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.
Mark Rosenthal's Presentation at York College (C.U.N.Y.) Domestic Violence Conference - October 17, 2002
October 17, 2002
Good afternoon. I assume most of you are concerned with domestic violence in some professional capacity. You're probably wondering who I am and what qualifies me to speak on this issue. After all, I'm not a professional in social work or law enforcement. My only degree is a Bachelors in physics - not exactly relevant. I haven't done academic research into it. But, I have seen the situation from the inside. I've lived it. And I'm here to tell you things you could not possibly know by just observing it from the outside. And much of what I know from personal experience is very much at odds with the stereotyped images most of our society believes in.
I grew up with a very volatile mother and a gentle, loving father who unfortunately had no idea how to deal with my mother. She constantly found fault with everything he did. He'd come home exhausted in the evening and sit down for a few minutes to recuperate. She'd walk into the living room screaming at the top of her lungs and kick him repeatedly in the shins. I seldom saw his legs when they weren't black and blue. But he wore long pants so nobody outside of the family knew. My mother demanded absolute perfection in all things. The slightest infraction would set her screaming, and her anger would feed on itself until she started hitting my sister and me. All of us, my father included, would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid setting her off. And all of us, my father included, ended up severely depressed. I frequently thought of suicide, and I didn't escape from that perpetual depression until I was in my early 30s. I came to find out that my sister also frequently considered suicide. After several attempts, starting when she was a teenager, my sister eventually did commit suicide.
But when I try to explain to people what was so damaging about the environment I grew up in, they just don't get it. They think only in terms of physical violence. Oh, I can mention the time my mother stood over me with my back to the wall and shook me by the shoulders so that my head hit the wall, and that's guaranteed to get people's attention. But to me it was a minor incident - almost irrelevant. What drove me to the depths of despair, and very nearly to my own self-destruction was having to spend the first two decades of my life feeling that I constantly had to walk on eggshells because if anything wasn't perfect she'd fly into a rage.
My father never raised his hand to my mother or harmed her in any way, in spite of a lifetime of provocation and in spite of the fact that my father weighed about 170 pounds and my mother barely 100 pounds. However I vividly remember one time when I saw my father raise his hands. My mother was angry about something. I'm not sure what, but it was usually something trivial. I think this may have been the time he was repainting the kitchen, and the hardware store mixed a color that was too dark. In any case, my mother started out yelling, but rapidly moved on to hitting my father in the face with her fists. He put his hands in front of his face to protect his eyes. She wasn't expecting it and her arm or her hand must have hit a bony part of his wrist, because she immediately stopped, and then started whimpering, "You hurt me!" I know he didn't hit her. I was there. I saw it. The reason I remember this so vividly is that it gave me an idea for how to protect myself - a strategy I tried throughout my teenage years. Although I couldn't hit her back, I figured that if she hurt herself whenever she tried to hit me, maybe she'd stop hitting me. So I got very, very good at anticipating when she was about to hit, and twisting my body around so that there was always a bony part of my body in the path of her swing. But it didn't make her stop hitting me. It just made her madder.
When I was a child, I used to dream that in some distant future, people would take the issue seriously. Nowadays, I constantly wonder what would happen to my father, and what would happen to my sister and me if our childhood were happening today. As a child, the only source of safety I had was my father. As an adult, I have done some reading on the topic and I have occasionally been in touch with recent adult male victims. There are men who were injured while trying to leave. They did exactly what you always tell men to do - walk away from a fight. But their wives or girlfriends blocked the door and kept attacking them. In desperation, these men called the police. But in spite of the fact that they had injuries and their wives were unharmed, the men were the ones sent to jail.
When people discuss the issue of male victims, it seems that all they want to do is argue numbers. Those who want to minimize the problem quote the outdated statistic that only 5% of victims are men, and they neglect to mention that even if this 5% number were accurate, not even 5% of the available funds are provided for male victims. If I were to tell you that nearly half the victims are male, you'd look at me like I just said I saw a little green man from Mars sitting in the seat next to you, complete with antennae. So I won't tell you. Let the U.S. Department of Justice do that instead. They recently reported1 that of the roughly two million incidents of physical assault among intimate partners which occur each year, 835,000, or nearly 40% of the victims were male. In the U.S. today, there are over 1,800 shelters for victimized women and children. There are virtually none which accept victimized fathers and their children.
Now, I'd like to talk about some myths about domestic violence.
One commonly accepted myth is that since men are generally larger, they must be the abusive party. Human beings are very visual creatures, and Hollywood knows that. So Hollywood uses instantly recognizable symbolic visuals instead of showing the complex human interactions that make up real life. After watching TV and movies most of our lives, we all get conditioned so we can't tell the difference between reality and Hollywood's over-simplified visuals. But all too often, the stereotypes are wrong. My mother weighed no more than 100 lbs., my father around 170. My mother was barely 5 ft. tall, my father around 5 ft. 10 in.
There's another myth: the automatic assumption that domestic violence is attributable to drinking or drugs. Neither of my parents drank or used drugs. If anything, an extreme intolerance of drinking was one of the abuser's weapons. Occasionally when we'd go to a restaurant for dinner, my father would have a beer with dinner. That's ONE beer. Yet my mother would indignantly accuse him of being a lush for drinking a single bottle of beer! I've spoken with other children who grew up in similarly dysfunctional families, and there's no consistency from one case to another. In some cases, the abuser was alcoholic. As I said, in my case the abuser was vehemently anti-alcohol. I've even encountered someone who told me her non-abusive father was prone to drink, and her abusive mother was not!
Another myth: domestic violence is attributable to a man's assumption that he's privileged. Yet the assumption of privilege was something I observed in my mother but never in my father. She felt she was entitled to a better lifestyle than my father's income could provide and by virtue of being a woman she felt she was entitled not to have to work to achieve that lifestyle.
Another myth: the mistaken belief that domestic violence consists only of physical attacks. My mother was only happy if she could have total control over the lives of everyone in her family. Her need to exercise total control, and the consequences for any of us who displeased her, did far more harm than getting hit.
So, to summarize: It's not about size. The perpetrator is not necessarily a drunk or a drug user. It's as likely to be about a woman's assumption of privilege as it is about a man's. It's not exclusively about physical attacks. However, it is about a pathological need to control others, and women are as prone to this as men.
Some people believe that if they can't figure out who's the abusive party, the best thing to do is to get the children out of the situation - away from both parents. I think about what that would have done to me as a child, and I cringe. Let me digress for a bit. Do you remember shortly before the Gulf War in the early '90s, when Saddam Hussein was holding American hostages who hadn't gotten out of Kuwait before he invaded? Eventually, after some negotiations with the U.S., Hussein's hostages were released. I remember hearing an interview with one of the hostages after he got back to the U.S. He had hidden out in Kuwait for months, and his only friend and companion was his dog. When the Iraqi soldiers captured him and took him to Baghdad, the dog went with him. But when it was time to board the American plane, the dog had to stay behind. All this man wanted to talk about in the interview was his dog. He grieved for his lost companion and felt guilty about surviving but not being able to save him. When I was a child, I felt like my sister, my father, and I myself were all in the same boat. I wanted to be able to save us all. I felt helpless, and that sense of helplessness was what nearly drove me to suicide in my teens and twenties.
What would have happened if some well-meaning authority had decided that we children needed to be removed from our parents? It would have done nothing other than intensify my feelings of helplessness and guilt for not being able to save those I loved. Nothing any adult could have said would have made me feel any less helpless or guilty. If an adult man can feel such a sense of loss over his dog, how much greater a sense of loss would a child feel for his lost father and protector.
What if this well-meaning authority had misdiagnosed the situation and decided that my father was the abuser and should be removed from the house, like those poor men I mentioned earlier who were arrested in spite of the fact that they were the ones who were injured and who had called for help? Well, now in addition to leaving me feeling helpless and guilty for not being able to save my father, they've also removed my only source of hope - the parent I looked to for safety. They've left my sister and me terrified and under the total control of an out of control abusive mother. They've just put an innocent man in jail and rewarded the abuser. And they've sown seeds that some unlucky police officer or social worker will reap in the future. They've guaranteed that we children will grow up in a state of hopelessness and despair, and they've greatly increased the likelihood that both of us will eventually kill ourselves.
What do I think you should be doing, if you are in a position to be making such decisions? My answer is quite simple. Not to sound too glib, but I want you to be having nightmares. I want you to spend your sleeping as well as your waking hours asking yourself, "Did I get it right?" I want you to be constantly asking yourself, "Am I judging this parent differently because he's a man than I would if he were a woman?" Because the consequences if you get it wrong are often worse than the consequences if you do nothing! But the only way for you to know if you got it right is to check 10 or 20 years later and count up the suicides of the kids you thought you had saved!
I've focused primarily on victimized fathers and children because I can speak about that from personal experience. But I'd like to emphasize that there are couples without children in which the woman is the abuser and the man is the victim. I know of one case in which the woman bit the man's ear off. These men are often reluctant to ask for help, and are all too often disbelieved and rebuffed if they ever do summon the courage to ask. The fact that we're conditioned not to be as sympathetic to men as to women and children makes it all too easy to do this. But if a system denies help to victims based solely on their gender, that system makes a mockery of any notions of fairness or morality.
I'd like to thank you for taking the time to attend this workshop and listening to what I and the other panelists have to say.
1 In their study "Prevalence, Incidence, and Consequences of Violence Against Women: Findings From the National Violence Against Women Survey"