Nobody wants to talk about domestic violence. Men don’t want to talk about it. Women don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to. I don’t want to.
Author Rachel Louise Snyder is well aware of this fact, and in No Visible Bruises, her essential new book on the subject, she uses this reality as a powerful tool. People’s hesitation to talk about domestic violence is part of the problem.
It is a harrowing subject, to be sure – ugly and uncomfortably intimate by nature. Most of us probably know someone who is in a domestic violence situation, either as a victim or a perpetrator. We encounter intimations of this phenomenon every day, through couples we see in public spaces engaged in arguments that appear toxic, perhaps to the point of violence. We see the rigid public demeanor of children who have born witness, and we wonder what they know that we do not. We know of relationships where one of the parties involved, usually the male, is controlling in ways that are psychologically, if not physically, abusive. And we look the other way. It’s not our business. It’s a private matter. Stay out of it.
Domestic violence exists in the United States at near epidemic proportions. Talking about it may be the only hope we have of bringing this topic out of the shadows and into the light of day
One way to talk about it is to start by reading this book. It is not an easy read, but it is brilliant in its ability to illuminate the dark corners.
Much of the book’s power comes from the fact that Snyder is a novelist as well as a journalist and educator. Yes, there are statistics in No Visible Bruises, some of them quite startling (such as the fact that between the years 2000 and 2006, 3,200 American soldiers were killed in combat, while during that same period domestic homicide in the U.S. claimed 10,600 lives.) Mostly, Snyder tells stories that are steeped in horror and heartbreak. After spending hours and, in some cases, years interviewing victims, perpetrators, family members of the deceased, public health officials, and others, Snyder reconstructs a human chain of devolution that often ends in tragedy. In most domestic violence situations, there were signs that leave a friend and family member of the victim wondering, Why didn’t I act on what I saw? If only I had told someone.
Snyder’s book is haunted most pointedly by the story of Michele Monson Mosure, who was killed, along with her two children, by her husband Rocky Mosure. Rocky was the father of Michele’s children, the love of her life. In Michele’s case, the circumstances of her death were the consequence of a series of events that, in retrospect, made her death seem almost predictable.
Snyder opens No Visible Bruises with her meeting Michele Mosure’s father at his house on a hill outside Billings, Montana. The father was the one who found the body of his grandchildren, daughter and son-in-law after Rocky Mosure killed his wife and kids and then shot himself to death. Like so many people who lose a loved one to domestic violence, the father is wracked with guilt and taunted by memories of the clues he chose to overlook.
The story of Michele and Rocky Mosure serves as a thread that binds the book’s narrative together. At the same time, Snyder ranges far and wide in her investigation of what she prefers to call “intimate partner violence.” She rides through Cleveland, Ohio with Detective Martina Latessa, a dedicated domestic violence detective (one of only two in the Cleveland PD) whose own sister was a victim of domestic violence. The sister had ribs, fingers and her nose broken; she once wound up in a hospital with seizures and a stroke after a severe beating at the hands of her husband. Eventually, the sister’s daughter – Det. Latessa’s niece – could take no more. Like so many within the circle of domestic violence, the niece had been traumatized by the verbal and physical abuse that she witnessed. One day, she picked up her father’s gun and shot her dad to death in his sleep.
Det. Martina Latessa carries these memories with her like a permanent scar. As someone who experienced the circle of violence first hand, she sees through all the self-delusion and fear that often hinders a domestic violence victim from seeing or choosing a path of self-preservation.
The unwillingness of a woman to press charges against an abuser, or move out, or terminate an abusive relationship, is a point that Snyder comes back to again and again in the book. Often, friends and families of victims, and even detectives and judges, ask the question, Why didn’t she just leave? Well, leaving is not as easy as it looks. Even the suggestion of leaving – especially if it involves children – is often what triggers the violent abuser to turn on their partner. In most cases a woman cannot just turn and leave. As Snyder notes, leaving is not an event, it’s a process. Women are put in the position of making a devil’s bargain. Lonely and isolated, they bide their time, hoping a window of opportunity will present itself. “In so many cases,” writes Snyder, “we mistake what we see from the outside as her choosing to stay with an abuser, when in fact it’s we who don’t recognize what a victim who is slowly and carefully leaving actually looks like.”
There is an abundance of compassion in the author’s approach – not only towards the victims but also the male perpetrators. Snyder knows that the issue will never be ameliorated by only talking with the abused. She attends batterer intervention groups where men seek to understand the consequences of their manipulative and violent behavior. At these meetings, the men often have shocking stories to tell of violence and abuse in their own upbringings, an illustration of the maxim, lamentably true, that “hurt people hurt people.”
At one such meeting in Cambridge, Mass., outside Boston, Snyder attends a group of batterers trying to come to terms with their criminal actions. For the writer and researcher, the occasion is a revelation: “Seven men file in and sit in folding chairs, joking around uncomfortably with one another. The demographics run across age, race, and economic spectrums… One wears a suit and tie and smells of aftershave. Another has plaster caked on his jeans… It is my first time sitting in on an offenders’ group… By now, I’ve been talking to victims for years but haven’t spent any time with perpetrators. I still carry a picture in my mind of an abuser who is a rageaholic, a monster, a person visibly and uncontrollably angry. Someone easily identifiable as a ‘bad guy’… And what strikes me immediately – in fact, deeply unsettles me in a way – is how incredibly normal they all seem, like a bunch of guys I’d go have a beer with. They are charming. They are funny, gregarious, shy, high strung. Good looking or not, well dressed or not. They are everyman.”
No Visible Bruises is a heroic effort to bring understanding to a subject many of us are predisposed to shun or avoid – a state of denial that most certainly does not help. The question remains: What kind of society do we want to be? Do we seriously want to protect those among us who are vulnerable to domestic abuse, to provide legislative programs, support and understanding, or are we unwilling or unable to face the truth?
On occasion, men are the victims of intimate partner abuse, but overwhelmingly it is women who are on the receiving end. When it comes to the victims, and to those within the circle of violence who are left with a crippling legacy of sorrow and regret, there is no immunity. It could be your sister, your mother, your daughter, your friend, or your niece. As Rachel Louise Snyder makes clear in her remarkable book, the only way to stop the abuse is to understand that we are all in it together.
(T.J. English is the author of eight non-fiction crime books, including Havana Nocturne, The Savage City, Paddy Whacked and Where the Bodies Were Buried, all of which were NY Times best-sellers)