‘The things that happen to people we will never really know. What happens in houses behind closed doors, what secrets’ — Lee Harper, To Kill a Mockingbird.
This quote came back to life this week as we tried to digest the horrors of domestic violence in our land.
We attempt to make sense of them in vain since we report on them on an individual case basis. There is a pattern. We have to ask different questions about these crimes.
While it is easier to ask neighbours and friends about the redeeming qualities of the perpetrator, we should ask why men kill their women. Not only monsters destroy lives. Abusers are human and so are their victims.
If we cannot imagine abusers as anything less than sickening, or if we require victims to be perfect, then identifying and escaping abuse in the home becomes that much harder.
People who abuse women do not mistreat every single woman they encounter. It is not unusual for men to be abusive at home and yet appear charming and polite outside. ‘Come see me is one thing; come live with me is another’ is an old-time way of saying this.
A woman’s life is often valued less than a man’s. This inequality is how society is structured. The causes are many but the result is always the same.
Many women and children live traumatised lives because their living arrangements do not bestow the power to do things differently. Because we do not take domestic or gender-based violence seriously, women and children are forced to live quietly in their trauma.
They move along a continuum where they realise that articulating their thoughts can turn into a violent or fatal episode. To protect themselves, they learn to keep their opinions to themselves. The end of this process is not even to think.
Their worlds become smaller but their oppressors are free to maintain carefully manicured appearances outside the home.
Acting Commissioner of Police McDonald Jacob pleaded for people in abusive relationships to seek professional help. Against a background where people are advised to stay in abusive relationships for the sake of children or to keep abuse secret so that the family reputation is not affected, he said:
“Don’t rely on the traditional thinking… Seek out the professional people… trained in counselling and social work, the psychiatrist and psychologists who can assist.”
This advice is appropriate at a time when the Social Development Minister Donna Cox revealed: “Assault by beating doubled in 2021, from 450 reported cases in 2019 to 865 in 2020, and was already close to 865 in March 2021.”
The Minister acknowledged that these reported cases are not the total picture. Yet we choose to avert our eyes when we see trauma in homes. We do not want to get involved in ‘private’ matters. We do not count the impact on the children by the acts of the abuser, the ‘good’ man, our friend.
There is no pause to consider the pain and mangled emotions that course through the minds of these little ones who witness their fathers threaten physical violence or withhold money and love. Their public image blinds our eyes. We enjoy the benefits of his favour and never think about what he may really be in other settings.
A case in point: ‘[…] But in a sudden twist (emphasis added), the loving teacher turned into a killer around 7.40pm last Friday when he chopped his wife Omatie Ramdial-Deobarran to death in front of his eight-year-old son before taking his own life at their South Oropouche Trace, Barrackpore home…’
In another case:
“We talk, we punish, we ban, nothing works. You just have to face God and invite them to Christ, make them love God and make them understand the importance of having God close to them so they will make the right decisions when it comes to these situations. You have to invite the youths to Christ [for] when the time comes to make certain decisions.
“[…] Once he ever disciplined Alliyah, and he pinched her, and that hurt him so much. He said, ‘Venessa, I love them girls so much, I can’t see myself abusing them in no way. I can’t beat my girls; I love them too much ’. These were his exact words…”
What do we make of these situations?
We buy into the idea that children should have a father in the house and ignore the ensuing tragedy. We so fear the possibility of the woman becoming a single mother that we encourage her to ‘work things out for the children’s sake’.
The risk and cost of intervention must be ignored because we, the observers, wish to remain friends with all. But we do not seek to bring balance to the struggles in the relationship since he is a good guy.
He provides food and shelter and is home each night (as though those are redeeming virtues in themselves), and we pretend not to see the effects of what happens behind closed doors. We ignore the falling educational performances and rebelliousness of the traumatised children. The costs to our wider society are entirely ignored.
Looking into the children’s eyes is not done. The children are beaten and traumatised while we drink and celebrate with the abuser. After all, he is a good man.
We blame the victim since it shifts the burden of the possibility of this horror happening to us. She must have done something wrong. We refuse to accept that bad things can happen to good people. Rather than focus on the acts of the ‘good guy’, we speculate on what the victim has done or could have done differently.
The victim cannot speak for herself. Others have to tell her story. Belatedly, the media interviewed the relatives of the murdered wife, but nobody has told the story of the 15-year-old girl.
Teenage years are rebellious years. Rebellion is a heart condition that works its way outside. Wise parenting does not fix that problem with spanking. How many of us recall ‘the look’?
If we develop an atmosphere of affirmation for the child, the need for a beating is considerably reduced. A parent should not be beating a child out of rage. We, as parents, need to reflect on what example we are setting.
The same Bible that is often quoted when corporal punishment is applied said, ‘train up the children when he is young’. We cannot wait until the child is a teen to apply strict rules. Children learn more by observation than by the spoken word.
The media does not report the relentless drumbeat of violence in the home, such coverage is ‘snooze-worthy’. Instead, we breathlessly report on the ‘newsworthy’ murders. As Minister Cox said, it is happening everywhere and all the time. Where is the sustained conversation?
We perpetuate the triggered ‘good guy’ myth in a desperate attempt to personalise the story. But good guys do not kill. Our perception of the man can never be the same as that grounded in the intimate relationships in the home.
There are dark sides to good guys. In a video, one of our good guys is heard comforting his daughter, who said she could not have a good Christmas because of the frequent fights. Why bestow goodness on such men? Why do we not live with them in a pain-prone environment?
The ‘good guy’ often presents himself as a kind and good man to obscure the harms he perpetrates. Reporting on his acts as a well-intentioned person who has been triggered ignores the effect of such irresponsible reporting on other victims in similar circumstances.
Let our media reports put context to the situation. Stop reporting as though it is a soap opera—that angle takes away from the ordinariness of the violence in homes. When will we learn that ordinary men can do horrible things to defenceless women?
Men may have redeeming qualities; we all do. But the context of a gruesome crime makes it irresponsible to report the positive things that the perpetrator did.
We should do better. There is no magic bullet. We have to work on building stronger families.
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