Sunday, July 5, 2009

How To Deal With Extreme Domestic Abuse

Arguably, there is too much talk about abuse these days. With the term being overused, we react by numbing ourselves to each new tale of domestic abuse.

That is what happened to Margo Howard, daughter of Ann Landers, and author of the Dear Margo column at

Howard had published a letter from a group of women who were worried that a friend was getting involved in another abusive relationship. Howard dismissed their concerns with a glib remark, calling their friend "a slow learner."
Link here.

Her column elicited a harrowing and shocking letter from a reader. However much we are numb to the term of abuse, this letter will shake us out of our torpor. Link here.

An adopted child, this woman was systematically abused by her mother as a child. Her mother beat her and allowed men to rape her. Finally, the woman escaped from home, only to be called back when her mother was diagnosed with ALS.

While caring for her dying mother, she was befriended by a man who seemed to be kind and caring, but who turned out to be extremely abusive.

How did an abused woman find herself involved in an abusive relationship?

Was she acting out a self-destructive impulse? I would reject this interpretation out of hand, mostly because it blames her and offers nothing more than a counsel of despair.

There are other, more reasonable ways to understand this.

First, as she avers, she was attracted to what she knew. No matter how bad it was, abuse was familiar to her. And this means that she had developed coping strategies for dealing with it and had already survived extreme abuse.

Second, feeling deprived of kindness and affection, she was happy to settle even for what turned out to simulated affection. Something is always better than nothing.

Having been beaten, raped, choked, and verbally abused by her abuser, this woman sought refuge in the New York City shelter system. There she only found more abuse.

Eventually, she managed to free herself of her abuser, but has not succeeded in sparing her young daughter unsupervised visits with this man.

Anonymous offers several insights into the work of extreme abuse, and these should be heeded.

An extreme abuser will always try to isolate his victim. He will cut her off from her friends and family, and make it impossible for her to make new friends. He will want her to think that she must choose between him and social oblivion.

Anonymous wrote: "I made no friends, for how can an intelligent person admit that she is living this life?"

This means that the extreme abuser relies on the good moral sense of the victim. We all want to present the best face in public; we do not want to burden other people with our problems. And our neighbors usually have enough good moral sense to avoid prying into something that seems to be none of their business.

In nearly all circumstances, these are good rules to live by. In the case of extreme abuse, they should be violated.

So, anonymous offers this advice to the women whose friend is getting involved with an abusive man: "Spend time with her. Listen to her. Validate the truth of her situation. Support her.... If you...turn away in disgust, you only serve the purposes of the abuser. You have isolated her further and allowed him to be the sole source of emotional solace."

It may sound jarring to think of an abuser as a source of emotional solace, but she is right to put it in these terms. An extreme abuser usually accompanies his abuse with apologies, gestures of affection, and even emotional support.

Abuse is not often a constant; it alternates with kind and caring gestures. Each one provokes a feeling of hope, a feeling that the suffering will be redeemed.

Extreme abuse is a depressant. It produces a mental state where the person feels that there is nothing she can do, nowhere she can go, to escape the abuse.

When her personal resources are depleted, when the system has failed her, anonymous discovers that the ultimate weapon is exposure. As Justice Brandeis famously said: "Sunlight is the best disinfectant."

In most case this means taking friends into one's confidence. The more the word gets around, the more the abuser is exposed, the better it will be for the victim.

Extreme abuse thrives in darkness. Both the victim and her friends have a sacred duty to ensure that the abuse is exposed to the light of day.

Surely, that entails risks. Women who have protested abuse have often been accused of being insane. That is why confiding in a circle of friends, and refusing to withdraw from society is the path to overcoming extreme abuse.

No comments: