Former Victim Counselor Takes On Assumptions That Leaving Abusers Is Easy

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has a response to Linda Hirshman's Slate piece in which she says feminists need to start "calling victims on taking responsibility for their own well-being." Hilzoy thinks that's crap, too.

She's responding to Hirshman's assertion that feminists need to question individual victims on why they don't leave. Hilzoy — a former shelter volunteer and staffer — says:

A lot of women are afraid that their abuser would try to harm them if they leave. And with good reason: about a third of female homicide victims were killed by a spouse, lover, or ex-lover; and that's not counting the women who are "merely" beaten, stalked, and so forth. Staying in a case like this, at least until you had figured out how to leave safely and cover your tracks, is not mysterious or perplexing.

You mean, there might actually be situations in which women feel they can't leave? And they might be, at least temporarily right?

Hilzoy also tackles Hirshman's assumption that women who are abused have terrible judgment.

Moreover, while I think the assumption that battered women stay because they are just dumb, or have staggeringly bad judgment, is wrong and insulting, there are a whole lot of battered women, and it would be very surprising if none of them stayed for such reasons. We asked women who came to our shelter when the abuse had started; one woman told me that her husband had thrown her from a moving car on their first date, at which point I wondered silently why on earth there had been a second date, let alone a subsequent marriage. But in my experience such women were a vanishingly small minority.

But then Hilzoy turns to the women Hirshman was really attacking — those who Hirshman thinks ought to know better, and have the means to get away (women like author Leslie Morgan Steiner).

To start with, it helps to know that (last time I checked) the two most common times for violence to start were the honeymoon and the first pregnancy. By the time you reach either point, you're already in a pretty serious relationship, and leaving is not something that anyone would do lightly.

Hirshman suggested in her piece that these women, like Rihanna, ought to be asked, repeatedly, why they wouldn't leave someone who abused them. Hilzoy suggests that one should try seeing it from the perspective of the person abused.

So imagine yourself, in love with someone, on your honeymoon or pregnant, when suddenly this guy just goes ballistic, often for very little reason, and hits you. For a lot of women, this is profoundly shocking and disorienting. There are things that are comprehensible parts of the world, even if they're rare, like having your car stolen; and then there are things that are unexpected in a completely different sense, like having your car turn into an elephant before your eyes: things that make you wonder whether you're completely crazy. Being beaten up by someone who apparently loves you is one of those things.
What this means is that precisely when a woman needs as much confidence in her own judgment as she can muster, the rug is completely pulled out from under her. And it's not just that she questions her judgment because she got involved with this guy in the first place; she questions her judgment because something so completely alien to the world she thinks she knows has just happened.

It is this woman to whom Hirshman suggests that feminists ought to direct their questions — a woman who is likely experiencing a crisis of self-confidence in her own judgment is who Hirshman suggests feminists ought to direct questions about their judgment. Hilzoy puts it this way:

Trusting your judgment at that moment is like trusting your sense of balance when someone has just poured a fifth of vodka down your throat.

Hilzoy then goes on to describe her experience with emotional abuse, and her own crisis of self-confidence and the feelings of guilt for leaving that she struggled with despite not having any legal ties to or children with her abuser, and the ability to end things quickly.

But then there are the women who stay as the violence escalates (as some reports say that it did between Rihanna and Chris Brown).

The longer you stay, the worse it gets. And since, as before, the capacity that is under attack [self confidence in your own judgment] is the very one you need in order to get out, this makes it harder and harder to leave. And, of course, the longer you stay, the dumber you feel about staying.

Which is exactly why then further questioning the judgment of someone who stays feeds into the cycle, rather than breaking it.

There are, of course, the other hallmarks of abusers: their ways of isolating their victims and undermining the support systems that might otherwise help them get out, the Jekyll and Hyde aspects most victims describe, the apologies, the charm they employ. All of which is to say to people like Hirshman - who think that many feminists are just coddling domestic abuse victims - that, like most things in life, leaving isn't so easy. And finger-pointing isn't exactly helping.

Why Do They Stay? [Obsidian Wings]

Earlier: Writer Implies We Can Collectively Guilt Rihanna Into Leaving Chris