On Victim-Blaming: Reflections on Domestic Violence, Gaza, and the NYPD
by Donna Auston
I am the daughter of a survivor. It started innocently enough, I imagine, with the exchange of flirtatious glances and a happy first date. My mother, God rest her soul, married her high school sweetheart—the man who was father to my older sisters—only to find herself trapped in a marriage where she lived in a generalized state of fear for her life and person. The man who had promised to love and cherish her, she had found, was much more likely to beat her mercilessly and denigrate her in other ways—emotionally and verbally. Four children later, she made a rather dramatic escape in the middle of the night and never looked back: after he had fallen asleep, she fled to another state with her small children (all under the age of 5) in tow, and whatever she could carry with her. She had no job lined up, and very little certainty about what her future, and the future of her young daughters would look like. Nevertheless, she moved forward into the unknown, leaving her abuser behind. Once she arrived, she stayed with relatives until she could get on her feet—which she eventually did. She found work, moved into her own place in housing projects on Pittsburgh’s North Side (where she met my own father), and worked her way up to home ownership some years later.
Though her years of abuse happened before I was born, I am intimately familiar with the chronology, with the horrific details of specific episodes, with the profound way that my mother was impacted by her experience, and how it shaped the rest of her life. She was always very open with her children about her experiences, because, as she shared with me on numerous occasions, she never wanted to have to witness her daughters being abused. We weren’t always one hundred percent successful at avoiding entanglement with men who turned out to be verbally, emotionally, or physically abusive. Some of those encounters were brief, others were long-lasting and deeply traumatic. Speaking for myself, at least, I can say one thing: in spite of any lapses, her candor equipped me with valuable knowledge about the dynamics of these types of toxic relationships–a map, you will, so that if we found our way in somehow we’d be able to collect our bearings and find our way out. Something I learned to be consistently true—one of the easiest things for people to do is to blame the victim. Outside observers find fault with the abused, for her choice of mate, for not having the emotional/financial/logistical wherewithal to leave at will. And the abuser will very often find some reason or other to blame her for his violent behavior. Dinner is burnt, she’s too tired to have sex, a bad day at work, the cloudy weather–all are sufficient provocation.
The problem is that this line of thinking is not rooted in any kind of reality. As anyone who has been a DV victim can attest, it really doesn’t matter what you do or fail to do—the markers are always moving and in a perpetual state of flux. As soon as you have contorted yourself into some shape or other to avoid triggering an outburst of violence, the rules will have been changed and you will be victimized anew. Like clockwork. (“Hello, I’m Dr. Jekyll, have you been introduced to my good friend Mr. Hyde?”)
A disparate set of macro and micro events that have unfolded over the past few weeks have brought this personal reflection to mind, as news stories have reminded me powerfully of how entrenched the tendency to victim-blame is in our analysis of relationships characterized by abuse and uneven power. Israel “defends itself” with deadly determination against a population of non-combatants, a sports commentator delivers reflections on incidents of domestic violence, and officers from the NYPD have made headlines for the use of illegal chokeholds on two victims, one with fatal consequences. The spark for me, as it were, was ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith’s recent remarks on the Ray Rice situation. A popular athlete assaulted his now-wife so severely that she lost consciousness, the NFL gave him a slap on the wrist, and in his commentary, Smith acknowledged that ‘a man has no right to put his hand upon a woman’. From there, he went on to speak directly out of the other side of his mouth with talk of the importance of avoiding ‘elements of provocation’ and teaching women not to do anything that might make them subject to a man’s violent outbursts. Somehow I was not surprised though, not just because we tend to blame women for the violence that they suffer, whether it is domestic violence, rape or sexual assault, but because Smith has taken a similar stance on other issues. Back in May, in his response to Mark Cuban’s comments about appearances, prejudices, and profiling, he went on a similar rant which, to my mind, contained the same kind of waffling. Technically, people shouldn’t judge by appearances, but they do, he asserted. So if you’re black, and you don’t present yourself in a ‘respectable’ manner, well then…
Leaving aside for the moment the reality that incidents of domestic violence are sometimes committed by women, and the fact that some family units are not heterosexual, what matters here is the destructive rhetoric that places the onus of avoiding violent encounters squarely on the shoulders of its recipients. I maintain that it is critical to pay attention to the implications of this fallacious reasoning beyond its disastrous consequences for interpersonal interactions. Over the last few weeks, we have heard the same rationalizations for why Israel needs to commit heinous acts of genocide on a caged-in and defenseless civilian population (“If only they would stop sheltering terrorists…”), why NYC police were justified in using an illegal chokehold with fatal consequences on Eric Garner (“If he weren’t so big, fat, and menacing…”), and shortly thereafter on Rosan Miller, a pregnant woman who really should have known better than to grill on a public sidewalk. Thankfully, Miller is still alive. But she is no doubt traumatized, and her unborn child, before s/he has even taken a breath of air, has already been initiated into the terrible reality of state-sanctioned brutality that citizens of color in this nation are all too familiar with. Welcome, Little One, to life behind the Veil.
The same distorted and convoluted logic binds these disparate phenomenon—logic that gives the inflictors of brutality a pass, individuals and state agents and actors alike–absolving them of any and all responsibility for the violence that they dole out at will. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there is no way to stay out of the way. We must always be unequivocal about that. For ultimately, what this line of thinking fails to acknowledge is that the problem is not with the behavior of the victim, rather the problem lies in the victim’s very existence. Victims of violence are both absolutely necessary and completely undesirable—occupants of a peculiar type of no-(wo)man’s land. Victims of violence are squatters on very valuable real estate in the convoluted configurations of uneven power relations. Someone has to play the role of the dominated. On other hand, their very living and breathing is perceived to present a necessarily existential threat to those that victimize them. Victims are necessary. Victims are also painful, persistent reminders to those that brutalize them—mirrors which unfailingly reflect back their oppressors’ disfigured humanity. Put another way: we can’t live with you, can’t live without you, and we hate you all the more for it. And we will make you pay dearly for daring to live, and for your testimony against us. Being is witnessing, being is a powerful form of resistance, and therefore inherently provocative.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn so eloquently reminded us, “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.” And only the truth shall set you free.