The hidden cost of surviving gun violence

We bring you this guest post from Courtney Weaver, a local domestic violence survivor.

Photo by SevenSeven Photography
Photo by SevenSeven Photography

On January 15th, 2010 I was shot by my boyfriend point blank with a hollow-point .45. He was sentenced to 10.6 years in a federal prison in California. I have had 13 reconstructive surgeries on my face and right arm, hundreds of doctor appointments, and debt totaling at $440,605 as of May 2013. My ex, as is common with many perpetrators, has chosen not to work nor receive money while incarcerated to avoid paying restitution. This in turn has left me financially crippled and unable to rebuild my life.

One of the most insulting realities survivors like myself grapple with that most people are unaware of is how little victim compensation programs actually pay for. For instance, I was shocked and dismayed when I was left to clean up my own crime scene. Not much is more degrading than having to scrub my own dried blood off my kitchen floor 3 weeks after the shooting. Also, my landlord informed me I would have to pay for the damages caused by the bullet holes in my apartment or I would not get my security deposit back. Unfortunately that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the injustices I have faced as a survivor of such a horrific act of violence.

There is a very large discrepancy between how much compensation is allotted to a victim of a violent crime versus how much the perpetrator of that crime receives annually in state tax dollars. The numbers are very surprising and also telling of how society and the system supports the abuser while re-victimizing the victim. For example, my compensation was limited to $70,422 by the state program. The perpetrator on the other hand is given approximately $47,000 a year of tax payer dollars, $12,442 of that being in healthcare alone including mental health care. To date the taxpayers have spent over $141,000 on the man who shot me. By the time he is released in 2019 tax payers will have spent $498,000 rehabilitating this violent offender. Is his life more valuable than mine as a victim? What if victims received the same amount of financial support as the assailant?

Boys will be boys?

Recently, my friend’s 9-year-old son came home sad and confused. He had gone to the park with some boys he did not know well.tough-boys

After tearing a wooden fence apart, throwing rocks at a squirrel, and announcing to one of the younger boys that his mother was a slut, the older boys turned on M. They asked him if he “had a slut.” When he asked what this meant, they told him a slut was a “girl to f**k.” He wasn’t totally sure what that meant, and he got scared. As he told his mother later “I got the feeling if I didn’t answer right, they would hurt me.”

Being one of the boys in that moment meant being destructive, suppressing any signs of empathy, selling out women you care about, and characterizing females by their sexual availability. The price for not participating in that masculinity is the threat of violence. Like M, boys every day must ask themselves, “What if all that negative, destructive energy pivots from the small animal, the mom, or girls in general to ME?” Better to agree and keep it directed outward, right? Even if it means meekly agreeing that yes, your mom is a slut, before you even really know what that means or how you feel about it.

Too often, boys learn to mask their fear of one another with a camaraderie solidified by expressions of homophobia, sexism, and—for white boys—racism. Too often, boys learn that they must be dominating, unfeeling, tough, and defined in opposition to girls to be accepted. This results in a form of masculinity that pretends to be secure and strong, but is in reality tenuous and fragile. Fragile things have to be protected, shored up, and reinforced. And that results in a great deal of pain, since it requires targets (girls, sluts, sissies, fags) to define oneself against and put down in order to be “one of the boys.”

The stakes are high: participate or risk humiliation, intimidation, or becoming one of those targets. It is a bit of a house of cards, when you think about it: being worried about being judged not “man enough” by other boys and men who are also worried about being judged not “man enough” with the consequence of coming up short being bullied or violence.

So what happened to M? He told the boys he had to get home. He had the presence of mind to know that what was happening wasn’t okay, and he didn’t like it. He had the security to realize these boys’ friendship was not worth the compromises to his own integrity that would be required to seal it. And he knew that at home, he would be accepted, listened to, and protected.

I wish we could all feel that safe and protected in our homes, and in our bodies, however they are gendered. I would like M and all those boys to feel that they are wonderful, and that they are enough, just as they are. That they do not need to “man up.”* When we can support boys to be true to themselves instead of conforming to this rigid idea of what it means to be a man, then boys won’t just be boys. They will be compassionate, safe, secure people—like my friend’s son.

*explicit language

Bare-naked question

I have a question for you.

Do you think it’s even possible to end violence against women and children?

I’m serious. Is it possible for everyone to have healthy relationships, or is violence against women inevitable?

This is a question I’ve taken to posing recently, because as I approach the end of my long career, I want to know.

Maybe people—you, me, the guy sitting next to you—don’t believe this is possible. When I actually ask people, “Is violence inevitable?” there’s often a long pause. Which is interesting.

Now granted, I’m three decades into doing this domestic violence victim advocacy work, so maybe I’m a little slow here, but it’s only now dawning on me that our current responses to violence in relationships are not getting the job done. Not for lack of trying. Not for lack of big-hearted and dedicated people. Not for lack of laws, money, programs, shelters, and jails. We’ve got all that. What we don’t have is resolve. I think maybe we don’t believe it’s possible.

But pretend, just for kicks, we do all believe we could have healthy relationships. I don’t mean perfect, I don’t mean we don’t argue and have hurt feelings. But relationships that are about love and respect.

Pretend we’re willing to think way outside of all the boxes (institutions) we’ve invented and dream up more effective social controls on sexism and abuse and common sense approaches to fostering health and happiness. Could we even agree on what those would be? And if we did all that, would we succeed?

I married my partner

I married my partner of 20+ years December 9th, at Seattle’s joy-filled city hall. Families, friends, and friendly strangers gathered to cheer on the newly married couples as they descended a grand staircase. It was quite a party.

Getting married is an ambivalent thing for me, as I have been shut out of that institution for a long time. And I’ve seen the very painful, dark side of marriage in my professional life. Let’s face it, the history of marriage is one of women giving their bodies, emotional support, and physical labor to men. And still to this day, this idea and the support it gets in society narrows women’s choices and harms children—in some marriages. So why would I want to participate?

Photo by  joseanavas
Photo by joseanavas

It’s complicated, because marriage is complicated. Our society uses marriage in multiple ways: as a symbol of love and commitment; as a way to access certain legal rights; and to define an economic relationship and expectations. And, historically, as a way to enforce gender roles that give men/husbands the upper hand in decisions about money and priorities in the family. At the same time, marriage is evolving, and extending marriage to same sex partners is part of a long history of changes we’ve made to marriage so that it reflects our current reality.

Since I’ve been in my relationship for over 20 years, getting married didn’t carry quite the same weight as it did for my parents. They were excited to live together for the first time, be independent of their parents, and finally “go all the way.” Um, that all happened a long time ago for me. What motivated me was something my parents and straight friends didn’t give much thought to: having protections and rights that only come with marriage. I wanted to be ensured I could be at my partner’s side if she should end up in the hospital; have the ability to make medical decisions if she were incapacitated; and know that if one of us dies, our assets will transfer smoothly to one another. Marriage makes the legal world out there safer for us and our daughter. So our marriage was a pragmatic decision.

But I was surprisingly moved as well. I think I had willfully ignored all the ways in which marriage symbolizes positive things in our culture: love, hope, the caring and kindness between people. My jaded cynicism was tempered by the joy that broke out when the voters legalized marriage equality. Watching LGBTQ couples celebrating their marriages gave me more hope for all of us, because it happened in spite of the challenges a homophobic culture places in the way of LBGTQ people creating healthy relationships.

For that reason, I think my marriage and other gay marriages may have something to teach everyone. They are part of the ongoing evolution of marriage from a system of ownership and entitlement to an institution that nurtures healthy love, human potential, and beloved community. As a very wise friend of mine (who married her beloved of 40 years) says, “everyone benefits and is honored by extending civil rights for all, and from recognizing and embracing the power of love and justice.” We are all uplifted when we extend dignity to those who have been denied rights.

Of course, and very importantly, the other thing that gay marriage gets us is gay divorce. This is a good thing because no community is immune to violence, control, and just plain old dysfunction. Ending a complex and long term relationship requires assistance, protection, and justice.

I’m happy to be married. I am moved to have my state and city celebrate and recognize my relationship and those of all my LGBTQ friends. I am relieved to have the rights and protections that come with marriage. And I’m glad to know that if I should need it, I can get a divorce as well. Because no one’s marriage should take away a person’s ability to make their own choices, follow their dreams, or protect themselves and their children.

One of the things we have to fear is fear itself

sandy-hookPart of the experience of parenting these days is the constant background noise of worry. News and social media, endlessly fascinated with danger, feed a steady stream of warning about the perils waiting for our children.

After the horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, that low hum of worry turned up to full-volume fear for parents across the country. I felt it too, the gut wrenching, full body chill that comes with imagining the worst. But honestly, I was not afraid for my kids’ safety. I know that violence in schools is very rare and that by most measures kids are safer now than ever.

What I did genuinely worry about is the impulse to react to our fear and vulnerability with ever-increasing “security measures.” Armed guards in schools, more locked doors, fingerprints and background checks for parents.

I’m not naive about violence, but my experience has shown me that we can’t keep danger on the other side of a locked door. I know my children live in a world with abusers and rapists. I know that some people do terrible things to children. I know that I can’t tell by looking which man in the park or on the bus would hurt one of them if he had the chance. Just like I don’t know which guy at the gym or which little league dad is beating his wife at home. I live in a neighborhood where it is not uncommon to hear gunshots. Yet I believe that most of the violence is committed inside locked doors by people who belong there.

When it comes to protecting kids from harm by the people they trust, increased “security” is worse than useless. It actually makes our kids—and all of us—less safe. Tight security undermines connection and community—the very things that are most important to kids’ safety, health, and happiness. This letter from a mom to her child’s preschool points out how. My kids’ school, like many, held a meeting for parents about students’ safety in the days after the Sandy Hook shooting. Some of the concern, of course, was about school security, sign-in procedures, etc. But I was grateful that most of the focus was on how to re-commit to strengthening our connection as a community. Resisting fear, breaking isolation, looking out for each other—safety from the inside out.

Leadership

women-graduatingFrom an early age, I always thought to myself that education was “my way out.” I thought it would give me a voice, power over my choices, and freedom. I saw it as a way to equalize myself to boys and men. For the most part, things pretty much worked out how I imagined—I found my voice, I have more power over my choices, and I have the experience of freedom.

But lately I’ve been wondering, what if I focused less on trying to achieve what men have and more on how to develop myself to achieve what is most important to me? What if every girl and every woman did the same? What if each and every community valued educating girls to fulfill their goals?

What would women, as leaders, achieve? How would our communities be different? I imagine a whole new world of possibilities. And I am interested in hearing what you think!

It matters to me

What an interesting crazy-making time we live in.

We have a country blowing up about birth control and rolling back reproductive rights at the same time as fashion trends and pop culture role models continue to impose sexy sexy sexy on our girls.

I am so tired of the heavy burden girls bear; to be sexy, young-looking sex objects, but not have sex. But if you do have sex, don’t get pregnant. But don’t use birth control. And definitely do not have an abortion.

Photo by michelleavitia@gmail.com at SoCalFeminist

We are giving girls the message: we only care about your uterus and what might grow in it. What happens to you before a pregnancy―rape, relationship violence, poverty, lack of access to sex education and birth control―does not matter. What happens to you during your pregnancy―besides the continued growth of the fetus―does not matter. What happens to you and the baby after it’s born―does not matter.

Why are the dominant messages so simplistic, so binary, so… stupid? How are we as a populace putting up with ourselves for being such liars―professing to value families, while simultaneously whittling away all the resources that support families?

I am eager to see us shift towards talking about healthy, positive sexuality, based on individual preferences and (where applicable) faith. Without imposing one (tiny, revealing) size fits all.

Rihanna and Chris

My recent discovery of Spotify has me wading back into the world of pop music for the first time since Salt-N-Pepa were on MTV (does MTV still exist?) With the recent sparks flying around Chris Brown and Rihanna’s latest collaborations, I thought I would take a listen to their music. I discovered that I’m not a fan, but you certainly can’t miss the passion in their songs. And yet it’s alarming that this passion sounds a lot like violence. Blogger Yolo Akili is right on when he says “Pop songs about love sound more and more like war every day. And that should be frightening to us all.” Pop music has often been criticized for its portrayal of women and relationships, and most of the time for good reason—but that’s another post entirely.

Today I’m talking about Rihanna and Chris Brown. Maybe it’s just industry smoke and mirrors, or maybe there is still passion and even affection between these two. Either way, I was struck by the lack of compassion for Rihanna as the public opinion swirled around their new collaborations. Here’s a newsflash: people who have been abused often have contact with their abusers after they leave. Sometimes it’s about kids, but often it’s about reconnecting, giving a second chance, knowing the good in a person and hoping for a better outcome.

I’m not in any way minimizing what Chris Brown did. That was despicable. But Rihanna reconnecting with him, whether personally or professionally, does not equal her accepting or condoning the abuse. I’ve heard the outcry that she’s a role model for young women… what is she thinking? What are we thinking that we are holding her responsible for exemplifying the kind of relationship we want for our kids? Why aren’t we saying that it’s Chris Brown’s responsibility as a role model to not use violence to control his partner?

Although I am alarmed by a lot of what is being said, I’m glad people are talking about it. Let’s keep the conversation going. Reese Witherspoon is talking to her kids about it. Talk with the young people in your life and ask them what they think. Did you know a recent study found that most teens said they knew what a healthy relationship looked like, but didn’t expect to be in one? Come on, we can do better than that!

Will you be abused?

I just came back from the Abuse of Elders and Adults with Disabilities Conference. Did you know the first federal law focused on preventing elder abuse passed just last year? Surprised this didn’t already exist? I was.

As our guest blogger, Phil Jordan, pointed out, our focus on violence by an “intimate partner” generally leaves out elders and people with disabilities being abused by a family member or caregiver. But these trusted relationships
are certainly intimate in their own way: someone has access to your body, your home, your money. And with that comes control and the possibility of abuse.

Folks 80+ are the fastest growing segment of our total population. Ask anyone who has reached that “certain age” and they will tell you about an experience of feeling invisible and less credible. We’re all headed there. Whether you will be able to live in your own home, a facility, or become homeless, we are all going to keep aging. And this makes us vulnerable to be trapped in an abusive relationship.

You might manage to have great relationships through your whole life. But when you get older, you’ll be entering into different kinds of intimate relationships and you may have a lot less choice about who those people are. If they start controlling you, where will you turn?

I had a dream

I just got back late last night from Washington, D.C. WSCADV received the Sheila Wellstone award for outstanding organization. A great honor. We got a nice plaque at a fascinating ceremony at the Hart Senate Office Building. I’ll tell you about it if you want to hear.

I had 4 whole hours the day after the ceremony to wander around before flying home. Walking New York Avenue toward the White House, I heard drumming. What’s going on? Let’s find out.

A protest!

Though House Majority Leader Eric Cantor calls these (and other) folks a “growing mob” bent on “pitting Americans against Americans,” that’s not what I saw.

This family is on vacation from Kansas City, Kansas. (She lost her job a few years ago―a super interesting story.) Who else was there? The raging grannies. Veterans in wheelchairs. Young people, old people. Oh, and me. I suppose in an odd way, it’s a compliment to call us a mob.

After folks left to reassemble at Lafayette Park, I walked over to the new Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial. If you’ve ever been to D.C., you know you have to walk really far to get anywhere. I had a lot of time to think. What the hell is our government for? Why are so many people suffering and unhappy?

The MLK memorial was not as inspirational as I needed. It’s a chilly place―I mean emotionally. Have you been there? What do you think?

I wandered on and happened upon the reflecting pool.

How ironic is that? This is a place I always associate with Dr. King and his most famous speech. And here it lies today. Is this reflecting the mood of the nation? It certainly was reflecting mine.

Next stop: the sculpture garden café across from the National Archive. Maybe I was just feeling crabby because I was hungry―so I ate lunch.  Sitting there brooding and staring at the Archive, I decided to make it my last stop. I wanted to lay my eyes on our founding documents―I mean THE Declaration of Independence, THE Constitution and THE Bill of Rights.

I lined up with all the school kids to get in and at last found inspiration. And had a good laugh too. I was bending over the glass case looking at the Declaration of Independence and the middle schooler standing next to me was asked by her teacher “Who were we declaring independence from?” The little girl paused and answered “France.” Ouch. I stood behind the teacher, made eye contact with the girl and mouthed “England.” She tried, but evidently couldn’t read lips.

Call me a geek, but I went to the gift shop and bought a copy of the Constitution and read it on the plane on the way home. There! Right there!  It says “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare (See? It actually says that!), and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

If we can recommit ourselves to this―to our democracy―if we can reclaim it for ourselves, then we will free ourselves from the violence that surrounds us.

You really need to read the rest of the Constitution, then get out there and find a mob of your own.

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