A leathery woman with a darkening black eye smokes
cigarettes through the spaces of her missing front teeth and tells the police how
her boyfriend slapped and bit her because he didn't like her grandchildren.
Another woman tells a counselor at a shelter that she's tried to leave her
husband 15 times in the two years that she's been married to him. Still another
can't speak at all, her moans incoherent as she's wheeled out of her house on a
stretcher covered in blood, her cheek slashed into two loose flaps from the
corner of her mouth.
These graphic details of domestic abuse come to us courtesy of documentary
filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose camera has been mercilessly recording the
often unpleasant aspects of our social reality for three decades. In the years
since 1967, when his first documentary, Titicut Follies, garnered artistic
awards and journalistic respect -- and an injunction from the Massachusetts
Superior Court, which banned the film in the state for the next 24 years -- Wiseman
has captured everything from the crumbling walls of a housing project to the
locker-lined hallways of a high school, from a ballet company to a state prison
for the criminally insane. Using his signature cinema verité style -- there
is no narration, music, or overt editorializing in his films -- Wiseman has become
a barometer of our values and mores, revealing our culture and progress vy
observing our social organizations, institutions and institutional practices.
It is therefore telling that Wiseman has chosen to take on the issue of
domestic violence at precisely this moment. While the scenes from his latest
film, Domestic Violence, are explicit, we've seen these types of images
before. Hardly a news cycle goes by nowadays without a domestic-violence story.
The media attention is a salutary development; not long ago, domestic violence
didn't exist as a legal or social concept.
Yet while we've come incredibly far in our struggle to recognize domestic
violence as a national, public problem, battered women now face a new set of
challenges -- preeminent among them, the religious right's efforts to portray
marriage as the panacea for all social and moral problems. If only we could all
just pair up in happily heterosexual matrimony and stay that way, the logic goes,
social ills such as violence, crime, and poverty would simply wither away.
While ample data suggest the social and personal benefits of a happy marriage,
the get-married-and-stay-married-at-all-costs ethos often ignores the damage that
bad marriages can do both to adults and to children. And domestic abuse? Social
conservatives often pretend that the problem would disappear if only more people
got and stayed married. They make it more difficult for women to leave abusive
relationships -- not only by steeling social attitudes against divorce but by
making it contractually harder (through such vehicles as "covenant marriages")
for domestic-violence victims to escape.
Moreover, social conservatives tend to confuse marriage policy with welfare
policy; indeed, they would like to replace the latter with the former. This is
the "get-married-and-stay-married-and-you-won't-need-welfare" argument. Robert
Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argues that marriage
incentives must be built into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- the
basic federal welfare program, designed to provide assistance and work
opportunities -- and that divorced and out-of-wedlock mothers should get
diminished levels of welfare assistance for not being married. This is a typical
conservative argument that not only gets the relationship between poverty and
welfare backward -- and this is a great source of liberal-conservative argument
generally -- but also makes it much harder for wives to leave their abusive
husbands, for fear of being financially penalized.
Domestic Violence and the Law
It is this sort of rhetoric that threatens to roll back the heroic -- and
remarkably recent -- achievements of the battered-women's movement. As late as the
1960s, if you looked at American newspapers, police reports, medical records, and
legal texts, you would find little mention of domestic violence anywhere. "In
the last few decades, there has been a great surge in attention to this issue,"
says Clare Dalton, Northeastern University's Matthews Distinguished University
Professor of Law, who is a leading feminist legal scholar and a pioneer in the
development of legal education about domestic violence. A founder of
Northeastern's domestic-violence clinical program and the Domestic Violence
Institute (an interdisciplinary educational, research, and service
organization), Dalton served as a consultant on Wiseman's film and led
discussions about the issue at several showings of Domestic Violence in
"Right up into the 1980s, we still had states in the Union with out-of-date
immunity laws based on common law from the 1800s, protecting men who beat their
wives," Dalton says. "It was only 10 years ago now that the Supreme Court was
even ready to recognize the severity of domestic violence in our country -- only
eight years ago that Congress addressed it on a federal level with the Violence
Against Women Act [VAWA]."
That legislation, passed initially in 1994 and renewed by Congress in 2000,
was a milestone: It was the first federal law ever to address the issue, and it
came at the problem with a variety of solutions, including funding for women's
shelters, a national domestic-abuse hot line, rape education-and-prevention
programs, training for federal and state judges, new remedies for battered
immigrants, and criminal enforcement of interstate orders of protection.
As Dalton points out, VAWA would have been impossible without the work that
began with the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. "Our latest campaign
against domestic violence grew directly out of the movement," she says. "For the
first time, women were getting together and talking about their experiences and
discovering the great prevalence of these unspoken terrors. Emerging feminist
theory allowed women to connect with each other and to the ideas that feminists
had been arguing for all along: that women's legally sanctioned subordination
within the family was denying them equality."
Taking their cue from the civil-rights and antiwar movements earlier, feminist
activists began to see the law not only as an important tool for protecting
victims but as a way to define domestic violence as a legitimate social problem.
Local legal groups and grass-roots advocacy organizations began to develop legal
remedies based on the link between sexual discrimination and violence. Starting
in the sixties, lawyers began to seek civil-protective or restraining orders to
keep batterers away from their victims. Courts began to create special rules for
domestic-violence cases and custody cases involving children from violent homes.
And by the mid-1990s, Congress had passed VAWA. Today, feminist advocates for
battered women have begun to draw important interconnections among battering,
poverty, welfare reform, homelessness, immigration, employment, gun control, and
many other areas of concern. They are working with all sorts of organizations to
step up education and reform.
The Psychology of Abuse
While the stories of domestic violence in Wiseman's film are horrifying,
even the most compassionate viewer's sympathy can run thin when victims shun
opportunities to abandon their own torture chambers. Of the three women in the
opening scene who have called the police, not one is prepared to listen to advice
about legal options or free social services. Rather, each one simply continues
recounting her abuse, speaking as if she had never even heard the officers'
"We have always looked at the victim and said, 'Well, why doesn't she just
leave?'" says Lynn Rosenthal, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based
National Network to End Domestic Violence. "We've got cops and judges and lawyers
who get upset when victims don't flee, or fail to report their abusers, or don't
show up in court to press charges." This past January, a judge in Lexington,
Kentucky, sparked outrage among victims' advocates when she fined two women for
contempt of court because they returned to their alleged abusers despite having
obtained protective orders against them. "But this attitude places the burden on
the victim, not the abuser," Rosenthal says. "Everyone asks why she continues to
stay; no one thinks to ask, 'Why does he hit her in the first place?'"
Dr. Judith Lewis Herman, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at
Harvard Medical School and the training director of the Victims of Violence
Program at Cambridge Hospital, has been fighting to change this perception of
victims for more than 30 years. "The tendency to blame the victim has always
influenced the direction of psychological study," Herman said in an interview in
her office at Harvard. "Research had always looked at what the woman did to
provoke her batterer, or it focused on her own 'personality disorders.'" In
1964, for example, researchers conducted an egregious study of battered women
called The Wife-Beater's Wife, in which the inquiries were directed toward
women simply because the men refused to talk. The clinicians identified the women
as "frigid" or "indecisive" and went on to treat the women so they would
"provoking" their husbands.
In the mid-1980s, when the diagnostic manual of the American Psychiatric
Association came up for revision, this misdiagnosis of victims -- and the tendency
to blame them for their partners' violence -- became the center of a heated
controversy. A group of male psychoanalysts proposed that "masochistic
personality disorder" be added to the manual to describe any person "who remains
in relationships in which others exploit, abuse, or take advantage of him or her,
despite opportunities to alter the situation" -- a proposal that outraged women's
groups around the country. Herman was one of the leaders in the fight to
formulate a new diagnosis that accurately described the psychological conditions
of battered women. Herman proposed "complex post-traumatic stress disorder,"
describes a spectrum of conditions rather than a single disorder, and is now
listed as a subcategory of post-traumatic stress disorder in the latest edition
of the standard diagnostic manual.
Although Wiseman recounts none of this political or
legal history explicitly
in Domestic Violence, the evidence of these years of struggle pervades
every frame he shoots. In the opening sequence, a lean, tattooed, middle-aged man
wearing only his undershorts asks, "Why do you always take the woman's word?"
as police officers cuff and arrest him.
"When it comes to domestic violence," they respond, "that's the way it is. If
she says you hit her, you hit her."
This brief exchange may not seem particularly significant -- after all, if a
stranger had assaulted a woman in a parking lot, we would expect the police to
haul him away. But the very fact that the Tampa, Florida, officers responded
immediately to a call for domestic violence and then removed the batterer from
his home without hesitation or an arrest warrant is a testament to the
progressive laws, police training, and legislative reform developed and
implemented in the past 30 years.
According to Elizabeth M. Schneider, a professor at Brooklyn Law School and
the author of Battered Women and Feminist Lawmaking (2000), one of
first and most important legal issues to come to the attention of the feminist
movement in the 1960s was the failure of police to protect battered women from
assault. By the 1970s, class-action lawsuits were filed in New York City and
Oakland, California. All of a sudden, domestic violence was considered a crime
against the public and the state, not just the individual.
Yet even these victories and others like them initially made little headway in
police attitudes and practices. Nineteen years ago, a woman named Tracey Thurman
was nearly beaten to death in Torrington, Connecticut, before the police came to
her aid. Though Thurman had reported her estranged husband's threats and
harassment to the police repeatedly for over a year, it wasn't until she called
in utter desperation, fearing for her life, that the police responded. They sent
only one officer, however, who arrived 25 minutes after the call was placed,
pulled up across the street from Thurman's house, and sat in his car while
Thurman's husband chased her across the yard, slashed her with a knife, stabbed
her in the neck, knocked her to the ground, and then stabbed her 12 more times.
Permanently disfigured, Tracey Thurman brought what became a landmark case to
the Supreme Court, which found that the city police had violated her 14th
Amendment right to "equal protection of the laws" and awarded her $2.3 million in
compensatory damages. Almost immediately, the State of Connecticut adopted a new,
comprehensive domestic-violence law calling for the arrest of assaultive spouses.
In the year after the measure took effect, the number of arrests for domestic
assault increased 92 percent, from 12,400 to 23,830.
"We'd all like to look at our progress and be optimistic," says Clare Dalton.
"But if you look at the most recent statistics from the Justice Department, the
number of women dying in domestic-violence situations hasn't changed. The
problem is as widespread as ever.
"But there is one interesting thing here," Dalton notes. "While the number of
deaths among women hasn't changed, fatalities among men have dropped
significantly. This, in truth, is our first real triumph. If women feel they can
get help -- if they believe the police will come when they call them, if they
understand they will get support and have a place to go where they will be safe
with their children -- then fewer are pushed to the wall. Fewer will resort to
killing or dying at the hand of their abuser."
The Tampa Example
Such wisdom has not been lost on the City of Tampa Police Department, whose
progressive, community-wide response to the problem Frederick Wiseman chose to
film for Domestic Violence. Tampa's network of coordinated, cooperative
services -- from law enforcement, to social services, to the legal system -- is amodel example of similar programs around the country.
"We now have a zero-tolerance policy toward domestic violence here in Tampa,"
said Lieutenant Rod Reder, a 24-year veteran of the Hillsborough County
Sheriff's Office in Tampa, when reached by phone. A former supervisor for the Sex
Crimes Division and onetime member of the Governor's Domestic and Sexual Violence
Task Force, Reder is now widely considered to be an expert in the field of
domestic and sexual violence. Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of
Justice, he runs training sessions for law-enforcement officers at conferences
nationwide. "We discovered there were so many simple things we weren't doing ...
to help victims of domestic violence," Reder said. "And we found there really is
only one way to make things work. All the community players have to come to the
table; otherwise, it's the victim's safety that gets compromised."
The catalyst for Tampa's adoption of community cooperation was a woman named
Mabel Bexley, who in 1981 pushed Reder to bring police practices in line with new
domestic-violence laws, and who two years later became the director of a women's
shelter called the Spring. In her 19-year tenure there, Bexley, now 65 and
recently retired, expanded the Spring -- which is the focus of much of Wiseman's
documentary -- from a three-bedroom house with more than a dozen women and children
huddled inside to a 102-bed facility with 120 employees and a $4-million budget.
Reder and Bexley teamed up again in 1995, when Tampa hit an all-time high in
domestic-violence-related homicide, to work alongside members of the state
attorney's office and the 13th Judicial Circuit Court to form the zero-tolerance
campaign against domestic abuse. Reder and the Hillsborough County police then
formed a special domestic-violence unit and developed a three-day training
seminar for all seven local law-enforcement agencies.
"We do all sorts of things now to make the system work," said Reder. "When
police answer a domestic-violence call, they are required to file a report -- even
if there is no arrest -- just so the incident is documented. We had deputies who
would walk away from incidents saying, 'No harm, no foul,' and would leave with
no report," he recalled. "But now officers are required to document domestics by
state law. You start dinging a few deputies and taking disciplinary action, and
word gets out real quick: If you go to a domestic, write a report."
According to Reder, Tampa officers have also become very aggressive about
arrests: "We used to think we were doing the right thing by not arresting the
man -- we didn't want to get him any angrier than he already was. In the past, many
officers looked at domestic-violence calls as a waste of time or a private
family matter. Now we consider them some of the most dangerous calls there are."
Hillsborough County has also addressed other gaps in the system. "We've sent
advocates to go pick up victims at their homes so they'd be sure to get to
court," said Reder. "We used to have communal waiting rooms in the courthouse,
but now we have separate ones so victims won't have to face their abusers before
their trial begins. To file an injunction, you used to have to fill out a
complicated 25-page form that was only available in English. This alone used to
scare people away, so now we have bilingual advocates and lawyers available to
help people fill them out."
This is where the Spring comes in. Though most victims who arrive at the
shelter are running for their lives and have no desire even to consider legal
action against their abusers at that point, the facility employs an on-site
attorney to help them navigate the judicial system and pursue the available
options. In addition, each one of the Spring's hot-line operators is a deputy of
the court who can file injunctions at any hour of the day or night. This is
crucial, because the most dangerous time for abuse victims actually begins the
moment they choose to leave their homes. "The Bureau of Justice statistics say
that one-third of all women murdered in the U.S. are killed by an intimate," says
Jennifer Dunbar, who works at the Spring. "But of those 30 percent, 65 percent
are murdered when they leave. It's our job to make sure [victims are] protected
at this point."
Nearly 40 years after the first feminist activists in the women's
movement brought domestic violence to the nation's attention, the policies have
largely been set and the laws are finally on the books. Now it's a question of
making sure that the systems work and helping the larger community to understand,
recognize, and accommodate the needs of battered women. "Right now, we're working
on expanding efforts into other systems, like job placement, affordable housing,
welfare reform, and child-protective services," says Lynn Rosenthal of the
National Network. "A number of states now have special domestic-violence
provisions within their welfare systems and housing programs. For instance, under
the original job-placement programs in the TANF program, people who showed up
tardy three times to the program would lose their benefits. A battered woman
might have tremendous problems meeting these criteria -- her husband could still be
sabotaging her efforts." Rosenthal adds: "It's easy to see how our own
well-intended programs could send her right back to her batterer."
Throughout the country, states have begun to integrate their systems and
have developed new, progressive programs to deal with domestic violence. Though
they vary in their specific reforms, many have expanded their legal definition
of domestic violence to include nonmarried and nontraditional couples. And some,
shifting their focus from punishment to rehabilitation, have begun to examine the
root causes of violence in the first place. Programs like EMERGE in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, work with batterers to find nonviolent ways to express their
anger; many others educate children and teens -- ideally, before any battering
starts. A number of states have created specialized domestic-violence courts so
that the judges hearing these cases are not only familiar with and sympathetic to
the special circumstances surrounding battering cases but can follow them from
start to finish.
Yet for all the progress that has been made in addressing domestic violence,
Wiseman's film makes clear that there is a long way yet to go. One problem is how
practically and psychologically difficult it can be for a victim to leave her
batterer. But another is the complexity of the political environment itself. As
elected officials come and go, their varying agendas affect the winds of
legislative change and shift fiscal priorities along with idealistic convictions.
According to Robin Thompson, the former executive director of the Florida
Governor's Task Force on Domestic Violence, in order for a state to stay vigilant
in its fight against domestic abuse there must be "a bedrock of political
commitment" -- be it a designated task force or a group of grass-roots activists
invested in educating and uniting their community. Awareness alone is not
And while states may have implemented great judicial and law-enforcement
reforms, if these are not closely monitored and coordinated, they can still fall
short of their goals. For instance, if an accused batterer is arrested right
away but then must wait six months for a trial, the victim is still largely
unprotected. Or if a judge orders a defendant to participate in an intervention
program but no one checks to see if he complies, the sentence may be useless.
Obstacles to reform certainly don't fall neatly along partisan lines. A
liberal judge might opt for a surprisingly lenient sentence for a defendent,
while a conservative judge might make an equally counterintuitive ruling, viewing
the court as the woman's traditional protectorate. Yet in communities where
awareness of partner abuse remains limited -- and partisan issues such as welfare,
gun ownership, and "family values" remain entwined with domestic
violence -- reform movements lag well behind their counterparts in more progressive
So far on a national level, what little government funding there is for
community-based programs like the community courts or the Spring has not been cut
by the Bush administration. But Rosenthal remains worried about the potential for
an "unholy merger" between social conservatives and the growing movement for
fathers' rights. Though she respects much of the work that fathers' rights groups
have done in calling for more paternal responsibility and accountability, she
fears that some men will latch on to the claims of right-wingers who resent gains
by the battered-women's movement -- and by the feminist movement generally -- and
will seek to cripple these movements' effectiveness by demanding their defunding.
In a tableau that echoes the opening scene of Domestic Violence,
Wiseman returns at the end of his documentary to police officers responding to a
call. This time, it seems, the outcome will be more hopeful: The call was placed
not by a battered woman but by a potential batterer seeking intervention -- a
last-ditch effort to stave off the violence brewing in his household. But when
the police arrive, the couple refuses to listen to their suggestions or take any
steps to change the situation. When neither the man nor the woman agrees to leave
the premises, the police ultimately return to their squad car shaking their
heads, leaving behind only words of advice and a volatile couple "afraid of what
they might do." It is an ominous ending to a celebration of progress -- an eerie
mirror of the problem we continue to face.
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