On the day we moved into our current house, I was wearing a sweatshirt from a university women's retreat at which I'd been invited to speak just a few months before. My neighbor, who was at the time the director of the county domestic violence agency, noticed this, sized me up, and decided that she was going to get me on her board of trustees.
She did, actually, and I served for a few years, through the birth of my son, and until the worst of my pregnancy losses, when I decided that I need to focus just on me for a little while. And I learned a lot during those years about abuse, about assumptions, and about our power to make change.
I live in a county that is fairly wealthy and homogenous (white). And domestic violence is more or less invisible. Or at least, most people I talk with here don't have a good sense of the scope of the problem.
I no longer have the most current statistics, but I can tell you that most estimates agree: 1 in 4 people will experience domestic abuse in her (and in some cases, his) lifetime. I can tell you that in my county, a high percentage of victims are wealthy, educated white women. I can tell you that the more suburban and sprawling a place is, the more likely it is that neighbors will never notice, and the less likely it is that a spouse can get away. I can tell you that the wounds are not always visible, because they are financial, psychological: abusers can control their victims by controlling the purse-strings, or by berating them, or by doing any other number of other awful things.
I can tell you that almost one year ago, a friend of mine and co-founder of my working moms group, who was a highly successful clinical research trial manager for a major pharmaceutical company, was found dead in an Atlantic City hotel room, with her two children--ages 3 and 5--trying to wake her up, and that until then, many of us didn't even know that the police had been called to investigate incidences of violence at her house. I can tell you that she was one of the most well-put-together, speak-your-mind women I knew, and while her husband was hardly ever there when we were around, she seemed to have mastered the single-parenting lifestyle of someone with a spouse who works long hours. I can tell you that some of us spent months wondering whether her death was really an accident (as the prosecutor claimed it was), or whether her husband had found a way to hurt her even after she'd left him; wondering what we could have done differently, blaming ourselves--as unreasonable as we knew that was--for the loss of her life. (Did you know that over 70 percent of domestic violence murders happen after the victim has
ended the relationship, after she's gotten out, because then the abuser
has nothing left to lose? I didn't, until last year.)
I can tell you that another friend of mine--the sole breadwinner for her family, and a manager for an environmental safety group--experienced abuse at the hands of her stay-at-home-dad husband, and though they were able to get back together again (and have a third child), I will never forget the fear in her eyes the day she dropped her kids off at my house to go to court.
This is another one of those things we don't talk about. Because it's too private. We don't want to intrude on what happens in people's homes. That's their business, right? Not ours. We have protections in place for children, but we feel like adults can take care of themselves. In fact, it's not even clear whether anyone who shot the photos of Nigella and her husband called to report a domestic violence issue. We know one thing, though: they did what so many other people do in that situation. They watched it happen.
Like racism, like sexism, like so many other things, we need to be able to talk about domestic violence. That it doesn't have one face. That it doesn't live in one socioeconomic community. Do you think this isn't happening among your friends, in your family? You are wrong. Domestic violence doesn't live, with Chris Brown and Rhianna, in the tabloids. It lives--quite literally-in our back yards. We need to be able to talk with our teens about healthy relationships in a way that is honest and real. We need people who are in unhealthy relationships to feel safe telling someone, rather than feeling like they are disappointing us if they can't fulfill the terms of their contract--in the official or unofficial sense of the word. We need to make it clear that we will believe victims, that we will take them seriously. We need to show them that they will be treated with dignity and compassion. That this is not for them to figure out alone. That it happens, and that they are not the only ones, that they should not feel ashamed.
I don't know where Nigella will go from here. I wish that she hadn't been caught that way, that someone could have reached out to her in a way that was not so public, not so potentially unsafe for her. But I am glad, in a way, that it's gotten us to talk ... and I hope it's not the end of the conversation.
Why do you think we are so silent about domestic violence in this country? What kinds of things do you think we can do to help victims feel safe about coming forward?