I'm teaching a class this semester called Current Issues in Criminal Justice and we're focusing on domestic violence for the first eight weeks. I became concerned about it ten years ago when I personally knew a victim of emotional and physical abuse and ever since, I've taught a class about it every two years or so. Sometimes it recedes into the back of my mind because I no longer know any victims of abuse but it pops out again front and center when I teach this class.
Yesterday we watched a movie that won awards for its accurate depiction of a story based on facts and court documents and that movie was called The Burning Bed. The incidents the movie portrays took place in the 1970s but it happens today as well because this woman's story paralleled the saga of the first woman I personally knew to be a victim of domestic assault.
The movie begins with the first time she met her future husband, a reputed 'bad boy' that was attractive to her. She told him the first time she met him that she would do 'anything' and that attracted him to her. After a courtship that involved no emotional or physical abuse at all, they got married and shortly after that he hit her for the first time. This woman's story differs from the typical abused woman because she sought help immediately. Unfortunately, no one WOULD help. She left her husband several times, even though his parents took the position that their problems weren't any worse than a lot of married people's problems and that it was her obligation to stand by her man. When she would leave him and go to her mother's, her mom would tell her the same thing. She went to welfare workers and probation officers who offered no help either. The police responded to calls for help but never arrested him because they had no warrant and they didn't see the offense take place. So she was rebuked every place she went and would eventually go back to him because she didn't have the money to support herself and her three children and because he threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave him for good.
There were honeymoon periods, of course, after he would beat her severely or after a child was born and that's typical of an abuser. They want to keep their wives at all costs, because they're not sure they can find another one who will put up with the abuse the way the current wife does. He would make promises of no more drinking and that he would never strike her again but of course the promises never lasted. He went from abusing her privately to abusing her no matter who was around, including their children and one night it just became too much for her to bear anymore. He beat her up during supper in front of their children and then later forced her to have sex with him. She waited until he went to sleep then went outside, got a can of gasoline, poured it all around the bed, and then put a match to the gasoline. She had already dressed her kids and had them waiting in the car. Just as she got to the car, the bedroom exploded in flames and she drove off with the kids crying and screaming. She was arrested for premeditated murder and entered a plea of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. She was acquitted of her crime which set a legal precedent that is still followed today.
Today the plea has changed from not guilty by reason of temporary insanity to delayed self defense and the police now have the authority to arrest an abuser even though they didn't see the crime take place; the only exception there is to the misdemeanor arrest rule.
Domestic abuse has reached epidemic proportions in this country and happens everywhere; in urban areas, suburban areas and rural areas. In fact, in rural areas often law enforcement is less likely to intervene than those in urban areas because of their long-held beliefs that whatever goes on in a family is nobody else's business.
Except that striking another person in anger IS a crime, regardless of where it happens or who's involved. And most victims don't react the way the woman in this true story did. They don't seek out help. In fact, most of them don't tell anybody, not even their best friends or their own parents. They live with the abuse day in and day out, walking around on eggshells and keeping quiet, not wanting to take a chance on saying or doing anything that might set their abusive husbands off.
It's a terrible existence and when I watched the husband in the movie hit his wife repeatedly, choke her until she was unconscious, drag her across the floor and throw her up against the wall, it made me sick to my stomach.
And madder than hell once again.