"WHY DOESN'T SHE LEAVE?"

by Ann Jones

 

Karen Straw's husband beat her.

She left.

He came after her, beat her some more, raped her,threatened to kill her.

She stabbed him.

So what was the first question the anchorman asked?

Ann Jones has a few choice words about that....

Rita after her husband smashed her face with a telephone, and in insert photo, seven months earlier.

A Pennsylvania policeman tries to console a women who has been kicked in the head.

"The only physicians who ask about violence are psychiatrists, and they're only interested if it occurs in a dream"

People say: keep the house cleaner, lose weight, don't answer back, take Valium, wear lipstick, smile, pray

This women, living in a shelter, cries because she has no money for her son's birthday.

 

Despite the immense achievements of the battered-women's movement in the past fifteen years, those who work to stop violence against women - those who staff the hotlines and the shelters and the legal-service centers, those who press to make law enforcement and criminal justice act responsibly, those who lobby for legislative reform - know that the next time a woman is battered in the United States (which is to say within the next twelve seconds) few people will ask: What's wrong with that man? What makes him think he can get away with that? Is he crazy? Did the cops arrest him? Is he in jail? When will he be prosecuted? Is he likely to get a serious sentence? Is she getting adequate police protection? Are the children provided for? Did the court evict him from her house? Does she need any other help? Medical help maybe, or legal aid? New housing? Temporary financial aid? Child support?

No, the first question, and often the only question, that leaps to mind is: "Why doesn't he leave?"

This question, which we can't seem to stop asking, is not a real question. It doesn't call for an answer; it makes a judgement. It is mystifies. It transforms an immense social problem into a personal transaction, and at the same time pins responsibility squarely on the victim. It obliterates both the terrible magnitude of violence against women and the great achievements of the movement against it. It simultaneously suggests two ideas, both of them false: that help is readily available to all worthy victims (which is to say, victims who leave),and that this victim is not one of them.

So powerful and dazzling is this question that someone always tries to answer it. And the answer given rarely is the simple truth you find in the stories of formerly battered women: She does leave. She is leaving. She left. No, so mystifying is the question that someone always tries to explain why she doesn't leave even after she has left. This exchange takes place remarkably often on television talk sows and news programs - heavily influencing the way the public thinks about battered women.

In October 1987, for example, the local New York City affiliate of the CBS television network included in the nightly news a segment on the case of Karen Straw, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American woman about to stand trial for murder. Karen Straw had left her husband, Clifton, in 1984, after a three-year marriage, and moved with her to a welfare hotel. She wanted a divorce, but she couldn't afford one. For more than two years, her husband continued to harass and beat her, although she obtained orders of protection from the court and tried at least ten times to have him arrested and prosecuted. In December 1986 he broke into her room, beat her, raped her at knife point in front of the children and threatened to kill her. She got hold of a kitchen knife and stabbed him. She was charged with second-degree murder, the heaviest charge the state could bring against her, since New York reserves first-degree murder charges for murders of police officers and prison guards.

On WCBS, reporter Bree Walker recapitulated this story and pointed out that Karen Straw was only "one of many battered wives" recently compelled to defend themselves when a "weak criminal justice (system) again and again failed them."

At the end of Walker's prerecorded report, anchorman Jim Jensen leaned toward reporter Walker, sitting beside him in the studio, and asked the standard question, the one everybody always asks: Why didn't she leave? Jensen phrased it this way: "Why would one murder her husband instead of just walking away?" The question was particularly remarkable, for it didn't match Bree Walker's report or the circumstances of Karen Straw's life at all.

But even more remarkable was reporter Walker's reply. As though the facts lay not in her own report but in the anchorman's irrelevant question, Bree Walker began to explain why Karen Straw, a woman who had walked away, had not. "There are a lot of different reasons psychologists say - helplessness, dependence, a lot of different reasons. A lot of women feel..." Jensen interrupted: "Well, if they're dependent on them, when they kill'em, they've lost their dependence, haven't they?" He sounded angry, as if he were scolding Walker for her point of view. Walker, looking startled, responded, "Well, certainly. Yes. It's an ugly, ugly confusing problem." There was a moment's awkward airspace before anchorwoman Carol Martin jumped in. "Well, from that subject, we'll move on." she said. "Still ahead, we'll talk about the rain..."

But Jensen's question still hung in the air: "Why would one murder hr husband instead of just walking away?" It enveloped the story in a fog of mystification. Clifton Straw's violence and terrorism disappeared in that puff of rhetoric, utterly overlooked. Vanished, too, was the public issue reporter Walker had presented, magically replaced by the personal problem of another dumb woman. Viewers did not have to question the failure of the police and courts to protect this woman; they could think instead that Karen Straw might simply have walked away. Just when viewers were beginning to feel indignant on her behalf, they could say to themselves instead: "How stupid of her. Why didn't she think of that?"

Karen Straw was acquitted of all charges against her, by jurors who heard the whole story; and she was released to gather up the tatters of her life. But that familiar, trivializing question - the question that obscures both the extent of violence against women and the immense individual and collective efforts of women to overcome it - doesn't go away.

In a classic analysis published in 1966, psychologist William Ryan examined the way America typically approached "solutions" to "social problems" that seemed to afflict "oppressed groups" - problems of education, health care, housing, crime, unemployment and the like. Because we "cannot comfortably believe that we are the cause" of social problems, Ryan said, we've developed a habit of locating the problem in the peculiar "vulnerability" and "deviance" of those it harms. He called his book Blaming the Victim.

Ryan was certainly not thinking of battered women. It was still possible in 1966 to write about targets of discrimination in America without thinking of women at all, but already the search for the "vulnerability" and "deviance" was underway. In 1964 one of the first American studies of battered women, conducted by three men and significantly entitled "The Wifebeater's Wife: A Study of Family Interaction," studied women in Framingham, Massachusetts, who had charged their husbands with assault, and found the women "castrating," "aggressive" "masculine," "frigid," "indecisive." "passive" and "masochistic." What's more, the authors concluded, the husband's assaultive behavior served "to fill a wife's need even though she protests it."

Today such sexist "reasoning" in the scientific literature is better concealed but it's often thee nonetheless, lurking about the premises. The conclusions of the Framingham study are repeated without qualification in a recent book of pop "scholarship" on the subject, Intimate Violence, billed as "The Definitive Study of the Causes and Consequences of Abuse in the American Family." The authors are Richard Gelles and Murray Straus, two sociologists who have turned the dispassionate, objective, scientific, mathematical inspection of victims and the superficial statistical survey into a busy, profitable academic industry. They conclude that "There is not much evidence that battered women as a group are more masochistic than other women." These authors are the most prominent of the band of academic researchers who, after nearly twenty years of government- supported research, have still not turned their attention from the victims to the violence of men. No wonder this "reasoning" still dominates popular thinking about women who are battered.

If the problem is her fault and the solution her responsibility, then neither the criminal-justice system, which we might expect to come to the aid of crime victims, nor other social institutions can do anything about it. And that's exactly what they've been saying all along.

The police, for example, say that wife assault is a little "family matter." They also maintain - somewhat inconsistently it would seem - a false but astonishingly durable myth that these little family matters are the most dangerous situations police officers can face, far beyond the call of duty. The myth implies that police should not be expected to go up against potentially deadly men for the sake of women who maliciously create this danger to the police in the first place. Obviously it's a peculiar logic that excuses cops from duty just when the trouble starts and leaves it up to women to deal single-handedly with men too dangerous for armed police to handle. Nevertheless, for decades the myth of police endangerment has justified to a sympathetic public the do-nothing policy of cops who consider themselves more precious than the female citizens they are paid to assist. That in itself tells you how much we value women, how much we blame women for their predicaments and how easily we abandon them.

This is not to say the police policies haven't changed n the course of the last twenty years. They have, and in some communities dramatically so. Under pressure from battered women and their advocates, police began to adopt "pro- arrest" policies. The value of arrest in deterring battering was demonstrated in a highly publicized experiment in Minneapolis. But policy is not practice. Surveying "big city police agencies" from 1984 to 1989 , criminologist Lawrence Sherman found the "almost universal" pro-arrest policy negated by "widespread circumvention by police officers on the street." Former Minneapolis police chief Anthony Bouza points out that in police departments the people in the lowest ranks actually hold the most power, for they determine on the spot how laws are (or are not) enforced. Unless cops fear that their chief will punish them severely for disregarding departmental policy, Bouza says, "they will handle calls according to their prejudices, convenience or personal perspective."

Police also argue that there is little point in arresting batterers when battered women won't follow through with prosecution. In the finest blame-the-victim tradition, police shift the burden of arrest to the battered woman who, in most cases, is in no position to press them to arrest the man who assaulted her and threatens to do so again. Yet the cops do have a point. As the United States Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence noted in 1984, "the prosecuting attorney... generally does not issue criminal charges or routinely prosecute these cases." That is still the case: a recent study in Milwaukee found that 95 percent of assaultive men arrested were not prosecuted, and only 1 percent were convicted. Instead,prosecutors, too, sift the burden and the blame to the battered woman. They say battered women don't press charges. They say this to women who are trying, like the wifebeaters' wives of Framingham and like Karen Straw, to press charges. And they go on saying it, even though studies done fifteen years ago demonstrated that given the slightest help with complicated legal procedures women follow through with remarkable tenacity.

Many prosecutors, however, say that thee is little point in prosecuting batterers when judges simply release them, and they, too, have a point. At 1991 study in Charlotte, North Carolina, found that among assaultive men arrested, convicted and sentenced, less than 1 percent (0.9 percent) served any time in jail. Yet judges who dispense "justice" so lightly to assaultive men have been known to castigate women for wasting the court's time, to order battered women to make up with their husbands and to laugh women out of court. They have been known to set free on minimal bail men who have already attempted to kill their wives or girlfriends, and then to say when the murder is done "There's just no way of predicting these things."

And judges too, shift the burden and the blame to women. It's a waste of time to issue temporary restraining orders against batterers, many judges say, because battered women don't show up for the hearing to extend the order anyway; once again, women don't "follow through." And there the judges, too, have a point. A Massachusetts study found that 71 percent of women who got temporary restraining orders in the Brockton District Curt in 1982 did not appear at a hearing ten days later. But this study, for once, found fault with the court, not the women; for in the Quincy District Court, where thee is a separate office for restraining orders, daily briefing sessions for women seeking restraining orders and support groups run by the prosecutor's office, only 2.8 percent of the women failed to show up for the hearing. Again, given a little help to negotiate a complicated and hostile system beset with obstacles, women follow through.

But why, you may ask, should battered women be afforded all this extra "help"? Why can't they just use the system like anybody else? Think of Mary Baumruk, shot and killed in May 1992 by her estranged husband, Ken, in a St. Louis courtroom during a divorce hearing. (He then shot and wounded his wife's lawyer. his own lawyer, a court bailiff. and a security officer before he was fatally shot by police.) Think of Shirley Lowery, a grandmother of eleven, stabbed nineteen times by ex-boyfriend Benjamin Franklin in a Milwaukee courthouse when she came out of hiding to attend a hearing on a restraining order. In her application, Lowery had said that Franklin raped her and held her at gunpoint. "He follows me twenty- four hours every day and threatens my life," she wrote. For women trying to get free of violent men, going to court can be far more difficult, lonely and dangerous than it is for any other class of complainants. One way courts can facilitate justice is by making their own processes easier, safer, and more accessible. Instead, police, prosecutors and judges who believe that the "typical" battered woman gives up give up on her.

Blaming the victim allows everyone in the system to pass the buck; and buck- passing conveniently enables individuals within the system to acknowledge a problem without doing anything about it. They'd like to help, but, hey, what can they do? Besides, when you come right down to it, isn't it really up to a woman to follow through? Why doesn't she just leave?

Many women assaulted by husbands or boyfriends never do call the police or having found them no help on one occasion, never call them again. But more than half the women assaulted are injured, and at least 25 percent of them seek medical treatment. (Undoubtedly this figure would be higher if more Americans had access to affordable health care.) Despite their injuries, many assaulted women have no contact with the police or courts at all. But 10 percent of the injured visit hospital emergency rooms and many others visit private physicians to have their wounds dressed, their broken bones set, their injuries treated, their suicidal impulses assuaged.

This adds up to almost 100,000 days of hospitalization, 3,000 emergency- room visits and almost 40,000 visits to physicians each year. Yet physicians manage to identify perhaps no more than one battered patient in twenty=five. One reason may be that fewer than half the medical schools in the United States and Canada provide any training on domestic assault, and those that do typically cover the topic in one ninety-minute session. Dr. Carole Warshaw, a Chicago psychiatrist and emergency physician, studied the records of fifty-two battered women treated at the emergency room of large urban hospital in 1987 for injuries resulting from domestic assault, injuries ranging from a fractured ankle to a gunshot wound. In three out of four cases physicians did not inquire about the woman's relationship to the assailant. Nine times out of ten physicians failed to ask about abuse at all. Instead, doctors typically patch up wounds, prescribe tranquilizers and discharge patients, with no arrangements made for their safety, no return to the same life- threatening situation they came from. Dr. Warshaw reports the doctors fill out forms in "passive, disembodied phrases "rendering the assailant invisible." "hit by lead pipe." "Blow to head by stick with nail in it." "Hit on left wrist with jackhammer."

Dr. Mark Rosenberg, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, observes: "It's striking that physicians almost never ask their patients about violence. The only physicians who ask about violence are psychiatrists, and they're only interested if it occurs in a dream." Faced with victims of real violence of battering, psychiatrists often mislabel patients, mistaking the after effects of prolonged trauma for personality disorder. Like the three men who brought us "The Wifebeater's Wife." psychiatrists find women inherently dependent, passive, self-defeating or masochistic when they should be diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress. Psychiatric victim-blaming reappears in quasi-psychiatric labels routinely attached to battered women by other medical personnel. Doctors observed in one study of emergency-room practice, for example, routinely designated battered women "hysteric," "neurotic female," "hypochondriac" or simply "crock."

The situation has been an open secret for as long as family physicians have treated "families." But in 1985 then-Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop told health professionals that "domestic violence is a public health menace that police alone cannot cope with." He suggested that hospitals and trauma centers might prevent further violence by intervening, especially since they see many of the same patients repeatedly. In 1989 Koop tried again, kicking off a campaign to alert the 27,000 members of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, often women's primary-care providers, to what Koop called "an overwhelming moral, economic and public health burden that our society can no longer bear." The success of that campaign can be judged by the fact that in October 1991 the American Medical Association announced the start of "a campaign" to combat a "public-health menace": Family Violence. At a press conference in Chicago, AMA leaders handed out an informational packet identifying family violence as "America's Deadly Secret." Secret? Koop's successor as surgeon general, Dr. Antonia C. Novello, commended the AMA for "bringing this topic of domestic violence to light."

Dr. Novello recommended that health-care providers be required to report domestic violence as they are already required to report suspected child abuse: but the AMA settled for writing up "guidelines" for physicians to use in dealing with the "menace" that's been there, right under their stethoscopes, all along. But like police "policies," medical "guidelines" are not practice: A 1991 study of health professionals found that "family violence is recognized as a major problem at the health care systems level, "but" little and inadequate attention is given to the prevention identification, treatment and follow-up of cases." The problem seems to be not ignorance but indolence. The study suggests one explanation: "Physicians have 'an unfortunate prevalence' of sexist, racist, and ageist attitudes that helps them overlook the causes of their patients' cuts and bruises"

If the problem is her fault, no one else need help either. Ministers, priests, and rabbis admonish the battered woman to try harder, to be a better wife. Marriage counselors, family therapists and mediators counsel her to consider her husband's point of view, practice "interpersonal communication skills" and work diligently (often in long-term therapy) to raise her self-esteem. To illustrate "the absurd level that victim-blaming reaches," a handbook published by the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Project recounts what happened to a woman named Janice:

"My husband shot at me twice but he was so drunk he missed me. I locked myself in the bathroom and crawled out the window. I ran through a field in knee- deep snow with no shoes on. The neighbors took me to the hospital. The next day I was admitted to the psych ward for anxiety. I took several tests. When the psychiatrist met with me he said I scored very high on the paranoia scale. I asked what that meant and he said, 'It means you have an irrational fear that someone is out to get you.' My anxiety turned to depression. I was released to go back home a week later with a prescription for Valium." Privately, the representatives of social "services" and the members of the "helping professions" know. Privately, they may fear and despise the battered woman for being the victim she is. They grow inpatient with her and angry that she presents herself to them, wanting some thing from them, wanting help. Why doesn't she help herself? (If she were anyone else, with any other kind of problem, they would see that asking for help is a way of helping yourself.) Sometimes they say to her keep the house cleaner, don't be so nervous, lose weight, be agreeable, don't answer back, make the kids behave, take Valium, wear lipstick, smile, pray. Sometimes they say: Why don't you just leave?

And if she does leave? And he comes after her? The pattern is so commonplace that law professor Martha R. Mahoney has coined the useful term "separation assault" to describe the "varied violent and coercive moves" a batterer makes when a woman tries to leave him. Perhaps she'll defend herself and then be tried for murder, like Karen Straw. Perhaps she'll be convicted and sent to prison for a long term - fifteen years, maybe, or life - as so many battered women who kill are. Perhaps she'll me maimed and crippled. Or perhaps she'll be murdered - as four women every day are murdered by their "partners." The mother of one murdered woman told a television reporter: "People ask 'Why don't battered women leave? They get killed. That's why."

Historian Elizabeth Pleck notes that the indispensable question, or its variant "Why does she stay?" was first asked in the 1920s, coincidentally with the rise of modern psychology, and experts have been "answering" it ever since. "The answer given then," Pleck says, "was that battered women were of low intelligence or mentally retarded; two decades later, (as we have seen) it was assumed these women did not leave because they were masochistic. By the 1970s an abused woman stayed married, the experts claimed, because she was isolated from friends and neighbors, had few economic or educational resources and had been terrorized into a state of 'learned helplessness' by repeated beatings." As Pleck observes, even this "modern answer" is "far less revealing than the persistent need to pose the question." What that need reveals is our refusal to do anything to stop violence against women.

Instead, "experts" - psychologists, psychiatrists, and sociologists mostly - fortified with government grants, busily study why women stay. Naturally they study the question, and the whole problem of male violence, by studying women, thereby managing to blame women while turning "their problem" into a tidy profit, generously provided by your tax dollars and mine. The experts have examined the personalities of battered women, their education, their family history, their previous experience with violence, their physical health, their mental health, their employment records, their use of alcohol and drugs, their sexual history and attitudes, their religious beliefs, their child-rearing practices, their veracity, their verbal skills, their problem-solving skills, their "interpersonal tactics" (which mean mostly what they do when a man hits them) and - endlessly - their self-esteem. In the course of all this expensive, redundant, and obtuse investigation, psychologists have pinned "the problem" on various permutations of the battered- woman's psyche from her "low self-esteem" to her "self-destructive behavior." Psychiatrists have done their utmost to get her "syndrome" officially classified as a "mental illness," and have slipped into official psychiatric diagnostic canon a brand new "Disorder" - "Self-defeating Personality Disorder" - dreamed up by a committee of white male psychoanalysts. Pop therapist/writers have added "co-dependency" ad "addictive personality" which is/are either one new "disease" or two, depending upon which pop therapist you read. Sociologists have manufactured that monumental problem: "battered husbands" - which at once trivializes wife-beating and blames battered women not only for being victims but for victimizing men. And the "experts" victim-blaming "research" encourages the criminal-justice system in its well established do-nothing policy, so that the battered woman who tries to blame the man battering her - who tries, in fact, like Karen Straw to get him arrested and locked up - finds she gets no help at all.

All this can be discouraging to a woman. It can - if you will put yourself in her shoes for a moment - make her terribly upset or depressed. It can fill her with rage or despair. It can even give her a case of "low self-esteem," creeping like mildew over her soul. Once she comes down with these "mental-health problems," the experts rush in again to blame the victim for the violence. "We cannot tell" say professors Gelles and Straus in their most recent "definitive" text, "whether, in fact, the violence came before the problems or whether the problems produced the violence. It is certainly plausible that health or psychological problems create stress in a home. This can lead to violence."

Thus we come full circle. Her mental-health problems magically "produce the violence" - an abstraction, perpetrator unspecified - and once it starts coming down on her head, we know what the next question is.

The huge pile of data which he victim blamers have amassed about battered women reveals one critical fact: one battered woman is a as different from the next as night from day. Taken all in all, the studies show that all battered women have only one significant characteristic in common - they all are female.

Some battered women were abused as children; others were not. Some battered women never got past grade school; others hold advanced degrees. Some battered women have never held a job; others have worked all their lives. Some battered women were married very young, others in middle age; others not at all. Many battered women are very poor; many are well-to-do. Many battered women have "too many" children, others none at all. Many battered women are passive introverts; others are active extroverts. Some battered women drink too much or use drugs; others never touch the stuff. Many battered women are black; many others are white, yellow, red, brown. Many battered women are Catholic; many others are Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, Buddhist, Mormon. In short, there is no typical battered woman. Or to put it another way, any girl or woman may be battered.

This is not a comfortable thought. And it helps to explain why even women blame women for being battered. (In the studio, audience of every TV talk show there are two people who seem to be sent from central casting: the cop who says, "These women don't really want'em arrested," and the woman who says, "I wouldn't stand for that. I would never let that happen to me.") If there is something wrong with her, then we can feel safe. And if she doesn't leave the assailant, then we are absolved of responsibility to help her and guilt for our failure to do so. The thought that we are safe only by chance or luck, and perhaps only for the time being, temporarily ahead in some comic lottery over which e have no control is too terrifying to take in. And the thought that she isn't leaving because she can't without help, and no one will help her, and she could be me - well, what woman wants to think about that? Think again of Karen Straw. The indelible paper trail she laid through the records of hospitals, police courts, and social services proves that she made every possible appeal for help to "the system." For women's advocates, Karen Straw became a textbook case: a woman who followed through on everything the criminal-justice system told her to do, only to find the system worse than worthless. Karla Dirgirolamo, executive director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, told the press, "It's a crime of the system that we allow people to live this way, without public intervention, until they feel they have no alternative but to kill." Ronnie Eldridge, former director of the New York State Division for Women, commented, "Obviously this system doesn't work at all "But, in fact, considering that the system was designed by men for men, it worked perfectly - at least until the murder trial when the jury refused to cooperate by convicting Karen Straw. Karen Straw, all by herself, had to stop the man who terrorized her. Why should men, who had no quarrel with her assailant, have done it for her? What right had she to ask?

But men don't like to come right out and say that. Think about it - how would it sound? So they say instead, as anchorman Jim Jensen did: Why didn't she leave? And then someone, someone like reporter Bree Walker, begins to explain - all about dependence and helplessness and low self-esteem and masochism and psychological problems and what the experts say and ... Well, you see how neatly that works.

And you see what battered women individually and collectively have been up against all this time.


Last Updated 7/10/98 Email comments - NHULSE@womynkind.org