Behind Closed Doors: Judy Chaet

Behind closed doors
Fear and intimidation tell the real truth about domestic violence

Sheila walked into my office; she was a bundle of nerves. She looked down at her hands, which were twisting a handkerchief round and round between her fingers. She had come in to talk about her problem (she was having trouble sleeping and remembering things). The first thing she said was, “I’m not one of those battered women — he doesn’t hit me.”

Sheila and I met many times over the next six months. Her story came out in bits and pieces. It was true: He didn’t hit her, except for that one time — the time he broke her jaw, her cheekbone and her favorite mixing bowl (all over the kitchen). After that, he never hit her again. But there was the time he cut the cord to the telephone, and wouldn’t let her fix it — because she talked to her 85-year-old mother too much. There was the time he threatened to kill her twin sister, if she ever left him. There were the times he kept her awake all night, telling her what a lousy mother she was and that she couldn’t even keep the house clean. And then there was the time he hanged her dog in the garage, because she couldn’t make it stop sleeping on the sofa.

The thing about domestic violence is that it is insidious — it is, by definition, private and “behind closed doors.” The true depth and impact of the violence are almost impossible to quantify. Was Sheila a battered woman? YES. The number of hits, or who hit whom first, does not define abuse. It is, rather, a pattern of behavior. Was Sheila afraid of her husband? You bet.

The more telling point is who has the power — and who is afraid. One partner in a relationship may have been the one to “hit first,” this time. But what went on in the hours or days before that hit? Domestic violence goes far beyond the physical violence. It is also the coercion and threats, the sexual abuse, the intimidation, the isolation, the economic abuse, the use of the children as a threat (or to make her feel guilty). And, most often, it is the minimizing of that abuse — the denial and the blame.

The minimizing, denial and blame are all cruelly intentional acts designed to make the victim feel responsible for the abuse. Sheila believed that her actions were the cause of his violently abusive behavior.

We have all been taught from infancy that the well-being of homes, families and marriages is the responsibility of women. When there are problems in these arenas, we look to the women first: “Where was she while the children were doing that?” “Why does she stay?” These are the questions we are used to hearing, and asking. These are the questions that battered women ask themselves. And these questions are reinforced by everything that batterers tell their victims: If it’s her fault, then there must be something she can do to stop the abuse. But the truth is, there is nothing she can do to stop the abuse: It is the batterer’s intentional choice to batter.

Are there men who are battered? Most reliable research says yes. And it’s a sad fact that all of us are most in danger from those we are closest to. But the 1995 Department of Justice National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) found that women were six times more likely than men to experience violence committed by an intimate (the number of incidents per 1,000 people is 9.4, and for men it is 1.4). And, according to other Justice Department crime statistics, three out of four rapes/sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, and 45 percent of murder victims are related to or acquainted with their assailants.

Surely there are men who are battered; the question is, What are the real numbers? The following numbers from the NCVS differ dramatically from those reported by Mr. Gelles using the Conflict Tactics Scales (CTS).

Average annual rate and number of violent victimizations committed by lone offenders by sex of victim and victim/offender relationship, NCVS 1992-94:

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