Anytime there’s a mainstream (read: “not an egalitarian safe space”) news report about abused women, some commenters show up to ask, “Why didn’t she just leave?” In their minds, it’s the simplest thing in the world, like leaving a party where you’re not having fun. By not leaving, the abused person has demonstrated that she willingly tolerated her abuse for some suspicious reason, and therefore is most likely somehow partly complicit.
For our regular readers who know better, this may be a boring article. But I wanted to have it handy to link the next time someone asks that question: why didn’t she just leave?
Remember Dominique Dunne, the young actress who played the teenage daughter, Dana, in Poltergeist but didn’t show up for the sequels? Ever wonder what happened to her? Today, she should be turning 51. But she never even turned 23.
After finishing Poltergeist, she met and eventually moved in with a boyfriend. The relationship turned physically abusive, so she ended it soon thereafter, like everyone blithely advises women to do. A few weeks later, the boyfriend came to her home and asked her to come back. She refused, like everyone blithely advises women to do. He strangled her. It took her five days to die.
Why didn’t “just leaving” work? And was this result to be expected? Yes.
“The overwhelming majority of domestic violence happens when someone tries to leave, is getting an order of protection, or filing for divorce — somehow resisting his control,” noted Ellen Reed, executive director of Lydia’s House, a shelter for abused women. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a woman say, ‘I can’t get an order of protection, he’ll kill me’.”
Let’s go over that again. The “overwhelming majority” of domestic violence happens not when the abused party is cowing before the abuser, but when the abused somehow resists the control of the abuser. Abused people figure this out quickly, instinctively: fighting back makes it worse. Standing up for yourself makes it worse. Connecting with family and friends who might help you triggers the abuser to make it impossible, or at least terrifying, for you to see those people further. If you pack a bag so you can dash out during the night, make damn sure he doesn’t find it first, or you might pay with your life.
Because abusers see resistance to abuse as an infringement on their right to abuse, and in some cases, even a vicious attack on their personhood. That’s how warped their perception is. They fight to defend what they perceive as theirs – your agency, your right to do anything without their permission – the way most of us would fight to defend a child threatened by a murderous thug.
It’s true: sometimes leaving goes smoothly. Sometimes the abuser just curses the abused behind her back and moves on. Or sometimes they yell and threaten all sorts of terrifying retribution (which is a more traumatic experience than you realize, unless you’ve been there yourself) but don’t actually follow through on their threats. But other times:
Most spousal murders happen just as a woman is planning to leave, or actually leaving the relationship. Staying is dangerous, but usually less dangerous than leaving, hence they stay.
Now. Sources are important, so listen up: it’s painfully telling that this quote comes from an article not on the topic of why women stay with abusers, but on why women sometimes kill their abusers. If staying and leaving both put her and her loved ones (kids, pets, her parents he’s threatened to kill if she leaves) at risk of being killed, what’s the third option here? Eliminate the threat. Kill the abuser. This article I’m quoting is from people who would like to prevent “battered woman” killings – not so much out of concern for the abusers’ lives as for what becoming a murderer does to the abused person.
How’s this for irony? Feminism has saved a lot of abusive men’s lives.
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics tell us that in the United States, more than 1,000 women and more than 300 men are killed annually due to intimate partner violence. At one time, these numbers were roughly even. This was before women’s shelters and other services for female victims were introduced to provide an alternative avenue of escape. This fact—that domestic violence services are saving the lives of more men than women—is little noted. In any case, today, men clearly are more likely to kill their partners than women are to kill theirs.
Bold emphasis mine. This clearly suggests that the more empowered women feel to leave safely, the more likely they are to do so. Peacefully. Sensibly.
Two other factors that have helped improve statistics: people getting married later in life (with more life experience to draw from) and the increased ability of women to provide for themselves monetarily. The once very common question of “How will I feed myself (and the kids) without his income?” is less of a consideration today. It’s not gone – we can’t yet say we’ve done enough to empower women to help themselves. But we’ve made some steps in the right direction, and we can take some more.
Even in cases where no physical abuse has occurred, emotional abusers work like terrorists. In order to control their abused partners, they (often calmly) threaten to do things that non-abusive people would rarely even think of: kill the kids, shoot the dog, kill her parents, get custody of the kids and rape them, track the partner down no matter where she goes (a good threat if you know he has the resources to pull it off – some of them can be bothered). It’s truly shocking stuff designed to make an abused person realize her abuser has no boundaries, and she can’t begin to guess what out-of-bounds behavior he might engage in if she “provokes” him. And she’s typically already demoralized because most abusers cut their abused partners off from everyone who might help them.
Dominique Dunne did everything women are advised to do by people who have never been abused by someone who supposedly loved them, and she did it properly and in a timely fashion, after the second violent “fight” showed her his physical abuse wouldn’t be a one-time incident (click here for a picture of her playing an abuse victim in Hill Street Blues the day after the second fight – she didn’t need makeup). The results were that she was murdered and her murderer didn’t suffer a whole lot for it:
the jury in the case acquitted him of these charges and found him guilty only of the lesser included offenses of voluntary manslaughter and misdemeanor assault. He was sentenced to 6½ years in prison, the maximum sentence he could have received; but he served less than four years before his release, having been given credit for time served before conviction. He was then hired as a chef at a restaurant in Santa Monica, California; Dunne’s family then publicly protested his employment there, and he was fired. In interviews, Dunne’s father said that for a time he employed the services of private investigator Anthony Pellicano to follow and report upon Sweeney. According to Dunne’s father, Pellicano reported that Sweeney had changed his name to John Maura and moved to the Pacific Northwest. Dunne’s father said that he later decided that he no longer wished to squander his life following Sweeney and therefore discontinued any attempts to keep tabs on him.
I wonder about the jury’s reasoning. Were they still not satisfied with Dunne’s response to finding herself in a violent relationship? Is there anything women can do that would satisfy any twelve people in this nation?
Update 4/28/2015: a reader just sent this in as a resource for anyone looking to help. If anyone would like to submit some resources for this page that may help domestic abuse survivors in need, please feel free to submit them.
HopeLine is a program that connects survivors of domestic violence to vital resources, funds organizations nationwide and protects the environment. To date, they have collected over 10 million phones nationwide, while donating over $20 million dollars to domestic violence organizations. A great explanation of the program can be found here: http://www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/hopeline/index.html