EDITOR’S NOTE: October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. Incidents of domestic violence have increased dramatically in Modesto and Stanislaus County. Directors of the Family Justice Center and Haven Women’s Center have co-authored a series of articles on the issue, its symptoms and actions that can be taken to help victims get help. Throughout has been woven the story of Emily, a victim of domestic violence who had the courage to get help and now is a member of the Haven board of directors..
Emily’s story: A good day was fantastic. We were very social and had a circle of friends who loved both of us. He was popular and adored by his community. We had everything you would want a good relationship to be.
On July 18, five people were murdered in the same house in Modesto. We do not know all of the facts in the killings, but we know the victims were related and that one of the victims, Dr. Amanda Crews, was the girlfriend of the suspect.
We do not know if Crews experienced abuse in her relationship prior to the killing. However, intimate partner homicide is the ultimate act of power and control in a relationship with the dynamics of domestic violence. According to the National Coalition on Domestic Violence, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner.
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Many reading this are experiencing abuse but are afraid to tell friends and family. Many reading this know someone experiencing abuse but aren’t sure how to respond.
Silence is the abuser’s most powerful weapon, whether victims are partners, being exploited sexually, or a child or elderly person.
When a victim remains silent, the abuse can continue and there is no consequence to the perpetrator. When victims break their silence, a supportive environment for them can be found.
Why put all the responsibility to break the silence on the victim? We’re not.
This series of articles is asking people around the victims to speak out. It’s your silence that needs to break if domestic violence is to end. There are ways to do that.
Seeing domestic violence
Emily’s story: A bad day was curling up in a corner crying because I didn’t know what else to do, while he turned the music on full blast so he wouldn’t have to hear me. A bad day was being told no one would ever want me, that I was only beautiful on the outside. A bad day was being pushed down the stairs. He would tell me, “The day you break up with me is the day I kill you, and then kill myself.”
Many of us picture stereotypical “victims” with injuries we can see – black eyes, bruises, broken bones. We think of women – withdrawn, subdued and scared – unable to protect themselves or their children.
It doesn’t always look that way. Domestic violence can manifest in many ways.
How abusive partners gain control
Threats and intimidation to directly harm someone is a criminal behavior and should be reported to the police. More often, it includes hurtful and frightening behaviors that aren’t criminal, such as destroying things in a rage, assuming threatening body postures and tones, or reminding a victim of earlier incidents of abuse. Once physical violence has occurred, the abuser has proved he or she will carry through with threats, and often can frighten their victim without resorting to new criminal behavior.
Coercion can be even more subtle, giving the victim the illusion of choice. But when a victim is “choosing” because they’re afraid of what the abuser will do if they don’t make the “right” choice, that’s coercion. Someone experiencing coercion might tell a friend that she doesn’t argue or disagree because “it’s just easier.”
There can be sexual coercion. Healthy sexual relationships are based on communication between both partners without fear. Victims of domestic violence “agree” to doing things they really don’t want to because they feel they have no choice. If you can’t say “no,” then “yes” has no meaning. A person who previously was comfortably sharing information about sexual partners but becomes withdrawn or uncomfortable during such conversations might be abused.
Victims often say it was the emotional abuse that kept them under the abuser’s control. And it’s often harder to heal from emotional than physical wounds. Emotional abuse can be calling someone names or insulting them, but it can also be making a person feel embarrassed or inferior in social settings. Belittling behavior, minimizing accomplishments or abilities, or embarrassing the victim are emotional abuse tactics. Often, the goal is to create isolation.
Of all abuses, isolation can be the most damaging. One of the abuser’s first tactics is to cut off the victim’s support system. Sometimes, the abuser moves the victim to a remote area with limited transportation options and no access to wireless communication. Once physically isolated, the abuser can control communications. But isolation can be indirect. Public abuse often results in others not wanting to be around the abuser, so the couple is no longer invited to gatherings. Then abusers often tell their victims they don’t want to attend something because “none of your friends like me,” and they coerce their victim to stay home. This can be masked with comments like “no one understands how much I love you,” or “no one understands you the way I do,” or “I don’t need anyone else but you, and you shouldn’t need anyone else but me.”
If someone who once was a large part of your life suddenly drops away, they might be isolated.
Abusers rarely take responsibility for their behaviors, denying that anything has happened. Or, they minimize their part in the violence, saying “it takes two to tango” or “you made me do it.” They might try to change the victim’s reality by saying, “Don’t you remember, it happened this way.”
Faced with someone who insists they’re wrong, the victim often begins to believe that maybe they are wrong. Once that begins, it’s easier for an abuser to shape all events.
Abusers can use children to control their victims. “I’ll take your child away,” is a powerful threat, especially if the abuser has ever carried through on such a threat. Undocumented immigrants are especially susceptible to such threats.
Or, abusers might try to get the children on their “side,” encouraging them to view the victim as weak or unworthy.
Emily’s story: He also controlled me financially by trying to make sure he always had more money and resources than I did. He would advise me to do things that would keep me from getting ahead financially. And it was my responsibility to be available for him whenever he needed me to go on a trip with him, or support him in any way he needed me to. I couldn’t do that and pursue my own career goals. I thought I was being supportive of him, but the person I wasn’t supporting was me.
Overcoming abusive tactics requires first recognizing them. Some people need help with that crucial first step.
May Rico is executive director of Haven Women’s Center of Stanislaus. Carol Shipley is executive director of the Stanislaus Family Justice Center.
- Haven Women’s Center provides services to survivors of sexual and domestic violence regardless of gender or sexual orientation. Haven’s 24-hour crisis line is 209-577-5980; there are offices in Modesto and Turlock.
- The Stanislaus Family Justice Center is available Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 pm. Call 209-525-5130.
- For general resources, dial 211 to be connected to a comprehensive referral system for health and human service needs in Stanislaus County maintained by United Way.