Hitting Us Where We Live

As I write this, a woman elsewhere is being beaten, verbally abused, perhaps murdered by an intimate partner. This is not a new phenomenon, yet a study just out from the Centers for Disease Control—on its National Violent Death Reporting System—brings a monster closer to home.

The deaths of 55 percent of women murdered in the United States between 2003 and 2014 were related to intimate partner violence (IPV). Just over 11 percent of these women had experienced violence in the month before the killing. And black women were three times as likely to be victims as white women. (American Indian/Alaska Native women weren’t far behind.)

It is difficult not to feel frustrated as researchers who have long worked to heal these victims, break cycles of violence, and end unnecessary suffering and death. To not say, “Here we go again.”

We share a saying, because it is so telling and also disturbingly true: “Men fear that women will laugh at them. Women fear that men will kill them.”

In late July, a man told investigators he beat his wife to death on a cruise ship off of Alaska as their children watched because, yes, she laughed at him. He reportedly told police later: “My life is over.”

We don’t laugh at such irony.

The statistics would suggest that this very likely was not the victim’s first encounter with her husband’s rage or his fists. Why would she stay?

Dr. Kamila Alexander is a Johns Hopkins researcher who works with women at risk for or experiencing intimate partner violence—including those who have acquired HIV or suffered reproductive coercion from a controlling partner who refuses to wear condoms or allow contraceptive use.

Her research looks at the lingering consequences. IPV victims who survive are burdened with injury, of course. Broken bones, head trauma—the body is stitched and mended, but we see these physical and emotional wounds in chronic illnesses, addiction, and psychiatric problems that develop down the road.

Dr. Alexander is part of a team at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing working to address violence against women—and men—that includes renowned researchers Jacquelyn Campbell and Nancy Glass.

In all cases, Dr. Alexander says, we must offer empathy rather than judgment for women who remain in abusive relationships. We cannot label as lost causes the stories of those who eventually got out and still often blame themselves for the violence. (“Mommy made Daddy mad”—a defense mechanism meant to shield children that is, of course, picked up on and used as an additional weapon by abusers.) The daughter of an abused woman might develop a skewed perception of what a “normal” relationship looks like and follow suit. So much is at work here that the tentacles can obscure the monster itself.

Rather than defeat us as caregivers, this must be what drives us to learn more, relate better, make connections, collaborate, to come up with interventions to break the cycle, to end the violence, to help women survive. There are no lost causes. There are simply more reasons to try to change a truth that’s less possible to ignore each time another tentacle appears.

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