When Violence Hits Home

Jul. 04, 1994

Suddenly, domestic abuse, once perniciously silent, is exposed for its brutality in the wake of a highly public scandal

By Jill Smolowe--Reported by Ann Blackman/Washington, Wendy Cole/Chicago, Scott Norvell/Atlanta, Elizabeth Rudulph and Andrea Sachs/New York and Richard Woodbury/Denver

Dana used to hide the bruises on her neck with her long red hair. On June 18, her husband made sure she could not afford even that strand of camouflage. Ted ambushed Dana (not their real names) as she walked from her car to a crafts store in Denver. Slashing with a knife, Ted, a pharmaceutical scientist, lopped off Dana's ponytail, then grabbed her throat, adding a fresh layer of bruises to her neck.

Dana got off easy that time. Last year she lost most of her hearing after Ted slammed her against the living-room wall of their home and kicked her repeatedly in the head, then stuffed her unconscious body into the fireplace. Later, he was tearfully despondent, and Dana, a former social worker, believed his apologies, believed he needed her, believed him when he whispered, "I love you more than anything in the world." She kept on believing, even when more assaults followed.

Last Tuesday, however, Dana finally came to believe her life was in danger. Her change of mind came as she nursed her latest wounds, mesmerized by the reports about Nicole Simpson's tempestuous marriage to ex-football star O.J. "I grew up idolizing him," she says. "I didn't want to believe it was O.J. It was just like with my husband." Then, she says, "the reality hit me. Her story is the same as mine--except she's dead."

The horror has always been with us, a persistent secret, silent and pernicious, intimate and brutal. Now, however, as a result of the Simpson drama, Americans are confronting the ferocious violence that may erupt when love runs awry. Women who have clung to destructive relationships for years are realizing, like Dana, that they may be in dire jeopardy. Last week phone calls to domestic-violence hot lines surged to record numbers; many battered women suddenly found the strength to quit their homes and seek sanctuary in shelters. Although it has been two years since the American Medical Association reported that as many as 1 in 3 women will be assaulted by a domestic partner in her lifetime--4 million in any given year--it has taken the murder of Nicole Simpson to give national resonance to those numbers.

"Everyone is acting as if this is so shocking," says Debbie Tucker, chairman of the national Domestic Violence Coalition on Public Policy. "This happens all the time." In Los Angeles, where calls to abuse hot lines were up 80% overall last week, experts sense a sort of awakening as women relate personally to Simpson's tragedy. "Often a woman who's been battered thinks it's happening only to her. But with this story, women are saying, `Oh, my God, this is what's happening to me,'" says Lynn Moriarty, director of the Family Violence Project of Jewish Family Services in Los Angeles. "Something as dramatic as this cracks through a lot of the denial."

Time and again, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala has warned, "Domestic violence is an unacknowledged epidemic in our society." Now, finally, lawmakers are not only listening--they are acting. In New York last week, the state legislature unanimously passed a sweeping bill that mandates arrest for any person who commits a domestic assault. Members of the California legislature are pressing for a computerized registry of restraining orders and the confiscation of guns from men arrested for domestic violence. This week Colorado's package of anti-domestic-violence laws, one of the nation's toughest, will go into effect. It not only compels police to take abusers into custody at the scene of violence but also requires arrest for a first violation of a restraining order. Subsequent violations bring mandatory jail time.

Just as women's groups used the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings as a springboard to educate the public about sexual harassment, they are now capitalizing on the Simpson controversy to further their campaign against domestic violence. Advocates for women are pressing for passage of the Violence Against Women Act, which is appended to the anticrime bill that legislators hope to have on President Clinton's desk by July 4. Modeled on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it stipulates that gender-biased crimes violate a woman's civil rights. The victims of such crimes would therefore be eligible for compensatory relief and punitive damages.

Heightened awareness may also help add bite to laws that are on the books but are often underenforced. At present, 25 states require arrest when a reported domestic dispute turns violent. But police often walk away if the victim refuses to press charges. Though they act quickly to separate strangers, law-enforcement officials remain wary of interfering in domestic altercations, convinced that such battles are more private and less serious.

Yet, of the 5,745 women murdered in 1991, 6 out of 10 were killed by someone they knew. Half were murdered by a spouse or someone with whom they had been intimate. And that does not even hint at the level of violence against women by loved ones: while only a tiny percentage of all assaults on women result in death, the violence often involves severe physical or psychological damage. Says psychologist Angela Browne, a pioneering researcher in partner violence: "Women are at more risk of being killed by their current or former male partners than by any other kind of assault."

After Dana decided to leave Ted in May, she used all the legal weapons at her disposal to protect herself. She got a restraining order, filed for a divorce and found a new place to live. But none of that gave her a new life. Ted phoned repeatedly and stalked her. The restraining order seemed only to provoke his rage. On Memorial Day, he trailed her to a shopping-mall parking garage and looped a rope around her neck. He dragged her along the cement floor and growled, "If I can't have you, no one will." Bystanders watched in shock. But no one intervened.

After Ted broke into her home while she was away, Dana called the police. When she produced her protective order, she was told, "We don't put people in jail for breaking a restraining order." Dana expected little better after Ted came at her with the knife on June 18. But this time a female cop, herself a battering victim, encouraged Dana to seek shelter. On Tuesday, Dana checked herself into a shelter for battered women. There, she sleeps on a floor with her two closest friends, Sam and Odie--two cats. Odie is a survivor too. Two months ago, Ted tried to flush him down a toilet.

Though domestic violence usually goes undetected by neighbors, there is a predictable progression to relationships that end in murder. Typically it begins either with a steady diet of battery or isolated incidents of violence that can go on for years. Often the drama is fueled by both parties. A man wages an assault. The woman retaliates by deliberately trying to provoke his jealousy or anger. He strikes again. And the cycle repeats, with the two locked in a sick battle that binds--and reassures--even as it divides.

When the relationship is in risk of permanent rupture, the violence escalates. At that point the abused female may seek help outside the home, but frequently the man will refuse counseling, convinced that she, not he, is at fault. Instead he will reassert his authority by stepping up the assaults. "Battering is about maintaining power and dominance in a relationship," says Dick Bathrick, an instructor at the Atlanta-based Men Stopping Violence, a domestic-violence intervention group. "Men who batter believe that they have the right to do whatever it takes to regain control."

When the woman decides she has had enough, she may move out or demand that her partner leave. But "the men sometimes panic about losing ((their women)) and will do anything to prevent it from happening," says Deborah Burk, an Atlanta prosecutor. To combat feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, the man may stalk the woman or harass her by phone.

Women are most in danger when they seek to put a firm end to an abusive relationship. Experts warn that the two actions most likely to trigger deadly assault are moving out of a shared residence and beginning a relationship with another man. "There aren't many issues that arouse greater passion than infidelity and abandonment," says Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who is a leading expert on homicide.

Disturbingly, the very pieces of paper designed to protect women--divorce decrees, arrest warrants, court orders of protection--are often read by enraged men as a license to kill. "A restraining order is a way of getting killed faster," warns Dietz. "Someone who is truly dangerous will see this as an extreme denial of what he's entitled to, his God-given right." That slip of paper, which documents his loss, may be interpreted by the man as a threat to his own life. "In a last-ditch, nihilistic act," says Roland Maiuro, director of Seattle's Harborview Anger Management and Domestic Violence Program, "he will engage in behavior that destroys the source of that threat." And in the expanding range of rage, victims can include children, a woman's lawyer, the judge who issues the restraining order, the cop who comes between. Anyone in the way.

For that reason, not all battered women's organizations support the proliferating mandatory arrest laws. That puts them into an unlikely alliance with the police organizations that were critical of New York's tough new bill. "There are cases," argues Francis Looney, counsel to the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, "where discretion may be used to the better interest of the family."

Proponents of mandatory-arrest laws counter that education, not discretion, is required. "I'd like to see better implementation of the laws we have," says Vickie Smith, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "We work to train police officers, judges and prosecutors about why they need to enforce them."

"I took it very seriously, the marriage, the commitment. I wanted more than anything to make it work." Dana's eyes are bright, her smile engaging, as she sips a soda in the shelter and tries to explain what held her in thrall to Ted for so many years. Only the hesitation in her voice betrays her anxiety. "There was a fear of losing him, that he couldn't take care of himself."

Though Dana believed the beatings were unprovoked and often came without warning, she blamed herself. "I used to think, `Maybe I could have done things better. Maybe if I had bought him one more Mont Blanc pen.'" In the wake of Nicole Simpson's slaying, Dana now says that she was Ted's "prisoner." "I still loved him," she says, trying to explain her servitude. "It didn't go away. I didn't want to face the fact that I was battered."

It is impossible to classify the women who are at risk of being slain by a partner. Although the men who kill often abuse alcohol or drugs, suffer from personality disorders, have histories of head injuries or witnessed abuse in their childhood homes, such signs are often masterfully cloaked. "For the most part, these are people who are functioning normally in the real world," says Bathrick of Men Stopping Violence. "They're not punching out their bosses or jumping in cops' faces. They're just committing crimes in the home."

The popular tendency is to dismiss or even forgive the act as a "crime of passion." But that rush of so-called passion is months, even years, in the making. "There are few cases where murder comes out of the blue," says Sally Goldfarb, senior staff attorney for the now Legal Defense and Education Fund. "What we are talking about is domestic violence left unchecked and carried to its ultimate outcome." Abuse experts also decry the argument that a man's obsessive love can drive him beyond all control. "Men who are violent are rarely completely out of control," psychologist Browne argues. "If they were, many more women would be dead."

Some researchers believe there is a physiological factor in domestic abuse. A study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's domestic-violence research and treatment center found, for instance, that 61% of men involved in marital violence have signs of severe head trauma. "The typical injuries involve the frontal lobe," says Al Rosenbaum, the center's director. "The areas we suspect are injured are those involved in impulse control, and reduce an individual's ability to control aggressive impulses."

Researchers say they can also distinguish two types among the men most likely to kill their wives: the "loose cannon" with impulse-control problems, and those who are calculated and focused, whose heart rate drops even as they prepare to do violence to their partners. The latter group may be the more dangerous. Says Neil Jacobson, a psychology professor at the University of Washington: "Our research shows that those men who calm down physiologically when they start arguing with their wives are the most aggressive during arguments."

There may be other psycho-physiological links to violence. It is known, for instance, that alcohol and drug abuse often go hand in hand with spousal abuse. So does mental illness. A 1988 study by Maiuro of Seattle's domestic-violence program documented some level of depression in two-thirds of the men who manifested violent and aggressive behavior. Maiuro is pioneering work with Paxil, an antidepressant that, like Prozac, regulates the brain chemical serotonin. He reports that "it appears to be having some benefits" on his subjects.

Most studies, however, deal not with battering as an aftereffect of biology but of violence as learned behavior. Fully 80% of the male participants in a Minneapolis, Minnesota, violence-control program grew up in homes where they saw or were victims of physical, sexual or other abuse. Women who have witnessed abuse in their childhood homes are also at greater risk of reliving such dramas later in their lives, unless counseling is sought to break the generational cycle. "As a child, if you learn that violence is how you get what you want, you get a dysfunctional view of relationships," says Barbara Schroeder, a domestic-violence counselor in Oak Park, Illinois. "You come to see violence as an O.K. part of a loving relationship."

The cruelest paradox is that when a woman is murdered by a loved one, people are far more inclined to ask, "Why didn't she leave?" than "Why did he do that?" The question of leaving not only reflects an ingrained societal assumption that women bear primary responsibility for halting abuse in a relationship; it also suggests that a battered woman has the power to douse a raging man's anger--and to do it at a moment when her own strength is at an ebb. "It's quite common with women who have been abused that they don't hold themselves in high esteem," says Dr. Allwyn Levine, a Ridgewood, New Jersey, forensic psychiatrist who evaluates abusers for the court system. "Most of these women really feel they deserve it." Furthermore, says Susan Forward, the psychoanalyst who counseled Nicole Simpson on two occasions, "too many therapists will say, `How did it feel when he was hitting you?' instead of addressing the issue of getting the woman away from the abuser."

Most tragically, a woman may have a self-image that does not allow her to see herself--or those nearby to see her--as a victim. Speaking of her sister Nicole Simpson, Denise Brown told the New York Times last week, "She was not a battered woman. My definition of a battered woman is somebody who gets beat up all the time. I don't want people to think it was like that. I know Nicole. She was a very strong-willed person."

Such perceptions are slowly beginning to change, again as a direct result of Simpson's slaying. "Before, women were ashamed," says Peggy Kerns, a Colorado state legislator. "Simpson has almost legitimized the concerns and fears around domestic violence. This case is telling them, `It's not your fault.'" The women who phoned hot lines last week seemed emboldened to speak openly about the abuse in their lives. "A woman told me right off this week about how she was hit with a bat," says Carole Saylor, a Denver nurse who treats battered women. "Before, there might have been excuses. She would have said that she ran into a wall."

Abusive men are also taking a lesson from the controversy. The hot lines are ringing with calls from men who ask if their own conduct constitutes abusive behavior, or who say that they want to stop battering a loved one but don't know how. Others have been frightened by the charges against O.J. Simpson and voice fears about their own capacity to do harm. "They're worried they could kill," says Rob Gallup, executive director of AMEND, a Denver-based violence prevention and intervention group. "They figure, `If ((O.J.)) had this fame and happiness, and chose to kill, then what's to prevent me?'"

Copyright (c) TIME Magazine, 1995 TIME Inc. Magazine Company; (c) 1995 Compact Publishing, Inc.

Go Back to Shy David's Domestic Page.