On Tuesday, June 6, 2017 we received word that there had been another homicide in Centre County – another domestic violence homicide. I know few details about either the victim or the perpetrator, but when I learn them over the next few days, they will break my heart. Because although I don’t know the specifics of this tragedy, of this family, I probably know the backstory. I have been working to prevent and respond to domestic violence for over 35 years and while the particulars of the domestic violence homicides change from situation to situation, what comes before rarely does. The stories of the increasing exertion of power and assertion of control by a perpetrator over a victim are the common denominator in these family tragedies. And I know that when I learn more about this story, I’ll ask myself – as I have before – why didn’t we see this coming? What could have been done to prevent it? How can we stop it from happening again?
Sometimes the triggering event is a new relationship, a custody decision, a decision to leave or sometimes nothing at all that can be known to those outside. But before the event that sets off a perpetrator of domestic violence and moves he/she to kill an intimate partner, much has happened. Chances are that the relationship began in a romantic glow with the abuser professing words of love. Sometimes those words of love are interspersed with words of desperation. If someone tells you they can’t live without you that is less a profession of true love than a red flag indicating an unhealthy need to control, no matter what the love songs say. Once the abuser knows the victim is hooked, perhaps they have married or had children, the need for control intensifies. Anything outside his/her orbit becomes a problem, a reason to exert power. Sometimes this exertion of power takes the form of violence, sometimes the threat of violence is enough.
It is not always easy to see what is happening to our family, our friends, our neighbors. The perpetrator works to keep the increasing control invisible, the victim is often too embarrassed or fearful to reach out for help. We don’t know what to say when we do suspect that all is not right; we’re not sure if what we say might make it worse; maybe we are afraid, too.
Sadly, we know that leaving an abusive relationship can be a dangerous thing. And reaching out for help, to family or friends or the Centre Co. Women’s Resource Center, is not a guarantee of safety. But reaching out means that a victim can begin to build a network of support, break down the isolation that the perpetrator has constructed, begin to see a way out and hope for the future.
The responsibility for reaching out, for asking for help, can’t rest only on the shoulders of a victim, however. She or he already has too much to bear, too much to figure out, too much to survive. The reaching out must come from us, from the community, from any and all of us who suspect that something isn’t right, that something might be wrong. We need to find within ourselves the courage to see domestic violence, the courage to name it, the courage to possibly be wrong, but most importantly, the courage to reach out to help when we can. Our help won’t always be accepted, our judgements won’t always be accurate. But if we can take the risk, maybe, just maybe, we can save a life.
Anne K. Ard, Executive Director