December 3, 2012
So now we have this: NFL player Jovan Belcher murders his girlfriend, then drives to the Kansas City Chiefs’ football stadium and shoots himself in the head. All I had to read was the headline to know that this was the awful but predictable outcome of an abusive relationship. There may not be a paper trail of arrests or restraining orders to prove it, but it’s rare for incidents like this to be the first violent encounter. People are going on record saying that Belcher’s relationship with his girlfriend was “strained” and that they fought. But mostly what the couple’s friends are expressing is shock that Belcher was capable of such horror. Everyone agrees that he was a quiet guy, a family man. Probably the only people in America NOT surprised that a quiet family man would kill his girlfriend are domestic violence professionals like me. Why, given how common domestic violence is, are we still taken by surprise when it plays out to its ultimate conclusion?
I think it’s because of our blind spot. In Part 1 of this post I said that we have a gap in our knowledge about domestic violence, and the gap exists because we’ve defined it as a “women’s issue.” But if it’s not a women’s issue, considering how often women are victimized, then what is it? As much as anything, partner violence boils down to the psychological problems of people like Belcher; in other words, it’s really a men’s issue. If you look at battery stats across all groups—gay, straight, men, women—it’s uniformly the case that men are much more likely to be the aggressors. The only group that comes close to having a victimization rate as high as straight women’s is gay men. So even when the sex of the victim changes, the sex of the likely perpetrator stays the same. Still, despite the defining role men play in this problem we haven’t managed to gather much useful information on them or their motives, because we reserve our resources and attention, and most critically our understanding, for victims.
Most of what we know about batterers we learned while trying to protect their victims from them. So we know things like: when batterers are likely to increase their violence (e.g., during pregnancy); when they’re prone to start stalking; when they’re most likely to kill. But here’s what we don’t know: what is it about pregnancy that drives batterers to violence? What are they trying to accomplish when they stalk their estranged partners? How are they feeling, what are they thinking? Just what on earth do they think they’re doing with all this? Because batterers aren’t just violent, they’re not justcriminals, they’re also human beings who are trying very hard to do something, to solve a problem, to alleviate some internal state that’s painful for them. But they’re doing it in a way that’s incredibly destructive to their families, and to their own lives.
In abusive relationships, victims aren’t the only ones suffering. Batterers persist in their violent behavior at tremendous cost to themselves. They’re arrested, imprisoned, they lose their jobs and their homes, their families leave them. They’ll pursue violence to the point of killing their partners and themselves. And as horrible as it is to imagine, it’s not unheard of for batterers to kill their own children. To all of which I say: what the fuck? I mean seriously, what is going on here? What’s happening in batterers’ heads that’s so terrifying, or so painful, that destroying the people closest to them seems like a reasonable alternative to feeling it for one minute more?
Asking that kind of question, which is a question about individual psychology, is very different from asking “At what point in the divorce proceedings is he likely to stalk her?” Batterer behavior is so deeply pathological that we will never be able to fix this mess without asking some pretty specific questions about what’s going on with them psychologically. And trying to understand their psychology means that we’ll need to find a way to have empathy for their pain, which is a pretty tall order given the nature of their crimes. But just as a practical matter, I don’t see how we can make more progress toward ending domestic violence until we gather more batterer-centered information, to fill in our knowledge gap and make the blind spot visible. This is the next task on the horizon for the anti-violence movement, and we need to get on it fast—the last thing anyone wants is more Jovan Belchers, shocking us all with their entirely predictable tragedies.
That’s my view—what do you think? Empathy for batterers, yes or no? Tell me in the comments.