In "soft" sciences like sociology, it's much more difficult to detect manipulation of research, than in "hard" sciences like physics. Soft science researchers who strive for objectivity deserve an extra measure of respect. Sadly, far too many researchers are more concerned with pushing an agenda than with objectivity. These same problems are not unknown in the world of journalism. Since the soft sciences and the media have a powerful influence on social policies in this country, this affects every family and every individual.
January 14, 2005
“You’re disgusting, just like your mother. Why don’t you go join her?” My mother spat the words at my father. Though spoken many decades ago, those words still ring in my ears. He had loved his mother very much, had agonized as her health had deteriorated, and now that she had passed away, he missed her. What could possibly hurt him more than just attacking her memory? Why, wishing him dead too.
When newspapers and TV tell us about domestic violence, the storyline invariably goes like this: man = brute, woman and children = innocent victims. Families like the one I grew up in are rendered invisible by the media. And predictably, social policy becomes based on media stereotypes rather than reality.
My mother’s attacks went beyond emotional devastation. Though her weight of 100 lbs. was no match for my father’s 170 lbs., he never responded with violence. And secure in the knowledge that he never would, she kicked and punched him with impunity.
One incident in particular sticks in my mind. My father had chosen paint for the kitchen that was a shade too dark. My mother started out by insulting him, then yelling. As her rage grew she escalated to hitting him in the face with her fists. I watched him raise his hands, not to strike back, but merely to protect his eyes. But she wasn’t expecting it and her hand must have hit a bony part of his wrist. She immediately stopped, and then started whimpering, “You hurt me!”
My father was not my mother’s only target. I was a small child when she shook me by the shoulders while my head hit the wall. But spending our entire childhoods walking on eggshells to avoid her wrath was even more destructive to us children than physical attacks. All of us, including my father, were driven to suicidal depression. After several attempts, my sister did take her own life.
The only help we children would have accepted was from the parent we looked to for safety – our father. A system that helped domestic violence victims without regard to gender could have saved my sister’s life by helping our father, but at that time no help was available to anyone.
Sadly, the system in place today is even worse than when no help was available. I’ve asked police and social workers what would happen today if they answered a call similar to my parents’ situation. What would they do if they found an uninjured woman whimpering, “He hurt me!” and a man almost twice her size saying that he had merely covered his face and she’d hurt herself trying to punch him in the eye. The police officers and social workers I’ve asked have confirmed this would be their response: the male victim would be removed from the house and probably put in jail for domestic violence.
Since zero-tolerance policies were adopted a few years ago, zero-tolerance has too often become a zero-intelligence “arrest-the-man-regardless-of-the-facts” policy. If current policies had been applied to the family of my childhood, it would have given the abuser total control over us children and prevented our father from protecting us. Meanwhile, the various players in the system would be congratulating themselves on having protected a victimized woman – when in actuality they had rewarded the true abuser and worsened the situation, virtually guaranteeing the suicide of my sister, and making it much more likely that I too would eventually commit suicide.
For decades now, the media has exhibited a dogged determination to pretend that male victims and female abusers simply don’t exist. Failing that, reporters and editors give these victims what Noam Chomsky calls the “unworthy victim” treatment, refusing to humanize the victim or provide any details of their victimization that might generate sympathy from the reader.
As a child, I thought my family was the only one where these things happened. As an adult, I’ve learned that there are countless families just like the one I grew up in. I now feel lucky to have grown up during a time when domestic violence was unrecognized, simply because the public’s perception of the issue hadn’t yet become distorted. Today we penalize domestic violence victims who don’t happen to fit the approved stereotype.
I mourn for children of abused fathers who have the misfortune to be growing up in these “more enlightened” times. And I long for the day when society stops mistaking bias for enlightenment and offers men who need help the same compassion that currently is reserved for women only.