The new development in Orange County featured lovely homes, wide streets and lots of families. Block parties were common in the neighborhood, and everyone seemed to know everyone else.
The couple on the corner socialized—always as a couple. In fact, the wife didn’t even drive: Her husband took her to the market. They seemed inseparable and always appeared happy. The other wives were jealous. “My husband would never go to the market with me,” they would say, enviously.
It wasn’t until much later that we found out he was beating the crap out of her behind their lovely drapes. Perhaps that explained why she never socialized by herself and often would not be seen for several days at a time.
With the recent high-profile stories of “domestic” abuse—named as if were somehow tamer than other violence—I’ve been thinking about that woman, and how isolated she must have felt. In those days, back in the 1960s, nobody talked openly about what happened behind closed doors. In those days, it wasn’t even considered possible that a man could be guilty of raping his wife. After all, they were married.
My next experience of such abuse was the young couple who lived downstairs. We used to hear them fight through the thin walls of the apartment complex. It got so loud and scary several times that we called the police. In those days, the early 1970s, police would show up, talk to the people involved, try to settle the guy down, and leave. Police used to tell me such calls were often the most dangerous, because they were never sure what might happen. If they were scared, think about how the women felt.
It never occurred to me that what had gone on in my own home while I was young could be classified as domestic abuse. I remember when my father would explode in anger when my mother broke the yolks while making his breakfast eggs. I remember the times my mom and I were laughing about something that happened to me at school that day—but when we heard his car drive up, we would look around the house to make sure nothing obvious would set him off.
My father never raised a hand to my mom, although he did once explode and start hitting me. I am not sure to this day why it happened, but I think it was because my parents had been discussing money issues—and I, not having any idea what was going on, walked into the kitchen to ask for some money for something I needed for school.
“I can’t even afford new shoes,” my father said.
“I’ve never kept you from buying shoes,” I replied.
He exploded and came after me, throwing me across the room and hitting me. I thought he might kill me—he was so enraged. My mom broke it up, and he left the house for several days. When he returned, I asked my mom, “Why did you let him come back?” She said, “I hope someday, someone will love you as much as your father loves me.”
All I could think was, “I hope not!”
At my 25th high school reunion, some friends and I were sitting around reminiscing about those long-ago days. “You know why we never came over to your house very often,” one said to me. “Your dad was so abusive.” I was shocked. I had never put that label on what happened in my family.
Despite my years in the women’s movement—including marching to raise consciousness about violence against women—I, too, ended up in a relationship that included abusive behavior. I finally left after “only” one hit, but the verbal invectives and threat that he could blow up at any time permeated our household. I didn’t leave soon enough.
People ask, “Why doesn’t she just leave? Why did she stay?”
The reasons are as varied as the individual situations. It’s because you know him and love him, and he’s always sorry and promises it won’t happen again. It’s because you can’t support yourself and your children and have nowhere to go. Often, it’s because you’ve been deliberately isolated from family and friends, totally dependent on the man, like the woman who lived in the house on the corner.
It may be because you grew up in a household, like mine, where high drama seemed to be a “normal” part of being married. Or it can be because you don’t want the public embarrassment, especially if the man is in a prominent position. Maybe it’s just because you don’t feel as if the community will support you in leaving. After all, you marry “for better or for worse,” or you come from a family where divorce is considered unthinkable. Somehow, it’s your fault it turned out that way—if only you hadn’t said or done whatever it was you knew might set him off.
Fran Ferguson was executive director of Shelter From the Storm for about five years in the early 1990s, shortly after our local shelter for battered women opened. “I’m shocked,” she says, “that it has continued to be a commonplace part of our world. What has really changed after all these years?”
For one thing, laws have changed, largely as a result of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which established, among other things, the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which receives more than 22,000 calls each month; increased prosecution and sentences; training to raise awareness on these issues for police officers and judges; requirements that protection orders be recognized and enforced; and permission for warrantless arrests if a responding officer finds probable cause.
The act was reauthorized this year. In a presidential proclamation, President Obama said, “This law enshrined a simple promise: Every American should be able to pursue her or his own measure of happiness free from the fear of harm.” All women, and men, should be as protected from the threat of violence in their own homes and families as on the street. (Violence can happen in same-sex relationships, too.)
Men can make a big difference by making it not acceptable for any man to behave in this way. Women can support their friends and neighbors, particularly by never finding fault with the victim. Whether you yell or spit at someone—or break yolks—that is no excuse for a violent reaction, especially from someone stronger in whom you have put your trust.
We need to tell our stories, the way prominent people including Meredith Viera have done recently. Statistics indicate that in the United States, a woman is assaulted or beaten every 9 seconds. This violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined.
We need to call it what it is: There’s nothing “domestic” about it.