What should I be doing instead of this?
Home · Articles · Cover Story · Cover Story · Cover Story: Out of the Shadows

Cover Story: Out of the Shadows

Women still are plagued by domestic violence; many wonder if it will ever change

By Judi Ketteler · October 7th, 1999 · Cover Story
  Cindy has dedicated herself to helping other women -- and local police officers -- deal with domestic violence.
Jymi Bolden

Cindy has dedicated herself to helping other women -- and local police officers -- deal with domestic violence.

One hundred years ago, Elizabeth Cady Stanton parodied the Declaration of Independence by setting forth her own feminist revision, entitled the "Declaration of Sentiments." The authors of the Declaration of Independence directed their list of grievances to the King of England, continually referring to the King as "he." Stanton addressed her grievances to a "he" as well -- the collective "he" of male power.

"He has endeavored in every way that he could to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life," her declaration asserted.

Stanton's tone was sardonic and very much aware of its own radicalism. Her voice never wavered though, as she concluded, most seriously: "Now in view of this disenfranchisement of one-half the people of this country ... and because women do feel themselves aggrieved, repressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights, we insist that they have immediate admission to all rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the U.S."

What a world of implied meanings exists within those "sacred rights" -- and yet, 100 years later, it seems we haven't come very far in keeping those rights "sacred."

Stanton never mentions "domestic violence" in her declaration. To be sure, the phrase did not even exist in those times. She was speaking from an age that lived by the "rule of thumb" -- that famous 19th-century dictum that a man should beat his wife with a switch no thicker than his thumb.

Marital relations back then were between husband and wife, confined to the private sphere. The middle class that emerged in the 19th century was grounded on various intertwining social and economic forces. But as it concerned gender relations, there were two basic principles: The public and the private were to remain separate, and the husband was to be the head of the wife. Domestic abuse was both silenced and accepted.

At least, we can say confidently, the silence has been broken in the 20th century. We have phrases for such abuses; we have laws; we have women's health forums dedicated to domestic violence; we have education programs.

And we have the violence, still with us, still going strong. It is with weary eyes and exasperated sighs that we realize we're still fighting for those same basic rights Stanton demanded 100 years ago.

Women are still fighting, in fact, for their very lives and for their physical bodies. They're fighting to uncolonize their minds from the brainwashing effects of abuse.

To Serve and Protect
Cindy wasn't thinking about history or women's rights 20 years ago. She wasn't thinking about statistics or warning signs or the cycle of abuse. She was in love.

Self-assured, outspoken and free-spirited, Cindy was poised to take on the world. She had married her high school sweetheart and already had a child by the time she was in her early 20s. The marriage ended in divorce.

Still, Cindy's spirit was intact. She was confident she could make order of her life again. That is, until she met the "love of her life" -- and thus began a process of manipulation, brainwashing and violence.

He was charming and clean-cut and he kept his violent nature well-masked.

"I think about the warning signs I now understand go along with abuse, and they simply weren't there," Cindy says. "I'd have no reason to kid myself now. There just weren't any signs."

So they married and went to live in the country in a house that he had inherited.

"Things changed the day after the wedding," she says. "It felt like he was turning away from me, brooding. And I wanted desperately to please him."

What many people don't understand about domestic violence is that it often starts out very slowly -- not with fists, but with words and attitudes. For Cindy, it began with her husband telling her things like "You're stupid" and "You're not good at anything." It then escalated to "No one else could stand to be with you" or "We wouldn't fight so much if you didn't nag."

It frustrates Cindy to try to explain how this process works.

"It's a mind game," she says. "This is your husband. You love him and want to make him happy. You don't even see the abusiveness coming. You think it must be you, and then you start second-guessing yourself, wondering if you're blowing it all out of proportion or imagining it. The fact is, I began to believe all those things about myself, and I can't even tell you why."

It's all about mind-control and breaking down a woman's spirit -- behind her back and yet, at the same time, right before her very own eyes. Cindy had always been stubborn and strong-willed; she was not easily manipulated. But factor in youth, being in love and little family support, and she fell into the trap.

To be able to control a woman, a man has to be able to demean her, embarrass her, have say over everything she does, Cindy says.

"If I was getting ready to go to the grocery, had my coat on and keys in my hand and he said, 'Stay here, you'll leave when I tell you to,' " she recalls, "I'd take my coat off and stay, without ever saying a word. Then 10 minutes later, he'd say, 'OK, you can go now,' and I'd silently get up and go. There was no questioning him. I believed I was worthless."

Another obstacle Cindy experienced was work. Her husband alternated between castigating her for not working and "being lazy," and then jeopardizing any jobs she did have by taking away her transportation.

"He'd do something to the car, take a part off of it or hide the keys," she says. "I can't tell you how many jobs I lost because of that."

When she would tell her family about her situation, they urged her to keep trying to work it out, reminding her that she had already been divorced once.

So she kept silent. For a while. Until something inside of her snapped, and she spoke out.

"I began to stand up for myself and defend myself verbally," she says. "He was completely taken aback at first."

But when he could no longer control her psychologically, Cindy says, he moved to the next level: physical violence. And it worked. He kept her in fear, dreading the next push or shove or hit. The more she verbally resisted, the worse the violence got and the more obsessed with controlling her he became. She would wake up at night to find him staring at her while she was sleeping, a crazed look in his eyes. And numerous times he physically and sexually assaulted her. In short, he terrorized her.

And did she call the police? Numerous times, Cindy says. But what complicates her story is that her husband was a police officer.

Initially, he had been rejected by two different police departments because he failed the psychological exam. The reasons? They found him too violent, with an uncontrollable temper. They found that he wanted to get into law enforcement for the wrong reasons -- to hurt, not to help people. But he eventually got in with a Butler County township that doesn't require a psychological exam.

He had a badge, he had a gun, he was the law. When he would assault Cindy, he would taunt her, she says: "What are you going to do? Call the police? I am the police" (a line echoed, incidentally, in Anna Quindlen's best-selling novel Black and Blue).

But Cindy did call the police, only to have the police -- all his buddies -- show up at their house to dismiss her claims, tell her she was crazy and then sit down a have a sandwich with her husband.

"From all those years of abuse, there is not one single police report, not one single document stating that he assaulted me," she says. "It was a small town, a close police department. There was no legal recourse available."

So Cindy began to fight back, physically. The first time she ever fought back, he was again taken aback.

"He used to knock me around in the garage after work," she says. "One day, I had just had an awful day and just couldn't take it. So I sucker-punched him. He fell back, shocked, and I just walked in the house."

Cindy had had enough, and while her spirit and sense of self was buried, it wasn't gone. Fighting back gave her a tiny spark of confidence.

But as it usually happens in domestic abuse situations, the violence kept escalating. Soon he was threatening her with his gun -- the same gun the police department gave to him. He constantly threatened to kill both her and himself and eventually took shots at her one night.

"That was the night I thought I was going to die," she recalls. "I mean, I was absolutely certain that was it, and I was prepared. We had been at a Christmas party. He shoved me into the car while people watched. Then he drove me to a dark, dead-end street, turned off the lights, took out his gun and just started fiddling with it, looking at me crazy. I was terrified. We didn't speak, and eventually he started the car again and we started toward home. When we got to our driveway, he got out of the car and ran into the field. I started to follow him, and then I heard shots. I saw a bullet whizzing by my head. Then and there I decided I had to get out."

Cindy did leave soon after that. She secured her kids (two daughters) with relatives in Nashville, came back to Cincinnati, rented an apartment and called him.

"I told him exactly where I was, gave him my address even, and told him if he was going to kill me just to get it over with because I couldn't live this way anymore," she says.

After that, there were numerous threats and drunken phone calls from him. But her final action, her leaving, saved her life.

She left her marriage 10 years ago, but it's still a rebuilding process for Cindy.

"I lost a lot of years," she says. "I lost a lot of myself."

For Cindy, gaining her self-esteem and free-spirit back was a lengthy and painful process, but she did it. Her kids kept her going.

She attends Xavier University now and will graduate in May with a pre-law degree. After that, she hopes to attend the University of Cincinnati Law School, where she will specialize in women's legal issues.

"I still have a lot of anger," she says. "I need to be able to roll it all into one ball and do something positive with it."

Cindy also works with the Cincinnati Police Division, where she organizes a program for new recruits titled "Domestic Violence Wears a Badge." All incoming Cincinnati police officers are required to take the course.

What Cindy does most of all is speak out about this issue. She's not afraid of anything anymore.

To get where she is isn't easy -- it's a long road. And it's one that must be filled with many voices.

"What this issue needs," Cindy says, "is a bunch of people with big mouths who will lobby, who will speak out, who will influence others and help people realize this is an issue that affects everyone."

Power, Politics, Punches
The FBI estimates that a woman is beaten in this country every nine seconds. That's a fistful of punches, slaps, kicks, burns and ugly words hurled at some women, somewhere, in the time it took you to read the above introduction to the problem of domestic violence.

We've only reached the tip of the iceberg, and already a woman has fallen below the surface and drowned. And the numbers just get worse.

The American Medical Association now estimates that almost 4 million women are victims of severe assaults by their husbands or boyfriends each year. Every day in the United States, as many as 11 women are killed as a result of domestic violence. It comes as no surprise then that domestic violence is the single greatest cause of injury to women -- exceeding rape, auto accidents and muggings combined.

These statistics are intrusive and shocking. They are, to many people, unbelievable.

And therein lies one of the major obstacles in shifting public attitude about domestic violence: belief. Not believing that domestic violence is a catastrophic social problem is second only to blaming the victim.

As a society, we have moved away -- albeit very slowly -- from straight victim-blame. Yet too many people still see this issue as far removed from them, refusing to believe that it could ever happen to their mother, their sister, their daughter, their friend.

Disbelief and deflection merely propagate the problem. That's one reason why it's so important to hear women's stories -- women who have experienced domestic abuse, who have been victimized and yet have survived.

Many women are survivors. They have been battered by men and survived. In speaking about domestic violence, subjects, verbs and objects too often get twisted around. Men batter; women survive. Men objectify women; women survive to claim subjectivity for themselves.

It's crucial to link the action of battering with the abuser, rather than attaching it to a women's identity. A woman who has experienced domestic violence is a survivor, not a "battered woman."

None of this is to suggest that men aren't victims of domestic abuse by their male or female partners, nor does it suggest that women are never victimized by their female partners. But in 95 percent of the cases, domestic violence plays out in a specifically gendered way.

Abuse in the gay community or abuse by women against men is no less devastating, especially given the stigma such abuses carry with them. The fact is, however, that women are at risk for domestic violence simply by virtue of their gender.

Domestic violence revolves around power. It's a psychological problem in that men who grow up to be abusers have often experienced abuse as children. They were traumatized and grew up learning violence as a mechanism for dealing with anger.

But psychological explanations can only take us so far. Male violence against women inside the home is part of the overarching system of male violence against women at large. Rather than being viewed as "abnormal," abusers are more often seen as the extreme of what a man can do -- as the "dangerous side" of masculinity -- yet still abuse is defined as a kind of masculinity. It might be criminalized by today's laws, but it's still socially normalized.

And while we're abhorred individually to learn the statistics and the gruesome tales of murder and abuse that go on behind closed doors, as a culture we're set up so that male power has become normalized. Take, for instance, the way in which women are routinely objectified or cast as the victims of male violence in movies and TV (especially in the "TV Movie of the Week"). How many horror movies have as their centerpiece the brutal slaying of a woman? How many times are women portrayed as either the virgin or the whore?

We can call such portrayals entertainment, fringe culture and harmless fantasy, but these kinds of images still deliver powerful cultural messages about the way men and women relate to each other. And all this comes at a time when women are supposed to be more "free" than ever, the time when we have achieved "equality."

Every Woman Adores a Fascist

"... Every woman adores a Fascist

The boot in the face, the brute

Brute heart of a man like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,

In the picture I have of you,

A cleft in your chin instead of your foot

But no less a devil for that, no not

Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.

I was ten when they buried you.

At twenty I tried to die

And get back, back, back to you.

I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,

And they stuck me together with glue.

And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw

And I said I do, I do ..."

-- "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath, 1962

One year after Sylvia Plath wrote this poem, she killed herself. Personally tormented, she never lived to see the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s, the one thing that might have saved her.

But what Plath addresses in her poem is right at the heart of that movement -- the way structures of dominance in our culture get replicated within the family and within personal relationships. It's this very replication that fuels domestic violence. And it's the patriarchal myth of the "family romance," with "Daddy" as the figurehead of male power, replicated in the idea that the husband is the head of the household and the wife and children should fall into line behind him, not just dutifully and happily but adoringly.

Domestic violence survives as a private "activity" and way of life only because domination is built into our culture: One person has the power, the other person is powerless. Women who are abused as children often get stuck in that cycle; they escape one bad situation only to fall into another, only to make another "model" of "Daddy."

The myth, in short, is that women are content with this and don't fight with everything they have to escape that cycle. It's the myth, we might say, of adoring the Fascist.

"I'm here because of my father," Karen begins.

It's an amazing sentence -- amazing because of the way she says it, with such control and power, and you know, somewhere buried deep, anguish. But the "here" part of the sentence is key. Karen got out, she survived, she is here. For now, "here" is the Cincinnati YWCA shelter with her four children.

Karen, like her mother before her, grew up with abuse. She watched her mother be abused by her father, as she was being abused by him herself. It was daily reality.

"I remember when my mother would hear my father's car in the driveway," she says. "She would try to run and hide, in the bedroom, under the sink. I'm talking about a grown woman with kids hiding from the man she sleeps with every night. Can you just imagine seeing something like that? Can you just imagine?"

But Karen didn't have to imagine. She lived it. Her father needed no excuse to begin abusing her.

"And I thought I deserved it," she says. "After he would beat the tar out of me, my mother would ask me, 'Did you mess up?' And I thought I had. She probably thought she deserved what he did to her, too."

When she was 12 years old, Karen remembers watching the police come to break up a domestic violence situation between a husband and wife at the bar across the street. "The man was beating the hell out of the woman, and the minute the police got there, she jumped on the cop and starting hitting him and told him to get away. I thought, if she doesn't care, why should I? This must be what she wants.

"And I thought that way for a long time. It soured me. I figured I must want it, too. Now I realize that woman did that because she had to go home with that man and sleep in the same bed with him and try to stay alive. You don't understand that when you're 12."

What Karen understood was that she should get out. And she did. At 16, she ran away, right into the arms of another abusive man.

But the man Karen married wasn't physically abusive like her father. Instead, he was mentally abusive. She understood physical violence; she knew the signs of men who beat up women. But this other kind of abuse threw her for a loop -- a 14-year loop that eventually led her back to her father.

The final straw was when she discovered her father was abusing her children.

"He was doing the same thing to them that he did to me," she says. "The same thing. And I couldn't let it go on. It had to stop somewhere."

Stopping it means that Karen must stay away from her father and not see her family. That's the only way to end it. And the other thing Karen's doing now that she never did before is speaking out.

"I have to speak up for my mother, because no one ever did when she was alive," she says. "She was abused her whole life and finally died of a heart attack, so young. I have to make sure my kids understand this isn't the way you live."

Speaking out about abuse in the family is the only way to shatter those myths of the family romance. It's the only way to kill "Daddy," to break the cycle of violence.

It also means breaking all sorts of taboos about family secrecy bound by fear and tradition. It must begin with personal relationships, with women such as Karen who have the courage to leave. But we also must realize the devastating effects of a patriarchal model that gives one person the authority and makes another subordinate, especially when those roles are completely wrapped up in gender.

Karen survived because she killed that system in her mind, and until we all do the same, domestic violence will thrive and "Daddy" -- the system -- will not die. Even at the end of her life, Sylvia Plath was hopeful we could imagine another way of negotiating power.

But first, as the final lines of her poem "Daddy" suggest, we must "stomp out" the old way.

"So daddy, I'm finally through ...

If I've killed one man, I've killed two --

The vampire who said he was you

And drank my blood for a year,

Seven years, if you want to know.

Daddy, you can lie back now.

There's a stake in your fat black heart

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stomping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through."

The Master's Tools
For every woman who speaks out about domestic violence, there are dozens more who aren't able to. "Why do they stay?," we wonder. "How could anyone put up with that abuse? Don't they have any self-respect?"

The more we ask these questions, the harder it is for a woman to come forward, especially when the first thing she is confronted with are the questions, "What about you? Don't you have any self-respect?"

Women stay because they become trapped in myriad ways -- physically, geographically and, almost always, economically. Things get especially complicated if there are children involved. Who works? Who carries the insurance?

It's even more difficult for poorer women. What housing is available? What kind of child care is available for them if they can find a job? What if he finds them first?

It's complicated. And yet remarkably simple: Women are trapped. Still, you can bet a woman in an abusive situation spends all of her energies devising either survival strategies or escape plans.

What if instead we focused on why men abuse women? Again, the answer is complicated. And, again, simple: Because they can, and they can get away with it.

Thankfully, there are a lot of dedicated men and women working to change that.

"One place we have to begin is with the police," says Cincinnati Police Officer Jim Brown.

All new Cincinnati Police Division recruits are required by the state of Ohio to attend a 15-hour training session on domestic violence. The city of Cincinnati has upped that to 40 hours, thanks in large part to Brown.

"We start with the basics and work backward," he says. "First, Judge Tim Black comes to speak from a judge's perspective about what's needed for a conviction on domestic violence. Then we spend the rest of the week training the recruits how to secure that conviction with their investigation."

This is the same program Cindy participates in. "When Cindy tells her story," Brown says, "it has an enormous emotional impact on the recruits."

Historically, police have been a major part of the problem, not the solution. In case after case, police have ignored or dismissed a woman's complaints only to find that same woman dead within days.

Brown does not try to deny this, nor does he make claims that things have changed overnight. He believes it's about education, though.

"We have to get to these young officers and educate them," he says. "We have to get them to understand that just because you didn't see it, it doesn't mean it didn't happen. When officers are called onto the scene of a domestic violence case, they must understand how to investigate, know which signs to look for, separate the man and the woman and know which questions to ask. Even if they're called back to the same scene again and again, they can't just walk away without investigating."

A step in the right direction, he feels, is the 1995 Ohio law requiring "mandatory arrest" for all domestic violence cases.

"This law is all about probable cause," Brown says. "Someone has to go to jail in a domestic violence situation only if the police officers investigating determine there is probably cause for an arrest. They can arrest and the state can prosecute the abuser even without the victim's cooperation."

The state of Kentucky has the same law, but requires only about an hour of continuing credits a year for police officers on domestic violence.

It isn't just the criminal court that often victimizes women with domestic violence complaints -- it's family court as well. Child custody is a major issue in domestic violence cases, especially for a woman who fears for her children's safety and knows the father is using them as leverage against her.

Family court is lined with red tape and laws that often work against the woman.

"There are not a lot of checks and balances in Hamilton County Family Court," says Lea Web, a University of Cincinnati law student and member of the Ohio Family Law Task Force. "The task force is trying to accomplish very basic things, such as setting up gender equity review panels for family court judges, performance reviews and education for everyone in the family court system by people outside of the legal system such as feminist scholars and advocates for domestic violence victims. It's a slow, frustrating process, though."

There has also been an effort to work more with area hospitals to screen for domestic violence. The Women's Crisis Center in Northern Kentucky has been especially instrumental in this.

Vicki Hudson, volunteer coordinator for the Crisis Center, has been working to set up training sessions on domestic violence for hospital staff at the four Northern Kentucky hospitals. Just in the past few months, the center has seen a dramatic rise in the number of cases reported by the hospitals and the number of volunteers the center dispatches to the hospitals.

Can, as poet/essayist Audre Lorde has asked, the Master's tools ever dismantle the Master's house? If inequality is built into our institutions, is it possible to work within those very institutions to bring about change?

Theoretically, it might not pan out. But the harrowing alternative -- watching woman after woman being bludgeoned with those tools -- is unthinkable.

Learning to Unlearn
These movements to work within institutions to bring about change are not small potatoes. They're key. But it still takes so much more.

"It's about changing attitudes," Ann MacDonald, executive director of Women Helping Women, says.

"We still have this mentality that 'it doesn't affect me' or 'it only affects certain kinds of women.' " she says. "The fact is, domestic violence cuts across all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes. Poorer women and women of color often face additional difficulties, but it affects all women. And I still hear people talk about 'her bad behavior.' Collectively, all of these myths serve to silence victims so they won't call the police and won't reach out for help because they have internalized those myths."

Shelters, hotlines and help agencies might seem like Band-Aids for the problem, but they're crucial. Stacey's story is a case in point. She was in an abusive marriage for six years. Her husband was extremely violent, threatening her life and keeping her in isolation by constantly moving the family around and denying her transportation by disabling the car.

"The only lifeline I had was the Women's Crisis Center hotline number," Stacey says. "I was eventually able to leave because I knew there was a shelter I could go to. I was transferred to the center in Kentucky and was able to start a new life because of the support I received."

There's no doubt in Stacey's mind that she would have been another homicide statistic if she hadn't gotten out and had a safe place to go.

The Women's Crisis Center is now in the middle of a capital campaign to raise money for a new shelter. The YWCA of Cincinnati has recently moved into a new, larger shelter as well. The need is clearly not going away.

As individual people living in this society, we do a bit of theorizing and accept as a given that destructiveness, violence and the need to dominate are about a system of male power that's no good for men or women. It's entrenched in our institutions and in popular culture.

Violence against women, or rather the attitude that supports it, can be unlearned through education. For the sake of our daughters, mothers, sisters and best friends, we must unlearn it. ©

YWCA/Women Helping Women Protect Hotline (24 hours): 872-9259; toll-free: 888-872-9259

Women's Crisis Center, Northern Kentucky (24 hours): 491-3335

YWCA House of Peace Helpline, Clermont County (24 hours): 753-7281

YWCA Dove House Crisis Line, Butler County (24 hours): 863-7099

Legal Aid Society (9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday): 241­9400

YWCA Amend, batterers' treatment (24 hours): 361­2150

Get Involved
Women's Crisis Center and Women Helping Women are both seeking volunteers:

· Women's Crisis Center, Vicki Hudson, volunteer coordinator: 655-2653

· Women Helping Women, Grundi Moore, education coordinator: 977­5541

She Screams Without Sound
In recognition of October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a candlelight vigil and program, "She Screams Without Sound," will be held at 7 p.m. Oct. 26 on the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse downtown. Speakers will include family members and friends of women who have died as a result of domestic violence.

The event is sponsored by the YWCA, Women's Crisis Center and Women Helping Women. For information, call 977-5541.



comments powered by Disqus