The Trauma of Domestic Violence

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

Giselle Gerolami

No Visible Bruises:
What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us
By Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019, 320 pages, $28 hardcover.

IN 2010, JOURNALIST Rachel Louise Snyder returned to the United States after years of working in Cambodia, Afghanistan, Niger and Honduras and other countries. One day a friend’s sister, Suzanne Dubus, shared with Snyder that the work she was doing involved predicting homicides from domestic violence.

This was a wakeup moment for Snyder, who began to question all her previous assumptions about domestic violence, and it would lead her to research and write the book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. The book received widespread acclaim and was chosen as one of The New York Times Book Review’s “Ten Best Books of 2019.”

The book is divided into three main parts. “The End” is the victim’s story, in this case, the story of Michelle Monson Mosure. The second part, “The Beginning,” focuses on the abusers, and the last part, “The Middle,” examines the work of the changemakers, the tireless advocates who are seeking to address the scourge of domestic violence.

The book’s title is a reference to the emotional abuse that abused women suffer, which many of them claim is worse than the physical abuse.

Snyder makes conscious choices about language. The term “domestic violence” is no longer the preferred term for advocates who feel that the word “domestic” softens the reality; they prefer “intimate partner violence.” Snyder’s choice would be “intimate partner terrorism.” However, as these terms do not cover violence against children and other family members, she chooses “domestic violence” for the purposes of her book.

She also chooses “victim” over the more commonly used “survivor,” because survival is something that happens at the end rather than in the middle of the process. Finally, she recognizes that men may also be victims — but since the vast majority of perpetrators are men, she refers to perpetrators as “he/him” and victims as “she/her” throughout the book.

The End: Michelle Monson Mosure

In 2001, on the Monday before Thanksgiving, in Billings, Montana, Rocky Mosure shot and killed his wife Michelle and their two kids, Kristie and Kyle, before killing himself. Michelle was only 23 years old and had endured almost a decade of abuse from Rocky, and was on the verge of finally leaving him.

They started dating when she was only 14 and by the time she was 17, they had two children together. Despite his increasingly controlling behavior — she was not allowed to wear makeup, to leave the house without permission, to see her family — she had finished high school and was studying to become a nurse.

In the months before the murders, Rocky had acquired a rattlesnake that he used to terrorize Michelle and the kids. He was using drugs and regularly threatening to kill himself and the rest of his family.

Snyder spent years researching this case and talking with the family members, who were wracked with guilt and grief in the aftermath of the killings. They wondered why it had happened and what signs they had missed.

A couple of months before she was murdered, Michelle revealed the extent of the abuse to her mother and said she wanted to leave him because he was having an affair.

She took out an order of protection against Rocky after he was arrested for having assaulted her mother and sister in order to kidnap his daughter. When Rocky’s family bailed him out, Michelle recanted and he was released.

Snyder was so immersed in the story that she came to feel as if she had known Michelle and her family personally. In fact, she had to take a year off from reporting on domestic violence for self-care. It took her a long time to bring herself to watch the many home movies that Rocky had taken of the family.

Most of the movies are of the family in their everyday lives, camping, playing in the yard, celebrating holidays but there were also many where Rocky filmed Michelle in her underwear. She repeatedly asked him to stop but he never does and eventually she doesn’t even bother asking.

On top of the obvious objectification involved, this behavior is also a sign of the power dynamic in the relationship where he slowly eroded her confidence over time. In one video, Snyder notes a very brief and unmistakable flash of anger from Rocky that no one in Michelle’s family had picked up on.

Michelle was one of the approximately 1200 abused women who are killed in the United States every year. That figure does not include the abusers themselves, children, other family members or bystanders who may also be killed in domestic violence homicides.

Advocate Jacquelyn Campbell developed the Danger Assessment decades ago, but it is now one of several tools used to determine how much danger an abused woman might be in at a given time. There are 22 risk factors which include substance abuse, gun ownership, jealousy, threats to kill, strangulation, forced sex, isolation from family and friends, children from a different biological parent, threats of suicide or violence during pregnancy, stalking, chronic unemployment.

Charting a timeline and pinpointing escalation can be critical in determining risk. In the Danger Assessment, Michelle would have scored 16 to 18 with a couple of questions to which the answers are unknown. She would have been considered at high risk.

A year after Michelle’s murder, the Montana Domestic Violence Fatality Review Commission was formed. Michelle’s mother met with Matthew Dale of the Department of Justice and requested that Michelle’s case be reviewed. Snyder attended a fatality review session years later. The recommendations included being able to access the history of protective orders across state lines and better training for judges, clergy, law enforcement and healthcare workers.

The Beginning: The Abusers

Snyder deserves credit for dedicating a full third of her book to abusers. Working with abusers is relatively new, and there are questions about the extent to which they can unlearn violence. Domestic violence advocates tend to be focused on the needs of victims, and rightly so.

Snyder spent considerable time with Jimmy Espinoza, a former pimp, who abused many women. He now leads a program called RSVP (Resolve to Stop the Violence) at the San Bruno prison in San Francisco, which began in the late 1990s, for prisoners with a history of domestic violence.

The program is quite rigorous: 12 hours a day, six days a week and lasting for a year. Recidivism for those who completed the program dropped by 80%. Despite its success, RSVP has not been replicated elsewhere.

The “male role belief system” goes as follows: “Man does not get disrespected. Man does not get lied to. Man’s sexuality does not get questioned. Man is the authority. Man does not get dismissed. Woman should be submissive, obedient, supportive to man.”

This belief system is challenged in the program. Men in RSVP learn about accountability and that they need to own their violence and stop blaming others, blaming substances and minimizing their violence. The men also learn to listen and to be in touch with their feelings.

In the 1970s in Boston, David Adams began working with abusers. He had no models or guidelines but over time, he developed EMERG which is widely emulated across the country. There are 1500 programs in the United States with most participants court-ordered to attend.

Courts often mistakenly send men to anger management classes, even though domestic violence has little to do with anger. Fewer than one quarter of violent men suffer from rage but they are often narcissists who manipulate, blame and deny when confronted with their violence. They often present better than victims who are traumatized and have messy lives.

Familicide is quite rare but is on the rise. It has not been well studied, possibly because the perpetrators usually kill themselves and it’s impossible to fully understand their motives. The families of the victims are often traditionally gendered, religious, and socially isolated. A sudden change in economic circumstances can be the catalyst to the killings, coming from a warped sense of altruism.

Synder interviewed at length a man who had killed his family but survived his suicide attempt. Whatever insights he might have offered were clouded by his deep religiosity, which led him to believe that what he’d done was part of God’s plan.

Snyder did ride-alongs with police officers who were called to domestic violence incidents. Second only to mass shootings, domestic violence situations are the most dangerous for police officers, especially when guns are involved.

Homicide is eight times more likely when there are guns. States which have firearm restrictions in their protective orders have seen a 25% decrease in homicides when those restrictions are enforced.

The Middle: Making Change

In the third part of the book focused on advocates Snyder tells the story of Dorothy Giunta-Cotter. She had suffered years of horrendous abuse and was in a shelter with her daughter when she contacted advocate Kelly Dunne in Amesbury, Massachusetts. She did not want to remain in the shelter, so she and her daughter returned home with a security system, new locks, new cell phones and a restraining order against her husband.

One day her daughter, expecting a friend, opened the door for her father. He took Dorothy hostage while the daughter called a neighbor who called the police. As the police busted down the door, Dorothy’s husband shot and killed her. She had predicted her own death and Dunne was devastated by her killing. Like Michelle, Dorothy would have scored 18 on the Danger Assessment.

It is estimated that ten percent of domestic violence cases involve a danger of homicide. Poor communication among police, the courts and advocacy groups had contributed to Dorothy’s killing, and Dunne was committed to changing things to make it safer for abused women to stay in their communities.

Even though the advocates, who are feminists, are often at odds with the police, a patriarchal institution, the two came together in 2005 in Amesbury to form the Domestic Violence High Risk Team.
Shelters have been around since the 1960s with the advent of domestic violence advocacy, and are necessary in saving lives. Today they number over three thousand in the United States. They have serious limitations, however. Even the nicest, most home-like shelter involves a huge disruption in the lives of women and their children.

There is a now a push to keep abused women in their communities. That can mean transitional housing in some cases. In Washington, DC, DASH provides housing for two years and sometimes longer, which is often the minimum amount of time it takes women to rebuild their lives.

In Cleveland, Snyder shadowed Martina Latessa, one of two detectives assigned to the Homicide Reduction Unit. It is not uncommon for police departments to have units dedicated to domestic violence, but one focused on homicide reduction is unique. Latessa handles 50 high-risk cases a month and gives her cell phone number to victims so that they can reach her 24/7.

Snyder accompanied her to visit “Grace” whose husband “Byron” came home drunk, put a loaded gun to her head, beat her and held her hostage for a week. Snyder witnessed how Latessa can entertain an autistic child one moment and then gain the victim’s trust and get her talking the next. Latessa is the aunt of Bresha Meadows, a teen who killed her father after years of abuse and whose imprisonment led to the #FreeBresha movement.

With regard to the police, Snyder appears to be ambivalent. On the ride-alongs, she thought that the police made bad situations worse. She noted that police officers are often abusers themselves. She asked several of them how they would treat one of their own. They all said they would do nothing differently but she does not believe it.

On the other hand, Snyder believes that women police officers could be part of the solution and she has nothing but praise for the work of women like Martina Latessa.

At the end of her book, Snyder hints that what’s needed in the long term is prison reform and restorative justice. This is somewhat at odds with the police being part of the solution. The book was written before the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests made “Defund the Police” a household slogan. A critical look at the role of police in handling domestic violence is certainly in order.

Seeking Causes and Solutions

Snyder believes that the increase in domestic violence homicides since 2014 can be partially attributed to the misogyny of the Trump administration and the greater availability of guns. She also sees reasons for hope in the widespread use of some version of the Danger Assessment in police departments across the country, in the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), in the expansion of Family Justice Centers, in charging stalking as a felony, in the increased communication among agencies, and in the #MeToo movement.

It’s not hard to see why this book has won so much praise. When Snyder writes about victims’ stories, it reads like a novel. This is particularly true for the first part of the book that is dedicated to Michelle Monson Mosure. There is plenty of information, accessibly presented, in this book for anyone not familiar with domestic violence. Even for those with some knowledge, there may be surprises.

For instance, a woman is in the most danger when she tries to leave an abusive relationship. Less well known is the fact that this danger drops after three months and drops precipitously after a year. The time in which we need to keep women safe is relatively short. Can we not do better?

Stalking, sometimes depicted as romantic in popular culture, is an extremely dangerous risk factor in abusive relationships. Strangulation vs. any other kind of physical violence is also associated with a high risk of homicide, yet it doesn’t always leave marks and often gets missed.

There is only passing reference to domestic violence in the LGBTQIA community. When one considers the levels of violence experienced by this community, especially violence against trans men and women, this is a fairly serious flaw. A full chapter would be the minimum one would expect.

Similarly with regards to race, there is less than a paragraph that discusses racial differences. In February, 2017, Snyder attended a conference in Detroit where she first heard Jacquelyn Campbell talk about the Danger Assessment. Campbell noted that domestic violence is the “second leading cause of death for African American women, third leading cause of death for native women, seventh leading cause of death for Caucasian women.”

Snyder’s sensibility around the universality of the experience of domestic violence among women globally does not let her off the hook for not looking more closely at some important differences.

She is more consistent in acknowledging class differences and the options that wealthier women have. Her stories are exclusively of working-class women.

As a journalist, Snyder did not feel she could be prescriptive. As such, she focused mostly on what is being done, not on what could be done. Her goal, beyond education, would be to “render this book obsolete.” May this book allow us to take a step in that direction.

January-February 2021, ATC 210

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