Rant Alert! Reading and Domestic Violence

Today, I threw away a book only half finished. Straight into the garbage can. It was by a NYTBS author I’d never read before. Things were going OK for a while. I liked the characters though I didn’t love them.

Then the hero, who is a cop, is called to the house of a woman whose daughter has called 911 because the woman’s husband is beating her (the mother, not the daughter). He has been to the house before on allegations of domestic violence. The hero’s own father beat the hero’s mother and eventually, when the hero was young, his father shot and killed the hero’s mother. The hero cop arrives at the house and thinks, basically, that in the past he has always blamed his father for beating his mother, but now that he’s seeing the woman, who confesses she has allowed her husband back in her life because he said he’d changed, that he ought to also blame his mother. (And, of course, he should, therefore, also blame the woman who has been beaten again by her husband.)

Full Stop. Are you kidding me?

I reread the paragraph to be sure I hadn’t misread. Let me represent to you that this book is in no way nuanced enough to be depicting a stage in the hero’s social awareness. It just isn’t. It’s a very minor subplot, since the book is not about domestic violence or a man struggling to come to terms with the violent death of his mother or reflecting on what it means to be a man in a culture where violence against women is endemic.

Are you kidding me?

How great that this author lives in such a happy world that she can believe that a woman can escape a violent husband or lover simply by just saying no. It’s not the reality. Nothing in the social life of homo sapiens is that simplistic. Feelings of love and worthiness are powerful emotions. They can’t just be turned off or resisted at will. And there are people in this world who are sickeningly adept at manipulating emotions in vulnerable people.

Abusive men, deliberately or otherwise in their relationships make the woman emotionally and financially dependent and socially isolated, and, by any and every means possible, convince the woman they’re abusing that she is at fault, that she is not worthy, that she will be found and punished if she leaves. These men behave in a bipolar fashion — there are indeed times when they are sweet and loving and everything is perfect, but eventually they go off again.

Violence against women is not the fault of the victim. It’s the fault of abuser.

Yes, some women are able to get out. Some women do come to realize that if they don’t find a way to get out, their lives are at stake, and then manage to do so. But from that circumstance we absolutely must not conclude that every woman could do so, if she really wanted to.

So, dear author, you are entitled to your opinion. You are also entitled to write whatever book you want. But I am entitled to my opinion, and my opinion is that you are sadly, sadly deluded about the reality of domestic violence. I am offended by your lack of insight and intellectual rigor about a complicated subject. I won’t buy another book by you ever.

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10 Responses to “Rant Alert! Reading and Domestic Violence”

  1. Cara Wallace says:

    Thank you for this. I guess it’s not completely surprising, or it shouldn’t be, given that blaming women is still so common. But it’s appalling nonetheless.

  2. katiebabs says:

    I’m surprised that this book would be published for the reasons you have just explained.

  3. cjewel says:

    Keep in mind, the book is not about domestic violence. My objection was to this one paragraph — that found I could not get past.

  4. Fair chance that entire issue is largely a Mars/Venus thing. I, and I’d be willing to bet many other guys, simply cannot conceive of a line of thinking that would lead a woman to stay with a man who abuses her. For any reason. I DNFd a book late last month, after less than two chapters, over exactly that.

    I could see leaving him. I could see calling the cops on him. I could see having a friend come over and beat him into a coma. I could even see killing him while he slept. Staying with him just… I’ve got nothing. Makes no sense whatsoever to me.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Thanks for the comment. I don’t think it’s a Mars/Venus thing at all. There are plenty of women who also aren’t able to see why an abused woman would ever stay. You’re not alone in being perplexed by that. But then, I suspect you are a normal, pyschologically well-adjusted man. Most men, thank goodness, are.

      On the face of it, it does seem strange that a woman (or anyone, for that matter) would stay in an abusive relationship. The reality is that the abuser has convinced her that the abuse is her fault. There are a whole host of cultural and social reinforcements of that belief, by the way. Girls (women) are supposed to be the nurturers, responsible for the emotional well-being of the people they love and take care of. A woman who is told that she is failing to make her partner happy can’t help but internalize that as a comment on her worth. Who, really, wouldn’t? But men are not subjected to a constant social bombardment of messages that, in effect, reinforce the belief that women are supposed to sacrifice for love. Women are told from girlhood that they should not be assertive, they should sit quietly and work for the team, not for themselves. Men, receive quite an opposite lesson as they grow up. An assertive man who goes after that he wants is seen as desirable. A woman who does that is a bitch.

      An abuser will tell his partner that if she weren’t so flawed as a person, he wouldn’t get so angry at her. If only the laundry were done or his favorite shirt were clean (and surely, she must have known he would want to wear THAT exact shirt) he wouldn’t have gotten mad. He will swear that he loves her, that he’s sorry for what he did. That if she leaves him, he wouldn’t be able to live. He’ll try to do better if only she’ll try, too, not to do the things that make him angry. It’s emotional blackmail, designed to break her down and build him up. It’s simply not fair to blame a woman for believing the message that it’s her fault.

      Make no mistake that a man who abuses, consciously or not, pursues relationships with women who are not psychologically secure enough to resist the subordination his own psychological breaks require in a partner.

      Such a relationship is fundamentally not a healthy one and people whose only experience is with healthy relationships often don’t understand what’s going on in ones that aren’t.

      Abusers also tend to isolate their partners from the social circle that might help these women see how screwed up their lives are and how abnormal it’s become. Such a man will accuse his partner of cheating if she goes out with friends, or accuse her friends of hating him and of poisoning her against him. “What did your mother say about me? Why do you even talk to her when you know she hates me?” This will occur over and over and over and no amount of protestation or explanation will ever resolve the disconnect– though the woman in this situation is often not equipped to see what’s happening. Eventually, it’s the path of least resistance to leave your friends and family behind. If you really loved him, you would do this simple thing for him. The digs and undermining are constant, and they’re often made not in anger but in a matter of fact way — as if it’s absolutely true, and he is doing you a favor telling you everything that’s wrong with you, so you can make yourself a better person. It’s poisonous and unrelenting and it’s not behavior that a normal, healthy man would ever engage in.

      Do you see what I’m getting at? You cannot judge this situation as if the abuser is an otherwise normal, healthy person. He’s not. Nor can you judge the victim as if she, too is otherwise normal or healthy. The relationship is sick and broken and when a woman (or anyone) is in the middle of this kind of emotional chaos all she can do is try to survive this moment. The abuse isn’t really episodic. It’s constant. She can’t ever ever relax. She must be eternally vigilant, constantly assessing her actions and reactions for the potential to set off her abuser. How on earth can someone in a situation like this ever sit back and see the sickness?

      She is in a fight for her life — but it’s a life that she can’t see need not include the abuser. She has nothing in her life to lead her to believe that she does not deserve this. After all, she loves him, she chose the relationship in the first place. Suppose, just for example, that you do not think much of yourself and that you have been raised to believe that girls sacrifice of themselves. And suppose that you met someone who tells you, “I love you.” And that most of the time you are happy to be loved and in love. He’s kind and attentive. But he also says things like, “No one else would put up with the things you do.” “You’re lucky to be with me.” “I don’t mind that you’re not very pretty.” “No one will ever love you as much as I do.” And suppose that these things only reinforce what you already believe about your essential inferiority? Would you really be able to say, wait a minute, he’s wrong!

      Of course it makes no sense.

  5. Appreciate the explanation. I still doubt I could ever manage to get into that mindset enough to really understand it but then I suppose that’s a good thing. Helps to know that the answer to the question my mind always spits out in response to seeing that sort of thing, “Is she freaking insane,” is, “Well, yeah. A bit. Which is why she needs help.” That I can grok, being neither normal nor well-adjusted myself.

  6. Jami G. says:

    Yes, Carolyn, your comment above explained it beautifully. It’s very similar to the observations on http://tinyurl.com/235kn87 .

    It’s hard for someone outside the situation to understand the level of manipulation involved in these relationships. Here’s an example I witnessed: Man throws woman across bathroom. As she’s falling into bathtub (about to break who knows how many bones), she reaches out to grab for something to slow her fall. Grasps his shirt – it rips. She’s now at fault for ripping his shirt. For the next several Christmases and birthdays, she gets guilt trip that she still *owes him a shirt*.

    Sure, to an outsider, that looks illogical. But to someone subjected to that type of blaming everyday, it’s just one more thing to add to the if-I-hadn’t-done-A,-he-wouldn’t-have-gotten-mad pile.

    • Carolyn Jewel says:

      Jami, that’s a great link and a really thorough analysis of the situation. Thanks!

      The Mighty Buzzard: I’m glad my explanation helped a little. You’re right, lots of people say, Is she nuts? and the answer, as you note, is, well, yes. If you have the time, Jami’s link expands even more on the subject and is more thorough than mine.

  7. Robin says:

    @The Mighty Buzzard: For 25 years, domestic violence researchers, many of whom are women, struggled to find a pattern among abused women — an identifiable profile or characteristic that all of the women who were subjected to domestic violence (in the US, that statistic is now 1 in 3 women, with some predicting an eventual increase to 1 in 2) had in common. But they never could. DV spans all age groups, races, cultures, economic strata, educational levels, and professional fields and positions.

    Finally, after a quarter century, DV researchers turned their attention to batterers, and lo and behold, patterns began to emerge. Batterers are known to be controlling, insecure, manipulative, jealous, and they not only manipulate the victim but also all the apparatus designed to protect the victim (judges, DAs, CPS officials, etc.).

    And besides the psychological toll systematic abuse takes on the victim (and the higher the economic and professional success of the victim, the more they are often motivated by shame in revealing the abuse), there are legal impediments, as well. Some jurisdictions still favor male batterers in granting restraining orders and sentencing/convicting. There are many states in which a DV call to the police will practically guarantee that any children in the household will be removed from the home by CPS, which places women in a very difficult position. Many women are only granted temporary restraining orders and if the police are not cooperative and available, there is weak enforcement of those orders. Further, once those orders expire, many women reasonably fear escalated violence from a partner who is now carrying the added humiliation of having been arrested or served with the TRO. That alone can substantially escalate the cycle of violence. And since many of these men will pursue the women and/or move for custody of the children, it takes victims no small effort and planning to be able to leave permanently without losing everything, including children.

    Still, most women do ultimately leave their batterer, but it takes an average of several attempts. Children present one of the most complicating factors in a woman’s choice/opportunities to leave. We may think that it’s obviously in a child’s best interests for the abused mother to leave, but if she cannot be sure the legal system will keep her and her kids safe and away from the battering parent, it’s not so obvious and simple. Further, up to half of DV victims end up losing their job for factors related to the abuse, making the economic autonomy of the victim an issue, as well.

    One book that IMO did a good job of showing the psychological pattern of DV is Lisa Kleypas’s Blue Eyed Devil. And Haven, the heroine who was battered by her husband, is highly educated and comes from a wealthy family, as many DV victims do.

  8. Maya M. says:

    An important, complex, sometimes mystifying subject.

    I’m glad you provided such thorough commentary.

    Your reaction to the book reminds me of one I flung, so many years ago I forget the title, because of a paragraph were the ‘hero’ who grew up in Mexico (I think) is outraged, remembering how his mother was raped though she was of ‘purest Spanish Castilian’ stock. The implication being that raping a Mexican and/or peasant woman would somehow be less of an offence.

    I still see red when I think about that.