An Epidemic of Violence We Never Discuss
NO VISIBLE BRUISES
What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us
By Rachel Louise Snyder
In the year and a half since the #MeToo movement erupted, women have recounted stories of sexual assault — and men have been called out for their behavior — from Hollywood studios to restaurant kitchens to top media outlets. Yet one of the oldest and most common places for such egregious behavior has been largely left out of the conversation: our own homes.
When it involves celebrities, domestic violence tends to be relegated to the realm of personal issues, like an addiction problem or a divorce. For the more ordinary among us, it rarely gets any media attention at all; even domestic murders — which are often the tragic culmination of years of physical and psychological abuse — seldom get more than a passing mention in the local news. Meanwhile, many of the mass shootings we see have origins in domestic violence. We ignore this phenomenon at our peril.
As Rachel Louise Snyder argues in her powerful new book, domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Fifty women a month are shot and killed by their partners. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness. And 80 percent of hostage situations involve an abusive partner. Nor is it only a question of physical harm: In some 20 percent of abusive relationships a perpetrator has total control of his victim’s life. (Countries including Britain and France have laws to protect against this kind of abuse, but the United States does not.)
A professor of creative writing at American University, Snyder exposes this hidden crisis by combining her own careful analysis with deeply upsetting and thoughtfully told accounts of victims. She rounds out the reporting by interviewing advocates working on the front lines and, even, the abusers themselves.
One of her telling cases concerns a man named Rocky Mosure. By outward appearances he was a devoted family man, changing diapers, taking his wife and children camping, teaching the kids how to fish and put up a tent. Yet he abused his wife, Michelle, for years, gradually tightening the noose around her world until there was almost nothing left. He kept her from seeing her family, who lived nearby. He prohibited her from wearing makeup, from having friends over, from going out without him and even from getting a job. Michelle’s family knew that things weren’t quite right; the violence became so frequent that, as Michelle’s mother realized one day, even the children had figured out what was going on.
Yet, like so many others in her situation, Michelle stayed with Rocky. Then, in 2001, days before Thanksgiving, he bought a used .45-caliber pistol, shot her, their children, and — after pouring gasoline around the house to make it look as if they had died in a fire — himself.
This kind of tragedy seems all the more appalling because it might have been prevented. Yet victims and family members often have few places to turn to for help. The police frequently don’t take the complaints seriously. “He hadn’t gotten into police work to break up some dispute over butter between husbands and wives,” Synder writes of one officer. Meanwhile, our society — and our legal system — tends to regard household abuse differently than other crimes. “Imagine a man, a stranger, strangling another man with a phone cord, pushing another man down the stairs, punching another man so hard he breaks an orbital eye socket,” Snyder writes. “Such assaults happen daily with domestic violence but I have yet to speak with a prosecutor who sees these crimes treated as seriously” when they occur in that setting. She wants to see prosecutors handle domestic violence with the same rigor they accord to stranger violence.
This shouldn’t surprise us. For most of our history, domestic violence has been considered a private matter. The first law to protect victims of domestic abuse passed Congress only in 1984. And it would take a dozen more years before the first national hotline for victims was established. (One outcome of the #MeToo movement may be a greater willingness to report domestic violence: In 2018, calls to the national domestic violence hotline reportedly went up 30 percent.) As recently as the 1990s, there were three times as many shelters for abused pets as there were for abused partners. Even today, Snyder writes, we still tend to hold the victims responsible: Why didn’t she just leave?
Women, Snyder tells us, stay in abusive relationships out of fear for their lives, or to protect their children. Many feel they have few alternatives. When a situation becomes life-threatening, she observes, it is generally the victim, rather than the aggressor, who is expected to go into a shelter, leaving home, job, school, friends and family behind.
Much could be done if law enforcement were more responsive to the problem. According to Snyder, the communities that have made the biggest gains in dealing with the issue have been able to meld the functions of law enforcement and domestic violence crisis centers. Still the current culture of law enforcement is deeply entrenched and I wonder whether Snyder’s hope for change is overly optimistic. I’ve often heard police officers complain about the growing “social work” aspects of their job, whether it’s responding to mental health crises or homelessness. (As Snyder points out, the reluctance to intervene in cases of domestic violence isn’t helped by the high incidence of such violence within the law enforcement community itself.)
Snyder makes an especially strong case for more coordination among both agencies and jurisdictions. She tells the outrageous story of a woman who fled to Maine only to be told by the judge that he couldn’t issue an order of protection against her abusive husband, since the woman was a resident of Massachusetts. (She also argues for better gun control — while acknowledging the near impossibility of it.)
Less convincing is her call for perpetrators to get more jail time, to give the victims more time to get their own lives in order. I wondered what was to stop a perpetrator from being more angry (and potentially abusive) when he was released post-trial. Furthermore, the culture of many jails is itself so violent and abusive, it’s hard to see how keeping abusers there would do much to change their behavior.
To her credit, Snyder takes seriously the underlying causes of violence, interviewing perpetrators and noting that many have often been victims themselves. She visits several programs designed to help abusers, through such activities as peer-led support groups and by encouraging them to take responsibility for their behavior. The jury is still out on how effective they are in the long term. While law enforcement and domestic violence prevention advocates tend to remain skeptical of such programs, victims themselves are more hopeful, if cautious. Asked if abusive men can change their behavior, one victim told Snyder: “I think they can become 90 percent nonviolent. But there’s a small part of them that you can never fix.”
As I was reading this important book, I started making a mental list of people I know who have been victims of domestic violence, among them a former classmate, a close friend of a friend and a source I met recently for an unrelated story. This year, the Minnesota State Legislature got rid of part of its marital rape law that had allowed some men to get away with violence. (The state was one of a number with laws that have loopholes allowing some form of marital rape.) And a report out this spring claims that domestic murders were up last year after four decades of decline. We have a long way to go.