november 27, 2012
(Part 1 of 2)
My Google alerts at work read like the clips file of an unfocused true crime writer, they’re all “husband and wife arrested,” “parent kidnaps child,” “lawyer threatened,” “pet killed.” What I’m looking for, of course, is domestic violence, which is something that’s both very visible and strangely obscured, so it can be hard to track. It’s an extremely common crime but it’s seriously underreported, so that’s one problem—a lot of what’s happening we’ll just never know about. Another problem is that when domestic violence cases make it into the news they’re often not labeled as such, so you have to deduce it for yourself. You learn to recognize the signs; e.g., many parental kidnappings, murder-suicides and cases of kids killing a parent have a domestic violence component, even if you have to read all the way to the end of the story to find the telling reference to restraining orders or previous arrests. The trail of domestic violence is muddied and hard to follow, but once you know what to look for you start to see it everywhere, because it really is everywhere. For me, the surprise of that has never abated.
I started working in domestic violence in 2005, and I spent my first year on the job with my mouth hanging open in shock. There I was, well-educated, a feminist, politically engaged, and still I found that I knew next to nothing about this huge and very scary social problem. From the moment I read my first federal report citing prevalence rates, I was floored. One in four. A quarter of American women will be battered in their lives, and that’s only the official number—the real one is higher. Why wasn’t this headline news? People were being terrorized and beaten; gunned down in broad daylight; strangled, left for dead. Where were the protesters storming Washington? Didn’t America care? WHAT THE HELL WAS WRONG WITH EVERYONE?!?
I’ve calmed down a bit since then, but eight years on I’m still dogged by that first, most basic question I asked about this issue: What the hell is wrong? It’s actually a pretty good place to start when you’re talking about domestic violence, because something is clearly wrong not just with the couples experiencing battery, but in the way we, meaning society, are responding to them. There’s a disconnect between the amount of work we put into solving this problem and the results we’re getting. We’ve built this massive retaining wall of shelters and criminal laws and advocacy organizations that do a solid job of protecting existing victims, but don’t seem to be able to change the fact that those victims just keep coming.
But why? I think the bottom line is that there’s something missing in how we have defined domestic violence. There’s a hole in our basic conceptualization, and that hole has created other holes, in our data sets and laws and intervention strategies. It’s like this huge blind spot, basically. I now think that the main reason this blind spot exists is that we classified domestic violence as a “women’s issue” from the start, and in my view, that’s not the best way to understand it. It’s certainly a women’s problem, in that it affects us disproportionately as victims, but seeing the issue exclusively from the victims’ perspective can only take us part way toward comprehending it. And how can you hope to change something you don’t fully comprehend? It’s this overarching conceptual difficulty, as much as crime underreporting or lazy newspaper stories, that keeps the incredibly common problem of partner violence obscure in the minds of many: often seen, but very seldom understood.