We hear our neighbor shout, “I’m going to kill you,” and shake our heads as we reach for the remote. Surely he doesn’t mean it, we tell ourselves. She should leave, we think. She should get a divorce. Why does she take it? She should get help.
Why do we not think: He should get help. He should be arrested. I should help. I should call the police.
We blame rape victims, blaming them for their skirts, their thin shirts. We blame domestic violence victims: for their love, for their fear, for being vulnerable, so vulnerable that perhaps only the bars on a jail cell can protect them.
When crime strikes in schools, in theaters, at marathons, we never blame the students, the audience, the runners. Everywhere but at home we know that violence doesn’t end through the work of the victim, the terrorized. We know that when a women takes that first momentous step to break ties with her abuser is when she’s most at risk. According to Jocelyn Coupal, in her paper, “Spotting The Signs — Before Someone Dies”:
*Leaving violent relationships without adequate safety planning is the most common risk factor in a domestic homicide (81 percent);
*Men who are severely verbally abusive are very likely to become physically violent. (79 percent);
*Violence often escalates after leaving an obsessive, controlling or coercive partner (62 percent).
But victims cannot strategize their own rescue alone, much as we’d like to imagine that is true. We need to educate against using violence. We need a coordinated community response to protect our neighbors.
For many years I listened to men talk about their violence towards woman. I worked in a Certified Batterer Intervention Program where men blamed their crimes on everything from invisible buttons unreasonable women pressed, to whiskey, to jobs, to God. My clients swore that screaming and hitting their children taught them to be better people. My father belted the hell out of me — they said as though beatings were proof their fathers loved them. Perhaps we adopt what hurt us to prove our pain wasn’t suffered in vain. Or perhaps it’s simply laziness.
I’d write down the words they used to describe their childhood feelings when they were yelled at and hit: Humiliated. Terrified. Nauseated. Wanted to kill myself. Wanted to die. “Is this what you want for your children?” I’d ask.
What was it like to work with these men? Sad. Enraging. Toxic. It was never just about being drunk or high, but being drunk and high never helped. It was about power, control, and a violence that seemed all-too-accessible.
Denial and shame blocked their change; changing meant admitting they’d done hateful things to people they loved.
Many of my client’s children witnessed their violence. Some killed the mother of their children. My father tried to kill my mother. And even I, with all that knowledge, want to pretend these crimes are not happening somewhere every day. We bury it deep enough to think women can do all the work to stop violence.
I will never blame women for the violence inflicted by the men in their lives. I will always work towards educating men and women towards peaceful families and relationships. What I will do is offer words women can consider when choosing a man, advice I offer as a mother, a sister, a friend and most of all, as woman who worked with “bad boys.”
Choose kind over thrilling. It wears much better.
Choose responsible over devil-may-care. It will keep you and your children warm and safe at night.
Choose a man who wants to be your friend, not one who will be your life-long home improvement project.
And let us all teach our children not to hurt the ones they love.
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