Behind Closed Doors
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, but it’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Pit Bull Awareness Month, National Pharmacy Month, Pastor Appreciation Month, and Halloween, among other national observances. You can see how easy it is to forget or to overlook something that is, in fact, an epidemic right under our noses.
But before your eyes roll back in your head or slip away to another blog post, let me take it from the general, the theoretical, to the personal. Domestic violence – when someone in the household hurts or harms another – ranges from a parent hurting a child, an adult abusing an elderly family member, a sibling bullying another; the means could be belts or fists, words or secrets, threats or punishment. It’s so repellent that we instinctively turn away. And our turning away, pretending not to see or hear, allows the abuse to continue.
When I was a new editor back in 2001, the newspaper where I worked published the police reports every week (as it still does). One week we ran a report about domestic violence – the incident and general location, as we did with all incidents. There had been an arrest, and we included it in our weekly summation of crime on the island. Unfortunately, the abuser saw the event in the newspaper and when he got out of jail, he went right back and abused his family member again for “telling.” That was the last time domestic violence reports appeared in general listings of police reports in that paper.
A child I knew once showed up at our house with marks on his arm, and when I asked him, he said it was from roughhousing at school, that his friend had given him a wrist-twist and caused the marks. About a year later, after CPS had become involved, I found out those were cigarette burns that the child’s own mother had inflicted on her child.
An acquaintance of mine, a mother I knew from Girl Scouts, came to a meeting with a bruise on her cheekbone and told me she had opened the cabinet and all the pots and pans fell out and hit her face. Later, she had a burn on her arm and said one of her children had pushed her into the stove by accident. After the divorce, she told me her ex-husband had inflicted those and other wounds on her, and she had lied to cover up.
When I was a teenager, the 12-year-old boy living next door came over early in the morning to ask for help. His father had shot his mother and then himself, and the boy didn’t know what to do. His little sister was still asleep and he didn’t know how to get her out without her seeing the bloody living room. An argument had gone terribly wrong, and suddenly two children were orphans.
When I was separating from my ex-husband, who had never laid a hand on me, there was a very bad week when we were both angry and said things that were vicious, and he slammed me in the front door, leaving a huge bruise from shoulder to collarbone; he followed up by calling the police and claiming I was threatening him. It was a he said-she said situation and, without making it worse in front of the kids, all I could do was leave. The bruises did not show up for a few hours, and I was too scared and weary to make a fuss by then.
So there’s a litany for you of events that have occurred right here in the East Bay, in this town, or another local city, where domestic violence had devastating or traumatic, if not deadly, consequences. People wonder why victims stay in the situation, why they don’t just walk away – but physical abuse is more than skin deep. It breaks the spirit, too. The little boy who had cigarette burns never stopped bragging about his mother’s excellent cooking. It always sounded strange to me – but abusers are often very charming, and the honeymoon phase between incidents often brings out the best in an abuser – until it happens again.
Keep your eyes open for the child who walks on eggshells, who defends or brags vigorously about a parent who gives you a funny feeling. Pay attention to elders with bruises or who seem nervous, or penniless when they should be more financially secure. Listen to raised voices or thumps against the walls of your apartment or condo. And be there with your divorcing friends, who are in the most dangerous period as they try to escape. Don’t assume all is well if the divorce gets ugly. It could be your male friends as well as your female friends, straight or gay. Abuse knows no gender, color, religion.
If you need help, call 911. Visit this website (National Network to End Domestic Violence). Be safe and be smart. Make a plan and tell a friend. Don’t be too afraid to reach out. People care and will help you.
And for the rest of us? Be aware that domestic violence is all around us. It’s the least we can do.
*This commentary appears in the Oct. 29, 2015, issue of the Alameda Sun newspaper. Copyright Julia Park Tracey 2015
Julia Park Tracey is an award-winning journalist, author, and blogger. She is the author of six books: three novels, one poetry collection, and two women's history. She was the Poet Laureate of Alameda, California, in 2014-17. She's also the conservatrix of The Doris Diaries, the diaries of her great-aunt Doris Bailey Murphy. She has a BA in journalism from San Francisco State University, and MA in Early 20th C. British Literature from Cal State Hayward. Julia's articles have appeared on Salon, Thrillist, Paste, Scary Mommy, Narratively, Yahoo News, Your Tango, and Sweatpants & Coffee. Her articles have also run in Redbook, Woman's Day, Country Living, House Beautiful, Town & Country, the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Magazine, Quill, and MadeLocal. She was the founding editor of weekly Alameda Sun and literary zine Red Hills Review. Her poetry has been in The East Bay Literary review, Postcard Poems, Americus Review, Cicada, Tiferet Review, and many others. Julia has been recognized several times by the San Francisco, East Bay and Peninsula Press Clubs as well as the California Newspaper Association for her blogging since 2003.