, threats of harm, physical abuse, sexual abuse and control of finances to assure dependency (or at the very least prevent Independence).
Having said this, I believe that while we know a great deal about the "red flags" and dynamics of this type of abuse and have spent decades educating the community and law enforcement of the same, we have never really explored WHY the batterer might be resorting to these methods. Therein lays the crux of the problem and why I feel we have not been as effective thus far.
Why do they batter? Is it the natural socialization of handing little boys guns and allowing them to play war and cowboys & Indians? Is it because we think it cute when little Tommy pulls little Cindy's pigtail? Is it the media and their objectification of women in movies and magazines? Is it because society tends to minimize this societal dis-ease by calling it a mere "domestic disturbance"? Perhaps some (or all) of these factors play a role.
Then I think about the little boys and girls in the residential programs I have worked in who never really witnessed wife battering but have experienced child abuse, bullying, oppression, drugs & violence in their communities and I wonder. Would it not make sense to dig a little deeper? To comprehensively address these core issues and not just end at the “blame game”. After all, it is a family affair.
By Evelyn Rivera (c) Copyright June 2011