Necessary force

People who are abusive only use the amount of force necessary to maintain dominance in their relationship.

When I say this to someone, I often see them pause in their reaction. Most people imagine that abusive people are out of control, or lash out when angry. And that the use of physical abuse―like hitting, slapping, punching, or forcing sex―is frequent and consistent over the length of the relationship. From that perspective, the idea that they “only use the amount of force necessary” doesn’t make sense.

But survivors tell me that their partners are often manipulative and violent in ways which do not include physical violence. No matter how an abuser’s behavior looks to an outsider, their tactics are deliberate. Like embarrassing a partner at a party or undermining their participation in religious activities. Or sabotaging a survivor’s connection with their child. Taking a child and disappearing for a couple of days is an effective way exert control over a partner. Also charming other people to get them on the abuser’s side, like the abusive partner I heard of who gratefully and coolly greeted law enforcement with “oh, I see you’re here to help me with my wife. She’s disoriented because she’s been in a car accident.”

Abuse can be pressuring a partner to have sex to prove their commitment to the relationship. Or asking a partner not to call friends or family because it interferes with their relationship―a subtle way to isolate someone. And if that doesn’t work, scaring friends or threatening a family member until the survivor returns to the relationship.

Any time we question a survivor―it doesn’t seem that bad, you say he doesn’t hit you, he doesn’t seem out of control―it gives the abusive person even more power. When we really listen to and believe a survivor’s experience, we take power away from the abuser. It’s one thing we all can do to make a difference for survivors and their children.

Nine things to know

Nueve cosas a saber

News you can relate to

Some stories that caught our eye this week:

This Was a Bad, Gruesome, and Utterly Typical Week for Men Killing Their Partners “A week like this of any other kind of incident—mass shootings, publicized incidents of bullying, canoeing accidents—would probably occasion some editorials, some discussion on the morning talk shows, maybe even a grim press conference from the president, vowing not to stand for any more.”

As An Abuse Survivor, I Understand And Support Amber Heard “Suddenly, my morning ritual of laying in bed and browsing the internet on my phone wasn’t fun. Instead, it was peppered with stories about Heard that pointed the finger, hurled sexist slurs, and made up grandiose stories about what really could have happened.”

What the War on Reproductive Rights Has to do With Poverty and Race While claiming to care about Black lives, anti-abortion advocates have used racist billboard campaigns to shame Black women out of having abortions without addressing any of the reasons why we choose abortion

The washing machine story

A couple of weeks ago, I got to spend time with advocates from across Washington to talk about how we approach our work with survivors. I was reminded of two things: advocates are doing incredible work; and that work is as unique as the person sitting across from them. We call it survivor-centered advocacy. What does that mean?

  • listening deeply to survivors about what is most important to them;
  • recognizing what they see as their priorities;
  • and working with them to find solutions.

Here’s a great example:

And here it is in Spanish:

Back to school!

School has finally started here in Seattle!

giphy

You might have heard that Seattle schools didn’t start on time because the district and the teachers disagreed on several contract issues. So the teachers went on strike for our kids and our schools. As the mother of a first grader I’ve been scrambling to secure child care, but I support our teachers.

The thing that made this strike a bit unusual (as far as teacher strikes go) was the huge amount of support teachers received from parents and communities. I’m not talking about a handful of parents bringing brownies to the picket lines. I’m talking about district-wide grassroots organizing. Parents, students, and community members came out strong—they walked picket lines with teachers, held their own march, and kept teachers supplied with food, water, and that liquid sunshine known as coffee.

Neighborhoods with lots of support trekked across the city to places with less and provided food and supplies there. Neighborhood childcare collectives popped up. An organization started by a couple of parents called Soup for Teachers exploded on Facebook as the place for parents to not only organize lunches for teachers, but also a place for accurate and timely updates on how the negotiations were progressing.

So kids, let’s review what we’ve learned from this strike about community engagement:

  • It’s possible for A LOT of people to come together and rally around an issue that is pressing and important.
  • Community members who are not directly affected will get involved when they understand how others in their community are impacted.
  • When community members show up and do what they can, people get the support they need.

Awesome! Guess what? Violence in our homes is also a pressing and important issue affecting all of us. How can we take what we’ve learned from the strike and apply it to supporting survivors, holding abusers accountable, and promoting healing for all?

Sold out

“Is having no option to leave the same as making a decision to stay?” Jill Davies posed this question at a training this week. She offered this analogy: “If all the tickets to a Stevie Wonder concert were sold out, does that mean you made a decision not to go?” Heck no! I missed Stevie’s concert when I was 19 and I’ve been sad about it ever since!sold-out-ticket

We have to change our assumptions about survivors who can’t or don’t leave their abusive partner. Most of our solutions for survivors of abuse are based on ending the relationship, but that ignores their reality. Survivors often have ongoing contact with their abusive partner for many reasons—a big one is children. As Jill reiterates, “Leaving is not the answer to domestic violence, reducing violent behavior is.” Leaving might be a part of the strategy to reduce violent behavior but it is a strategy not the strategy.

At that training, I promised to never again say a survivor is in denial or minimizing (code for “she’s not doing what I think she should be doing or she doesn’t get how bad things are”). Any strategy that’s going to help a survivor of abuse must respect her decisions about what works for her and her family.

And I’m happy to report that I got to catch Stevie in concert last year.

 

Futures Without Violence Leadership Award

Futures Without Violence recently presented me and the organization I work for the Futures Without Violence Leadership Award at the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in Washington, D.C.  Futures Without Violence called out how our “efforts bridge the gap between advocates and health care providers, and create programs that have improved the lives and safety of countless victims of abuse.” What follows is the speech I gave when presented with this honor.

Leigh-award

I want to thank Futures Without Violence for this award. I also congratulate the other recipients and thank you for your transformative work.

It is humbling to receive this award and I share it with all of you. Each one of us works every day for women, children, and men to have the access and care they deserve.

We are a mighty group and I am so proud to be here with you.

After so many years of advocating for survivors of abuse and working for policies and practices that are shaped by their experiences, I find myself circling back to some of the most important foundations we have.

Self-determination, liberation, bodily-integrity, the freedom to do the things we want—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for everyone.

When I think about what it means to do advocacy, what comes immediately to mind are my twin daughters, Basha and Rebekah.

Four years ago, they were Bat Mitzvahed. And as part of the ceremony, they had to write and deliver speeches about the Torah passages that marked their day.  Reflecting on the teachings and finding contemporary meaning.

Two young women with two singular perspectives. Basha talked about Glee (which she watched obsessively at the time). What she took from the show was not just the drama, fabulous singing, and the outfits—what she took were lessons about bullying and homophobia and young people’s experiences both of injustice and of justice.

Rebekah wrestled with her understanding of living an ethical life. What she came to realize is the importance of having an integrity that allows you to be whole, and directs you to live—publically as you do privately.

I am grateful my daughters had this experience. To think seriously, to speak seriously, to have adults listen and take them seriously.

Fast forward to 17, Basha and Rebekah have helped to organize a Feminist Union at their high school. Every week 30 teens show up, 1/3 of them boys, to hang out and talk. They talk about street harassment, rape culture, healthy relationships, international feminism, and gender equality.

That my daughters have had these experiences is a remarkable gift. It is all we want for every girl and every boy. In my work, and our Coalition’s work, we see the power of partnerships that give women and girls, men and boys, the opportunity to exercise their choices, to write their own futures. And, have lives filled with dignity.

I am so very proud to be a part of this movement—and believe that all of us, together, are creating a world of health and happiness, and justice and hope.

Thank you.

Trolls

I just listened to a powerful This American Life story. In Act 1: Ask Not For Whom The Bell Trolls; It Trolls For Thee, Lindy West talks about her experiences as a writer and the internet trolls that come with that. This might not sound new or interesting. We all know it happens. Many of us who have posted something online have experienced some version of the mean, rage-y, entitled rants of those who disagree with us. But this story ends differently than you might imagine.

Photo by daveynin
Photo by daveynin

This whole virtual world is like a minefield of meanness. Sifting through comments of a post on a hot-button issue can be heart-wrenching. Even when the comments are not directed at me, they still impact me emotionally. (Consequently I’ve created a habit of NOT reading the comments…usually.) As Lindy West describes her daily struggle processing all the nasty words written to and about her, it occurred to me that online harassment can eat away at you like an abusive partner.

What ever happened to human kindness? In this world where we now have to navigate both our online and offline lives, it would be so nice to see some basic manners make a comeback. Employ internal filters! Engage in respectful—and even lively—debate! My kids are six and three and they get the concept. We talk a lot about using our words, lowering our voices, and showing kindness. As they have practiced it, I have watched them get better at it, navigating their own disagreements with compassion. Let’s all give it go. Practice!

In her story, Lindy West went out on a limb (one she did not have to go out on, and one the troll in question did not necessarily deserve) to reach out and share how she felt. The result was remarkable. The troll APOLOGIZED. Yep. They had a conversation and some healing happened on both sides. I probably don’t have to tell you that this is not typical, and is not the best choice for a lot of people experiencing abuse and harassment. But this ending gives me hope that things can get better. Lindy’s strength and capacity for kindness in the face of the crap she wades through on a daily basis is remarkable, just like the hundreds of survivors I’ve met whose strength and resiliency shine in the face of abuse.

From there to here

here-there-signpostI started doing domestic violence advocacy in 1994. It is 2015. Wow. Just wow. But this post isn’t about feeling old. Instead it’s about how amazing this work to end violence and support survivors is. One of the things I love most is how I am continually changing my mind about things. Here are just a few examples of where I was (and maybe you were too) 21 years ago and where we are today.

From beds to bedrooms

We used to focus on how many beds we had, stuffing survivors and their children into all the nooks and crannies of our shelters with that elusive goal of “safety” looming over our heads. Now we’ve realized that dignity is actually what we are looking for. We are working to create empowering spaces where survivors get their needs for self-determination, security, and connection met. And we’re doing things to support families, like creating quiet spaces where kids can do their homework. Keeping families together and supporting survivors to get what they need is what matters most, not how many beds our overflowing shelter can hold.

From safety to safer

I have learned so much from Jill Davies’ and Eleanor Lyon’s new book. They argue that while safety from an abuser is critical, to be truly safe “requires more than the absence of physical violence. A victim who is no longer hit by a partner but has no way to feed her children or pay the rent is not safe.…Victims are safe when there is no violence, their basic human needs are met, and they experience social and emotional well-being.” So that means helping survivors experience less violence, more economic stability, and greater well-being is the true heart of meaningful advocacy.

From intervention to prevention

OK, let’s be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about prevention in 1994. In fact it hadn’t yet occurred to me that domestic violence was preventable. But guess what, it is! As critical as it is to help people in need, we also need to spend energy on stopping the violence before it starts. And this is an exciting time as we are figuring out how to actually do that. We’re creating a whole new language to help us get to a world where beloved community and better relationships exist—it is all so exciting! I can’t wait to see how many more things I change my mind about in the future.

News you can relate to

Some news stories that caught our eye this week:

Happy New Year! Are you into resolutions? Find some inspiration in Colorlines’ “Racial Justice Bucket List.”

The YWCA of Spokane is thinking about how the design of their shelter space can impact survivors’ healing process.

It’s stalking awareness month! Check out the presidential proclamation issued by the White House this week.

Are domestic violence victims codependent?

TextingMy therapist friend just texted me to ask: are domestic violence victims codependent? Here’s my crazy-long text back (ok, maybe it was a rant).

No.

An abusive relationship is not a codependent relationship, and therapists should not treat them the same way. In fact, telling survivors of abuse that they are codependent implies they share responsibility for the abusive dynamics in the relationship, which is unfair. I think it’s better for therapists to help survivors tease apart what’s abusive/one-sided power and control in the relationship, and what’s just crappy behavior on both people’s parts. And also to recognize/acknowledge that many survivors act against their own values (e.g., lying, manipulating, being mean) *in response to* and *in order to survive* the abuser’s violence and coercive control. Therapists can help survivors figure out what they want in a relationship, and what type of person they want to be, and then figure out whether those dreams seem achievable in the current relationship. And if those dreams aren’t achievable, it doesn’t necessarily mean the couple will break up – for so many reasons – and in that case, therapists can support survivors to be their best and safest selves even as they endure and cope with an abusive partner. That’s my forty cents!

Also: even if she *is* codependent, knowing that doesn’t actually help her deal with a partner who is more interested in maintaining power and control AT ANY COST than the health of the relationship. Even if she stops being codependent, he will still be an abusive a-hole who may hurt her worse if she stands up to him or tries to leave. The whole point is that domestic violence relationships are fundamentally different from crappy/unhealthy relationships.

And finally, many survivors aren’t codependent; they are dependent! Financially and otherwise – that is a big way the abuser maintains control.

Yes, I really wrote all of that in a text. I guess the question hit a nerve for me. How would you have answered?