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“My Father Shot Our Dog”

Some folks were shocked by the short, sharp punch delivered by Ray Rice to the head of his then-fiance, Janay Palmer. Others were stunned by the insouciance with which Rice knocked Palmer unconscious, the casual air with which he dragged her insentient body across the floor.

Not me. The only thing that shocks me is how it could be that, at this late date, anybody is surprised to discover that perpetrators of hate crimes against women act calmly and with complete assurance that they will get away with it — because, usually, they do.

When I was working my way through college, I had a boss who would regale me with stories of how he kept his wife in line. Even on a night when she had cooked his favorite meal perfectly, he might dump the food on the floor, claiming that the meat was over-done, just to make sure she was always on edge, always worried about what he might do.

Back then, I thought of Jim as a strangely dangerous person. I have since come to understand the many ways that he, from his charming public personality to his matter-of-fact manner of securing the primacy he believed to be his birthright, exemplified the character and behavior of domestic violence perpetrators.

While partner violence never has been the primary focus of my activism or scholarship, I’ve had many opportunities to learn more than I knew while listening with chagrin to the grinning boss gleefully describing the petty humiliations to which he had subjected his wife. During my training in clinical psychology, I often found myself in the counseling room with women who had been called “crazy bitch” so often that they couldn’t see their own “depression” or “paranoia” as perfectly normal reactions to the crazy-making behavior of abusive partners. During the years that I coordinated the Ann Arbor Tenants Union, we were often called upon to defend women facing eviction and homelessness due to the wall-punching, window-breaking, noise-making behavior of stalking ex-boyfriends. And now, at the sanctuary, we sometimes offer refuge to nonhuman survivors of domestic violence.

At the Tenants Union, I realized that we needed to know more in order to better serve the survivors of domestic violence calling our hotline, and so I arranged for our staff members to go through the same training program given by the local domestic violence shelter to their phone counselors. It was then that I first encountered the Power and Control wheel developed by staff at Domestic Abuse Intervention Project in Duluth by means of a collaborative process of consultation with survivors of domestic violence.

wscontrolwheel

it’s not a pie chart — it’s a wheel. “Spokes” such as mind games, threats, and isolation create the structure that supports the physical or sexual violence. While physical assaults may be rare (it only takes one solid punch to make her body feel fear forever), many of the everyday abuses are present even during “honeymoon” periods in between episodes of violence. The hub is the point: power and control.

The wheel helps answer that perennial misguided question: Why does she* stay? Because when this well-oiled wheel is turning, she is both convinced that she is the problem and isolated from those who might help her see otherwise. Because, when this well-oiled wheel is turning, she won’t have the means or opportunity to even imagine a way out, much less make the kinds of plans she will need to make to leave without endangering herself or loved ones such as children or companion animals.

Fact: Women who leave abusive relationships are 75% more likely to be murdered than those who stay. If he has said, “I’ll track you down and kill you if you leave,” and she knows that he will, staying might be the most self-preserving thing to do and may be even more rational if she has justifiable fears that he also will torture or kill children or companion animals. If he has said, “If I go to jail, I’ll track you down and kill you when I get out,” and she knows that he will, refusing to cooperate with police, perhaps even trying very hard to defend him, makes sense. If his paycheck helps to support children who otherwise won’t have what they need, or if she herself will be homeless if he’s suddenly not around to pay his share of the rent, then she may be even more reluctant to see him sent to jail.

I’ve gotten off track. All of those facts are important because, along with starting to ask the right questions — Why does he feel so free to perpetrate such violations? Why does he even want to have such an unbalanced relationship? — we’ve got to quit implicitly going along with perpetrators when they claim that their victims are both irrational and deserving of abuse. But that’s not what I set out to say.

The Power and Control wheel also factors into my own most powerful learning experience about domestic violence, which occurred over a three-year period when I was teaching a course on women and violence at a community college. I taught two sections each spring and fall term as well as one summer section, so there were I-don’t-know-how-many times when it became the day to discuss domestic violence by way of the wheel.

Many of the students in the class were survivors of or witnesses to domestic violence. No sooner would I project the wheel on the screen then the testimony would begin:

“My boyfriend called me so often at work that I got fired for getting too many personal calls.”

“My father kept my mother’s clothes in a locked closet.”

“Before every meal, my husband would select a steak knife and look me in the eye, with a smirk on his face, as he set it down slowly beside his plate.”

We never made it all the way through: For every example within every category, students easily summoned up multiple illustrations from their own lives. The cumulative effect left no doubt in anybody’s mind that, far from being a private matter of silly women too foolish to leave out-of-control men, domestic violence is a kind of systematic oppression in which the wider world often unwittingly participates.

(The wheel also, by the way, offers ideas for counteracting DV: Just do the opposite! You know that he’s trying to isolate her, so don’t go away, no matter how frustrated you may be when she seems to be blowing you off. You know that he must be putting her down and/or making her feel crazy, so resist any urge to tsk-tsk at her “irrational” behavior and instead find ways to boost her self-esteem. Do clearly state when his behavior is not OK but don’t do so in a tone that in any way judges her for being with him. If that bad behavior has included physical violence, do say something like “I worry that next time will be worse. I wish you would make a safety plan, just in case.” Offer to be part of that plan, for example by lending your car or taking the kids or the cat for a while, whenever she may be ready to leave — or need to flee.)

Some people have complained that, rather than going to trial and then prison on the aggravated assault charge, Ray Rice went into a diversion program. While it is certainly true, particularly in the case of armed and stalking ex-partners, that some survivors have been made at least temporarily safer by the imprisonment of perpetrators, prison does not turn out to be a particularly useful answer to domestic violence. To the contrary! Locked up together for long stretches of time, perpetrators of domestic violence affirm each other’s worldview while trading tips on ways to gain power and control over partners.

Oftentimes, “counseling” groups intended to rehabilitate men convicted of domestic violence devolve into schools for more effective perpetration as participants swap suggestions on how to maintain control without getting arrested: Take her car keys while she’s out of the room and then put them back in a conspicuous place after she’s been searching for an hour, so that she’ll think she’s going crazy; whisper insults when you’re out with friends and then, when she reacts, complain loudly about how bad she treats you; deliver body punches that don’t leave bruises and then, if she fights back in self-defense, use the scratches as evidence that she attacked you. Some programs have been shut down when it turned out they were doing more harm than good.

Structured programs for domestic violence perpetrators can be effective, but — and this is a huge “but” — only if the perpetrator truly regrets his past behavior and truly wants to change. Regret at getting caught is not enough. There must be sincere remorse and a sincere wish for more healthy relationships.

Given Ray Rice’s comments at the press conference following his arrest, he does not seem to be someone who would be a good candidate for such programs: He apologized to everyone except the woman he had knocked unconscious. Even more tellingly, he referred to the incident as something that happened to him and his family rather than something he did. Refusal to truly accept responsibility for one’s own violence is a hallmark of domestic violence perpetrators.

That’s not to say that he should be locked up. Apart from the fact that his victim does not want that, many expert opponents of sexual and domestic violence have begun to question our collective reliance on prison as a solution.

I mention this because we all ought to know by now that prisons are for-profit perversities in which caged humans tend to become less kind and generous than they were before. Orange Is the New Black notwithstanding, most people walk out of prison more damaged than when they entered. Many walk out with both more rage and new “skills” in the manipulation and violation of others.

And yet, again and again lately, I’ve seen animal advocates cheer or call for prison terms for abusers of animals. I understand, of course, the principle that abusers of nonhuman animals ought to suffer the same consequences as abusers of humans. I share the seething outrage and lust for punishment felt by those who shout loudest for long sentences. But, as they say, two wrongs don’t make a right. At a time when progressive thinkers are calling for different sorts of consequences for other sorts of crimes — consequences that both in some way heal or offset the damage done while also making future hurtful acts less likely — shouldn’t animal advocates be reaching for similarly useful solutions? Are our own imaginations so impoverished that we cannot conceive of punitive consequences other than incarceration — consequences that might actively help nonhuman animals or promote a more, rather than less, humane world?

I’ve gotten off track yet again. That’s not at all what I set out to say.

Why am I writing about this today? Not just because the Ray Rice incident is in the news. Not just because domestic violence often includes violence against nonhuman animals. Not just because the everyday entitlement and callousness evinced by perpetrators of domestic violence is different only in kind from the everyday entitlement and callousness underlying every form of animal exploitation. And not just because the “lord of his castle” attitude that drives violence against women also underlies animal “husbandry.”

I’m writing today (or, rather, I began writing this the day before yesterday) because, when I heard that the Ravens had released Ray Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely, I thought to myself, “Hm. Now the animal rights movement is behind even the NFL when it comes to dealing with perpetrators of sexual and domestic violence.”

Sadly, the norm in the vegan/AR movement (a movement founded and largely staffed by women but in which men hold a disproportionate number of leadership positions) is the kind of deliberate ignorance practiced by the NFL before the more detailed video became public. Let’s do at least as well as the NFL claims it will begin to do now. Let’s recognize that gender violence is such an “everyday” thing that it would be surprising if no men engaged in vegan or animal advocacy had ever also engaged in sexual or domestic violence. Deciding not to eat animals doesn’t automatically undo a lifetime worth of socialization into presumptions of male privilege. Let’s go further and see that, just as the NFL might be particularly attractive to men who like to use force to solve problems, and thus must be particularly alert to domestic violence, the demographics of the vegan/AR movement is such that it may be particularly attractive to manipulative men in search of sympathetic and self-sacrificing women, and thus also must be particularly aware of the dynamics by which abusers manipulate not only their partners but also friends and employers.

Even if that weren’t true, domestic violence is so endemic that it would be surprising if no staff members at vegan or animal rights organizations were right now enduring such violence in their own private lives. Accordingly, let’s build awareness of intimate partner violence into our organizational policies and training practices as well as our ways of promoting veganism. Let’s make sure everybody understands the dynamics of domestic violence so that nobody unwittingly snubs a survivor or enables a perpetrator. And, for heaven’s sake, the next time a survivor bravely dares to speak plainly and specifically about what someone we know did to her, let’s use our collective compassion and creativity to hold him accountable in a way that brings her some measure of succor while decreasing the likelihood that he will perpetrate again.

* Intimate partner violence does occur in same sex couples and is sometimes perpetrated by women against man, but the vast majority of such violence is perpetrated by males against their female partners — so much so that assault by a former or current male partner is the number one reason women seek emergency room care in the United States and also the most common kind of homicide against women. So, for simplicity’s sake but also to hammer home the fact that domestic violence is a key component of patriarchy — the battering ram by which a substantial subset of men secure male privilege for themselves and all other men by literally disempowering a substantial subset of women — I will follow the original Power and Control Wheel by referring to survivors as “she” and perpetrators as “he.” I do not intend, in so doing, to erase anybody, merely to highlight a problematic pattern of violence that is, in its sexism, deeply linked to speciesism.

9 comments to “My Father Shot Our Dog”

  • pattrice
    It suddenly occurs to me that some folks might misunderstand the title of this post, which is something said by one of my students during a discussion of the Power and Control Wheel. For the record, my own father had many failings (as do we all) but was unfailingly gentle, especially to animals.
  • Nita Ostroff
    Extremely good article. You have an understanding of why women stay, that most folks never achieve.
  • Meg York
    Thank you, pattrice. Your writings have me nodding yes, yes while simultaneously challenging and inspiring me.
  • bird brain
    ..and people wonder why I have issues with males.. My dad was a heartless cruel jerk.
  • Rachel
    One thing that bothers me greatly is that when DV is discussed everyone automatically thinks of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse. But there is an abuse that isn’t publicized and that is passive aggressiveness. I was in a relationship with a passive aggressive man for 11 years, not knowing it was abuse i was experiencing even though the pain and fear was there like abuse. Never crossed my mind, because he wasn’t beating me. It left me feeling crazy and beat down, and looking back i think he wanted me to feel crazy, wanted me beat down. Like i was imagining the passive aggressiveness and manipulative things he was doing and that way no one around me would see the abuse he was doing to me. I just wish there was more education on this, because it’s as much of an issue as physical abuse. By the time i left him i was a shell of who was. I’m still trying to heal from his abuse, because it was all mental. And i didn’t get out until i found out he was cheating on me. I shudder just thinking i may still be with him if i hadn’t found out.
  • Corvus
    Thank you for writing this both for the obvious reasons of combating domestic violence and prison as a catch all “solution” but for highlighting well how much abusive relationships are mostly not some punch to the face but the entire rest of the victim’s existence in a state of consistent mind-fucks.

    “…Take her car keys while she’s out of the room and then put them back in a conspicuous place after she’s been searching for an hour, so that she’ll think she’s going crazy; whisper insults when you’re out with friends and then, when she reacts, complain loudly about how bad she treats you…”

    This part made me shudder a bit. I have been in abusive and toxic relationships where people were physically violent, but it was the person who never hit but me who did things like this quote that was the worst by far.

    I also find that sometimes abusers are very isolated being but sometimes they are so damned popular that it feeds even more into the idea of “crazy bitches” being involved with these well-known, well-liked men or people.

    Again, thanks for writing this and for the call to action.

  • Corvus
    P.S. I also wanted to note that when an abuser is of a marginalized group, it can often be another reason people have trouble leaving. The aformentioned “worst” person consistently cruised kind, nurturing people who would see his struggle as a trans person, a disabled person, and who would identify, being marginalized people themselves.

    Generally the victims of abuse are good people and that is another reasno they don’t leave. It’s not just fear. It’s that they want to give people the chance to heal, to be good, to have what they need. Abusers screen for this and often those who are “chosen” as victims are those who are kind, caring, and often injured.

  • Nita Ostroff
    “Abusers screen for this and often those who are “chosen” as victims are those who are kind, caring, and often injured.” And yet, for generatiions we have industriously taught our daughters to be kind and caring….and our sons to be ‘manly’. Placed in this context it is easier to see how we got to where we are today, from a sociological point of view.
  • pattrice
    Corvus, Yes, many survivors say that the “mind games” and emotional abuse took a greater toll on them than the physical abuse. As one survivor said to me, “a black eye goes away” in a few days, but self-doubt, shame, and fear may linger for years. That’s not to minimize the effects of physical violence — I’ve known survivors with what will be lifelong physical disabilities due to attacks by partners — but just to say that the invisible damage also can be severe and long-lasting.

    Also, yes, perpetrators are very often charming and popular. And those who are from marginalized groups will tend to use their identities (as they use everything else) as means of manipulation.

    Nita, yes, that’s why the textbook for the course in which we used the wheel to discuss domestic violence was “Transforming a Rape Culture” — because we must understand the systematic aspects of not only domestic violence but also sexual assault, animal abuse, and other hate crimes. One of those systematic aspects is the social construction of masculinity and femininity.

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