\ My haunting by domestic abuse in the newsroom - Roger Simon

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November 22nd, 2017

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My haunting by domestic abuse in the newsroom

Roger Simon

By Roger Simon

Published Sept. 25, 2014

It was the day I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy.

The phone rang on my desk. It was a woman I had written about. Her husband had beaten her for years. She divorced him; she took him back; she remarried him. The beatings continued. She would leave, and he would go after her. When she fled to her mother's house, he followed her and broke all the bones on the left side of her face.

For that, he was arrested and convicted of battery. He was sentenced to 90 days, but got out in a week. She got some plastic surgery.

He kept beating her, usually with his fists, sometimes with his work shoes. They had two children. Sometimes when she fled with them, he would follow and beg for forgiveness. She would return with the kids. And he would beat her again.

She had come to my office. She was young and soft-spoken. She had been a schoolteacher and now worked for a large firm. She was not stupid or weak.

"Why did you stay with him?" I asked. "People are going to read this and wonder why you took him back after he beat you again and again."

"I felt," she said, and then she paused. "I felt I was the only one who understood him. I felt I was the only one who could help him. I wanted the family to succeed. I wanted things to work."

She had grown up watching "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and "Father Knows Best." Ozzie never punched Harriet in the face. Jim never beat Margaret over the head with a shoe.

She knew these shows were not real. She knew they were idealized versions of the American home. But that's the version she wanted. And when she couldn't get it, she felt shame. She felt guilt. She felt it was at least partially her fault.

In one respect, she had been lucky. She came to work so battered and bruised one day that her supervisor called the company's lawyer, and they found her and her children a place to stay and explained her legal options.

She was talking to me because she wanted to help other women. I was sympathetic. The empathy would come soon.

She didn't want her real name used, and I said that was OK, but I said her husband certainly would recognize himself in the story. She would take the risk, she said, and besides, her husband's behavior had become so violent and erratic that he had been confined to a mental institution.

I wrote the column. The day it appeared, the phone rang. It was the woman. Her husband had escaped from the institution. He had been a weapons instructor in the military, had gone home and picked up his gun.

"He's coming either for you or me," she said.

When I hung up, I started getting these pangs in my stomach. It was the empathy starting. My phone buzzed almost immediately. It was the receptionist at my paper. She said there was a man who wanted to see me. Her voice was taut and distressed.

I told her to smile at the man, put down the phone and get inside the newsroom fast. She did. When she was inside my office, she described the guy to me. It was the husband.

I called a friend at the police department. "Yeah, there's a bulletin out on the guy," he said. "Armed and dangerous. So don't try to interview him or anything."

"I don't want to interview him!" I yelled into the phone. "I want you to come and get him! Now! Fast!"

The police came, but the guy had fled. Eventually, he went back to the mental institution. But for the rest of the day and quite a few days after, I asked myself what it must be like to live with such a person. I tried to imagine the terror of it.

Battered women don't have to imagine. They know.

The events I have been describing took place in ancient times: 1978. So I looked for today's facts and figures.

On April 17 of this year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, released a report finding that from 2003 to 2012, "domestic violence accounted for 21 percent of all violent victimizations" in America. "Current or former boyfriends or girlfriends committed most domestic violence. ... Most domestic violence (77 percent) occurred at or near the victim's home."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has a violence prevention division, reports that nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by a partner.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 3.2 million women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.

Statistically speaking, things have gotten better, by the way. Even though the current statistics are shocking, they used to be much worse. And domestic violence, after several decades, is now being taken seriously.

When a pro football player recently was caught on video punching out his then fiancee, now his wife, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said: "The president is the father of two daughters. And like any American, he believes that domestic violence is contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society. Hitting a woman is not something a real man does."

It is something too many not-real men still do, however. And as long as they keep doing it, you've got to wonder how "civilized" a society we really are.

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