A woman came into my office recently after everyone else had left for the day. It was late, and I was busy, but she had seen the light on and she came to get a purple ribbon for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I found one and gave her some to share with others. She commented that she never forgets and wants to be sure to help everyone else remember, too.
I am overwhelmed by the numbers. More than 1,200 people called the Battered Women’s Project for help in the past year; more than 10 times that number received services from the member projects of the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence collectively. Every day, so many people in our towns, close at hand, are suffer-ing, afraid for their lives, struggling for their dignity, grasping for hope.
While we work to help victims of abuse to find safety, the gruesome truth of homicide galvanizes our sense of urgency. In Maine, since last October, two men killed children. Five men killed women. Two women killed men. These were not random crimes but crimes against family, the results of unimpeded patterns of coercive, controlling behavior where there was to have been love.
We — all of us — often are frustrated when victims of domestic abuse and violence continue to care about the people who abuse them and hold on to hope that the abuse will stop. We pay little attention to the reality that victims of abuse leave (or try to leave) abusive partners every day. Most of the time, when men kill women, it is to stop them from ending their relationship, to prove their ultimate control.
Why don’t victims leave? Why do they continue to love the person who abuses them? Why do they give their controlling partners another chance? Why do they marry these people? Why don’t the victims stop being victims and get on with building better lives for themselves?
I wish we would stop asking these questions. No one enters into an intimate relationship, a marriage, or a live-in partnership thinking that it is going to be a devastating and pain-filled experience. Really. Love begins with hope and, when tangled with the obligations and interdependent reality of living in partnership, hope re-mains a binding force through even the outrageous acts perpetrated by abusers, until the fear of staying outweighs the fear of leaving. A 74-year-old woman who left her abusive husband of more than 40 years taught me that.
It is important also for us to recognize that leaving does not end a relationship as long as the abusive person continues to demand compliance from his or her former partner. Abusers will use whatever methods remain available to assert their power, frequently involving the children; often stalking their former partner, maintaining a climate of fear and intimidation.
Imagine how differently we would all think about domestic abuse and violence if we asked a different set of questions: What gives abusers the idea that they can rule over their partners, their children and anyone who tries to help them? Am I doing anything that supports the idea that some people have the right to treat other peo-ple horribly, as if they were less worthy of respect than I believe myself to be? What will stop them?
What if we all acted on the belief that it is wrong to treat others in any way other than how we wish to be treated? What if we all acted on the belief that violence among people is wrong? Would we mobilize all our resources to teach one another how to live peacefully and equitably? Imagine what it would be like if no one made excuses for domestic abuse and violence.
Having come back to live and work in the community where I was born and grew up, I am again frequently in the treasured places where I learned about respect, trust, love and safety. Healthful relationships and happy homes are wonderful things, full of humor, discord, strength, confusion, love and hope, anger and forbearance, but there is no place for abuse and violence.
Nearly all of us know someone who is or has been a victim of abuse. Remember them. Remember what they taught you about surviving, about loving, about injustice and about the work we need to do together. Take time to think about how you talk about domestic abuse and violence. Do you focus on the responsibility of perpetrators to stop the abuse or blame the victims for being there?
All of us need to silence the violence — not the victims, the violence. Over the past 35 years, we have brought the reality of abuse out of dark silence. Now we must replace that darkness with the light of hope and joy.
Francine Garland Stark is the executive director of the Battered Women’s Project.