The United States is not immune to the deadly epidemic. According to the FBI, between 2000 and 2006, domestic homicide took 10,600 lives in the United States. During that same period, 3,200 American soldiers were killed. What makes the home more lethal than a war zone for so many women?
In 1974, Erin Pizzey published Scream Quietly or the Neighbors will Hear, a book that broke the silence on the scourge of domestic violence. Since that time, advocates and policymakers have worked tirelessly to protect victims, train police and other professionals, and pass laws that recognize and punish perpetrators of domestic violence for the brutal crime that it is.
Why then, asks journalist Rachel Louise Snyder in her powerful new book, No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, are the numbers of women (and the victims are mostly women) being attacked, injured, and murdered in their homes still so great? Advocates estimate that one in four women in the United States will be victims of domestic physical violence during their lifetimes. According to a recent report by Northeastern University, the number of domestic violence homicides, after reaching a plateau for almost four decades, has actually increased.
Snyder is an award-winning journalist who has reported from more than 50 countries. She has witnessed violence against women across the globe:
Tibetan women forcibly sterilized by the Chinese government; teenage brides in Niger cast from their villages after post-pregnancy fistulas made them pariahs; […] Cambodian street workers beaten and gang-raped for weekend sport by well-heeled Khmer teenagers. […] It was as common as rain.
Still, as she researched No Visible Bruises, she was surprised and profoundly disturbed by the level of domestic violence in the United States. She had wrongly assumed that it was just the fate of the unfortunate few. What she learned when she turned her gaze to her own country is that “the universality of domestic violence […] crosses geographical, cultural and linguistic barriers.”
And yet, this severe problem often remains behind closed doors, in the shadows.
Snyder crisscrossed the country to interview the people most directly affected: women who were victims, male perpetrators who were imprisoned and vowed to change (and sometimes succeeded), providers working on the front lines to help women escape violence in their homes, and policy makers who have tried to craft long-term, sustainable solutions.
One underlying problem, Snyder writes, is the assumption that this kind of violence is “private,” an assumption that is reflected in our very language. “Domestic disputes, domestic violence, private conflicts, volatile relationships, mistreatment, domestic abuse. All of these are passive constructions, eradicating responsibility not only on behalf of the abuser, but on behalf of law enforcement as well,” she argues. Although she uses the term “domestic violence” in the book because it is the most commonly understood, she thinks that “intimate partner terrorism” is a more accurate term because it “captures the particular psychological, emotional and physical dynamics” of a crime that should never be obscured.
Using her journalism chops, Snyder presents an array of almost unbearable personal stories to illustrate her key points and drive home the shocking statistics. The tragic story of the Monson family, torn apart by domestic violence, is woven throughout the book. Snyder succeeds in winning the trust of the parents and sisters of Michelle, arriving on their doorsteps in Billings, Montana, “through a tangled series of people and geographies and years of research.”
After months of family interviews and hours of viewing home movies, she unravels the story of how Rocky, the man Michelle married at 15, was able to elude arrest, violate restraining orders, and obtain a gun that he used to murder Michelle and their two children, Kristy and Kyle — fans of swimming, camping, and Harry Potter — in their own home.
Michelle’s death illustrates one of Snyder’s main tenets: when we ask why a woman doesn’t just leave a dangerous situation, we are asking the wrong question. Michelle “tried every which way she could” to protect herself and her children.
Leaving is never an event; it’s a process, requiring careful planning and riddled with setbacks. The first step is staying alive. All too commonly, victims fail to renew restraining orders — or recant their accusations — because they rightfully fear retaliation. It often takes victims seven or eight tries to leave. […] They stay because they choose to live.
The question we should be asking, Snyder asserts, is not why do the victims stay, but “how do we protect this person?”
Snyder’s in-depth reporting and vivid writing imbue the book with drama and tension. We feel the desperation of Grace, who tells her story in a Cleveland living room as her autistic toddler races back and forth and her teenage son tries to both “protect her and seek protection from her.” When Grace’s husband beat her and held a loaded gun to her head, she had to pretend to pass out for him to leave the house. Snyder’s description of police officers trying to defuse a hostage situation is so tense that you forget she is reporting on a training session. In a stark prison ward, she captures the raw emotions of men in an anti-violence workshop.
The prevalence of guns makes the United States the most dangerous developed country for women: the states with the highest number of guns per capita also have the highest rate of domestic violence homicide. The Northeastern study shows that between 2015 and 2017, there was a rise in domestic partner homicides, and that men who commit murder most often use guns. One expert called it the most significant misunderstanding about domestic violence.
Guns increase women’s danger exponentially. Until a gun comes into the relationship, she still feels like she has some capacity to deal with what’s going on, whether it’s to run, to lock the bedroom door, or whatever. Guns take away any bargaining power a victim may once have had.
Snyder skillfully takes on the challenging task of depicting the humanity of the perpetrators without diminishing their crimes. She believes that it is possible for violent men to change if the right resources are in place, citing programs like Resolve to Stop the Violence, which began in the San Francisco Jail in San Bruno; ManAlive; and other batterer intervention programs around the country. Her interviews with men convicted of violent assaults of their partners reveal the toxicity of male socialization. Some of the men who go through the trainings have come to understand this and have rebuilt their lives. She talks to others who have not been so successful.
There have been many advances over the last 40 years: the provision of safe shelters as a temporary haven for women and children, training of judges, police officers, prosecutors and parole officers, anti-violence programs for men, the passage of local, state, and federal legislation, risk assessment programs, and coordinated community responses. Significantly, the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1993 brought these efforts to national attention and supported them with funding.
“Perhaps most importantly,” says Esta Soler, director of Futures Without Violence who has worked in this field for decades, “is that the national conversation has changed. The activism of survivors and advocates has taken this story from the back pages to the front page.” Domestic violence is an issue of public concern, Soler says, for everyone, not just for those directly involved.
“There is no doubt that we’ve great strides in treating domestic violence as the public health crisis that it is,” Snyder writes. VAWA alone is often credited with reducing domestic violence by 64 percent between 1993 and 2010. Stalking is now a felony charge in more than 40 states. Strangulation is a felony in 45. Many communities have adopted more coordination of services and sophisticated methods of risk assessment so they can provide watchful eyes and extra protection for particularly vulnerable women. The effort to move victims out of temporary shelters — which can be very disruptive for women struggling to hold on to their jobs and for their children who may have to change schools — and into longer-term safe spaces in their communities, is also taking root.
“I want to believe that we’re getting better at working with the victims and intervening with the perpetrators, that we’re recognizing the vast and endless ways domestic violence devastates families and communities,” writes Snyder. Yet she warns — and the statistics bear out — the problem is far from resolved. Congress failed to reauthorize the 2018 Violence Against Women Act and — unlike when the law passed with bipartisan support — there was not a single GOP co-sponsor.
Snyder’s comprehensive examination of this crucial issue clearly illustrates that domestic violence is pervasive in US society and intersects with nearly every social issue we face from mental health to homelessness, from poverty to sexual assault, from gender equality to prison reform. Her book is a welcome addition to the efforts that bring this brutal crime out from behind closed doors and provide hope for the future. As she concludes, “How a matter like family violence with such profound public consequences was ever considered a private issue is confounding in hindsight.”
Elaine Elinson is the former editor of the ACLU News and the co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight, winner of a Gold Medal in the 2010 California Book Awards.