There are images burned indelibly into my memory.
They elbow their way into consciousness at unsuspecting moments. They grip memory by the throat, throttling it until memory turns purple, until hazy black dots swim in front of its eyes and a scream tries to force its way out of the pit of my stomach, only to remain lodged there like a white-hot rock that won’t go down and cannot come up.
They are images of violence.
These images are always with me. But the ongoing controversy surrounding domestic violence in the NFL and the fact that October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month make them even more important to discuss openly.
The thing that surprises me most about these images is that they do not properly belong to me. Well, yes, they are mine in the sense that they were detailed to me. My eyes, ears, nose and skin duly recorded them, but they are not pictures of violence perpetrated on me.
They are the records of the aftermath of violence I have witnessed in the lives of victims of domestic abuse. They chronicle every unsurprised nuance of a young father’s facial expression, as I quietly inform him toddlers don’t get spiral fractures of the arm by falling out of bed and invite him to help me understand what really happened.
They bear witness to the quiet desperation of a young woman sporting scars worthy of a veteran prize fighter — new scars spidered relentlessly over old ones. She asks me if there is a way I can work it out for her to stay one more night in the hospital. The request comes just after she swears that her cheekbone was fractured in a fall and not by her husband who was shoving her and screaming drunken insults at her in the emergency department waiting area.
The recollections include the slow mental and emotional deterioration of an elderly woman whose family member kept her a virtual hostage in her home. Of course she has dementia. Of course her memory is unreliable. But senility and confusion are not the root of her suffering.
And attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, is not what is wrong with the young boy who lives in a home where day after day, almost minute by minute his small frame bears the load of a constant stream of harassment, name-calling, dire predictions about his future and incessant reminders of how much he reminds his mother of his worthless drunk of a father. No indoctrination program dreamt up in a prison camp could have executed a better campaign to tear down the self-worth of its inmates.
The above example of emotional and verbal abuse brings me to a crucial point that I would like to make.
Many of us think about domestic violence only in terms of black eyes and broken limbs. I am convinced, however, that we would see far fewer victims of that kind of physical abuse if we took a wider view of the problem. The U.S. Department of Justice’s definition of domestic violence gives the following helpful definition as:
“. . . a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”
Would it surprise you if I told you that, on average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States — more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year?
Or that nearly half of all women and men in the United States have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively)?
Or that most female victims of intimate partner violence were previously victimized by the same offender, including 77% of females ages 18 to 24, 76% of females ages 25 to 34, and 81% of females ages 35 to 49?
Some of you are not surprised in the least, perhaps because you have your own hidden history of violence either perpetrated on you by an intimate partner or caregiver. Or perhaps you remember trying to help victims of violence and abuse whom you encountered as a friend, family member or health care giver.
So what can and should be done about domestic, family and intimate partner violence?
There are some important things that you and I can do to be of real help to victims of domestic violence, beginning with being willing to talk and to listen.
- Ask the potential victim if something is wrong.
- Express Concern. Even if they deny that abuse is taking place, you can say something like, “I just want you to know that I care about you and that you can talk to me in confidence if you need to.”
- Listen patiently. Don’t try to fill the silence with words or deliver a lecture. Ask brief questions or make simple responses. Then wait patiently for the person to gather and express their thoughts.
- Validate their experience. You don’t have to deliver a lecture on the signs and symptoms of domestic abuse, but you can say simply, “That was wrong,” Or, “You never could have done anything to deserve that kind of treatment,” or, “you have a right to your opinions / to have a life of your own / to be treated with respect.”
- Offer practical help.
- Don’t pressure. Respect the victim’s limits. Don’t push them to take steps they are not ready to take. The danger of harm is real and while victims often are deluded about whether they deserve punishment, they are the best judge of how the abuser may escalate the violence in response to their actions.
- Don’t judge. If you had a friend tell you that she had a cancerous tumor of the brain and that her doctor had laid out several treatment options for her, ranging from radical surgery that might leave her cognitively impaired, to doing nothing, with the risk that the tumor might quickly grow out of control, would you think of judging your friend for their choices? Would you pressure them to make the choice that you would make, regardless of what she told you about her circumstances?
- Don’t support distorted religious expectations about submitting to violent and abusive behavior. If you are a religious person, understand that every religion and moral code has as its highest commandment to honor the sacredness of every human being. As a clergy person, I am cautiously hopeful that more and more religious communities are coming to understand the harm that is done when we hold the vulnerable in our midst to standards of misguided perfection that ignore God’s love for every individual. In order to counsel a woman to stay in a violent and abusive relationship, I would first have to ignore the mountain of instruction that the Bible gives me to stand up for the vulnerable, to protect those who are endangered and to go out of my way to help those in need. There is no commandment that obligates a human being to submit to terror, abuse, denigration or violence by an intimate partner or caregiver.
I am not as pessimistic about the challenges presented by domestic abuse as you might think. As discouraging as some of my personal experiences have been, I also have profound gratitude for a husband I knew who took the court-enforced batterer’s program seriously. He combined it with his faith and persisted in counseling with a psychotherapist. He also engaged in discipleship sessions with his pastor, persisting in all of these efforts to gain the self-understanding and tools he needed to build a life of genuine love and respect with his wife.
I have been thrilled to witness early intervention programs with young men that both hold them accountable for dating violence and require them to recruit accountability groups. Such interventions early in the lives of young men in particular give me hope for the future, not as a “one and done” approach but as part of a comprehensive and persistent campaign to address both the conditions and the individual behaviors that lead to violence.
It is true that the dramatic progress our country made in reducing domestic violence from the mid-’90s to 2005 has largely stalled. I believe, however, that the only proper response to those indications is to rededicate ourselves as individuals, churches and as a country to act in “defiance of despair,” to use Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s courageous turn of phrase. And in defying despair, we will surely save lives and transform despair into hope.