Jill Gruenberg: Guest opinion
October 17, 2011
These days it seems that every moment is designated as “Fill in the Blank” Awareness Day, Week or Month. It would be surprising if you didn’t know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, given that the supermarket shelves are stocked with food in pink packaging, clothing companies have put the ubiquitous pink ribbon on everything from hats to T-shirts, numerous NFL players are sporting pink on their uniforms, and even the Pitkin County Courthouse and Sardy House tree will glow with pink lighting this month.
This is of course worthy attention for a worthy cause. One of the main reasons for this heightened level of awareness regarding breast cancer is that any one of us can name at least one person in our lives who has been affected by this disease, whether it be a mother, a sister, a wife, a neighbor, a co-worker or a friend.
According to BreastCancer.org, one in eight women in the U.S. (12 percent) will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Now compare this number to the most widely accepted statistics on domestic violence, which come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Justice in 2000. The statistics show that one in four (25 percent) women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Yet if I were to ask how many of you know that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month or, more personally, if you know someone who has been in an abusive relationship, the response would be startlingly few.
Just the other day, a friend mentioned that she had seen a video featuring RESPONSE that included a domestic abuse survivor. My friend noted in shock that this woman had been her neighbor, and that she had no idea that a pattern of chronic verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical abuse had occurred for years. Then my friend, who is both highly intelligent and extremely compassionate, said the words that I hate to hear: “I really thought that domestic violence didn’t happen in our community like it does elsewhere.” So my question: How do I get you to acknowledge, understand, and ultimately care about the domestic violence that occurs here and everywhere?
Why is domestic violence a topic that the general public doesn’t want to engage in during Domestic Violence Awareness Month, or any other month? We all know that it is much easier to care about something that we have a relationship or connection to, and in the case of domestic violence, because most victims remain silent, the epidemic remains silent.
When a woman shares that she is a victim of breast cancer, her community rallies around her with support and compassion, understanding that she is not to blame for her own illness. Yet if and when an abuse survivor discloses her abuse, friends and family will often respond with disbelief or skepticism, judgment, ultimatums, and a laundry list of “you should …”
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One of the strongest emotions that a survivor of abuse will struggle with in disclosing her abuse is the very powerful and often debilitating sense of shame. To better understand this, just look at the most commonly asked question regarding domestic abuse: “Why does she stay?” The very nature of the question places significant responsibility for the abuse in the relationship on the survivor, rather than asking the more relevant question that holds perpetrators accountable for their actions: “Why does he do that?”
Of course, shame or self-blame is only one of the numerous reasons why abuse survivors don’t disclose the abuse; yet as long as survivors live in a world in which they are afraid to break their silence, the scourge of intimate partner violence will thrive.
There are numerous ways to support a friend or family member in an abusive relationship. Key among them is to simply listen without judgment, to remind them of who they truly are and what they deserve in a partner, to let them know concretely how you can help them if and when they are ready to leave, and to refer them to the appropriate agencies and professionals.
I like to use the analogy that an abuser’s words and actions intentionally create “holes” in their partner. The role of a person who cares is simply to fill those holes by countering the unending barrage of criticism, belittling, and isolation that an abuser intentionally uses to effectively keep them in the relationship.
For more ideas of what to say (and what not to say) to a victim of abuse, visit RESPONSE’s website at http://www.responsehelps.org. Please know that as a bystander you have incredible power to influence the lives of abuse victims through your words and your actions. Whether you ever know it or not, I guarantee you that you have known a victim of domestic violence and they need your support more than you can ever imagine.
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