Friday, February 01, 2008

A Moment of Peace

My hospital shift this week was bracketed by two very sad cases: 1) a homeless patient with dual addiction/psych issues, yearning for lost connection with family, and 2) a victim of domestic violence. The staff seemed fairly sympathetic to the homeless patient (asking me to visit rather than telling me not to visit, as they sometimes do), but I found the responses to the DV victim a bit discouraging. There was quite a bit of that "well, why don't you just leave" attitude, communicated a bit too openly to the patient, who was doing the right thing in pressing charges and surely didn't need a guilt trip on top of physical injuries.

I'll try not to go into a full-fledged rant about this, but look: if leaving were easy, it would already have happened. There are reasons (economic, emotional, psychological) why people stay, and the trick is to figure out what those are and work with them. Every relationship is more complicated than it looks from the outside.

Also, one of the classic abuser tactics is making the victim feel responsible. "If you didn't do X, I wouldn't have to hit you," or whatever. "This is your fault." So if the powers-that-be compound that by saying, "It's your fault because you didn't leave," or send a message that sounds anything like that, they're inadvertently reinforcing the abuser's line.

(Note: When I was nineteen, I was on the receiving end of a domestic assault from someone with whom I had a long and very complicated relationship. I was ideally positioned not to go back there, and didn't, but it was still one of the hardest things I'd ever had to do, partly because I genuinely cared about this person -- who'd become violent in an alcoholic blackout, didn't remember anything the next morning, and was truly appalled -- and partly because I knew I wasn't the innocent angel many of my indignant friends were trying to convince me I was. The message I needed to hear, and finally did hear from an excellent therapist, was, "It's okay not to go back even if you've done things wrong, including not heeding earlier warning signs. This isn't about whether you're blameless. It's about the fact that domestic violence is always wrong, whether the other party is a saint or not.")

I ranted anyway, didn't I? End of rant! Anyway, in the middle of the shift, which was also full of squalling kids, I glanced into a room and saw a rare scenario of peace. A young couple had come in some hours earlier; spouse1 had been up all night vomiting, and spouse2 was anxious and worn. When I glanced toward their bedside, spouse1 was peacefully asleep under a warm blanket; spouse2, sitting on a stool, had lowered the bedrail and leaned over to take a nap too. There were two heads on the pillow, side by side. It was a beautiful portrait of love and connection, a reminder that in a world with too much pain, there are still healthy and nurturing relationships.


  1. You really do make me like you more and more, Susan! Thank you for your rant...there is far too much "blame the victim" mentality in matters affecting women. You hit on really important points.

  2. Anonymous10:48 AM

    Why doesn't she just leave?

    Well, why doesn't he just stop hitting her?

    Grr. I hate blaming the victim. Rant away.

  3. I hate the blame the victim thing. If it's so easy, why don't others do it, walk a while in the person's shoes, I mean. That said, I know that some of what happens is that it's only recently that there is a lot of information out there saying that women don't want to be abused.

    My professors have said that social work used to believe that the woman somehow enjoyed being hit. Obviously that mentality has changed, but it still surprised me. Anyway, rant away, I completely agree with you!

  4. Thanks, everybody!

    A few points:

    1. This isn't just a women's issue. Men and boys can be, and are, victims of domestic violence too, and for various reasons I think it's often even harder for them to ask for help. (Likewise, abusers can be, and are, female as well as male.)

    2. The folks at the hospital from whom I picked up the "she just needs to leave message" (communicated more subtly than I've perhaps indicated here) were women themselves. I think the line is partly one of those "I know the obvious way to handle this situation, which means it could never happen to me" defensive strategies. In that way, it's quite similar to the reflexive "Oh, does she smoke?" response I got from everyone, including my physician, when my mother got lung cancer. (Answer: Yeah, she used to smoke, but she stopped twenty-five years ago, and the kind of cancer she has is the one most common in women and nonsmokers.) It's not really a request for information: it's a piece of magical thinking, a way of keeping that particular piece of misfortune from coming any closer: "I don't smoke, so I won't get lung cancer," and so forth.

    So maybe it's less "blame the victim" than "avert the evil eye," although the victim who overhears it will certainly feel blamed.

  5. one other thing about "why doesn't she just leave?" It is now known that a woman is most vulnerable after leaving (i.e. more women are killed after leaving their abuser than while in the relationship)

    intimate partner violence is a very complicated, tragic situation. I think you are right that sometimes the judgmental attitude comes from a place of defensiveness rather than true malice, but it still doesn't help.

    Oh, and as a person who has been a feminist since my early teens over 30 years ago, it still took me a couple of years to realize that I was in an unhealthy (emotionally) abusive relationship, even after all my friends told me that the woman in question was bad news

  6. I appreciate your comment about magical thinking as a way to ward off tragedy landing on one's own doorstep. Very insightful.


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