As countries around the world have tracked Covid-19, they’ve seen a sharp spike in another scourge, one of far longer duration and with no known cure: domestic violence. In the last weeks and months, confinement necessitated by the pandemic has caused an increase in calls to police and crisis centers, reporting severe beatings and murder-suicides in the home.
At the beginning of April, for example, in a Chicago suburb, a fifty-four-year-old man convinced that his girlfriend had contracted the virus (she had not) shot her in the head, then killed himself. In the US, calls are pouring into the National Domestic Violence Hotline, whose chief executive told The New York Times, “We’re having really difficult conversations,” advising women to sleep in their cars to escape violent partners and, during arguments, to stay out of dangerous spaces, such as kitchens and bathrooms.
In the UK, at least sixteen domestic abuse killings of women and children occurred during a three-week period from late March to mid-April, double the average. The Canadian Women’s Foundation has been circulating a one-handed signal—fingers entrapping a thumb—for women to use on video calls to silently alert authorities that they need help. A quarantined woman in China told the Times that her husband beat her with a metal high chair while she was holding their infant, until she had no feeling in one leg. A health care worker in Herat, Afghanistan—a country where more than half of all women experience domestic abuse in their lifetime—reports that she has lost touch with many victims in quarantine. She fears for their lives.
Spain has seen an 18 percent rise in calls to hotlines; the UK, 20 percent. French police have reported a 30 percent rise in calls. In Italy, hotel rooms had to be requisitioned when shelters were shut down. The United Nations has called for governments to “put women’s safety first.”
But that has never happened in any country, crisis or no crisis. As Rachel Louise Snyder reveals in her invaluable, deeply reported book No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, the prevalence of domestic violence is nothing new. Household barbarity is not only a “global health problem of epidemic proportions,” according to the World Health Organization, it is also the bare twisted root from which other violence in American society stems, from school shootings to mass murder.
Within the first few pages, you will learn that such violence is not an “unfortunate fate for the unlucky few.” In fact:
Each day, 137 women are killed throughout the world by domestic partners or “familial violence.”
• There are more than a dozen countries where violence against a spouse is legal.
• In 2017, 50,000 women were killed worldwide by partners or family members. Or as Snyder emphasizes, “Fifty thousand women.” Those are global pandemic numbers.
• Fifty American women are shot and killed every month by “intimate partners.”
• Between 2000 and 2006, there were at least 10,600 domestic homicides in the US. During the same period, 3,200 American soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• In the US, twenty people “are assaulted every minute by their partners.”
• Homicide is the leading cause of death for young African-American women; domestic violence the second most common for all African-American women; the third most common for Native American women; the seventh for Caucasian women.
• Homicide is the leading cause of mortality among pregnant women in several cities and states, including New York City, Chicago, and Maryland.
• 54 percent of mass shootings in the US involved domestic violence.
Snyder’s discussion of that last statistic, regarding mass shootings, is particularly astonishing, drawn from a 2017 report by the activist group Everytown for Gun Safety. Guns are a huge part of the problem, and Snyder is unsparing on that score. But it is revelatory to learn that many notorious mass shootings originated in acts of domestic violence. According to one expert, more than half of mass shootings are, in fact, “extreme incidents” of such brutality, including Charles Whitman’s 1966 sniper attack at the University of Texas at Austin that killed sixteen: his spree began the night before, with the murder of his wife and mother. John Allen Muhammad’s 2002 trail of terror, culminating in shootings in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., began in Washington State, where he had long abused his wife. Omar Mateen, who shot and killed forty-nine people at an Orlando nightclub in 2016, was in the habit of beating and strangling his wife; had he been charged with and convicted of that, the other attack might never have occurred. Adam Lanza killed his mother before moving on to murder twenty-six children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut; a document was later found on his computer defining women as “selfish.” And on and on and on. This April, in Nova Scotia, the largest mass shooting in Canadian history began with a domestic abuse assault.
Among the persistent themes of No Visible Bruises is the basic need for society to grasp the physical, emotional, and generational toll of domestic violence. The economic cost is known: $3.6 trillion in the US, according to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, including $2 trillion in medical expenses and $73 billion in criminal justice and court costs. Yet however widespread and homicidal, however entrenched in every class and stratum, from the most disadvantaged to the highest officials in the land, its devastation is still overlooked. Snyder laments the very name it goes by, which can seem to trivialize the issue, making it possible for officials to dismiss “domestic” crimes casually, as a mere nuisance, implying that “assaults from a family member deserve lesser attention than those of a stranger.” Other terms include “intimate partner violence” or “intimate partner terrorism,” which is a bit more like it.
Describing the rampages of one former offender, Snyder calls him “a domestic terrorist.” That would be Jimmy Espinoza, a former San Francisco pimp and gang member who served his time and is now a graduate and group leader of the Resolve to Stop the Violence Project (RSVP), a county jail program aimed at rehabilitation. “Terrorist” is a polite version of what Espinoza calls himself. Owning up to his long history of abuse, he’s more apt to identify as a “bottom-feeder” or a “low-life motherfucker.” Espinoza offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the perpetrator, both his own mind and those of the men he’s training, teaching them how to recognize the ways in which they’ve bullied, blamed, demeaned, and tormented the women in their lives, not simply through brute force but also through browbeating, their abusive narcissism evident in everyday language. He tells them to watch out for words such as “just,” “if,” and “but,” as in “I just pushed her a little. She’s overreacting.” He forces them to realize that self-control will be a struggle every day, comparable to dealing with addiction; he urges them to confront the fact that many were themselves sexually assaulted as children. (Fifty percent of boys who grew up in foster care suffered such abuse; an estimated 12 percent of those in county jails have as well.)
RSVP has posted impressive statistics: 80 percent of inmates who spent time in the program have lower recidivism rates for violent crimes. Yet even Espinoza backslides, on one occasion disappearing for a time back into narcotics and then turning to rehab. He refuses to talk to Snyder further when he learns she’s interviewing his former girlfriend, Kelly, who was twice kidnapped and held by him, once with a knife and once, for days, at gunpoint. After she escaped the first time and ran to a police station, the cops told her to go back and retrieve the knife for evidence. She declined. Kelly, who has a child with Espinoza, tells Snyder that she believes he has changed his abusive behavior but trusts him only so far. She says, “I will never allow myself to be alone with Jimmy again in my life.” While gun crimes would be preventable with sane regulations, the larger unanswered question that hangs over Espinoza’s story and the book as a whole is: Is violence preventable?
The theme of No Visible Bruises is that the male of the species is far and away deadlier than the female. As Hamish Sinclair, a cofounder of RSVP who has dedicated himself to grappling with the problem, puts it:
“Every commonly available…statistic, and every anecdotal account about domestic and all other kinds of violence throughout the United States and around the world, point clearly to the fact that men almost monopolize all sectors of violence perpetration.”
Snyder isn’t satisfied even with that, writing, “It is men who are violent. It is men who perpetrate the majority of the world’s violence, whether that violence is domestic abuse or war,” an assertion validated by the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime, which has calculated that an average of 95 percent of those convicted of homicide are men. In addition to school shootings and mass murders, we have “gang warfare, murder-suicides and familicides and matricides and even genocides: all men.” Therefore it’s men, she says, who are going to have to “learn nonviolence.”
Any attempt to describe violence in a nongendered way is, according to Sinclair, itself a form of “meta-violence…aiding and abetting” denial of the problem, amounting to “a careful attempt not to see this crucial piece of evidence,” distorting attempts to deal with it. “Domestic violence is like no other crime,” Snyder writes, and by the time you finish this book, you will believe it.