**TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains graphic images and descriptions of physical assault**
Here’s the thing about domestic violence and physical assault: You can list off all the statistics available out there (one in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime) without realizing what they really mean. It’s not like abuse is something you can immediately spot. Abuse victims learn to cover evidence or it simply isn’t in a visible place. Emotional scars– well we all know how those work. It’s easy to brush off statistics because they appear as nothing but numbers and research.
Think about it this way: The next time you’re in a room full of men and women, look around and think of those statistics. Chances are that multiple women in that room have been victims of abuse; they’re just not wearing stickers that identify them as such. Some of the men in that room have also been victims of abuse; those men tend to do an even better job of hiding it. The problem with a statistic is that it’s just a silly number until someone you love becomes one and when that happens, your world feels like it’s crashing down.
Karen,* a close friend of mine, was recently assaulted by one of her best friends, Ben.* Though the two once dated, they have since maintained a close friendship. “We had a destructive relationship and he was emotionally abusive. He never hit me. The most he did was shake me once and never did it again. We stopped dating shortly and had to be away from each other for a while in order to be friends again later,” she says.
On the night of the assault, Karen went out with some friends, including Ben, to a bar down the street from her home. Everyone was drinking and Ben appeared to be drinking heavily. At one point in the evening, Ben and Karen agreed that he should crash on her couch and not risk riding his motorcycle home. On the way home, however, belligerent and drunk, Ben changed his mind and attempted to leave.
Karen’s friend Marnie* attempted to intervene, but Ben was incoherent. “He said he was leaving and Marnie started begging, this time she was standing in front of him, grabbing his arms, restating all of the facts she previously made. I could see she wasn’t getting through to him so I yelled and told him not to leave. Then I said I’m going to call the police if you try to leave.”
“He went to get on his bike again and I pulled out my phone, holding it with two hands in front of my face at chest height. I pulled up the keypad on my phone and then I was on the ground with Ben on top of me, punching me in the chest. The force of his first punch dropped me to the ground. He continued to straddle me as he punched me in the chest for I believe about 10 seconds. I did not have the physical strength to push him and could barely cover my chest. Marnie was screaming at him to get off of me and trying to pull him away when he eventually reached behind him, grabbed his helmet and slammed it into my forehead, just above my right eyebrow. Then he got up, got on his motorcycle and drove away.”
The next day Karen made the decision not to press charges. She made this decision based part on fear and part on loyalty. ”I am close with his family and would feel guilty that I did that after they spent so much money helping him. I’m also afraid that, if he did go to jail, he would find me once he got out and kill me. I think he would kill someone in jail. I don’t think that would help him with his obvious alcohol/anger issues. I think he needs to be in some kind of treatment in order to get help. From the mental health professional I have spoken to, she doesn’t believe anything can help him at this point. That just adds to my guilt.” She continues, “During the attack, you don’t really think of feel anything. You’re in such a panic and such shock that you really feel like this is the end. It felt like forever but it also felt like it happened in a second. As soon as he was no longer on top of me, I couldn’t stand, I just scooted back using my legs until I snapped out of it.”
Zara* is a 30-year-old single mom who was trapped in an abusive marriage, and “rage” is how she describes her feelings following an attack. She also describes feeling “humiliated, isolated and complete fear – I felt I had nowhere to go or no one to talk to.” She continues, “I have seen a side to me that I thought never existed. I would try to match his verbal abuse any way I could. It is like I would completely lose control and lash out at him – I wanted to stand up for myself.”
Zara met her ex-husband a decade ago and he immediately began isolating her from her friends. He took control of all of her money in order to ensure that she would be completely dependent on him. Once, he secretly disconnected her car battery so that she would be unable to visit a friend. A verbally abusive man from the beginning, he would often leave her at restaurants to find her own way home. “I stopped going out with other people. He had complete control over me, my name was not on the lease where we lived and I did not make enough money to make it on my own and no family to go to.” If ever she made him angry or didn’t do something right, he would punish her by destroying the things she loved. For example, once he slashed her favorite dress with a knife and hung it back up in her closet to find. Abuses and manipulations like that became a part of Zara’s everyday life. “He loved to scare the living crap out of me with threats, things like I’m going to kick you out after he’d take all my money.” Eventually, the abuse escalated to a point where the police got involved and after six months of house arrest, he was sentenced to probation and counseling.
Often when faced with police involvement abusers go into survival mode. Zara’s husband, for example, would remain calm and collected in the presence of police officers in order to make it appear as if Zara was just a typical overreacting woman. Ben’s actions following his attack on Karen followed closely in line with what an abuser may do. After the assault, Karen and Marnie went to Marnie’s house in case Ben returned to Karen’s. “Eventually I looked at my phone and had a text from Ben. It said ‘I am at my home XXX-XXX-XXXX. I have told the police officers my location. I don’t appreciate accusations the opposite’. No one that we had told had called the police. I still don’t know what that text means.” Whether Ben was attempting to cover his tracks or was simply drunk texting is perhaps something we’ll never know the answer to.
Fortunately, legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act (which is up for reauthorization by Congress) has allowed women like Zara to get help even when their abusers go into survival mode and try to deflect blame or play innocent. Where this legislation fails is with providing abused women treatment (the state only pays for rape kits). When Zara was taken to the hospital following her husband’s arrest, her insurance, which was separate from her husband’s, covered most of the medical costs. Karen, however, was unwilling to use the insurance plan she was on because the charges would be visible to the primary insurance holder, a person whom she does not wish to inform of the attack. She adds, “first of all, it’s extremely hard for victims who don’t think they’re seriously injured to seek medical attention in the first place, let alone that there isn’t a clinic I can go to where I would even feel comfortable saying something happened to me. Needless to say, if the victim is sharing medical insurance with her attacker (not in my case), she wouldn’t want to seek medical attention for fear that person would find out.” What makes the lack of free or subsidized medical help for abuse victims worse is that it continues to add to their sense of helplessness.
Physical violence is paralyzing to everyone it touches: the victims, their friends, and their families. It’s paralyzing because of an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. Why didn’t I stop it? Why wasn’t I there? are only some of the questions that families and friends must grapple with, but what the victim goes through is an amalgamation of all the emotions mentioned above. Most people touched by abuse are never the same again. Unfortunately, our society easily forgets how often the people we love are abused or how high the chances of those we love being abused are. Worst of all, even with all the statistics that are thrown at us, we easily forget how likely it is that we may be abused by someone we love. I am grateful that Karen and Zara came forward to tell their stories. If awareness truly serves as the key for social change, then I hope these women and their stories have made all of us a little more aware.
*all names have been changed