Domestic violence is a serious and persistent part of our American society, and deserves discussion that deepens our understanding and leads us to more productive strategies. The Bangor Daily News has appropriately commented on the seriousness and framed the discussion in a way to encourage complexity and ongoing discussion.
• The Belcher case is tragic, but it offers us an opportunity to discuss domestic violence in a broader context without becoming polarized in our reaction to the incident.
• It is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that somebody we knew as a likable and competent student, friend and teammate is also a murderer of his female partner. According to Kansas police sources reported in the Kansas City Star, Belcher had problems in his relationship with the woman he killed that were serious enough for his team, the Kansas City Chiefs, to urge counseling.
According to University of Maine police records reported by the BDN, his problematic ways of relating to his girlfriends may have appeared to some extent while he was at UMaine. If so, this side of him apparently was in striking contrast to the side that friends and family saw; he was well liked by his teachers, coach and teammates.
• Domestic violence advocates and researchers in the field tell us that some men who abuse their female partners are very different in their interactions with friends, family or coworkers and may appear in public as admirable and upright citizens. This makes it difficult to even imagine that they could mistreat, let alone kill, their girlfriends, wives or ex-partners. In those cases it is particularly difficult for victims to find somebody who believes them, because how victims experience abusers is so different from how other people experience them.
To end domestic violence we — in the public and in the social networks of victims and perpetrators — need to take this issue more seriously. We believe that it is neither helpful to vilify violent men nor to exonerate them and gloss over their misconduct or crimes. These reactions may appeal to our personal sense of justice, but they are less helpful in dealing with the fact that domestic violence continues in our midst.
We believe it is important to have a more open debate about these contradictory sides some abusive men display. What does it mean for our relationships with friends, family members, co-workers and public figures when we become aware that men we respected, loved or admired have been domestically or sexually abusive? How do we challenge their abusive behavior toward women, while acknowledging their positive accomplishments in their families, at work or in public?
It should not be a tragedy that prompts our actions. They should come much earlier — because the violent anger, controlling behaviors or possessive jealousy, which may escalate to murder, are already inappropriate in themselves. They should not be dismissed as trivial or normal.
The recent Belcher case should not polarize us but serve as a catalyst to accept the complexity of these issues and to address them accordingly, through education, community response and understanding the gender socialization that affects men (and women) in such negative ways.
Renate Klein is adjunct associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Maine. Sharon Barker is director of the Women’s Resource Center at the university.