When I read the allegations against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and the accounts of abuse by his two ex-wives, a chill went down my spine. In my two decades of work at a domestic violence shelter in Dallas, I have met thousands of victims and perpetrators of domestic violence. Too often, the image that comes to mind when one thinks of a batterer is a toothless, uneducated man, wearing a white “wife-beater” T-shirt, sitting on his couch drinking a beer and yelling at the television.
The reality is far more complicated and far more frightening. Many batterers are like Porter, a well-educated and well-off professional power player who, in his suit and tie, is a far cry from the crude stereotype. Many domestic abusers, regardless of socioeconomic status, move among us undetected, blending in like chameleons: Men who seem to be in total control, who are tightly wound, who convincingly blame others for everything. The typical batterer is charismatic, manipulative and demanding of certain behavior.
Descriptions of the incidents between Porter and his ex-wives are all too familiar. I know women whose partners gave no hint of their capacity for abuse in the time leading up to their marriages, only to turn terrifying and violent on the honeymoon. The more traditional the views their relationship was built on, the more reluctant the women were to leave. Porter’s first wife, whom he met after completing a Mormon mission trip, described a pattern of violence that began on their honeymoon and then escalated over time from marks that could not been seen to a punch in the eye during a vacation.
Porter’s alleged abuse fits another familiar pattern: the rise in tension, the violent release, the horrified apology. After abuse incidents, the batterer will apologize and promise never to do it again, and there’s a calm before the next storm. Batterers expect perfection from their partners, and when they don’t get it, their abuse often escalates.
Because intimate partner violence is just that ― intimate ― love complicates the situation for the batterer and the victim. Victims want to believe it when a batterer says it won’t happen again. Batterers are often shocked by their rage and feel true remorse, which is why their promises to never hurt again can be so convincing. Porter’s alleged denials sound eerily familiar.
According to news reports, Porter’s ex-wives did almost everything they needed to do to document their alleged abuse. They took photos, obtained a protective order, told a trusted religious leader. As often happens, a religious lay leader discouraged Porter’s second wife from speaking out about her alleged abuse because it might harm Porter’s career and reputation. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that his first wife didn’t report Porter to the police. She was afraid, she told The Intercept, that they would dismiss her allegations.
Her fear is a common one, and an understandable one. Since the Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994, thousands of law enforcement professionals who might once have dismissed her claims have been trained to see these warning signs. Legislators take domestic abuse more seriously now, too. For example, because strangulation has been determined through years of research to be a common act among abusers who go on to kill, strangulation became a felony in the state of Texas in 2009.
Still, domestic violence is too often dismissed as a private matter, a spat between combative partners. And, as in Porter’s case (and the president’s own case), credible allegations of domestic violence are not disqualifying for some of the most powerful jobs in our country.
There are myriad reasons why women stay silent about domestic abuse. Fear of being dismissed, shame, and concern for their abuser’s reputation are just a few. The primary reason victims stay silent is that they’re afraid. Abusers often threaten that the abuse will get worse if victims seek help, and the most dangerous time for victims is when they make the decision to leave.
If we’re going to ask why women don’t report abuse, we must also ask: Why do men think they can get away with it? The answer is simple. Whether it’s in a marriage, on a casting couch, in a restaurant or office or on a school playground, abusers count on the silence of their victims. Crimes that are committed in the home have long been considered “he said, she said” incidents— until photos, 911 calls and injuries surface.
Domestic abuse is almost never a one-time event; it’s a pattern. Porter’s ex-wives say they’ve been contacted by a third woman who claims that Porter was “abusive” and “degrading” in his relationship with her. Batterers can break that pattern, but they have to take responsibility for their actions; when perpetrators attend the battering intervention program at the shelter I run, they are required to state in each group session what they did to their victims. They are not allowed to blame their victims or say that their victims made up the abuse.
For victims, recovery is possible. Many women go on to rebuild their lives and build the happy families they deserve. Perpetrators who are willing to admit to their crimes and commit to changing can do the same. But we cannot allow abusers who refuse to be accountable rise to positions of power. We cannot let them live their lives, or shape the face of our nation, without first facing the truth.
Paige Flink is CEO of The Family Place in Dallas, one of the first family violence service agencies in Texas and the largest provider of shelter and support in North Texas.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.