Dr. Phil ends the silence, misses the point

Last Monday an episode about the dangers of teen dating violence was re-aired on Dr. Phil. The episode, which débuted last fall, is part of Dr. Phil’s movement to “End the Silence on Domestic Violence,” described on his website as “a powerful and dramatic season-long campaign against domestic violence.”

The show certainly is dramatic. We first meet Mallory, who is nineteen years old, pregnant, and being abused by her boyfriend, Brett. Among other things, Brett has threatened her in person and over text message, destroyed property, called her names, and locked her in a closet. Both parties agree that the relationship is unhealthy; Mallory calls it “moderately abusive,” while Dr. Phil goes down a checklist of signs of abuse and declares that she’s “batting 1000.”

And yet, according to the episode summary on DrPhil.com, “Even though she says he pushes her around, has threatened her life and locked her in a closet, she refuses to end the relationship.” Fortunately for Mallory, there’s a television audience and a licensed (…oh, wait) therapist to teach her the error of her ways. “Will these teens get a wake-up call from a mother whose daughter was murdered?”

Somewhat confusingly, Dr. Phil’s method of convincing young women to leave their abusive relationships is largely by showing them clips of other girls who were abused, and eventually killed, by their ex-boyfriends.

That’s right: ex-boyfriends. Every single one of the four young women whose stories were flashed on the screen as examples of how important it is to leave an abusive relationship had been murdered because they had broken up, or were trying to break up, with their abuser.

•Abigail Robinson—stabbed 60 times and shot 4 times by Marcus Hightower. Robinson broke up with Hightower but he stalked her for six months and eventually broke into her apartment and killed her.
•Demi Cruccia—stabbed 16 times the day after her birthday by ex-boyfriend John Mullarkey following a “desperate, daylong exchange of text messages about the status of their relationship.” One message, sent by John on the day of the murder: “You no [sic] you love me and can’t live without me.” This was, according to the article, evidence of the couple’s “tumultuous” relationship.
•Lindsey Burke—murdered by Geraldo Martinez, who, his defense attorney claimed, “snapped” when he found a photo of a shirtless man in her wallet. She had broken up with him several months previously, after a two year, “tumultuous” relationship.
•Heather Mills—dismembered by Joshua Bean. It’s unclear whether the two were actively involved at the time; however, the relationship was described as “on-and-off,” and a flirty text from Valentine’s Day was likely to have been faked by Bean.

And yet of the clips that were aired on the show, only one (Burke’s) correctly identified the perpetrator as an ex-boyfriend.

Instead, they were introduced with the following statement: “Many of us remember our first love fondly, but there can be a dark side to teen relationships…the sometimes sharp teeth of puppy love can trigger tragic consequences.” Thus, ironically, the people attempting to convince Mallory to end her relationship for her own safety entirely fail to acknowledge that the girls they use as “bad” examples of victim behavior actually did end their relationships.

Or, more accurately, they tried to end them.

The stories publicized on the show were chilling, but not surprising. One of the most surprising things about domestic violence is the way officials and the media manage to be consistently surprised by domestic homicides. “He loved her so much, he must’ve just snapped.” We see these stories every day on the news. About three weeks ago, I set up a GoogleAlert that notifies me whenever a news article appears with the words “domestic dispute.” Since then I’ve gotten about ten stories a day on average, which makes about 250 in three weeks time.

For example:

•“Shawn M. Broad was involved in a domestic dispute that turned into a physical incident with one of his ex-wives…The dispute happened at the ex-wife’s house….she is in stable condition at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.”
•“A fight between a married couple turning into a bloody mess, with their 4-month-old child caught in the middle…The complaint states that the whole thing started with Wayne wanting to fix their marriage, and Joyce saying it wasn’t going to happen.. .Police say the couple has been separated and shared time spent with their granddaughter.”
•The headline reads “Wife tormented for 8 years before calling 911, prosecutors say.” (Why did she stay?) In the body of the article, however, we learn that “the defendant restricted his wife’s ability to work and move, ordering her to remain in the house or within a half-mile radius of the residence when she walked her dog.” In both 2006 and 2007 the victim attempted to leave; both times her husband tracked her down and forced her to return, once by threatening her and once by threatening her family.
•And of course, the case last week, which appeared under the headline, “Doing everything right not enough for victims in Dexter shooting.” Amy Lake filed a protection order, moved away, and asked for police protection after the first incident of domestic abuse. Her husband found her and killed her and her two children before killing himself. An expert noted that “Taking appropriate measures but suffering an attack regardless is a constant fear in a victim’s life.”

That’s the reality. But the problem with shows that claim to solve domestic violence through victim intervention is that they describe another reality: they perpetuate a myth in which escaping violence is as easy as walking away (and it is a myth—woman are 75% more likely to be killed when they leave , and 70% of physical harm takes place after the partners separate). In short, they assume that the victim has the power to end the relationship, and in doing so, end the violence. Which in turn implies that the responsibility to end the violence—and thus, to some extent the responsibility for the violence itself—is the victim’s fault. If only she had left, this tragedy could have been averted.

It’s even present in the term, “domestic dispute,” which brings to mind an image of some sort of equality—a man and woman arguing over whose turn it is to do the dishes. The incidents that the media term as “domestic disputes” involve dinner plates, knives, cars, fists and guns as weapons; strangulation (only a misdemeanor!) and other forms of violence and intimidation as methods of control; and ex-girlfriends and estranged wives alongside family members and active partners as victims. These are acts of violence. They are assaults. Calling them “domestic disputes” rather than assaults implies that both parties have some sort of control over the situation—that either one of the people involved could stop the violence.

But if she does leave? Look back at the stories above.

The really scary thing is how easily you can imagine the same thing happening in this case. Say Mallory does leave him. Say he’s upset—and he will be, because he’s lost control of her now. Say he does hurt her. Say he kills her. You can practically see the headlines, the same old story. It was “a volatile relationship.” “On-and-off.” She knew he was abusive, she knew he was dangerous—Dr. Phil told her so himself! So for God’s sake, why didn’t she get out of the relationship, why do girls let this happen to them? Don’t they know they could get hurt?

Never once, in the entire episode, did they ask her if she was scared to leave. Not that she would be likely to admit it with her abuser right there in the room, but never once did they acknowledge that the difficulties that she was facing go far beyond those faced by a normal partner in a normal relationship. She was nineteen years old, pregnant, and from the same town where her boyfriend lived and worked. She said she wanted to make the relationship work for the sake of the baby, and that if she wasn’t pregnant she would probably have left him. (When a man and woman split up, incidentally, the woman’s standard of living goes down, on average, about 30%. The man’s actually goes up.) Another teenage girl, also with an abusive on-and-off again boyfriend, who appeared later in the show, mentioned external concerns as well. “We live in a really small town, you see each other all the time, so I just thought it would be better if we just get along. It would make life easier if we’d just get along and be friends.” These are reasonable, valid, practical assessments of a situation in which there is no easy or permanent separation from their abuser.

And yet all anyone in the show focused on was that they both said they still loved their abusive boyfriends. Which isn’t a crime, incidentally—not legally, not morally. It’s not even stupid, when you look at the other factors. At what the abuser is saying. (He says: He’ll love you if you stay with him. He loves you so much, he just doesn’t know how to express it. It makes him a little crazy, that’s all. But things will be different now. He’s sorry. )

And he says: He’ll hurt you if you leave. He’ll hurt your family. You can’t leave. He’ll find you.

Which is true, and you know it’s true, because he’s hurt you before.

So there you have it: They’ll love you if they stay with them (things will be different); they’ll hurt you if you leave (so don’t try). Girls have to believe things will get better if they stay because they know (of course they know—their abusers tell them, text it to them, yell it at them) that otherwise things will get worse. Things got worse for every single one of the girls Dr. Phil mentioned on his show.

The show begins with a voiceover that reads, “She should leave him…if she stays with him, she may be putting two lives in danger,” and it ends with a close-up on Mallory, but the truth is, unless Brett changes and gets therapy, or punishment, or some sort of “wake-up” call (to borrow the terminology that the show uses for Mallory), there will be more victims. Even if she manages to get away safely, there will be another girl who needs to be brought on the show to realize how irresponsible she’s being. Another girl who should leave him. Another girl who may be “putting two lives in danger” because of her actions. Her actions, of course, which are limited to staying or leaving, and which leave her vulnerable to his response either way. To again borrow the wording of the show—it seems she’s putting herself in danger no matter what she does.

This is all despite the fact that Dr. Phil is very careful not to engage in victim-blaming. We have moved forward in our understanding of domestic violence, he says. We should not ask the question “Why doesn’t she leave?”

Yet, as the segment makes clear, the very reason why he doesn’t ask the question is because he thinks the answer is obvious. (Let the record show that Dr. Phil has read Twilight. He understands that girls think Edward Cullen is hot!)

It’s the wrong answer, of course, but more important, it’s the wrong question. Because fundamentally, the question is not how to protect victims from themselves; it is how to protect victims from their abusers.

A final note. The show provided some valuable information for victims. Cindy Southworth, Vice President of Development and Innovation for the National Network to End Domestic Violence and a guest advisor on the show, was a source of consistently excellent advice to the family and friends of victims, encouraging them to remember to keep lines of communication open and not let the victim be isolated. I’m certainly not trying to talk down the importance of education or prevention; both girls and boys need to know what kind of behavior is and is not acceptable in relationships. Furthermore, the show did make an effort to identify and discuss the abuser’s problems with needing power and control, and the importance of him getting help.

And that’s good. On the whole, it’s a good thing that this crusade is happening. It’s good that we’re talking, that there’s discussion, that women (and men) watching the show can see the checklists and hear the stories and hotline numbers and know that they have options. I’ll place a link to the website below, because it’s a great resource for information about domestic violence as well as dating violence, which is too often ignored. It’s good that Dr. Phil is using a massive public platform to talk about domestic violence, to ending the silence.

But the fact remains that ending the silence about domestic violence is not the same as ending domestic violence. No matter how many girls you talk to, empower, and educate; no matter how many girls you give a “wake-up” call to; no many how many girls you tell to just leave, there is no solution that doesn’t involve change on a systemic level. There is no solution until we can safely protect victims after they leave. Until we can provide them with the information and opportunities that would allow them to support themselves and their families independently. Until we change the underlying attitudes of society that tell us that a man going to his ex-wife’s house and putting her in the hospital is a “domestic dispute,” and that domestic homicides are “the sharp teeth of love,” and that intimidating your partner into submission is acceptable (or at the very least, justifiably effective).

And yes, that’s hard. Overwhelming.

Frankly it’s a lot easier to make a nineteen year old girl look stupid on national television.

More Information
Link to Part 1 of “End the Silence on Domestic Violence—Teen Dating Violence”: Teen Dating Violence
Dr. Phil’s website on DV (good resource section): End the Silence on Domestic Violence
A great compilation of up-to-date dv-related news: Domestic Violence Crimewatch

Media and Stats Referenced

Nguyen, Kim. “Ex-boyfriend found guilty in woman’s brutal death.” Denver News 11, 17,2010. Available at http://www.thedenverchannel.com/news/25826915/detail.html

“Monroeville High School Girl’s Ex Found Guilty of Her Murder.” WTEA.com Pittsburg 6/29/2009. http://www.wtae.com/r/19890422/detail.html.

Gedan, Benjamin. “Man Guilty in Killing of Former Girlfriend.” Rhode Island News. 1/27/2007. Available @ http://www.projo.com/news/content/MURDERVERDICT27_01-27-07_BQ44Q8O.1b1eb5f.html

“Indy Police Release Gruesome Details of Woman’s Death” The IndyChannel.com. 5/28/2007 http://www.theindychannel.com/news/13401198/detail.html

Skovira, Kirsten. “Standoff Ends Peacefully.” CBS News Channel. 6/10/2011 http://www.kgwn.tv/story/14881773/stand-off-between-male-and-law-enforcement

Moxely, Cathleen and Jarosz, Brooks. “Couple Appears in Court Regarding Dinner Plate Attack.” http://www.wsaz.com/home/headlines/Three_Stabbed_in_Domestic_Dispute_Including_4-Month-Old_Grandchild_123202288.html WSAZ News 6/14/2011

Clarridge, Christine. “Local wife tormented for 8 years before calling 911, prosecutors say.” The Seattle Times. 6/15/11

Cousins, Christopher. “‘Doing everything right’ not enough for victims in Dexter shooting.” Bangor Daily News. 6/14/11

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1988. Available at http://www.safespaceonline.org/domestic-violence.html

Facts on Domestic Violence. Compiled by the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office. Available @ http://www.clarkprosecutor.org/html/domviol/facts.htm

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About The Mary Byron Project

The Mary Byron Project was established in 2000 in memory of the young woman whose tragic murder led to the creation of automated crime victim notification technologies. As a nationally recognized thought leader on domestic violence, the Mary Byron Project cultivates and supports efforts that extend beyond crisis management to attack the root causes of this epidemic and help build safer, healthier communities. Solutions are within our grasp. The Mary Byron Project was established with that quest in mind.
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3 Responses to Dr. Phil ends the silence, misses the point

  1. This is an excellent post.

    Last Summer I spoke with a producer from “Dr. Phil” about participating in this episode and declined to participate because of fears that they were focusing on ratings at the expense of information (my daughter was murdered by her ex-boyfriend and the producer wanted to have the murderer participate “live” from prison on the show with me). While I’m very pleased to see that the mainstream media is starting to pay more attention to teen dating violence, I’m not always encouraged by their approach.

    Two very important points that you make here:

    You are absolutely correct that the risk of serious injury or death increases significantly at the point that the abuser finally realizes that the relationship has ended. You are also spot on in recognizing the dangers inherent in the use of the word “domestic.” We talk about a domesticated animal, about the domesticities of home, even the Preamble to our Constitution mentions “domestic tranquility.”

    I believe that the use of this word in reference to abuse has contributed in some part to its inappropriate treatment as a private issue. It has also affected the way that the criminal justice system has historically treated “domestic violence.” Fortunately many police departments and District Attorneys have recognized these inequities and have made steps to respond more appropriately.

    Although we obviously have a long way to go I’m hopeful that we’re going in the right direction. Thank you for this post!

    Drew Crecente
    Executive Director, Jennifer Ann’s Group

  2. Thank you for your comment. Your support means a great deal. We do have a long way to go, but I’m strengthened by the increased support of people who ‘get it’, and are willing to speak out. I applaud you for what you are doing and am so sorry for your terrible loss.

  3. There is another angle to consider regarding whether to leave or stay. Domestic abuse, as we know, is about control of the other person. Women who remain in such relationships over time are beaten down–emotionally and physically–to where their self esteem and sense of autonomy erode until they feel they no longer have a will of their own. As with Stockholm Syndrome, they become subservient to their abusers.

    An extreme example of this, of course, was Hedda Nussbaum, a once-successful children’s author who became involved with Joel Steinberg, a coked-up defense lawyer. Steinberg physically and mentally abused Nussbaum to where she no longer had the will to fight. The couple adopted adopted a baby girl they named Lisa. Joel began beating Lisa from the time she was a toddler until she was six years old, when he managed to kill her.

    Hedda Nussbaum was charged as an accomplice to the murder by prosecutors who didn’t understand that she was no longer mentally capable of defending herself let alone her adopted daughter.

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