Author and professor Rachel Louise Snyder was on tour for her latest book, “No Visible Bruises,” a searing examination of domestic violence in the U.S., when she got the news.
The brother of one of her closest friends had just shot his wife and then himself, hours before a court hearing to finalize details of their divorce.
Snyder knew the couple ― Jason Rieff, 51, and Lola Gulomova, 45, both career foreign service officers ― and their two kids well. Until recently, their families lived three blocks apart. Snyder’s 11-year-old daughter is classmates with one of their daughters. They have playdates and sleepovers. She had even extended invitations to the couple for her book launch in May, though they did not come.
There are few people in the U.S. who know more about domestic violence than Snyder. She conducted eight years of research and reporting for her latest book, visiting with violent men in prison, meeting with the country’s leading academics and advocates, and immersing herself in the grief of families affected by abuse.
I met her in Florida in 2018, when we were both covering the terrorism trial of Noor Salman, a domestic violence victim falsely accused of helping her husband, Omar Mateen, plan a massacre at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Over the next year, we became friends.
One day, while she was writing a particularly harrowing scene in the book, she texted me unexpectedly: “Have you ever just started sobbing in the middle of writing about someone’s murder?” she wrote. “I can’t stop crying.”
The work was emotionally taxing, but she was operating as an outsider, she told me on the phone Wednesday. That’s changed now. The deaths of two people in her inner circle have brought her work to her doorstep.
I was already planning to interview her about the book, which published last month. So far it’s received a flurry of laudatory reviews and landed her a guest appearance on “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” But now she is no longer just the author ― she could be a character in her work.
“I feel like I’ve been screaming into the void, as have you for all these years,” she said. “And the void just got so much bigger.”
We need to have a body of work and further our understanding. My book is just the start. Rachel Louise Snyder, author of "No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us"
She wanted her book to help break through the apathy about domestic violence in America’s culture. Despite the fact that it kills four women a day and is the root cause of more than half the mass shootings in the U.S., it merits little public attention. There are hundreds of books on addiction and poverty and other intractable social problems. Yet, as far as she can tell, hers is the first literary nonfiction book to tackle domestic violence head-on. She hopes that changes.
“We need to have a body of work and further our understanding,” she said. “My book is just the start.”
One of her keenest interests, explored in the book and in an earlier New Yorker story, is how to predict cases where domestic violence is going to turn lethal. Snyder knows all the red flags:
If the abuser makes death threats.
If there’s a history of strangling the victim.
If there is access to a gun.
If the abuser is a stalker.
But Jason did not show any of these signs, she said. He seemed depressed and disengaged, and had stopped showing up at court dates, but he had no history of violence that she knew about.
“I went back and read every text I’ve ever exchanged with both of them,” she said. She replayed the last interactions she’d had with the couple, wondering what she’d missed. The divorce had been contentious; Snyder knew as much from Jason’s sister, her close friend. But there was nothing overtly ominous that Snyder could recall. She was blindsided.
When Snyder got the news of the couple’s deaths, she agonized about what to tell her daughter. The day of the shooting, both Snyder’s daughter and one of Jason and Lola’s daughters had their fifth-grade graduation.
“This is a child who already knows more about domestic violence than any other 11-year-old you’re likely to meet who has not herself been a victim of it,” Snyder said. “I had this internal battle: I didn’t want to tell her how they died. And yet I also wanted to tell her because this has been my mission for the last eight years.”
Her daughter understood immediately. She asked whether Jason used a gun.
Snyder said the tragedy had not yet changed her understanding of domestic violence. “If anything, it underscores what I’ve been trying to say, which is that it truly can be anybody. But it’s going to light a fire under me in terms of mission.”
I asked her if she would have changed anything in the book, after having a personal brush with the subject matter. She needed more time to think about it.
“It’s only been five days,” Snyder said. “I will say that part of how I wrote the book was to understand the perpetrator. And my book speaks to this piece.” If she could add anything, she’d do more work on children and trauma, she said.
That’s what’s top of mind.
She has canceled parts of her book tour while she attends to the urgent needs of her close friend, who has lost a brother and a sister-in-law, and to the couple’s surviving children.
All the logistics of life after a domestic violence homicide have now come into sharp focus: Hiring someone to clean the house of blood. Locating the couple’s will. Getting the children clean clothes from a crime scene.
She said that she was taking a break from doing media as well.
“I can’t be the spokesperson for this, right in this exact moment,” she said. “I need a couple of weeks. I would like someone else to be shouting this from the mountain top.... I can’t do it alone.”