November 27, 2013

Behind Closed Doors: Domestic Violence is Everyone’s Business. ~ Heather Haskins

Every now and then, while I’m sitting at work, robotically going about my day, I get a phone call.

When I pick up, I hear the shaky voice of a terrified friend, a frantic sibling, a sobbing mother. Despite how different they are, how unique their experiences and reasons for calling, they share two things in common: they all know a victim of domestic violence, and they all want me to help them.

For the longest time, I said that my abrupt career shift from teaching English to working in domestic violence prevention was a lucky coincidence. Often I thought it might have been an accident. Sometimes I believed it was a colossal mistake.

But twelve years ago, when working as a part-time composition and literature instructor barely paying my bills, and the new grant-funded position at the local probation department offered me forty hours a week plus benefits and a real salary, I jumped at the chance to draft policies and develop training curricula and advocate for victims of domestic violence.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the first thing about criminal justice or the legal system or what happened inside a courtroom. I was going to get paid to write, and that was all that mattered.

Within two days of starting my new position, one thing became painfully clear—it wasn’t possible to simply sit down and write. I needed to know something about the content of what I was writing.

And, as it turned out, when it came of domestic violence, my learning curve was a cul de sac. Like everyone, I clung to my own collection of myths and fears about abusers and victims, about blame and choices, about power and control.

Though I sensed that it was wrong, I silently agreed with people who asked, “Why doesn’t she just leave if he’s violent?” I even allowed myself to believe that “she must like the abuse” was a legitimate enough explanation for why anyone would remain in such a situation day after day, without even trying to reach out for help.

Still, something wasn’t making sense. Did people really like being abused? And if they didn’t, was there really nothing they could do to protect themselves? I was full of questions without answers. So instead of assuming, I started talking to people.

Even more important, I started listening. To victims. To women and children who had survived the threats and the slaps, the punches and the rapes, the taunts and the death threats, the strangulations and the broken bones.

For these people, “home” was the canvas on which the picture of human cruelty was painted, and they openly showed me their reality and helped me see what I couldn’t possibly have understood before I heard their stories.

At times, I questioned how some of them were still alive after all they had suffered, and I wondered how, and why, they got out of bed each day when they knew that violence and fear and isolation waited for them.

Granted, the violence, fear and isolation hid from the rest of the world inside the bodies of people who appeared to be loving spouses and kind significant others.

No one would have believed that these very same people brutally ripped phones out of walls and drained bank accounts and slept with hunting rifles under their beds just to make sure they were always somehow reminding their victims: “I own you, and I can end you.”

I don’t know that I ever became good at my job, but eventually, I at least started to understand why I was doing it. Or why someone needed to be doing it.

People in my community were suffering and dying, inside their homes, inside their marriages, inside their families, inside their secret lives that they simply couldn’t share with anyone—not if they wanted their children to live another day, or their pets to avoid being beaten and killed, not if they wanted their colleagues to be safe at work, rather than have the abuser show up at lunch time and turn the whole office into domestic incident collateral damage.

But what amazed and inspired me was, these victims weren’t required to fight or try or struggle to live another day. Even in their worst, most captive moments, they had options. We always have options. But since death was the only alternative to their suffering, they suffered. Because they believed, no, they hoped, that they would someday become survivors. So I followed their lead. They did their job, and I did mine.

The months passed. Then several years went by. Eventually, in 2005, I took a position at the state level and moved a two-hour car drive away so I could do similar work on a larger scale. My admirably naïve plan, of course, was to eradicate domestic violence, and to single-handedly make the world a safe place. Or at least a safer one.

But after I settled into my new job, I watched my day-to-day existence become sanitized and comfortable, more about working with paper than with people, more about saving files than saving lives. I felt ashamed and guilty and horribly, horribly useless.

Soon, I was not only listening to the experiences of local women and children, I was getting a nationwide picture of just how widespread, how insurmountable this issue really was. Due more to my own Type-A, all-or-nothing perfectionism than the work itself, I decided that if I wasn’t helping everyone, then I wasn’t helping anyone. The futility of my life felt unbearable.

Like most families—I’ll even risk it and say all families—mine was not immune to domestic violence. The specific who/where/how details of my particular situation are irrelevant, at least in this instance. For one thing, my details involve the private lives of people I love, and for another, my details won’t bring back the woman who died.

The woman I failed to save. Hers was a silent battle, out of sight. Far away. Easier to deny than acknowledge. Until the after. The now. When all I can do is wish I had done more. Or done something.

I often ask myself whether personal experience made me less sympathetic and more jaded about my work or overly emotionally invested to the point of incompetence.

Even after all these years, the answer to that question remains fluid and is based on a whole host of circumstances, from whether or not I think I have helped anyone on any given day, to whether or not I had a sufficient amount of sleep the night before, followed by a decent breakfast.

To some extent, lifelong insomnia and chronic blood sugar lows are things I can control or at least attempt to control. But helping others, really, truly making their lives better by ending the violence in their lives is not something I can do.

Sure, I can listen. I can provide people with helpful resources and phone numbers and websites. I can tell victims that the abuse is not their fault, that they do not deserve to be hurt in any way by anyone, and that I am concerned for their safety.

I can tell their frightened friends and siblings and parents that there is help, that there are countless people and places dedicated to domestic violence prevention and response, and that we are all working together to hold abusers—and only the abusers—accountable for their behavior.

I can promise them that ending domestic violence is our ultimate goal, and that we won’t stop trying until we get there.

I can tell everyone that the script needs to change—and, in some cases, is slowly changing—from one that blames the victim to one that asks, “Why doesn’t the abuser just leave?”

I can counter statements that “Abusers have anger management problems,” and “Abusers are crazy and out of control,” by pointing out that anger is an emotion and by insisting that people do not need to control their emotions, they need to control their behavior.

I can share my belief (and the beliefs of many professionals with much more training than I) that people who truly cannot control their behavior, whether due to mental illness or substance abuse problems, generally attack anyone. And everyone. Often at random.

They don’t strategically target one person, over and over, usually in private, with threats of more violence if victims report the abuse or confide in loved ones.

I can insist that abusers who exert such control and instill such fear know that they can get into a lot of trouble if they get caught, because they know that what they are doing is wrong, and because they understand the negative consequences that should follow their actions.

Finally, I can point out that we all make deliberate choices every day, as people who know right from wrong. We decide whether to respond to the wild driver who cut us off on the highway. We imagine screaming at the barista who made us late for an important meeting because she got our six dollar coffee order wrong not once, not twice, but three times, until we finally settled for “good enough” in the interest of making it to work at all.

We think about how our bosses and coworkers might respond if we shared every frustrated or angry thought we had whenever we felt pressured by timelines and deadlines and bottom lines. Most of us consciously decide, most of the time, to control our behavior in spite of our feelings because, by and large, the world still punishes people when they hurt someone outside their family.

Ironically, this kind of global violence often unites us as we mobilize with protests and news conferences and tee-shirts bearing the names and faces of unknown injured and murdered individuals. We want everyone to see and remember the damage that human brutality can do to the people we collectively refer to as “innocent victims.”

Yet for some reason, the rules change when the abuse happens at home, in the kitchen, or on the bed—behind closed doors.

So I can point all that out and share my opinions and my experience. But what I can’t do, what I won’t do, is give in to the temptation to go numb. I won’t pretend that there aren’t individual faces and names and lives attached to every piece of aggregate data that comes across my desk. I won’t use patterns and trends as a way of escaping the unique experiences of every single person who shares her/his reality.

Most of all, I won’t assume that I ever know anyone’s story. Not the whole story, anyway. Because, for victims of domestic violence, telling the whole story can not only be uncomfortable, it can be unsafe. I won’t ask why abusers abuse their partners because no reason will ever satisfy me. And I won’t ask why victims remain with their abusers because there are too many reasons to count.

All I can do is my best, until my best is truly no longer good enough. In the meantime, I can offer, to all the victims and the people who love them, my deepest apologies for their pain and suffering, and my genuine belief that they do not deserve to be abused. Ever. By anyone.

I can tell them that no matter how different my life may seem from theirs, we are very much the same, united by the twin threads of the faith and hope that get us out of bed each day.

It is the same faith and hope that moves us forward toward better lives and stronger selves, and that promises us that, if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, we will someday find the strength and the freedom to walk on our own.

(Footnote: When my story began in 2002, well over 90 percent of reported, documented domestic violence involved female victims and male abusers. Part of the cultural shift since then has been the acknowledgment that, while 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women, the latest data from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence indicates that 15 percent of domestic violence victims are male, which includes gay men whose abusers are male, and heterosexual men whose abusers are female.)


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Editor: Steph Richard

{Photos: via elephant digital archive}

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Heather Haskins