Because domestic violence occurs behind closed doors, it’s often regarded as a private matter, and the magnitude of the problem remains hidden. In the United States one in four women is a victim of physical domestic violence at some point in her life, and homicides of intimate partners are on the rise after decades of decline. Almost two thousand women were killed by men in the U.S. in 2017. Around the world an average of 137 women are killed each day by their partners. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has declared home the “most dangerous place for women.”
Rachel Louise Snyder, author of No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know about Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, began her exploration of the problem as a result of a chance encounter in 2010. A friend’s sister worked at an agency that had developed a program to predict when domestic violence was likely to turn deadly. The program looked at each case for risk factors, such as gun ownership, substance abuse, and prior incidents of violence. When a situation was determined to be high risk, advocacy groups could intervene on the victim’s behalf, police could make frequent check-ins at the house, and judges could determine that an abuser shouldn’t be released on bail. Where the program had been introduced, rates of domestic-violence homicide had gone down. “It blew my mind,” Snyder says, “that we had this opportunity to save lives, yet we weren’t doing this everywhere.” She wrote about the program for The New Yorker, and the article became the kernel of her book.
An associate professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C., Snyder has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, and The New Republic. Prior to accepting her academic position, she traveled extensively as a journalist in Afghanistan, Niger, Honduras, and Cambodia, where she spent six years reporting on gang-rape survivors, poverty, and workers’ rights. She has an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston and is the author of the novel What We’ve Lost Is Nothing and the nonfiction book Fugitive Denim, which examines global trade by tracing the production of a pair of jeans from cotton field, to factory, to store.
Most of us still believe a lot of myths about domestic violence, Snyder says. We fault the victims for not leaving and can’t understand why they keep going back, all the while failing to see the way women patiently and subtly plot to leave or the dangers they face when they finally do. No Visible Bruises contains nuanced accounts of wives who were killed by their husbands and traces the similarities among their stories. Throughout, Snyder strives to understand what went wrong, why no one intervened (or, at least, not effectively), why restraining orders didn’t work, and why family members couldn’t protect their daughters and sisters. Snyder also grapples in her book with the question of whether it’s possible for perpetrators to change, and some of her most interesting insights come from her investigations of antiviolence programs for batterers.
Decades ago, in my early twenties, I volunteered at a domestic-violence shelter in a small West Virginia college town. So I was intrigued when I heard Snyder being interviewed on the radio, describing how domestic violence intersects with many other social issues, from homelessness to mass shootings. I quickly arranged to interview her — remotely, of course, because of the pandemic. The Sun’s associate editor, Finn Cohen, also took part in the discussion, which ranges from early U.S. laws against spousal abuse to the upcoming election.
— Tracy Frisch
Frisch: Before you got into researching No Visible Bruises, you say, you believed some of the myths about domestic violence. For example, you thought that if things were bad enough, victims would just leave.
Snyder: This is something I really hadn’t given much thought to at all. The fact is that victims leave all the time. And when they leave is when they are most at risk of being killed. In my book I provide example after example of women who did leave, and that’s when they got murdered. Also, when we ask, “Why didn’t she just leave?” we are putting the onus for preventing the crime on the victim.
We have a very specific vision of what leaving looks like, with suitcases packed at the door and kids in their car seats. In reality leaving is much more subtle than that. One woman in my book went to school for a nursing degree so that she could someday afford to raise her children on her own. Leaving often involves very careful planning.
Frisch: If a woman who hasn’t been working leaves, she’s likely to become impoverished, right?
Snyder: Sure. Some women haven’t been allowed to work, or they haven’t been able to work because they’ve been taking care of their children. And then, after they leave, the courts take away their custody because they can’t provide for the kids. More than 25 percent of the time, when a woman claims abuse in a custody dispute, she loses her children.
Frisch: Concern about the children might make women afraid of leaving.
Snyder: Yes. In fact, it’s often the abuse of a child by the other parent that compels a victim to finally leave. The victim will just say, “That’s it. It’s one thing to hurt me, but when you hurt the child, I’m out of here.”
Frisch: What about getting a restraining order? Does that work?
Snyder: I’ve heard so many police officers say, “Restraining orders are not bulletproof.” If the abuser is only nominally violent, it might be sufficient, but against somebody who truly wants to maintain power and control, restraining orders do very little. What often happens is that a victim will file a restraining order, and the abuser will be arrested and get out on bail the same day. That sends the message that the system prioritizes the freedom of the abuser over the safety of the victim. So the victim will recant her accusation. It happens all the time. She’s not recanting because the problem is solved. She’s recanting because she’s gotten the message that the abuser is more powerful than the system, since he’s walking around free within hours of his arrest. And now he’s enraged at being called out on the abuse. Many victims recant for their own safety. Sometimes, when police are called to a domestic disturbance, the victim will scream at them to let the man go. And many officers don’t understand that, once they’re gone, she’s going to have to continue to negotiate with her abuser. A show of solidarity with him is really a type of safety measure for a victim.
Frisch: When I volunteered at a domestic-violence center in 1982, getting women and children into a shelter was the organization’s primary goal. Do shelters help?
Snyder: Shelters are necessary, but in an ideal world you wouldn’t lock the victim of a crime away, would you? You would put constraints and boundaries on the perpetrator of the crime. And a shelter does nothing to address the violence at the core. Telling a woman to go to a shelter is asking the victim to be the one to take action.
I think shelters are incredibly destabilizing. Women sometimes can’t go to work because the shelter is in a secret location, and they might put another woman in danger if they are seen coming and going. The shelter that has available beds might be three hours away, and the victim has to pull her kids out of school and leave her pet behind. If she has sick parents, she cannot take care of them.
Frisch: She might be cut off from her support system, if she has one.
Snyder: Yes, and shelters house traumatized people with other traumatized people. Think about the different rules we all have at home. I may not want my child to have any screen time during the week; you may allow your child an hour a day. You eat dinner at six o’clock, and my family eats at nine. How do we negotiate all that in a shared space when all of us are traumatized? It’s a recipe for chaos.
Frisch: What are the alternatives to shelters?
Snyder: Researchers have found that the danger of homicide in any domestic-violence situation remains high in the first year after a victim leaves. After that, in many — but not all — cases, the situation begins to normalize. To disrupt that cycle, you want to build protections around the victim during that year. Maybe you hold an abuser in jail prior to trial, or you put a GPS monitor on him. Maybe you change the locks and install security cameras at the victim’s home. Maybe you inform the neighbors so they can be on the lookout. Maybe you train the victim to vary her daily routines. You can have police do extra drive-bys or wellness checks. It’s different for each case, but there’s a lot that authorities could be doing.
Frisch: The title of your book speaks to the myth that a lack of visible injury indicates a lack of seriousness.
Snyder: One woman in my book never had a single visible injury on her — until she was killed. Another woman’s husband got a rattlesnake and kept it in a cage at home. He would threaten to put it in the bed or the shower with her. That kind of emotional torture needs no physical violence. There was another woman whose husband would throw a blanket over her head and duct-tape it around her neck. He wasn’t strangling her — she could still breathe — but it was panic-inducing. Although there are no visible injuries, there is absolute control.
It can be hard to spot signs of nonlethal strangulation, which is generally — though not always — the penultimate act before a domestic-violence homicide. It takes only about fourteen pounds of pressure to cut off somebody’s airway. And even when the strangulation isn’t fatal, cutting off the oxygen to someone’s brain can cause traumatic brain injury. Some women end up with undiagnosed cumulative brain damage due to one strangulation incident after another. As a result, they can’t remember exactly what happened, and they become unreliable narrators of their own stories. Police don’t think they can be trusted. Sometimes they lose their children in court.
Frisch: When the victim can’t or won’t cooperate with the police, what can be done to protect her?
Snyder: Prosecutors need to think about how they can prosecute a domestic-violence case without the victim’s cooperation. When the woman who was threatened with the rattlesnake recanted, the prosecutor just threw out the charges. What the prosecutor should have done was gone to see the snake herself or sent an officer to make a report about the snake as material evidence. She should have interviewed the woman’s neighbors and her mother and her sister, both of whom the husband had assaulted. If there are police body cameras on the scene during the disturbance call, prosecutors can use that. But this prosecutor did none of those things.
Frisch: What about prior domestic-abuse charges or restraining orders or calls to the police? Can those be used as evidence?
Snyder: Yes, but they may have occurred in another jurisdiction, and there is no national database. When someone who’s convicted of stalking in California moves to Iowa, for example, no one in Iowa is alerted to that criminal history. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a national stalking database. We do have some private attempts to create such a database, but nothing federally mandated.
Frisch: Much domestic-violence advocacy came out of the women’s movement, which historically has had trouble speaking the same language as the police. There hasn’t been a lot of trust between the two groups.
Snyder: To make real changes, we need to break down those cultural barriers and get advocates and police working together.
There’s a domestic-violence program in Washington, D.C., called DC SAFE. It has an advocate in the courthouse 24/7 who is able to check records and say, “She’s got an active restraining order against him. I can see it in the system right now.” They are making inroads, but they’re not fully there yet. The D.C. police are not trained on nonlethal strangulation, for example, and nonlethal strangulation is still not a felony in D.C., although since the publication of my book a statute has been introduced to make it one.
Another woman’s husband got a rattlesnake and kept it in a cage at home. He would threaten to put it in the bed or the shower with her. That kind of emotional torture needs no physical violence.
Frisch: One barrier to advocates working with police may be the rates of domestic violence among police officers, which are two to four times greater than in the population at large.
Snyder: That’s true of the military as well. This is why we need female police officers and women in the military. The only way we can really address the core issue of violence is to put a diversity of people in positions of power and authority, not just white men.
In many ways police are not equipped to handle the complexities of most domestic-violence situations. While we are talking about defunding the police, or at least reforming law enforcement, we need to include a conversation about using a wider variety of methods to reach victims and treat perpetrators. We rely on police for a lot of matters that could be better handled by social workers, advocates, or people trained in conflict resolution.
Cohen: You often talk about cultural expectations around masculinity and femininity. Could you elaborate on those?
Snyder: One is that a man’s first response to conflict should be to fight — for territory, for what he feels is owed him, when someone disagrees with him. That is a stereotypical masculine response. Women are allowed to cry but not to be angry. They’re called shrill if they get angry. We can see this in the political arena, in the expectations of women politicians versus men.
Women are supposed to be the homemakers. We are supposed to be the soft ones. This doesn’t mean we always are. I do not clean my own house, for example. I don’t iron. For complicated psychological reasons, I didn’t cry for many years. All through high school I was proud of the fact that I was tough and had mostly male friends. There are many women like me. And many men have not bought into toxic masculinity. But that doesn’t negate the fact that extreme patriarchy is mainstream in the U.S. We have a person at the top of our federal government for whom sexual assault is not something to be ashamed of. What’s the saying? “The fish rots from the head down.” Remember in January when [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo berated [National Public Radio reporter] Mary Louise Kelly? Trump said to Pompeo, “I think you did a good job on her.” There’s an undercurrent of violence to those words. That behavior is completely acceptable to him and to everyone around him.
Cohen: Do you think there’s anything particularly unique about that set of expectations in the U.S. versus other countries with similar rates of domestic violence?
Snyder: Certainly those gendered expectations exist all over the world to greater or lesser degrees. There are many countries where it’s much more extreme. What’s unique about this country is that, coupled with these gender expectations, there’s a sense of militant individualism — this idea that if something is wrong in your life, you are the architect of that, and you are to be your own savior. It’s a cultural mindset that does a great disservice to individuals, families, and communities, because we can’t exist without other people. Yet we hold these expectations of extreme individuality, which is part of what makes victims reluctant to come forward. They feel a lot of shame, as if it were their own fault they are being beaten. We also see offenders who feel like their inability to control their violence is their fault, and they don’t ask for help. The United Kingdom has a help line for offenders, but the United States does not. Why don’t we have this here?
Cohen: Hand in hand with this notion of American individualism is an allergy to “government overreach.” Domestic violence takes place inside somebody’s house, and the attitude seems to be “This is a private matter, and it would be overreach for the government to get involved.”
Snyder: That certainly has been the attitude toward domestic violence for most of this country’s existence. The notion that “a man’s home is his castle” comes from what was called the “castle doctrine” back in the 1600s, and it goes back even further, to Roman laws about a man’s right to defend his land, his home, his servants, his family, his cattle. Because they were all owned by him, right? It wasn’t until the feminist movement of the 1970s in this country that academics stopped assuming women incited the violence they endured.
Social attitudes don’t change overnight, and the law is even slower to change. The law always follows social movements, not the other way around.
Even now, when we understand domestic violence as criminal behavior, we still treat it differently than other, similar, types of criminal behavior. Take the quintessential barroom fight, which also happens behind closed doors. Nobody would think of not arresting an aggressor in that situation. But when there’s a publicized case of domestic violence, the couple will often ask for privacy while they “work through their issues.” The problem with that is, criminal behavior is a community matter, a matter for society. It is not a private matter. Imagine if two men who brawled in a bar asked for privacy; that would be laughable.
Victims . . . feel a lot of shame, as if it were their own fault they are being beaten. We also see offenders who feel like their inability to control their violence is their fault, and they don’t ask for help.
Frisch: How much of the time are abusers male?
Snyder: For very low-level violence — say, smacking a cell phone out of somebody’s hand — the incidence of abuse by men and women is pretty equal, but when things become more violent, women are the victims about 76 percent of the time. In domestic-violence homicide, the killers are most often men. And in cases of family annihilation — where someone kills their whole family — men are the perpetrators about 98 percent of the time, and they’re often middle-class white men.
Cohen: Is there a connection between this type of violence and economic hardship?
Snyder: The research suggests that unemployment is not a cause for domestic violence in and of itself, but it does make a difficult situation much worse. James Baldwin said, “The most dangerous creation of any society is that man who has nothing to lose.” That’s one of the few literary quotes I ever memorized. [Laughs.] But I think that’s what a lot of men feel like. Our culture puts them in the role of breadwinner. They don’t have other things to live for besides being a provider. And when they fail, they sometimes take the whole family down with them.
Frisch: You point out that domestic violence is not limited to physical violence. What are some other abusive behaviors?
Snyder: “Coercive control” is generally the term for nonphysical abuse. The man who kept the rattlesnake in his house is a good example of that. Then there’s financial abuse. There’s stalking. None of those are physical, but they’re all absolutely life-changing when you are the victim of them.
Idaho just passed the first state law against coercive control in this country. New York and California are considering similar laws. We have no such laws at the federal level, but Ireland, the UK, and France all do. These laws are too new for us to really have a sense of whether or not they’re being enforced or making any kind of impact. But I think just having them gives credence to the victim’s experience. It’s a psychological endorsement. It tells the woman that the threat is real, that it’s not her fault for inciting or provoking her partner.
Keep in mind that it wasn’t until 1984 that this country had a federal law against spousal abuse. The idea that you should not hit your spouse is relatively new here.
Cohen: How has our justice system adapted to federal laws against spousal abuse, and how effective have they been?
Snyder: Some states had laws before the federal law was passed. Mississippi was the first to outlaw spousal abuse, in the nineteenth century. Here in D.C., where I live, we didn’t have a law against spousal abuse until 1991. There are still states where marital rape is considered rape only if physical force or violence is involved. It’s been spotty. California has probably been the most progressive state on this issue. Abusers and even stalkers in California are required to relinquish their guns, and the state’s domestic-violence homicide rates have gone down since that law was passed. There’s a direct correlation between the rate of gun ownership and the rate of domestic-violence homicide in a state. And gun ownership has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. There are — at least, anecdotally — suggestions that domestic-violence homicide is skyrocketing, too. We won’t know until the fall of 2021, when the numbers come out.
What it takes for domestic violence to be considered a felony is different in every state. In Montana, for example, domestic violence isn’t a felony until you’re arrested for the third time. That’s not unusual. In my book I describe a Montana case that ended in family annihilation. The husband had been arrested only one time.
Omar Mateen, the mass shooter at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in 2016, had been arrested for choking his first wife. Nonlethal strangulation in Florida is a felony punishable by up to a decade in prison. Yet the charges were dropped because she didn’t want to press them, and the prosecutor wouldn’t go forward with an evidence-based prosecution.
Self-defense laws have done a great disservice to women. When a man kills his partner, he generally does it in a moment when he fears she’s leaving him, because he’s losing something, but when a woman kills her partner, it is often because she believes she’s about to be killed by him. It’s self-defense. But the law makes it hard to prove self-defense if you kill an unarmed person. And because men are generally more physically powerful than women, they don’t necessarily need a weapon to kill; they can strangle a woman in a very short time. So women grab things to defend themselves — most often kitchen knives. And if they kill an abuser with a kitchen knife, they face a weapons charge on top of homicide. This is one reason why women serve longer prison terms than men do for murders.
Canada and Australia have rewritten their self-defense laws to take into account someone’s physical size, strength, and history of domestic violence. We don’t have that here. Women who kill in their own defense far too often end up going to prison. There are no national statistics on it — believe me, I and other journalists have tracked it for years — but New York did a study in its penitentiary system and found that 67 percent of incarcerated women were there for killing someone who was abusing them.
Frisch: You point out — and I think this will probably surprise people — that in states with good domestic-violence laws and resources, both men and women are less likely to be killed by their partners.
Snyder: Isn’t that amazing? When I first heard that, I thought the study must have been misquoted or something. But where there are stronger protections for victims; where the punishments for domestic violence are more effective; where guns are taken away from convicted abusers; where domestic-violence services, as a whole, are more effective, the rate of domestic homicide against men goes down, because women can get out of violent situations without having to kill their abusers.
Frisch: What are some factors that increase the risk of being killed by your spouse?
Snyder: The highest-risk indicators for domestic-violence homicide are things like access to a gun, prior incidents of violence, children in the home who are not the biological children of the abuser, nonlethal strangulation, and threats of suicide or attempted suicide. Early signs are short courtship, morbid jealousy, and attempts to isolate the victim.
Frisch: You mentioned guns first.
Snyder: Guns are the weapon most often used in domestic-violence homicides. They are also used as threats. Over and over victims tell of the abuser cleaning a gun or keeping a gun out. I spoke to a woman whose father hung his guns on the wall as visual reminders of who was in charge and what could happen.
The NRA has come out against the most recent incarnation of the Violence Against Women Act, which would take guns away from convicted abusers and close the “boyfriend loophole”: right now, if you don’t live with the person you’re abusing, you’re not required to relinquish your weapons after a domestic-violence charge. The 2018 expansion of the act would make all abusers forfeit their right to own guns, even if they don’t live with the victim. The NRA is opposed to that, which, to me, is immoral. The act passed in the House but stalled in the Senate because the GOP is in the pocket of the NRA. A law that, to my mind, should not be controversial is just sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk.
Frisch: Is telling women to arm themselves a good answer to domestic violence?
Snyder: No. The research says a gun in the home makes it several hundred times more dangerous for a woman in a domestic-violence situation. The gun doesn’t have to belong to a specific person. The research just says, “a gun in the home.”
Cohen: The reporting you did for this book required quite a bit of trust on the part of the people you interviewed. I was curious how you approached some of these families and what that process of building trust was like.
Snyder: It takes a lot of time. Sometimes other people vouch for you, which definitely helps. For example, Neil Websdale of the Family Violence Institute put me in touch with Michelle Monson Mosure’s parents. [She and her children were shot to death by her husband, Rocky, who then killed himself. — Ed.] But in the case of Rocky’s parents, it just took a lot of e-mails back and forth and some phone conversations. It was probably a year and a half before I met Rocky’s mother in person.
It really is an act of trust. And you don’t always earn that trust. Jimmy Espinoza [a former pimp and abuser who now leads an antiviolence group — Ed.] came into the process trusting me and left not trusting me because I wanted to talk to his ex and get her side of the story, and that made him deeply uncomfortable. He still doesn’t talk to me.
When people do open up to me, it’s often because they feel so much regret. I never talked to an abuser who was happy, who felt that violence is the right way to live one’s life. And for a lot of these men, no one has ever asked them about their lives. The fact that I’m asking at all is meaningful to them. I never had a problem finding men who would talk to me. Did they minimize their violence? Of course. They’re human. But I found they were willing to talk and appreciated having somebody to listen.
Frisch: When you’ve spoken to abusers, what insights have you gained?
Snyder: Probably the most profound for me is the understanding that they are often just as stuck as their victims, because they have never learned alternatives. They are surprised to discover that they have been formed by a set of social norms and gender expectations — that they are not, in fact, self-made men. It’s moving to see their vulnerability.
One of the most affecting moments I experienced while writing this book was in a restorative-justice prison program in which a domestic-violence victim spoke to a group of convicted abusers. For many of these men it was the first time they’d ever been asked to look at their violence from the perspective of the victim. Most abusers I met don’t want to be violent; they just don’t know how else to be. They haven’t been taught other behaviors. They haven’t learned that a relationship is much more gratifying when you’re not lording it over somebody else.
Cohen: You said it was moving to see their vulnerability. How did that manifest in the conversations you had?
Snyder: For starters, they would regularly cry, these men in prison. They would cry in front of each other. That’s real vulnerability. Many of them — not all — recognized that they had abused their children because that’s what had been done to them. Their behavior conformed to the way men are so often presented in our culture: as emotionally inflexible and physically capable of withstanding any pain. That patriarchal expectation does a disservice to everyone, not just women. It robs men of their complexity and their full humanity.
There’s a strong correlation between domestic-violence homicide and suicide. You often see the two together. The system of patriarchy robs these people of their lives — literally.
Cohen: When you met with some of these guys, especially someone like Jimmy Espinoza, were you ever afraid?
Snyder: I had already sat in on men’s groups before I went into the prisons, and I was less afraid in prison than I was sitting in on groups on the outside. Men in prison groups are by and large on their best behavior. And I was never by myself in prisons. So I wasn’t worried there.
But safety is definitely a concern. I keep my university e-mail private. I don’t list my office hours outside my door. Some men in prison do make me nervous. Patrick O’Hanlon makes me nervous. [“O’Hanlon” is the pseudonym Snyder uses in her book for a man who suffocated his wife and daughter. — Ed.] He’s going to be eligible for geriatric release from prison soon. We did everything we could to hide his identity. The legal read of this book took five months. [Laughs.]
I changed O’Hanlon’s name because he recanted what he told me. And although I’m legally within my rights as a journalist to use his real name, not doing so was, in part, a safety measure for me. People like him, out in the free world, scare me.
Cohen: I read an interview with you in The Guardian that talked about your traumatic home life as a teenager. Did your experience make it easier to sift through others’ trauma for the book?
Snyder: Absolutely. Most people think that because I’m a woman writing about this, I was a victim of domestic violence, but, really, I was the angry one. I was a kid who had a ton of rage. I fought girls at school. I fought everybody. I listened to Iron Maiden, because their music was angry, like the way I felt inside. When I sit down and interview abusers, I can say to them, “I know what it’s like to feel like the only thing you can do is fight. I know what it’s like to feel such rage that you actually want to kill someone.” I felt that way toward my stepmother for years.
I didn’t really know her until the day my father married her. My brother and I had lost our mom about two years earlier. My brother and I were forced to call our stepmother “Mom.” It took me probably a year to be able to say it.
Everything changed in my life. It wasn’t just “Oh, Dad got remarried.” We moved to a different state, and I was suddenly attending a small religious school that had forty-eight students in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
In some ways I identified more with the abusers in my book than with the victims, because that experience planted in me a rage that I held on to for years and years. I only lived with my stepmother from the age of eleven to sixteen, but for those five years I fought back. I remember having a fistfight with her at church one day because I wasn’t sitting with the family; I was sitting in the very back with the ushers. So my dad and my stepmom and I went out to the church playground, and I balled my fist and punched her in the face. My father had to break us up. I was fourteen.
I couldn’t blame my father, my one living parent. So I blamed my stepmother for everything. In later years she and I came to have an open, honest relationship. After I was an adult, she told me that she had never felt comfortable with our calling her “Mom.” I was with her when she died, but we never made peace. We never had that big moment of forgiveness.
My father died suddenly this past December, and I still cry about it late at night, when I’m by myself. But I’m also still angry because I loved him, and I loved my stepmother, but they never said, “We’re sorry for everything we put you through.”
I don’t carry that rage anymore. My daughter would tell you I never even raise my voice. But as a young person I was a walking ball of fire.
Frisch: One of the questions you’ve said you wanted to answer with your book was whether a violent person could be taught to be nonviolent. What did you conclude?
Snyder: It’s a controversial question. The efficacy of intervention for batterers is always questioned. It’s incredibly difficult to change human behavior. But I do think that someone who is violent can be taught to be nonviolent. First, though, they have to want to become nonviolent, just as an alcoholic needs to want to stop drinking. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job of supporting violent people who try to become nonviolent. We put them through these programs, some of which are as short as sixteen weeks, which is not enough to change anyone’s behavior. The more-effective ones are a year long, but even then we just send them right back into the community with little or no support, and I think that’s on us. Our society tends to put band-aids on problems rather than fixing them from the ground up. Our health-care system is the greatest example of that.
I do think that someone who is violent can be taught to be nonviolent. First, though, they have to want to become nonviolent, just as an alcoholic needs to want to stop drinking.
Frisch: You’ve said that sending abusers to anger-management classes speaks to a deep misunderstanding of the nature of abuse. Why isn’t anger management appropriate or adequate?
Snyder: Many of us believe the stereotype that abusers are rage-aholics when, in fact, only about 25 percent of them fit that description. The other 75 percent are people who know full well how to behave in polite society. They’re not out raging at their boss or coworkers or their parents. Anger management is for somebody who is charged with road rage. It’s usually once a week for twelve weeks. There’s not much oversight. There’s not necessarily certification. It’s fine for its role, but it should not be conflated with effective batterers’-intervention programs.
Frisch: Does experiencing sexual abuse or domestic violence as a boy make it more likely that a man will become a domestic abuser himself?
Snyder: Absolutely. Something like 80 percent of incarcerated men today either experienced or witnessed abuse as children. For women that statistic is 79 percent. The research says we need to start addressing domestic violence with kids in middle school, teaching them how to be respectful of one another.
The One Love foundation — started by the family of a woman who was killed by her boyfriend in Virginia in 2010 — is doing great work with a program on dating violence for teenagers.
Cohen: Younger generations today have access to pornography in ways that previous generations did not, and sociologists say it’s changing the way men interact with women.
Snyder: I think what’s so dangerous about it is that there’s no way to tell how willing the participants in pornography are. I think of Nicole Addimando. [She suffered extreme physical abuse from her partner and killed him in 2017. — Ed.] Her partner made videos of himself administering abuse to her and uploaded them to a porn site. Had you seen them, you probably would have thought that she was willingly going along with it, but she was not. I think it’s dangerous that this is marketed as something that women want. And, at the same time, we’ve eradicated sex education in much of the country. I think the majority of states have no sex education other than abstinence. Purity culture has done nothing but create more dangerous situations and more gender inequality for women.
Cohen: What should sex education look like today, given that porn is so accessible for a lot of kids?
Snyder: Well, I think sex needs to be talked about in detail, in a way that will be definitely embarrassing to kids.
In my house I am very open. My daughter is twelve, and she doesn’t like to talk about sex with me, but will I talk to her about what oral sex is? Will I talk about what power dynamics are? Will I talk about what sex should feel like, whether emotions are connected or disconnected? Yes, I’ll talk about all that.
Michelle Mosure was fourteen when she met Rocky; he was twenty-four. How would things have been different if she had known about the power dynamics of dating someone who’s ten years older?
Frisch: You’ve said that domestic violence intersects with many of this country’s social ills.
Snyder: Yes. For example, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness for women in this country. It’s also a factor in poverty, mental health, gender inequality, substance abuse, mass shootings.
In 2018 Everytown for Gun Safety found that in 54 percent of mass shootings, at least one victim is the shooter’s family member or intimate partner. Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree at the University of Texas — widely recognized as the first mass shooting in this country — began when he killed his wife and his mother.
Frisch: In your book you quote trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk: “Terror increases the need for attachment, even if the source of comfort is also the source of terror.” How have you seen this play out in specific cases?
Snyder: This is what’s colloquially known as “Stockholm syndrome”: people become attached to the person who is terrorizing them. The thing that makes domestic-violence situations so complicated is that the abuser and the victim often do love each other. Some might say if you’re violent toward someone, you can’t actually love that person, but I don’t know if that’s true. As human beings we are full of contradictions. Victims often say they don’t want to leave. They just want the violence to stop. They want the relationship to go back to how it once was. They cling to those memories.
After an incident abusers often feel deep remorse and apologize. Victims see a glimpse of the sweet guy they originally fell for, and they think this will be the last time. But it almost never is.
Cohen: You say some abusers genuinely love the person they are abusing, but isn’t the abuse less about love and more about control?
Snyder: It is about control. And it’s about emotional connection. Many of these men need women to provide the emotional connection to the world that they are unable to make. Neil Websdale talks about how women are often the emotional conduit for a world these men have never learned to inhabit, because they grew up in the same society we all did. Domestic violence locks women in place, but it locks men in place, too. And that’s part of why it’s so complicated.
But do I think these men love these women? Yes, I do. I don’t have any trouble with the seeming contradiction of love and violence. People in abusive relationships do often love one another. And love can be weaponized, as in: “If I didn’t love you so much, I wouldn’t do this. It’s my love for you that’s making me crazy.” It’s another way of shirking responsibility, for sure.
Talking to people for this book, I saw they really were torn between their feelings for this person and the things that this person was doing to them, or that they were doing to the other person. It really tangles you up internally.
Frisch: In the beginning of our conversation you noted that intimate-partner homicide in the U.S. has increased 19 percent between 2014 and 2017, after decades of decline. Do you have any explanation for this?
Snyder: I can’t say definitively what’s going on, but I think that the #MeToo movement and the Trump administration taking over had something to do with it. Those things did not happen in isolation from one another. This country saw significant spikes in domestic-violence homicide in 2017. It started to trend upward in 2012, but in 2017 it spiked and has stayed high in 2018. We don’t have the numbers yet for 2019.
I think what has happened is that — and this is speculation — since women were empowered to speak up, there’s been a backlash. And extreme misogyny, which existed on the margins, has become normalized.
Some might say if you’re violent toward someone, you can’t actually love that person, but I don’t know if that’s true. As human beings we are full of contradictions.
Cohen: After the Harvey Weinstein story broke in the fall of 2017, it seemed like every day somebody new was being accused of sexual assault or harassment. It became apparent that men had been behaving this way far more often than we wanted to think. I remember meeting with a colleague after work and talking about this, and his response was “I think it’s safe to assume that some men are just broken.”
That’s stuck with me. When I see angry, armed white guys railing against a female governor on the steps of the capitol in Michigan, it seems like these men are broken.
Snyder: It’s a sign of how the patriarchy has failed men. We have not given them the option to enjoy their full humanity. We have told them: This is what men do. They shoot their way to supremacy. They yell. They gaslight their way. I’m in my fifties, and by and large the men of my generation have been playing by a set of rules that women were always unhappy with but didn’t speak out against. We need to give men an alternative set of expectations and behaviors.
The outpouring of rage and anger that we saw on the steps of the Michigan capitol is not just about the shutdown. It’s a sign that those men feel they’re losing. A woman is taking away their power. And the women in relationships with those guys are afraid they’re going to lose, too. But feminism is not fighting for men to lose. It’s fighting for equality.
My best friend of thirty years works for the Office of Inspector General. She was the coauthor of the report that found four hundred hospitals across forty-six states were unprepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. After the report came out in May, the Trump administration threatened to fire her coauthor, Christi Grimm. And my friend, who’s worked there for more than twenty-five years, is probably going to lose her job, too — for doing what she was hired to do: telling the truth and trying to save lives. These two women are the smartest, the brightest, the best of the best, but the report embarrassed Trump, because it told the truth. What do you say about a culture that would rather people die than have the president look bad? It’s terrifying.
I think the very fact that we are still having a conversation about whether we are ready to elect a woman president in 2020 is demoralizing. How can we not be ready?
Cohen: And what makes this particular election complicated are the sexual-harassment accusations against Joe Biden.
Snyder: How do we grapple with it? I mean, I don’t know whether the accusations are true or not. But I do know that it irks me to see someone’s past actions judged by the standards of today. For example, when I was in college, from 1988 to 1992, to be racially color-blind was progressive. Now we’re able to look back and say, “No, that’s not right. What we want to do is celebrate diversity. Being color-blind makes us blind to systemic racism.” And many of us have been able to adapt to that change and embrace it.
What I would like to see Biden say is “You know, the rules have changed. And I have learned that the behaviors I may have had when I was younger are not acceptable anymore.” But I think we need to give people who have lived for more than one generation a little bit of leeway in adapting to social and cultural changes and learning those new rules.
When I was in college, bisexuality was a subject of ridicule: it meant someone couldn’t make up their mind. My students’ generation has taught me that this is not the case. They’ve made me more aware of differences. We’ve seen real social progress in a generation. When I look at my undergrad students, I think they’re going to do so much better than my generation did. They’re more aware of climate change. They’re more aware of inequality. They’re more aware of racism.
But I’m also in a bubble, right? Washington, D.C., is 96 percent liberal. I’m very happy to live in this bubble, because I don’t think I have the fortitude to live outside it. [Laughs.]
Cohen: I saw an interview you did with Representative Debbie Dingell [Democrat of Michigan]. She said, “It’s still a hard topic for anyone to talk about. Why did you write the book?” And you said because you wanted people to have those difficult conversations. Since the book has come out, have you achieved that?
Snyder: I do feel like we are having those conversations, in larger venues and with more-varied populations than before. I wrote this book thinking I just wanted people who knew nothing about domestic violence to read it. And I’ve been shocked at the number of domestic-violence advocates and police officers and judges — experts — who’ve read it. I think I’ve complicated the discussion in a good way. My hope is that it will help change some of our laws around domestic violence.