"WHY DOESN’T SHE LEAVE?"
by Ann Jones
Despite the immense achievements of the battered-women’s movement in the past fifteen years, those who work to stop violence against women - those who staff the hotlines and the shelters and the legal-service centers, those who press to make law enforcement and criminal justice act responsibly, those who lobby for legislative reform - know that the next time a woman is battered in the United States (which is to say within the next twelve seconds) few people will ask: What’s wrong with that man? What makes him think he can get away with that? Is he crazy? Did the cops arrest him? Is he in jail? When will he be prosecuted? Is he likely to get a serious sentence? Is she getting adequate police protection? Are the children provided for? Did the court evict him from her house? Does she need any other help? Medical help maybe, or legal aid? New housing? Temporary financial aid? Child support?
No, the first question, and often the only question, that leaps to mind is: "Why doesn’t he leave?"
This question, which we can’t seem to stop asking, is not a real question. It doesn’t call for an answer; it makes a judgement. It is mystifies. It transforms an immense social problem into a personal transaction, and at the same time pins responsibility squarely on the victim. It obliterates both the terrible magnitude of violence against women and the great achievements of the movement against it. It simultaneously suggests two ideas, both of them false: that help is readily available to all worthy victims (which is to say, victims who leave),and that this victim is not one of them.
So powerful and dazzling is this question that someone always tries to answer it. And the answer given rarely is the simple truth you find in the stories of formerly battered women: She does leave. She is leaving. She left. No, so mystifying is the question that someone always tries to explain why she doesn’t leave even after she has left. This exchange takes place remarkably often on television talk sows and news programs - heavily influencing the way the public thinks about battered women.
In October 1987, for example, the local New York City affiliate of the CBS television network included in the nightly news a segment on the case of Karen Straw, a twenty-nine-year-old African-American woman about to stand trial for murder. Karen Straw had left her husband, Clifton, in 1984, after a three-year marriage, and moved with her to a welfare hotel. She wanted a divorce, but she couldn’t afford one. For more than two years, her husband continued to harass and beat her, although she obtained orders of protection from the court and tried at least ten times to have him arrested and prosecuted. In December 1986 he broke into her room, beat her, raped her at knife point in front of the children and threatened to kill her. She got hold of a kitchen knife and stabbed him. She was charged with second-degree murder, the heaviest charge the state could bring against her, since New York reserves first-degree murder charges for murders of police officers and prison guards.
On WCBS, reporter Bree Walker recapitulated this story and pointed out that Karen Straw was only "one of many battered wives" recently compelled to defend themselves when a "weak criminal justice (system) again and again failed them."
At the end of Walker’s prerecorded report, anchorman Jim Jensen leaned toward reporter Walker, sitting beside him in the studio, and asked the standard question, the one everybody always asks: Why didn’t she leave? Jensen phrased it this way: "Why would one murder her husband instead of just walking away?" The question was particularly remarkable, for it didn’t match Bree Walker’s report or the circumstances of Karen Straw’s life at all.
But even more remarkable was reporter Walker’s reply. As though the facts lay not in her own report but in the anchorman’s irrelevant question, Bree Walker began to explain why Karen Straw, a woman who had walked away, had not. "There are a lot of different reasons psychologists say - helplessness, dependence, a lot of different reasons. A lot of women feel..." Jensen interrupted: "Well, if they’re dependent on them, when they kill’em, they’ve lost their dependence, haven’t they?" He sounded angry, as if he were scolding Walker for her point of view. Walker, looking startled, responded, "Well, certainly. Yes. It’s an ugly, ugly confusing problem." There was a moment’s awkward airspace before anchorwoman Carol Martin jumped in. "Well, from that subject, we’ll move on." she said. "Still ahead, we’ll talk about the rain..."
But Jensen’s question still hung in the air: "Why would one murder hr husband instead of just walking away?" It enveloped the story in a fog of mystification. Clifton Straw’s violence and terrorism disappeared in that puff of rhetoric, utterly overlooked. Vanished, too, was the public issue reporter Walker had presented, magically replaced by the personal problem of another dumb woman. Viewers did not have to question the failure of the police and courts to protect this woman; they could think instead that Karen Straw might simply have walked away. Just when viewers were beginning to feel indignant on her behalf, they could say to themselves instead: "How stupid of her. Why didn’t she think of that?"
Karen Straw was acquitted of all charges against her, by jurors who heard the whole story; and she was released to gather up the tatters of her life. But that familiar, trivializing question - the question that obscures both the extent of violence against women and the immense individual and collective efforts of women to overcome it - doesn’t go away.
In a classic analysis published in 1966, psychologist William Ryan examined the way America typically approached "solutions" to "social problems" that seemed to afflict "oppressed groups" - problems of education, health care, housing, crime, unemployment and the like. Because we "cannot comfortably believe that we are the cause" of social problems, Ryan said, we’ve developed a habit of locating the problem in the peculiar "vulnerability" and "deviance" of those it harms. He called his book Blaming the Victim.
Ryan was certainly not thinking of battered women. It was still possible in 1966 to write about targets of discrimination in America without thinking of women at all, but already the search for the "vulnerability" and "deviance" was underway. In 1964 one of the first American studies of battered women, conducted by three men and significantly entitled "The Wifebeater’s Wife: A Study of Family Interaction," studied women in Framingham, Massachusetts, who had charged their husbands with assault, and found the women "castrating," "aggressive" "masculine," "frigid," "indecisive." "passive" and "masochistic." What’s more, the authors concluded, the husband’s assaultive behavior served "to fill a wife’s need even though she protests it."
Today such sexist "reasoning" in the scientific literature is better concealed but it’s often thee nonetheless, lurking about the premises. The conclusions of the Framingham study are repeated without qualification in a recent book of pop "scholarship" on the subject, Intimate Violence, billed as "The Definitive Study of the Causes and Consequences of Abuse in the American Family." The authors are Richard Gelles and Murray Straus, two sociologists who have turned the dispassionate, objective, scientific, mathematical inspection of victims and the superficial statistical survey into a busy, profitable academic industry. They conclude that "There is not much evidence that battered women as a group are more masochistic than other women." These authors are the most prominent of the band of academic researchers who, after nearly twenty years of government- supported research, have still not turned their attention from the victims to the violence of men. No wonder this "reasoning" still dominates popular thinking about women who are battered.
If the problem is her fault and the solution her responsibility, then neither the criminal-justice system, which we might expect to come to the aid of crime victims, nor other social institutions can do anything about it. And that’s exactly what they’ve been saying all along.
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