Ten months ago, I suffered domestic violence from my wife. My child and I have lived with the consequences ever since. They will shape my daughter’s life even longer and more dramatically than mine.
As I consider this awful experience in retrospect, several thoughts come to the fore.
What strikes me about domestic violence is its sheer thoughtlessness. We often discuss domestic violence only in terms of dominance and control, but it has complex origins, forms of expression and shorter or longer durations.
The form of domestic violence that succumbs to passionate anger represents the antithesis of control. Emotion surges; rationality disappears.
When my wife later testified in court, “I don’t remember hitting him,” I believed her. She had lost self-control to the extent that she no longer remembered — or wished to forget — her actions.
Forethought provides a fundamental guide to our actions. Once we lose our grip on that guide, we stand at great risk. To slide into the darkness of domestic violence is to enter a world where we have lost sight of rationality, consequences and the emotional bonds of family. To lose self-possession and engage in such violence is to lose any claim on decency.
My wife did not hurt me physically. As her fists slammed into my back, I kept my back to her, reached for a cellphone and called 911. Half a dozen police officers flooded into the house very quickly. As they did so, I felt shame for our family. We are educated people and this should not be happening, I felt. This is not who we are, yet it was. Calling for police assistance was a necessary demand for the restoration of decency, for an immediate end to abuse.
Unlike so many who suffer domestic assaults and physical harm, I did not end up in a hospital emergency ward or worse, in a morgue. Family concerned at earlier reports of my wife’s mental state had advised me to remove knives and sharp objects from the house, which possibly prevented greater violence.
Instead, the harms were psychological and deep. They were especially harsh for our nine-year-old daughter, who witnessed the assault. She screamed and cried at the top of her lungs. It was more noise than she had ever made in her life. She gave witness testimony to the police against her mother, something no child should have as a childhood memory.
Police officers wisely kept our daughter in her bedroom, asked to see her dolls and separated her from the scene unfolding in the living room where an officer placed my wife under arrest. I watched from the hallway, horrified as she was handcuffed and her thin legs quivered. “This is how life together ends,” I thought.
She spent the night in jail, appeared before a court and a police officer delivered an order of protection when she returned home. She has not lived with us since. Months later she pleaded guilty to assault, entered a diversion program and charges were dropped after she completed anger management classes.
We always emphasized the value of kindness to shape our daughter. Such events were never supposed to happen under our roof. Nonetheless they did. Now we exchange our child at a distance in a parking lot in front of a police station, something that will color my daughter’s childhood and one of the harms to her that I cannot forgive.
There are no excuses for this behavior, although my wife’s were not in short supply. Excuses and false inventions only compound violation of human dignity. Equally in this and many other cases, they refuse to make the profound apology owed to child witnesses.
What do we do when we see something bad happening? How do we describe and engage with those acts to prevent them from continuing or happening in the first place?
Many years earlier in Israel, I stood at a Beit Shean bus stop on a Friday afternoon, waiting for the last Egged bus south to Jerusalem. There were several asbestos-board shelters and behind one of them I noticed two uniformed IDF soldiers, a young man and woman. He was holding her wrists in one hand and with his other hand slowly, deliberately, slapping her face hard back and forth.
There was no one else in sight and the male soldier had an assault rifle hanging over his shoulder. I decided it was unwise to intervene unaided against an armed man who clearly thought slapping his girlfriend around was his male privilege. A man who was capable of such an act in public was capable of shooting me. I kept a distance. By the time my bus arrived 10 minutes later, the couple had walked off, his face angry and she crying and trying to pull herself together.
That scene and its dilemma of witness has disturbed me ever since. I do not know that I made the right decision and have been troubled by that memory. Whatever my individual responsibility, the violence I witnessed was the product of male supremacy and its claims of privilege through violence. Any domestic violence, whatever gender its source, represents an unacceptable claim for entitlement to violence as a privilege.
The violence that occurred in our home carries wider lessons. Too many of us have witnessed domestic violence. It is our collective responsibility, as communities and a society, to prevent it through anti-violence education from earliest ages through to university level and beyond.
Silence is not an ethical choice. Speak up. JN
The author resides in Arizona.