“So, what do you do for a living?”

Whenever I tell someone what I do for a living, I get one of these responses:

  1. they look at me real hard to figure out if I am a crazy raging feminist that they need to be afraid of, or
  1. they say, “Wow, good for you,” or “I could never do that,” or “That must be so depressing,” or
  1. they quickly change the subject.

But lately I’ve been thinking that maybe instead of saying that I work to end domestic violence, I should just say, “I’m an optimist.”

Say what?

Domestic violence advocates envision a world where domestic violence doesn’t exist. We really and truly think it doesn’t have to happen. We believe this so much that we continue to enter into relationships ourselves. You’d think after hearing terrible stories day after day, that all of us would swear off relationships. Not so.

I can’t think of anyone that I have ever worked with in nearly 20 years that has said, “You know what, it’s just not possible. It isn’t worth looking.” Nope. Instead advocates help people pick up the pieces and dream of something better. Then they go home and try to do the same for themselves.

What optimism! I love that we envision a just and loving society. I love that while we see the bad and the ugly, we work for the good and the beautiful. I love that our work is moving towards preventing violence, not just supporting survivors. I believe that we can end domestic violence. I really do. I guess I’m an optimist!

-Ilene Stohl, our economic justice & prevention coordinator

2 heads are better than 1?

We’ve been at this blogging thing for almost a year now, and it just dawned on me that we’ve been talking a lot about sex and sexual violence. Some might say “what gives?” I thought this was the domestic violence coalition?” (Or that thought might never have occurred to you. If you don’t work in the field, you’d never know that domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy are pretty separate.)

Is it because these issues have recently captured national media attention? Schwarzenegger, Strauss-Kahn, Weiner. Marlo Thomas at Huffington Post wondered recently if Men Behaving Badly is a good thing. She sees a shift in the public response to sexual misbehavior. There’s a lot more outrage and a lot fewer people making excuses for the perpetrators.

Despite her claim that sexual assault is getting more and better coverage, there are a lot of questions—especially among those of us who do this work—about which (domestic violence or sexual assault) gets more attention and accurate representation from the media. Which issue is more main-stream, more understood by the folks who don’t think about it everyday? Are we blogging more about sexual violence instead of domestic violence because we think it is less understood, or more? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: It should not be an either/or discussion. Sexual and domestic violence are inextricably linked. After all, rape happens in domestic violence relationships too, and I’m not sure the separation of these into different specialties has served us well. Maybe our blog’s tag line (“talking about violence and relationships”) has freed us to see past our titles and re-focus on the bigger goal—let’s get all kinds of violence out of our lives.

The Revolution Starts at Home

What does it mean for an abuser to be held accountable? What does justice for a survivor look like? And how do we get there?

I’ve been studying domestic violence murders for the past 7 years and have seen time and again how the legal system is profoundly limited in its ability to provide justice, safety, or healing for survivors of abuse. But focusing on the failures of the police and courts can feel hopeless, because it is not clear where else to turn. I envision that our own communities can step up to confront abusers and support survivors. Yet it is hard to imagine communities where sexism, homophobia, isolation, and victim blaming don’t get in the way.

A new book, The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, is a collection of stories from people who have also wrestled with these questions. The authors are activists working against racism and homophobia. It makes sense that the people trying to figure out how to hold abusers accountable within their own communities are those that have been the least served and most harmed by the criminal response to abuse—LBGTQ folk, people of color, immigrants.

The stories bring to life both the hope and promise of community solutions to domestic and sexual violence, and how painfully difficult this process can look on the ground. In one essay, a grassroots activist group describes how they organized to address abuse by one community member toward another. Their process had all the key ingredients for justice: a focus on the survivor’s safety and healing, treating the abuser with respect while demanding real change, and directly confronting the conditions that allowed the abuse in the first place. And yet, their efforts took years, required massive energy and commitment, and they found it was hard to know whether they were making real change.

Reading this book left me feeling both excited about the creative work being done and overwhelmed with the work left to do. The efforts, aspirations, and even failures in these stories felt like a call to action for all of us working to end domestic violence. As Andrea Smith says in the introduction, “the question is not whether a survivor should call the police, but rather why have we given survivors no other option but to call the police?”

Advocacy for rookies

A few weeks ago, our final fatality review report pointed out that most people victims turned to for help did not refer them to a domestic violence advocate.

We know that advocacy saves lives.

We also know that domestic violence programs cannot keep up with the demand for services.

And we know that people turn to family and friends long before they seek help from professionals.

As Traci said earlier, we’re all counting on YOU.

If that makes you nervous – never fear. I just finished teaching at our 3-day Advocacy for Rookies training. It was heartening to learn that many of the attendees have no intention of getting a job as an advocate. They came to the training because they know that anyone can be a critical, life-saving source of support. Here’s how:

1.      LISTEN. Really listen. What is she saying she needs? What does she think will help? (Note: Hear what she is really saying, not what you think she should be saying. For many people, the goal is to end the abuse, not necessarily to end the relationship.)

2.      LEARN. Do a little research on her behalf. Call your local domestic violence program and find out what they offer. And there’s tons of great info online. You can read up on legal and economic options. Get the scoop on housing and employment issues. See what the laws and policy manuals say.

3.      LOOK AHEAD. Talk with her about long-term plans for coping with the abuse. Help her think through the pros and cons of different options and anticipate how the abuser might react. That’s called safety planning.

4.      LEVERAGE. Give her whatever help you can: a ride somewhere, free babysitting, some cash. And use your influence to let the abuser know that controlling and violent behavior is unacceptable.

5.      LOVE. Have compassion. See the victim’s (and abuser’s) full humanness. Be patient and humble – this stuff is complicated. We are all responsible for each other. Love is the antidote.

Wiki-what-the-hell?

My little friend Jacob hopped into my car the day after Halloween, still wearing his bat costume, and asked: “What’s the biggest bat?” It just so happens that my next door neighbor Greg Falxa is a bat researcher. After he told us about the Flying Fox, Jacob still wanted more details. Where did we turn? Wikipedia, of course. If you dare, check it out. No worries, they eat fruit.

I printed out a picture for Jacob and thought idly about clicking on the Wiki definition of domestic violence, which I do periodically to torture myself. This time, sitting atop the article, was a box with an orange exclamation point saying “This article is in need of attention from an expert on the subject.”

I’ll say!

I then unearthed the frightening fact that this Wiki article got (hold onto your hats) 94,632 hits during the 31 days of October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I have been working for 30 years to educate the public about domestic violence and  have not come within a light year of talking to that many people. How do your efforts at public awareness match up against the near 95,000 high school and college students and miscellaneous others being spoon fed this out-of-date and unintelligible misinformation about domestic violence?

This is a call to researchers and others with a talent for accurate and engaging prose. Put your money where your brains are. Make it your mission to upgrade the article to be at least as interesting and accurate as the article on bats!

What an anti-violence expert learned from the BBC

After ten years of working against domestic violence, I was fairly sure I “got it.” Then something really crazy happened to me: doctors found a gigantic tumor in my six-month-old baby daughter’s head.

It was a rare, aggressive cancer. She went through brain surgery, intense chemotherapy and radiation. We spent six months in the hospital and even traveled across the country to get what she needed.

We referred to the whole ordeal as the “BBC” (Baby with Brain Cancer), believing that something as ridiculous as childhood cancer deserved a ridiculous nickname.

When I came back to work, I began to see the experiences of abused people in a new light and saw many parallels to my experience:

When your intimate partner is abusing you:

And/Or

When your child is diagnosed with cancer:
  • It is unexpected, devastating and totally inconsistent with your dreams and desires
  • You have to make some tough decisions when all of your options are pretty crappy
  • You need your family, friends and community more than ever
  • It’s hard to concentrate on anything else when lives are on the line
  • In shelters and hospitals: sharing space with strangers and dealing with institutional rules is a drag
  • Money makes a huge difference

I did notice one key difference: Our family got oodles of sympathy and tangible support, and virtually no one questioned our choices. But what I have seen in my work is that many survivors of abuse get the opposite reaction. The experiences are similar; the stakes are equally high, but the response tends to be a lot less supportive. Why is that?

P.S. My daughter is currently showing no evidence of disease. But just like survivors of abuse, the fear of what might happen still lingers.

She’s lying to me

These are the questions that run through my head when people tell me that battered women lie:

  • What do you really need to know?
  • Why do you need to know it?
  • Why do you think you need ‘the whole truth’ in order to help her get what she needs?
  • How does your judgment of her affect what you do?

Omission does not equal deception. And, lying does not mean that she doesn’t deserve our help. When we focus on her honesty or lack thereof, we’re saying that battered women are not credible and therefore are not worth our time, our compassion, our action.

Listen to what she is asking of you. Figure out what you can do and offer help. You don’t have to fix anything or anybody. Don’t underestimate the power of trying to connect with her and understand what she wants.

Believe that she’s telling you everything you need to know. Believe that you can’t choose for someone else. Believe that you can act.

It is hardest thing in the world to trust someone else – just ask a battered woman.