When Push Comes to Shove
The domestic violence crisis
Editor’s note: Because this is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are reprinting by permission an article that highlights the continuing problem of domestic abuse.
In 2010, John Wiser, 27, stormed into his Stuart Heights home and beat, kicked and choked his 31-year-old wife, Shae, in front of her two young sons. By the time friends could respond to her frantic phone call for help, she was lying in her front yard, hemorrhaging and barely conscious. Five days later, she died.
It would be the final, fatal chapter of a long, violent story. Shae Wiser was known to the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults Crisis Resource Center, which counsels and shelters victims of domestic abuse—though “never in a million years did it cross her mind that he would kill her,” says the center’s director, Regina McDevitt.
According to police, John Wiser later stated that he beat his wife that night “more than he had ever beaten her or any other woman before.”
Unlike many other violent crimes, episodes of domestic violence are almost never incidental. They are part of an exponential pattern spanning multiple relationships and generations. An abuser—typically a man—often batters a succession of girlfriends or wives, says Mark Carpenter, who counsels offenders. The children who regularly witness that abuse are far more likely to become batterers, or battered, themselves—perpetuating a cycle that likely was in place decades prior, when the abuser himself was a child in a violent home.
That’s why Carpenter is alarmed by the relative youth of the men now entering the Abuse Intervention with Life Skills program at The Lighthouse Counseling & Life Skills Center. Carpenter is director of The Lighthouse, Southeast Tennessee’s largest provider of court-ordered counseling for domestic violence offenders.
“When we started doing this 10 years ago, the majority of the guys were probably in their late 30s and early 40s,” Carpenter says. “We’re getting kids as young as 18 now, who really should have had an intervention in third or fourth grade. When you look at our public school system now, with the increase in bullying and things like that—that’s the biggest reason you have to stop it. It comes out of a cycle. It’s primarily the cycle or the family that’s going to be the highest predictor.”
Therefore, while most efforts to resolve situations of domestic violence involve removing the victim from danger, that often doesn’t stop the problem, he says.
“If we don’t make efforts to change the abuser, imagine the 18-year-old kid in our program. He’s going to have a whole lot more relationships in his life. There are going to be three, four, five other women who, if we can’t stop the cycle, he’s going to abuse, too, as well as their children.”
Counseling after the fact is far from a sure solution, he adds. Depending on the study, he says, only 20 to 60 percent of perpetrators who receive treatment are considered remediated.
“I usually classify it into two groups,” he says. “There’s a group of guys who really are decent people, but they have no skills. They came out of abusive homes, they don’t know how to handle power, they don’t know how to handle their emotions. They just need skills and accountability. It’s almost like they just need to grow up. But there’s a percentage out there that no matter what you do, they are going to reoffend, and that’s the scary part.”
The main obstacle to remediation is the tendency for an abuser to blame his victim. “If we can’t get them past that, there really is no hope,” Carpenter says.
Still blaming the victims
And then there is the victim, who blames herself. “Linda,” a Chattanooga nurse, says she endured her husband’s verbal and physical attacks for years, trying to “fix” the problems causing his behavior—until she realized she wasn’t the reason he hit her.
Their marriage fit the pattern. Linda’s father, himself raised in a violent home, beat Linda’s mother, who in turn abused Linda and her sisters—all of whom would grow up to marry an abusive man.
“When I first went out with my husband, he had a lot of good qualities,” Linda explains, “but he also had an anger problem. I just thought that was how men are. I didn’t have a dad to show me what was normal. I didn’t have a home to show me what was normal.”
Like her mother before her, Linda was a party to verbal pugilism that eventually became physical. Outmatched by 100 pounds, she ended up on the worse end; when she pushed her husband, she says, he knocked her down and punched her in the face. And when she went to her family for help, they drew on what they knew, advising her to stay. “What could my dad say?” she asks. “He did the same thing to my mother.”
Determined to mend her threadbare marriage, Linda sought spiritual guidance from her pastor and from Christian literature. The message she got, she says, was “Do the right thing, and he will follow.” So she learned to avoid confrontations and convinced her husband to join her for counseling. “But he never realized he had a problem,” she says. “Even when he beat me and gave me a black eye, he said, ‘You made me do this.’”
Finally Linda found a book explaining the patterns and psychology behind domestic violence, and she had an epiphany: “My God, it’s not me. It’s him.”
After 16 years of marriage, Linda filed for divorce. The couple is now legally separated.
The courage to leave
At least two significant differences meant Linda’s story ended very differently than Shae Wiser’s. First, Linda’s husband left willingly and, at least for now, he’s kept his distance. Second, Linda and her husband did not have children.
Children in the home greatly complicate the problem of domestic violence. Financially and logistically, it’s harder for women with dependent children to escape a dangerous relationship.
Many mothers remain in a violent situation for fear of losing their children if they leave, notes the Partnership’s Regina McDevitt. “That’s a big motivator to stay,” she says, “because sometimes their parenting skills are not that great, or they have mental health issues, and their abuser will say, ‘You know what? You’re crazy. I’ll call (Child Protective Services), and they’ll take those kids away.’” Having been told for years that she is crazy, worthless or stupid, the victim is particularly vulnerable to such backwards logic, McDevitt says.
Compounding the victim’s sense of powerlessness is the systemic isolation that’s part of the abuse pattern, Carpenter adds. “This person will come in and really sweep you off your feet, and then you’ll start to see the slow manipulations of your time, your friendships, your relationships…and then it gravitates into the more extreme forms of control: the physical, emotional, psychological and sexual,” he says. Often, by the time the victim recognizes that she needs to leave, she has no support system, and the logistics of leaving—with children in tow—can be daunting.
The Partnership helps victims navigate that process, McDevitt says. “The key to leaving safely is to have a solid safety plan that you’re able to work without the knowledge of that abuser,” she says. That goes far beyond finding emergency transportation and shelter. It also means filing for an Order of Protection, notifying children’s schools (or getting special dispensation to transfer schools), closing bank accounts, and securing original documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards.
“The courage that it takes to pick up and leave is tremendous,” McDevitt notes. “These women have been so beaten down, they think so much of it is their fault, and their children may not want to leave. They’re having to do so many things to protect their children and themselves. It can be very, very difficult to make that decision.”
Even if the abuse victim and her children do leave safely, the long-term damage may have been done, to manifest itself in future generations.
Officials studies indicate 50 percent of children raised in a home with domestic violence are also abused, McDevitt says, but “my opinion is that if you’re living in it, you’re being abused,” she says. “So I would say it’s 100 percent.” McDevitt sees the effects of that abuse every day at the Partnership’s shelter, where trauma has dozens of faces. Little children are often sad and anxious, while older ones may feel embarrassed by their circumstances or even guilty for not having stopped the abuse.
And at some level, she says, a great many of them are angry.
“They feel angry at their mother for taking them away from home, or angry at being taken from their father,” she says. “They feel angry at the abuser, because they’ve tried so hard to intervene…We’ve seen so many children who seem to be the primary caretaker in the family.”
Breaking the cycle
According to The Coalition Against Domestic and Community Violence of Greater Chattanooga, 38 percent of the homicides in Hamilton County were domestic related in 2003. But behind that number is a far greater one. The FBI reports that every nine seconds in the United States, a woman is battered by her spouse or partner—and that for every reported case, another 10 go unreported.
While the incidence of domestic violence “ebbs and flows,” McDevitt says, things seem worse right now. A bad economy usually exacerbates the problem, and in Chattanooga there has been the breathtaking brutality of high-profile cases, particularly Shae Wiser’s.
Whatever the reason, McDevitt says, “I feel like our shelter is fuller.”
She considers the children she sees each day, then cites another statistic—that 80 percent of abusers or victims grew up in a home with domestic violence. “We know a large proportion of our children are going to grow up and becomes abusers or victims,” she says. “That’s why prevention is so critical. You have to stop it when they’re children.”