When Domestic Violence Erupts…

I read with great sadness in today’s paper about a 28-year-old mother of four found killed in her apartment. She had twice sought protection orders against her violent ex-boyfriend. In one petition, she expressed a resignation that “a piece of paper isn’t going to save my life when he finally gets me, but at least you know who killed me.”

While speculation is rife about how this woman wound up dead, many comments to the news report condemned the failure of the criminal justice system to prevent violent men from hurting their partners. Some said that this tragedy could have been prevented if the woman was able to protect herself – with a gun. In any case, there was a clear “us” (the regular folks who abide by the law and treat others with respect) versus “them” (what one reader called “subhumans,” or people whose behaviors imply a lack of conscience). It seems that when we encounter people whose motivations are not fathomable by us, we take the moral high ground. It is easier to go up in arms and call for punishment than to think about the needs of the offenders.

Wait a minute, I hear you say, treat perpetrators of domestic violence with compassion?

Before I go on, let me reiterate this: if your partner is intimidating you and hurting you physically or sexually, seek help immediately. Make a safety plan that includes a secure location you can get to that is unknown to your partner. Do not harbor any thought that you can stay and change your partner. Whether your partner needs you is immaterial; your safety (and your children’s) is paramount.

As a society, on the other hand, we cannot let ourselves be prey to our fear, making angry outcries as couch commentators and distancing ourselves from fellow human beings whose heinous crimes we condemn. I do not profess to understand what drives people to hurt and kill; I certainly am not proclaiming I have the skills to change them. But this I know: if we continue to shun them and treat them the way the mentally ill were treated two centuries ago, we will never find out what drives them, let alone discover ways to intervene. Much of what we know about mental illness today came about not because we locked the afflicted up and threw away the key so we can be safe from them, but because we allowed ourselves to be curious, to understand what the mentally ill among us were going through. We began to see the common threads among “us” and “them.” We realized that psychotic and neurotic traits fell on a continuum; we found ourselves on the spectrum, if mostly on the lower end. We learned that “we” shared similar vulnerabilities as “them”: the feelings of inadequacy, the fear of abandonment, the loathing of being told we were not lovable. We discovered we needed the same nurturance to heal, not least of which was a connection with others. This would never have happened without empathy and compassion.

The people with hurt and kill are not beasts. But if in response we find ourselves turning into an angry mob, we need to pause and examine the fear that underlies our fury. We no longer live in medieval times, when the mentally ill were accused of witchcraft or devilry and burned at the stake. Today, with a greater understanding of human behavior and the vast scope of scientific tools at our disposal, surely we can afford a more rational response to atrocities.

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