• Camille

We Don’t Know Jack

march 3, 2011 by camille hayes 2 comments

And we don’t know Charlie, either. Or Mel, or Chris, or Mike, or any of the host of public figures whose Wikipedia entries contain the footnote *Also likes to beat up women he’s sleeping with. Once you start looking, you see the landscape is littered with famous abusers. And while we often know more than we care to about the details of their freak-outs and rage benders, what we don’t seem to know is what the hell is wrong with them. And that strikes me as kind of important information to have, if we want to prevent them from being violent.

Let’s take the example of America’s favorite antisocial maniac, Charlie Sheen. Amidst the flurry of media coverage accompanying Charlie on his 48-state Psychic Meltdown Tour, it’s important to remember that he first appeared on the celeb crime blotter for abusing and threatening to kill his then-wife Brooke Mueller, which led to the revelation that he’d done the same to ex Denise Richards. Since then, whichever of Charlie’s antics made the daily headlines, be it hotel-room-trashing or cocaine-suitcase-schlepping, there was always also the ominous subtext of a violent, rancid misogyny: porn star nannies, hookers in closets, knives pressed to throats.

Commentators have weighed in on possible causes for Sheen’s very public derangement: he’s high; he’s a rage-a-holic; he’s a straight-up lunatic. What fewer are willing to opine about is the form that lunacy takes, which is, principally, smoking crack and assaulting women. The drugs are understandable—plenty of people struggle with substance abuse. But why is it that whenever he gets high, any woman within 50 feet of him is likely to be hit?

We can’t answer that question about Charlie Sheen because we can’t truly answer it about anyone. We have a lot of information about intimate partner violence, but most of what we know is victim-centered. Society’s main responsibility is to victims, so we’ve invested a lot of time in learning how they feel and what they need, but not enough time figuring out what causes batterers to be violent in the first place. What compulsion drives people who are often otherwise quite rational (no, not you, Charlie) to destroy their own lives and the lives of their families? Kill themselves and everyone they love? We rarely take time to ask that question, because we’re too busy prosecuting people. And once we’ve processed abusers as criminals, which they emphatically ARE, the general consensus seems to be that our work with them is finished.

That approach has resulted in a lot of convictions, but it’s left us with a gaping hole in our knowledge about partner violence, and we’ll never be able to eradicate it until that hole is filled.  Maybe, when faced with a domestic violence offender, the first question out of our mouths shouldn’t always be “Why are you such a jerk?”; instead, maybe we should be asking “Why are you in so much pain?” What happens to these people to make them so viciously, relentlessly self-destructive? Because make no mistake, batterers destroy their own lives just as surely as they’re ruining those of their victims.

In addition to fines and arrests and restraining orders, batterers need psychiatric care and serious psychological study. More than anything, they need our understanding, and by that I mean we need to understand them. But until then, party on, Charlie! Because we really don’t know what to do with your crazy ass.

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