Many women have a hard time admitting — even to themselves — that they’re being abused by their husband or partner. Suzanne Dubus’ first husband hit her, but still, she didn’t initially identify herself as a victim of abuse.
“I attributed it to alcohol,” Dubus says. “I knew that his father abused his mother. And I thought, ‘Well, this is just poor learning, and I can help him with this.’ ”
But after Dubus’ husband beat her so severely that he broke her eardrum, her thinking began to shift. She eventually left him. Years later, after the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, Dubus felt compelled to volunteer for victims of domestic abuse.
Now Dubus is the CEO the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, a domestic violence crisis center in Massachusetts. She and her colleagues have created a program designed to identify women who are in high-risk situations and provide them with resources to build new lives.
She joined Rachel Louise Snyder, author of the book No Visible Bruises, in a conversation about the often hidden psychological effects of abuse and how they keep women trapped.
Snyder notes that it’s more important than ever to take the threat of domestic violence seriously.
“For years we said that three women a day were killed by their partners in America, and since 2017 that statistic is now four,” Snyder says.
Snyder and Dubus agree on the need to focus resources on women during the time when they are most at risk.
“The first 90 days after a victim leaves [her partner] is the most dangerous time for them of any kind of violence,” Snyder says. “Some of these protections … that they established at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center [are] not a sort of permanent state of being but a way to build systemic protections around a victim for a period of time to kind of ride [that] out.”
On identifying risk factors in abusive relationships
Dubus: Dr. Jacquelyn Campbell from Johns Hopkins’ School of Nursing had done this really interesting research study on femicide, and she identified 20 lethality factors that are in play as the violence is escalating. …
Threats to kill [are] a really important risk factor. Strangulation — we know that in 50 percent of domestic violence cases, strangulation is used. Do they have access to a gun? Are they threatening to kill themselves? Is the behavior escalating? Is there extreme and constant jealousy? Those are some of those lethality factors. …
We began to look at the cases that came through our doors in a different way and really identify those that would give us an opportunity to intervene in a way that we can hold offenders accountable. And we could really make sure that survivors were getting services. We know that when survivors are receiving services, they’re much more likely to survive and live.
On why women often don’t leave abusive relationships
Dubus: There are so many reasons that victims stay in violent and abusive relationships. Number one, domestic violence happens over a time period. It’s not like someone goes out on a date and gets slapped on the first date. If that happened, they would never go back on the second date. But it happens over time: The emotional abuse, the insults, the slowly wearing away at a woman’s soul and a sense of who she is begins to have its effect.
At the same time, oftentimes when domestic violence is escalating and it’s getting worse and scarier, she’s also just busy trying to keep everything together and try to anticipate his next move, try to keep the peace, at the same time that she’s trying to figure out, “Is there a way for me to leave? How do I leave?” And most of the time she is met with a lot of insistence on the part of her abuser that she’ll never be able to leave. No one will believe her. There aren’t options for her. So it is a process. It is very rarely one time does a woman call a hotline and that’s it.
Snyder: I spent almost 10 years researching this. It’s not that they don’t leave; it’s that we don’t know what leaving looks like. So leaving, as Suzanne said, is a process, not an event. And what happens is they kind of dip their toes into the system. They see if there are resources for them. In many cases, the abuser has such control over a victim [that] he or she (most of the time “he”) has isolated a victim from friends, from family, from other types of resources. In many cases they’re not able to hold jobs, so they have no economic resources of their own.
There was a woman that I covered in Ohio who had never even opened a bank account on her own, and so when she finally managed to get free — and she got free because her daughter killed her father — she didn’t know how to do anything. She didn’t drive on her own. She couldn’t navigate financial systems. She didn’t know how to pay for the house. So now that’s a really extreme example, but in those cases where are you going to go? What are you going to do? How are you going to do it?
On why many women recant their testimonies
Snyder: Recanting happens as much as 70 to 80 percent of the time. Sometimes they recant because it wasn’t as a serious incident. I have to allow that sometimes that happens. But most of the time, they recant because they know that they’re going to have to continue to negotiate with that abuser, particularly if they have kids, and they fear retaliation, so they recant as a show of solidarity. … Part of the psychology of an abusive relationship is that an abuser has to convince a victim that he is more powerful than the system.
On how if a woman testifies and her abuser gets out of jail, she’s in more danger
Dubus: When survivors or victims testify against the abuser, that is a very powerful statement. You have not only told the family secret to somebody — you’ve told it to the system. And when they’ve spent so much time proving how powerful they are, how they are tougher than the police, than the courts, that no one is going to catch them, no one’s going to believe them, then it is really incumbent upon the system — and when I talk about “the system,” I’m talking about everybody who touches the lives of a domestic violence victim and the offender — we need to work together. The probation department and the court and the DA and law enforcement and domestic violence advocates need to all be working together to make sure we’re sharing enough information quickly enough so that we can always protect that survivor and her children.
On how narcissism is key to understanding abusers
Snyder: Narcissism is one of the key components of an abuser. … [Most] abusers, in fact, are not people with anger problems. Generally speaking, they are about power and control over one person or the people in their family. They’re often very gregarious. Only about a quarter of the abusers fit that stereotypical definition of someone who is, you know, generally angry. And so the narcissism plays out in the idea that they are owed something, in the idea that they are entitled to their authority, that their partners have to be subservient to them. There’s very often traditional gender dynamics in abusive relationships.
Dubus: In our work with survivors, we also notice that abusers typically really do feel like their home is their castle and that everything must be adjusted and retrofitted to his whim, to his mood, to his needs, and there is quick and rapid punishment when it’s not.
On how women having guns doesn’t make them safer
Snyder: Guns are [often] used as symbols to keep victims in line. Really none of the research backs the idea that a gun in the home makes a woman safer. The other point about that is that guns to say to a woman, “You need to arm yourself against your armed abuser.” [This] is in essence asking a woman to psychologically inhabit the same intellectual and emotional space that someone who is violent toward her inhabits. In other words, let’s try to stop violence with violence, and it doesn’t work. There’s a researcher in Massachusetts named David Adams who interviewed 14 men who were in prison for killing their wives. Eleven of the 14 said they would not have killed had a gun not been readily available.
On what to do if you are being abused
Dubus: My advice is to tell the story. I think that once you begin to tell the story and you hear your own words describe how it feels … and describe the actions and the terror that you may feel, it begins to feel real. And sometimes the person that you want to talk to is your best friend or someone who can be very neutral about the partner. It’s tough to include your friends because sometimes they’re friends with both of you. But every state in our country has a statewide coalition of domestic violence programs, and it’s a listing of all domestic violence programs in each state, and so to find a domestic violence program, they’re out there. Call an advocate. Call a therapist, someone you know and trust and begin to tell your story, and then things change. Things really do change. There’s also the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Carmel Wroth adapted it for the Web.