How to save women from domestic violence — before it’s too late
Rachel Louise Snyder got so deeply immersed in researching domestic abuse that she had a breakdown and sobbed uncontrollably for 10 days. With a diagnosis of vicarious trauma, she took a year off from the project. But, she told me, she had to come back to it. “I wasn’t done,” she said.
The result is her compulsively readable new book, “No Visible Bruises.” In a writing style that’s as gripping as good fiction, as intimate as memoir and deeply informed, she takes us into the lives of the abused, the abusers and the survivors. The stories are devastating, but Snyder keeps us reading by pointing us toward possible solutions. She delves into how researchers and front-line interveners are creating practical, cost-effective, evidence-based ways to save lives.
The women’s stories are so common, they rarely even hit the front page or our social-media feeds. Man kills family, self. Man kills ex-girlfriend or ex-wife. He kills her in her driveway, in her bedroom, in her office, with a gun, a knife, by strangling. The stories are both too universal and too particular. And who can bear to read yet again that a restraining order didn’t protect her, that the cops couldn’t get there in time, that she did everything right — and still died?
In “No Visible Bruises,” Snyder shows how an individual act of private terror ripples outward, devastating not just the immediate victim but families, friends and children. Family violence sends women and children into hospitals, homelessness and intergenerational cycles of trauma. According to Northeastern University professor James Alan Fox, roughly half of all mass shootings in this country are “extreme incidents of domestic violence.”
“No Visible Bruises” starts by taking us deeply into the family life of Rocky Mosure, Michelle Monson Mosure and their two small children. Although we know how it ends — man kills family, self — Snyder carries us through as if it were a detective novel, looking for answers to the question that bedevils us so often: Why didn’t Michelle take the kids and leave? The answer is, as it almost always is in family violence, that she feared her husband would kill her. Before he does, however, Snyder shows how slowly but relentlessly Rocky stifled Michelle’s life and corroded her will. Public health researcher and Rutgers professor Evan Stark calls this “coercive control,” a steadily escalating pattern of emotional abuse that involves taking over every decision in a woman’s life, controlling the money, isolating her from family and friends, monitoring her conversations and movements, and eroding her confidence. This emotional abuse imposed through an alternating cycle of devotion and rage turns women into hostages in their own homes.
We see Michelle taking painstakingly small steps toward freedom, earning her high school diploma and getting financial aid so she can go to college for a nursing degree in hopes of eventually supporting her children. Along the way, she was trying not to get herself and the kids killed. But when Michelle confronted Rocky — she took out a restraining order and had him arrested for breaking into her mother’s house to take the kids — the legal system failed her. Rocky made bail and came home to put an end to them all.
The book reveals where and how different individuals and agencies failed to share information, failed to recognize the danger and failed to save four lives. But Snyder’s aim isn’t just to narrate the misery of what she calls “intimate terrorism” but also to outline how more women can be spared. She probes a central question: Why do men abuse and kill? Criminology professor Neil Websdale argues that for some men who’ve been steeped in the idea that manhood involves control and strength, loving a woman offers the only conduit to a world of feeling that they have otherwise shut off. If he believes that she is his inner world and without her he will die, he is dependent on her. As Websdale puts it, abusers are simultaneously powerful and powerless; they both have control and have none — except by controlling women.
In her search for solutions, Snyder embedded with abusers, allowing us to see the world through their eyes. Her research suggests crucial questions: Can men recover from an addiction to brutality and domination that’s so deeply socialized into them that it appears natural? Can they step back, examine and recover from what psychologists call “thinking errors”? We learn that white middle-class and well-off men are most likely to commit familicide, which has increased in recent decades. Synder reports that the first known U.S. familicide occurred in the mid-18th century, and the country averaged about three cases a decade until the 1990s, when there were 36; between 2000 and 2007 the number rose to 60; and between 2008 and 2013 it climbed to 163, claiming a total of 435 victims.
Snyder spends hours interviewing Patrick O’Hanlon, a pseudonym for a man imprisoned after he murdered his family and tried to kill himself. He tells her about his childhood with a violent, alcoholic father and says his mother’s lack of respect for the man of the house caused his father’s rage — a clue that O’Hanlon is not going to take responsibility for his own violence. O’Hanlon exhibits the characteristics of what researchers have deemed the masculinist belief systems behind family violence. When he slid into financial ruin, he kept it secret from his wife and considered suicide. But he couldn’t stand the shame he’d feel at leaving his family destitute, so he tried to take them with him.
Still more fascinating is the time Snyder spends with the pseudonymous Jimmy Espinoza, a former pimp and abuser who is trying to refrain from violence in part by training men in a batterer-intervention program at the San Bruno, Calif., prison. The program’s graduates have 80 percent less recidivism than their peers in another wing of the prison who weren’t given the chance to participate. The program teaches men to examine how their gendered expectations warp their behavior and how to accept responsibility for their violence, and introduces them to victims of similar violence. They discuss how their childhoods of violence and sexual abuse filled them with rage.
In the sessions, Jimmy tells stories of his deepest shame, saying that he found vulnerable women and “stole their souls.” He unburdens himself in order to wrest insight out of his students. Through a research-structured curriculum, these men help one another examine their toxic masculinity that led to choices that escalated into violent crimes. One of Jimmy’s students realizes that he was able to abuse his girlfriends in part by not calling them by their names. “By calling her a ‘bitch’ all the time, what I was really doing was taking away her humanity,” he acknowledged.
When I asked Snyder whether she believes that men like these really can change, she answered: “I have hope. I don’t need for all of them to make it. I just need for a couple of them to make it. If 2,000 women a year are going to die, and we can keep 300 of those women alive, isn’t it worth it?”
The book ends by examining the most important question of all: How do you interrupt abusive men’s escalation, saving their families’ lives? Here is Snyder’s hopeful answer: Small fixes make an enormous difference. Get various agencies to share information. Keep records of every restraining order, even after it’s expired. Teach cops, prosecutors, emergency-room staffers, domestic-violence advocates, judges and others to recognize the signs that a situation is escalating, and get the abuser behind bars. Create cross-disciplinary, high-risk teams that share information and build protections around victims in particular danger. Use researchers’ lethality-assessment checklists to determine when a man is likely to kill. For instance, public health researcher Jacquelyn Campbell has found that particular combinations of 22 risk factors — such as threats to kill, access to a gun, destruction of property, stalking, strangulation, forced sex, and drug and alcohol abuse — can tell observers when a situation is especially dangerous.
Snyder takes us into the work of the Newburyport High Risk Team in Massachusetts, a cross-disciplinary group involving domestic-violence advocates, police, probation officers, hospital-staff members and others who find ways to intervene. She introduces us to the Montana fatality-review team, which studies family violence the way the National Transportation Safety Board examines plane crashes; the process seeks to discover where systems broke down and how to fix the lapses to prevent another failure. We go from home to home with a Cleveland cop who works with women who have been flagged as having the highest risk of homicide. We watch as these and others find ways to intervene and keep women alive longer, to take the abuse seriously while it’s still a misdemeanor and not a murder, to build systems that can house women and children without utterly disrupting their lives.
They can’t save everyone. But, as Newburyport advocate Suzanne Dubus says, they can save many at a cost that’s “a lot cheaper than murder investigations and prosecutions and jail time.”
After a few chapters, I was telling a prosecutor friend that everyone in her office — no, everyone in the state who deals with family violence — had to read this book. Because it will save lives.