Wanna know what one of the downsides is to being a Domestic Violence Survivor Advocate? (Wait a minute – are there actually any upsides?) It’s getting a front row seat to witnessing the most appalling human behavior ever - seeing people at their personal and professional worst with ignorance and arrogance being the icing on the cake. Remember: I only work with survivors of abuse so all of what I’m about to say is post-separation from the abusers (as in physical separation and relationship termination years after the last incident of in-the-relationship abuse).
Here’s another downside to the work: having to bear witness to the fallout the survivors go through after being subjected to the most appalling human behavior ever – seeing the results of people at their personal and professional worst and the emotional damage imparted from careless ignorance and arrogance.
Once upon a time, the relationship between a husband and wife was sacrosanct – deeply private, held under covenant by God, protected by law and respected by everyone. In days past, to criticize or publicly pry into the affairs of a couple’s marriage could literally result in someone’s death – and not necessarily by the hands of an insulted husband. The family, extended family or even a community would punish the insolent individual for crossing such a sacred line… What happened to that? When did that suddenly change or evolve into what we have today?
Is it a result of reality TV where we can “be in the room with” a married couple as we watch their issues and arguments unfold with a click of a button on the channel changer? If there’s no sex tape with your spouse to protect at all costs does that mean you’re not keeping up with the times? When did the conversations between mothers and daughters, between sisters and best friends about the intimate details of each other’s marriages become fair game “in love and war”?
Never before have we seen so much media coverage, public intrusion, public opinion and even a sort of entitled “the public needs-to-know” position about a relationship once considered off-limits and look where we’re going with that too: http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/03/02/bill-clintons-decades-old-affair-should-be-fair-game-if-hillary-runs-for-president-republican-senator-says/ Can anyone PLEASE tell me how her husband’s infidelity is cause to question her ability to lead in public office? And why the heck is that considered “fair game” in the run for the White House at all? But let me reel this in to here and now (and what it has to do with domestic violence).
Domestic violence is just chock full of never-ending betrayals. Starting with the abuser’s betrayal of love and vows, to the betrayal by family and friends, to the betrayal by the systems put in-place to protect our most vulnerable, to the community’s betrayal and (to me) the most egregious: the betrayal by DV agencies and career-related professionals, who have been entrusted to do right by those they’ve been paid to serve. By the time we get to the final insult to injury - the media's betrayal - survivors just go numb in disbelief.
- The first betrayal: being abused by her husband and/or by the father of her children.
- The second betrayal: realizing that the marriage/relationship was a lie, that his “love” wasn’t the true love she thought she had – discovering that it was all just a sick and twisted game of power and control that she either stepped into, pursued or was fooled into – and then worse: staying/remaining in the marriage/relationship despite signs of the truth.
- The third betrayal: when her own family, her own friends, the ones who are supposed to have her back stab her in it instead.
Before I go on with the other betrayals, I have to stop and elaborate on this third one because this is the one that’s under my skin today.
Domestic violence isolates the victim from her friends, family and support system during the marriage/relationship so when she’s finally free from the abuser, she’s happy to reconnect with her friends, family and support system and so much so that she may miss some very real warning signs they may be giving off.
Once physically separated from the victim, abusers like to befriend and latch onto her friends, family and support system. This serves a variety of functions from the obvious (they become his unwitting spies and/or sources of information about her, her activities, her whereabouts, etc.; sympathy-seeking) to the not-so-obvious (he’s making her aware of his presence/”telling her” he’s not going to go away as easily as she might have thought; turning her supporters into his supporters). His best prize/accomplishment will be winning over those most dear to her; if he can get one of her friends (or relatives) romantically involved with him, even better.
New victim-survivors initially don’t see any threat or problem with their abusers maintaining or striking up relationships with people on “her side” so the survivors will be glad, agreeable, supportive and non-interfering in the hope that one day/some day, this might all be ancient history and we can “all be friends again” - but this changes in an instant when the abuser has accomplished his goal and one (or more) of her friends or family members has decided to take “his side”. The other day I had the misfortune to witness another abuser’s “victory” when it became clear that the survivor’s sibling crossed over to “the dark side”.
When I met this survivor two years ago she had told me her abuser was reaching out to her family members over the phone. At first the phone calls were tear-filled and sympathy-seeking, which her family members entertained but as the months went on, more and more didn’t have time for his hours-long calls EXCEPT for one of her siblings who continued to be a comfort and a sounding board for him.
In normal (non-abusive) break-ups/divorces, seeking connection with an ex’s friends and family isn’t an out of the ordinary behavior, however, the intensity and longevity of those connections don’t remain intense - they dwindle as the relationship/marriage is grieved and lives go on – not so in abuse-related cases.
So my survivor mom had the strangest day in court: the abuser, who has a restraining order against him, had the clairvoyance to ask the court for things that directly countered every point the survivor wanted to raise AND even stranger – they were in the same order that the survivor intended to ask. The coincidence was just too freaky to believe so I asked the survivor, “Is he still in contact with any of your friends or family?” At first she shook her head no but then said “Wait, my sibling” – and then the part I hate the most: watching her face change as she started to realize that there is no freaky coincidence going on but a(nother) betrayal.
Sometimes I really wish that I couldn’t relate to any of this but this betrayal really “hit close to home” (which is why I’m writing about it!)
My kids (then 5 and 2 years-old) and I arrived in Hawaii in September 2000 to stay with a beloved aunt of mine in Kaimuki named Mabel, who is my mother’s second youngest sister. Mabel was a mother of three (now adult) children, a nurse and someone who was always rock-solid in my life; practical, down-to-earth, straightforward, no-nonsense with a good sense of humor - qualities I’ve always respected and admired. When Mabel told me to “come to Hawaii” in the middle of my DV crisis, it was a welcomed and comforting thought – I had absolutely no idea how badly I was about to be betrayed by “my own blood”.
I was too ashamed to tell her (or anyone for that matter) the historical details that led to my cross-country escape so when she asked, it was hard to explain – like what do you do on Christmas when your aunt from Hawaii calls you in Virginia to say “Mele Kalikimaka” and you’re trying to nurse a broken heart? Do you launch into the days that led up to the heartbreak, start to lay out the background and history that’s brought you to the moment or do you cheerfully say, “Mele Kalikimaka!” back and talk about what you ate for dinner?
When my then-husband joined us in Hawaii for Christmas in 2000, he opted to stay in a hotel in Waikiki instead of with us in my aunt’s home. As our situation deteriorated and I was advised to take a TRO out against my husband, I asked Mabel for the name of the hotel he was staying at (for the TRO application) because not only had he shared that with her, but she was transporting him to and from the hotel. In a manner that literally made my skin crawl, she wagged her finger at me smiling and replied in a sing-songy voice, “Ah ah ah… I promised him I wouldn’t disclose that information to you” and then proceeded to ask me what I needed the information for. I told her it didn’t matter and she walked away in confidence, secure in the knowledge that she hadn’t violated her promise to my husband whom she had only met a total of 4 times (vs. the 30+ years she had known me).
Because Mabel didn’t take my safety or the safety of my children seriously, believing she knew better than me, the kids and I spent that Christmas in a homeless shelter because when I called my former therapist in Virginia to ask for her advice, she literally screamed, “Get out! Get out of that house NOW! She’s putting you and your kids in danger! Get out!” into the phone when I told her about Mabel’s actions and behaviors.
Days later Mabel would show up at the Order To Show Cause Hearing for the TRO to hear what my husband had done to me only to violate the Court’s orders from that day by bringing my husband to my daughter’s after-school care and waving at me to leave to leave the area. But it gets even better: three years later when the TRO was about to expire, my aunt Mabel moved my ex-husband in to her house to help him relocate to and establish himself in Hawaii. My ex then generously sent our kids all the happy and good time photos taken during the months he lived with her.
This is what abusers do post-separation; they and those they’ve co-opted are allowed to get away with these kinds of actions; nobody ever stops them and they’re never punished for any of it. Worse is - to the courts and every other onlooker - the alliance between the abuser and someone from "her side" weighs heavily against the survivor, is counted as proof that he's "a nice guy" and is used to discredit her claims of abuse.
- The forth betrayal: the systems (justice, family court and child protective services) failure to prevent (ongoing) abuse and protect survivors and their children from further acts of domestic terrorism, stalking, torture, exploitation, physical harm, rape, kidnapping, false imprisonment, etc. by an identified abuser known to one or more of these systems. Click here for more on that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rShllw2gMk
- The fifth betrayal: the community’s prejudice, distaste, impatience, intolerance, scorn, rejection, banishment and lack/withdrawl of support for DV survivors and their children. The "it can't/won't happen to me" culture that distances "us" from "them".
- The sixth betrayal: DV agencies and career-related professionals who fail to walk their talk, "go along to get along", who throw DV survivors “under the bus” to protect themselves and their own interests, who look the other way, place funding above fortitude, protect their own - rather than hold their own accountable - when they see or know of wrongdoing (ie: doing nothing to remove a corrupt psychologist, judge, custody evaluator) and fail/refuse to correct mistakes they've made at the survivors' and/or her childrens' expense (ie: accidentally supporting/advocating for an abuser).
- The seventh betrayal: the media's reluctance and refusal to call attention to all of the above, focusing on sensationalism, giving the abuser and his supporters more attention, publicity and air time than the victim/s he killed/abused, feeding into and doing nothing to correct DV myths and misperceptions (ie: "... but a neighbor expressed his disbelief saying, 'He was such a nice guy'.") that only keeps the community ignorant to the signs, symptoms and warning signs of abuse, and perpetuating victim-blaming through "journalistic integrity" where a story "must be" unbiased, fair and balanced to satisfy ethical standards that serve journalism NOT justice.
I don't know what this is exactly but the minute a victim-survivor discloses abuse she loses all her rights to respect and privacy, and instead of compassion and protection, people (friends, family, neighbors, professionals, etc.) actually get angry with her when she declines to answer personal questions that serve no other purpose but to satiate curiosity and/or someone's judgment. Why doesn't anyone ask the abuser the same prying personal questions with the same condescending and entitled attitude?
There's a sense that "Well, she said this about him so now that entitles us to pry into the details of her intimate relationship/marriage". God forbid the victim-survivor should be embarrassed/humiliated by the details or take offense and want her privacy respected because if she isn't forthcoming with all the gruesome details, she's labeled as not credible, evasive, hiding something, uncooperative, suspicious, exaggerating, inflammatory or as a flat out liar.
In the beginning/start of a case, dignity is supremely important to a victim but get further down the line as a survivor and at some point, she'll cross a numbing threshold of embarrassment and humiliation where dignity is just so overrated in comparison to justice (and when she starts talking then, then everyone gets REALLY upset by what she has to say and she's labeled as an "angry, bitter, man-hating, lesbian, feminist-Nazi *itch").
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