Four years ago I learned a college classmate, who was from my hometown, had been strangled to death by her estranged husband before he ended his own life with a single bullet to the head. We had lived in the same freshmen dorm, eaten in the same cafeteria and hung out in all the same campus hang out places. A bright and lively soul, Leslie Anderson was filled with life and my heart ached with the knowledge of her life being cut short by domestic violence. A week ago, I received the news another classmate of ours, Monica Butler, had been bludgeoned to death in her own home by her estranged husband who violated an active restraining order. In this case, he was apprehended by law enforcement and will face criminal charges. Both of these women were the same age as me. Both mothers. Both victims of domestic violence. As I cried tears for their children, family and friends, I questioned any goodness in human nature and cursed the evil that would possess someone to take their spouse’s life. Both times, my emotions were raw and my faith in humanity temporarily suspended by grief.
While listening to a mutual friend recount Monica’s tragic end, I could not fathom any person who wouldn’t sympathize with this woman’s horrible fate in death. Imagine my surprise when I opened a news article to read the details of the brutal incident and saw just that from a journalist no less. Apathy. Indifference. Dare I say blame? The heat of anger rose from the base of my neck to the top of my head where steam slowly escaped. I was livid. In the first articles that emerged, only the facts surrounding the murder were reported. However, as journalists began to acquire more information they painted a different picture including the couple’s struggles prior to the incident, filled with partial knowledge – a picture that leaned dangerously close to blaming the victim for her own murder, insinuating because the victim refused to press charges seven months prior she somehow encouraged and subsequently deserved to meet with such a fate. It is precisely this type of victim blaming that most women fear when they teeter on the decision to report domestic violence or to suffer silently.
Pressing charges may have temporarily detained Monica’s husband, mandated anger management classes and made him accountable for his actions in a court of law, but there is no guarantee it would have prevented his eventual maniacal assault on his estranged wife. While the events prior to Monica’s murder indicate a clear pattern of abuse in the relationship, to assess her demise as a penalty she endured for refusing to pursue criminal action against her estranged husband is shortsighted and assumptive, callous and cruel. Furthermore, that conclusion is not one a journalist or anyone without the ability to foresee the future should make.
Unlike the scientific laws of gravity, domestic violence is not so clear-cut. It deals with many facets of psychology, trauma, sociology and human behavior that cannot be relegated solely to physical science. Emotional co-dependency is often so entrenched in the abused person’s psyche: the fear of leaving far surpasses the fear of staying. And while the reasons many women remain in abusive relationships (threats to harm the victim, loved ones or pets; threats of suicide; believing the abuser will take her children; religious reasons; believing the abuser will change; self-blame; limited financial options; believing that violence is normal; limited housing options; low self-esteem; fear of the unknown or change, isolation, embarrassment and shame) may not be understood to onlookers or even the women themselves, our endeavoring to empathize and understand with the victim can prove far more helpful than our criticism and neglect. Moreover, judging another person’s actions with callousness and scant, misguided information, in the name of news journalism, is hypercritical and, quite frankly, bad form.
As a child who witnessed domestic violence, I am well acquainted with the toll it takes on its victims, their children, family and friends. We left when I was nine. Maybe my mother stayed until then because she had five children. I don’t know. Maybe it was because organized religion advocated allegiance to the marital bond with little thought to the costs involved for abuse victims. Or maybe there are other reasons attributed to Battered Women’s Syndrome I can’t identify. Regardless, starting over is rarely easy for anyone. I believe my mother made the best decisions she could with the resources, strength and knowledge she had at the time. I didn’t judge her then and I refuse to judge her now. I can only assume if she could have done things differently, she would have. I give Monica the same courtesy and so should you. Here’s why.
When we choose to handle everyone with the gloves of kindness we would want to be handled with ourselves, we gain better perspective. We can see a scenario in which Monica may have decided against pressing charges to keep her estranged husband’s job source in tact to continue to provide a decent education for her children. We could also see a woman who may have been afraid to implicate a person she once loved and vowed her love to for fear of what it might possibly infer about her personal life choices. Whatever her reasons, I can assure you they were not as black and white as the words typed here. Life choices rarely are. And what would or would not have prevented her death is now a moot point. Blame is easy. Rolling up our sleeves, committing to be part of the solution to prevent domestic abuse and refusing to condone violence on any level is a bit more difficult. But, isn’t that what we all should endeavor to do? If we did, it would definitely make this world a better place for everyone.
In loving memory of LSU Tigers – Monica Butler Johnson and Leslie Anderson Raymond
The National Domestic Violence Hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233)