In my first post on abuse, I said not to read the domestic violence chapter (chapter ten, “Intimate enemies”) in The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker.
I’ve changed my mind.
What’s wrong with this chapter
Becker implies that on some level, victims choose to be abused—words that are both dangerous and wrong.
Abuse isn’t your fault. You didn’t choose it. It just happened to you.
This passage, in particular, is wrong:
“Though leaving is not an option that seems available to many battered women, I believe that the first time a woman is hit, she is a victim and the second time, she is a volunteer. Invariably, after a television interview or a speech in which I say this, I hear from people who feel I don’t understand the dynamic of battery, that I don’t understand the ‘syndrome.’ In fact, I have a deep and personal understanding of the syndrome, but I never pass up an opportunity to make clear that staying is a choice. Of those who argue that it isn’t, I ask: Is it a choice when a woman finally does leave, or is there some syndrome to explain leaving as if it too is involuntary? I believe it is critical for a woman to view staying as a choice, for only then can leaving be viewed as a choice and an option.
Also, if we dismiss women’s participation as being beyond choice, then what about the man? Couldn’t we point to his childhood, his insecurities, his shaky identity, his addiction to control, and say that his behavior too is determined by a syndrome and is thus beyond his choice? Every human behavior can be explained by what precedes it, but that does not excuse it, and we must hold abusive men accountable.”
This makes no sense. How could you be a volunteer after someone hits you, when by hitting you, he’s telling you he’ll hurt you more if you don’t cooperate?
Harriet J says:
“When somebody you knew, somebody you trusted, does something so frighteningly outside the boundaries of normal and expected behavior, that person becomes a stranger who is capable of anything. And, more importantly, a stranger who has already proven that they are willing to do anything.
[…] [With rape, for instance:] A victim doesn’t know their rapist is capable of rape until a rape begins; and once a victim knows that, they have no idea what else their rapist is capable of.”
Staying is a choice in the same sense that “help me rob this store or I’ll shoot you” is a choice. We don’t hold people responsible for robbery when someone else has a gun to their head.
And the choice isn’t clearcut, either. You’re not saying to yourself, “I might die if I stay, and I might die if I leave, so I guess I’ll stay”—that sounds insane. If you put it like that, of course you’d leave.
No, it’s more like: he does $SCARY_THING to you and you go into shock. You’re crying and trembling. You think:
“I don’t even know what just happened. If I allowed the memory to surface, I’d have to acknowledge the mortal peril I’m in right now, and I can’t face that, because I have nowhere to go. So I’d better stay calm. Now he’s apologizing. He says it was a misunderstanding and/or accident. That’s a relief. Because I don’t know what I’d do if it was $SCARY_THING. Pass out from fear, probably.”
Notice the conscious thought is “I have nowhere to go.” Swirling below is the awareness of what happened last time you tried to leave him (when he stalked and harassed you until you got back together with him), and the certainty that he’ll do it again (with an added dose of punishment, for crossing him twice).
If you heard yourself say that out loud, maybe you’d say “I’d better get to a shelter ASAP. I can rebuild my life after that.”
But you never say it out loud. Because then you’d have to go to a shelter! And who wants to do that? I have a job, I have places to be, I don’t want to be living out of a suitcase in a women’s shelter. (Or on a friend’s couch, or whatever.) He touched me once, okay a few times, but I’m not a “battered woman.” …Let’s not be dramatic.
(You guys. I was a battered woman.)
(Also, he knew where I worked, so I knew he’d harass me every time I left the building. What was I supposed to do, quit? Live like I’m in witness protection? To my distorted mind, those options sounded like “living in fear,” “letting him control me,” and “being paranoid.”)
Instead, I decided, “I’m not ready to break up with him yet, so I’m staying with him.” (I would never be ready to break up with him, in the situation I was in at the time, because I would never put myself in danger like that. I was aware of what he might do, even if I was too scared to acknowledge it. Subconsciously, I knew I was waiting until I could get out safely—and I did.)
This is the cycle of abuse. He puts you in so much fear that the whole time you stay, it’s because your body has decided for you that staying is the safest thing you can do.
Your body might be wrong, but you’re not consciously sorting through the options; you just do it. It’s shutdown-survival mode.
Also, your body is often right, since a woman is most at risk of being killed after a breakup.
Now we can respond to Becker: If staying is “volunteering to be hit,” then by that logic, leaving is volunteering to be killed.
And Becker has the gall to compare this choice to the one an abuser faces when he decides whether to abuse. In the armed robbery situation, who has the choice—the person with the gun to their head, or the person holding the gun?
“Cooperate or die” is a choice, yes, but not a choice to the same degree as “commit armed robbery, or not.” (“Abuse another person, or not.”) Not even close.
To quote Harriet J again:
“‘Letting it happen’ is not consent. ‘Letting it happen’ is making a choice between a three-story jump and a car crash, trying to decide which one you’re more likely to survive.”
Becker contradicts himself elsewhere
Becker acknowledges that only you can know what the safest decision is (and therefore, staying might temporarily be the safest decision), when he says (in chapter four):
“I cannot offer you a checklist of what to do for each type of hazard you could encounter, because cookie-cutter approaches are dangerous. Some people say about rape, for example, do not resist, while others say always resist. Neither strategy is right for all situations, but one strategy is: Listen to your intuition. I don’t know what might be best for you in some hazardous situation because I don’t have all the information, but you will have all the information. Do not listen to the TV news checklist of what to do, or the story about what your friend did. Listen to the wisdom that comes from having heard it all by listening to yourself.”
He’s aware that being abused causes you to have a distorted perception of risk. And he knows that when you’re torn about leaving, the decision hinges on whether you have somewhere to go: “For every battered woman who makes the choice to leave, we as a society must provide a place for her to go.”
In other words, this is more than an individual problem—it’s a societal one—and one that victims alone cannot control.
I’ve seen comments online speculating that Becker is just projecting his childhood issues in chapter ten, when he talks about women who stay in abusive relationships being responsible for their and their children’s abuse, because it’s where his own parents failed him.
But he could take a page from Susan Brewster’s book Helping Her Get Free, and replace his you’re-somewhat-responsible-for-abuse content with this:
“A woman who is being abused must feel powerful in her ability to make adequate decisions in her life if she is to break free of her abusive partner’s control over her. As a survivor of abuse, she has strengths which have made her survival possible.”
(That is, charitably, what he’s trying to do in the volunteering-for-abuse passage, when he says “I believe it is critical for a woman to view staying as a choice, for only then can leaving be viewed as a choice and an option.”)
And this, from Captain Awkward:
“If you fought back and survived, that was the right decision. If you didn’t fight back and you survived, that was also the right decision. If you fought back or didn’t fight back and you didn’t survive, I assume you’re not reading this blog, but in case you are, that was also the right decision because the entire thing was out of your fucking hands.”
Why you might still want to read chapter ten
So, having said all that, why am I taking back what I said about not reading this chapter?
First, because there are some useful parts. For example…
Look at what is, not what could be
“One of the most common errors in selecting a boyfriend or spouse is basing the prediction on potential. This is actually predicting what certain elements might add up to in some different context: He isn’t working now, but he could be really successful. He’s going to be a great artist—of course he can’t paint under present circumstances. He’s a little edgy and aggressive these days, but that’s just until he gets settled.
Listen to the words: isn’t working, can’t paint, is aggressive. What a person is doing now is the context for successful predictions, and marrying a man on the basis of potential, or for that matter hiring an employee solely on the basis of potential, is a sure way to interfere with intuition. That’s because the focus on potential carries our imagination to how things might be or could be and away from how they are now.”
You don’t necessarily want a restraining order
“Restraining orders (often called TROs) have long been homework assignments police give women to prove they’re really committed to getting away from their pursuers. […]
Many homicides have occurred at the courthouse where the women were seeking protection orders, or just prior to the hearings. Why? Because the murderers were allergic to rejection. They found it hard enough in private but intolerable in public. […]
Restraining orders are most effective on the reasonable person who has a limited emotional investment. In other words, they work best on the person least likely to be violent anyway. […]
There is really only one good reason to get a restraining order in a case of wife abuse: the woman believes the man will honor it and leave her alone. If a victim or a professional in the system gets a restraining order to stop someone from committing murder, they have probably applied the wrong strategy.”
And second, because I think you can read what he said about “choosing” abuse, think critically, and see through it. Doing so is empowering. At least, it was for me.
“Autobiography in Five Chapters” by Portia Nelson
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
I love this poem, but I crossed out the line “It is my fault” in the third stanza, because it doesn’t work here.
This sidewalk-hole metaphor breaks down in the context of abuse, because the hole is chasing you and the ground is shifting and there’s nowhere safe to run, and everyone’s telling you it’s not so bad in the hole, not everyone gets to have a perfect street with “sunlight” and “air,” you’re being too picky—we thought you liked holes. You’re hurting the hole’s feelings. Have you tried asking the hole politely to let you out?
Let’s say you get out (again), in spite of all that, and you get far enough away from that particular hole that it probably won’t find you. Now you can move on with your life. Now, if you see something that looks like a hole, you’ll know to avoid it.
But it still wouldn’t be your fault if one chased you until you fell in again. Abuse is not your fault, times infinity.
 Harriet J, “Another post about rape,” fugitivus.wordpress.com/2009/01/08/another-post-about-rape/.
Quoted in “Rape: Awkward,” captainawkward.com/2011/02/21/rape-awkward/.
 What about people who are “just” emotionally abused by their partners, but never actually in physical danger?
To that I offer this quote from Helping Her Get Free by Susan Brewster:
“Granted, there is a difference between physical and emotional abuse. A woman who is emotionally abused fears for the loss of her self and sanity, while a woman who is physically abused fears for the loss of her self, sanity, and life. This difference may seem rather unimportant, however, when you are considering […] an abused woman you care about.”
 Aside from “afraid the violence or harassment will get worse if they leave,” a person in an abusive relationship may feel:
- Afraid to tell anyone.
- Depressed and uncertain.
- Guilty about leaving their partner; scared of being alone.
- Furious their partner could do or say the things they did.
- Confused because sometimes their partner acts loving and kind.
- Frustrated and sad because they’ve tried everything.
- Hope for the relationship.
- Love for their partner.
- Desire to honor religious convictions or cultural expectations.
- Afraid they’ll be forced to leave their children or pets with their partner.
- Afraid of losing their children, pets, friends, family, home, job, possessions—of nuking their whole life and having to start over with nothing.
- Ashamed to admit how bad things got; ashamed to admit they “let” those things happen.
- Panicked about losing their identity (and being seen as weak, a victim) if people found out.
- Worried about their financial security.
- Unsure if it really is abuse, or if they’re just being dramatic/paranoid.
Adapted from a government of Alberta pamphlet, “Men Abused by Women in Intimate Relationships,” humanservices.alberta.ca/documents/PFVB1100-men-abused-by-women-booklet.pdf.
See also this excellent Issendai post on qualities that keep you in a sick system, quoted below.
Qualities That Keep You in a Sick System
- A strong work ethic
- A need to be useful to others
You don’t need to lose these qualities to get out. But if you’re stuck and trying to figure out what’s keeping you in, remember that people rarely get stuck because of their vices. They’re usually caught by their virtues.
 Sources below.
“The most dangerous time for a survivor/victim is when she leaves the abusive partner; 77 percent of domestic violence-related homicides occur upon separation and there is a 75 percent increase of violence upon separation for at least two years.”
—Battered Women’s Support Services, bwss.org/eighteen-months-after-leaving-domestic-violence-is-still-the-most-dangerous-time/.
“Women are six times more likely to be killed by an ex-partner than by a current partner, and many women say that they were abused by a partner after the relationship ended, and that the violence escalated following a break-up (Maire Sinha, Juristat, 2013; Statistics Canada, 2016). Almost 60% of police-reported dating violence happens after the relationship has ended (Tina Hotton Mahony, Juristat, 2008).”
—Canadian Women’s Foundation, canadianwomen.org/the-facts/gender-based-violence/.
“A batterer is much more likely to kill his partner when he has reason to believe that she has left him for good and there is no chance of winning her back, than when she is with him. […Note that this is] evidence that batterers do exercise some control over their violent behavior.”
—Susan Brewster, Helping Her Get Free: A Guide for Families and Friends of Abused Women
 From chapter ten:
“Many of these women have been beaten so much that their fear mechanism is dulled to the point that they take in stride risks that others would consider extraordinary. The relationship between violence and death is no longer apparent to them. One woman who’d been at a shelter and then returned to her abuser gives us a good example: She called the shelter late one night to ask if she could come back. As always, the first question the counselor asked was, ‘Are you in danger now?’ The woman said no. Later in the call, the woman added, almost as an aside, that her husband was outside the room with a gun. Hadn’t she just a moment earlier said she wasn’t in danger? To her, if he was in the same room with the gun or the gun was being held to her head, then she would be in danger.”
 Again, from chapter ten:
“How could someone feel that being beaten does not justify leaving? Being struck and forced not to resist is a particularly damaging form of abuse because it trains out of the victim the instinctive reaction to protect the self. To override that most natural and central instinct, a person must come to believe that he or she is not worth protecting. Being beaten by a ‘loved one’ sets up a conflict between two instincts that should never compete: the instinct to stay in a secure environment (the family) and the instinct to flee a dangerous environment. As if on a see-saw, the instinct to stay prevails in the absence of concrete options on the other side. […] For every battered woman who makes the choice to leave, we as a society must provide a place for her to go.”
 Quoted in Healing the Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles Whitfield.