Recently, two murder-suicides related to domestic violence took place in our area, once again highlighting the problem known as “separation violence,” which occurs when a woman attempts to leave her abuser. This phenomenon has reached epidemic proportions, but is it taken seriously? And what can be done to address it?
On August 6, Mark Short, 40, a Berks County man, shot his wife Megan, 33, and their three young children—ages 2, 5 and 8—to death. He also killed the family dog before taking his own life with a single bullet to the head. It took place the day she had planned to move to Bucks County with the children. Three weeks earlier, Megan Short told police she feared her husband and was afraid he would harm her. The police told her how to seek a protection-from-abuse order. The next day, he bought a .38 caliber handgun and ammunition.
And in Burlington Township, New Jersey on the night of August 9, Ruben Johnson Jr., 50, fatally shot his wife, MaShanda, 48, and 10-year-old son, Tre, before shooting himself to death. The man reportedly called his brother to say that he had just killed his family, and was about to kill himself. The family had troubles, and Mrs. Johnson was reportedly trying to escape from her husband , who was unemployed, reclusive and suffering from depression. She sought help for him, which he refused.
Both tragic cases highlight the often life and death risks being taken by those who seek to leave abusive relationships.
“It is important to respect their autonomy when those suffering abuse decide that it is safest for them to remain in the relationship,” says Jill Engle, Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the Family Law Clinic at Penn State Law, who represents clients in domestic violence and other family law cases. “That is an uncomfortable truth that is difficult to digest for many in the general public who have not been exposed to this data. It is human nature for us to want to solve the problem and to do something quickly and cleanly, but ‘getting her to leave’ is not always the safest option for a victim.”
75 percent of the women murdered in the U.S. each day by their spouse or partner are killed hours, days or weeks after attempting to leave their relationship.
That is why a movement is afoot to broaden the public discourse surrounding domestic violence. You see it in advocacy efforts like #whyistayed, which are dedicated to furthering empathy for victims—no matter the choices they make.
The highest rate of domestic abuse fatalities occurs when women are about to leave their spouses. In fact, 75 percent of the women murdered in the U.S. each day by their spouse or partner are killed hours, days or weeks after attempting to leave the relationship. When a woman leaves her spouse, the abuser experiences emotions as a part of that separation process, which may include indifference, manipulating the victim through both anger and courting, defaming the woman, and finally renewed anger and threats. Further, America is a uniquely lethal cauldron of domestic violence and gun proliferation, and the most dangerous place in the developed world for women.
According to Everytown for Gun Safety, more intimate partner homicides are committed with guns than with all other weapons combined, and domestic abusers are five times more likely to murder a partner when a gun is in the house. In recent years, at least 53 percent of women murdered with guns were killed by family members or intimate partners, and in 57 percent of mass shootings, the killer murdered a relative or partner.
A study on international coverage of domestic violence found that most media reporting on the issue tends to reinforce, rather than challenge, the social and cultural norms concerning gender, but could play more of a role in dispelling myths and reflecting the true breadth of the problem. In addition, media tends to sensationalize such crimes, focusing more on how men murdered their partners rather than why. Further, the disproportionate coverage of women as perpetrators of violence provides an inaccurate and distorted view of the issue. International guidelines suggest, for example, that journalists avoid blaming the victim or providing excuses for the abuser, address the social and historical context of violence and tell women where to get help.
Engle reflected on one of her clients to illustrate that solutions are not simple, nor is there one panacea. “Three years ago one of my clients was murdered by her ex-husband, who then killed himself, a few days after my Penn State Law Clinic students served him with a divorce complaint,” Engle said. “We thought we did everything we could, including respecting her autonomy and decision-making, and she still died. He was subject to a civil protective order due to past domestic violence, and he was facing criminal charges. But she still died.”
Engle argues that we need to humanize both victims and perpetrators, and see separation violence as a public health issue that we are prepared to fund as robustly as necessary. “Mental health intervention was something my client desperately wanted for her husband,” she says. “She was afraid if he did not get help, he would kill her. She was right.”
We need to get at the root causes of violence against women, concepts like hyper-masculinity—the exaggeration of male stereotypes, particularly emphasizing physical strength, aggression, and sexuality—and male privilege.
In his 2010 TED talk, Tony Porter, co-founder of A Call to Men—an organization educating men on healthy, respectful manhood—spoke of the collective socialization of men, which he also called the “man box.” Porter noted that men are collectively socialized to view women as being less than, as property and objects, which provides the foundation for violence against women. The man box dictates that men should not cry or show emotion except for anger, should not show weakness or fear, and should demonstrate power and control, especially with regard to women.
“See this man box has in it all the ingredients of how we define what it means to be a man. Now I also want to say, without a doubt, there are some wonderful, wonderful, absolutely wonderful things about being a man,” Porter said. “But at the same time, there’s some stuff that’s just straight up twisted, and we really need to begin to challenge, look at it and really get in the process of deconstructing, redefining, what we come to know as manhood.”
It is no wonder that in professions where hyper-masculinity and male privilege predominate, domestic violence is high. Military families are more prone to domestic violence, and combat veterans account for 21 percent of domestic violence incidents, a reflection of post-traumatic stress disorder. And domestic abuse among law enforcement families is two to four times greater than the general population—a more pervasive problem than with NFL players.
“Mental health intervention was something my client desperately wanted for her husband,” says Jill Engle, Professor of Clinical Law and Director of the Family Law Clinic at Penn State Law. “She was afraid if he did not get help, he would kill her. She was right.”
“In cases of those who go to the extreme of separation violence, often the history and pattern of abuse is related to jealousy and possessiveness,” said Tony Lapp, co-director of Menergy, a domestic abuse treatment center providing counseling, anger management classes and batterer intervention services for abusive men. Based in Mt. Airy and formed 33 years ago, Menergy is the oldest treatment program for abusive partners in Philadelphia, and one of the oldest in the U.S. Many of the participants in the private counseling program—which can range from 20 weeks to two or more years—are professionals in the community. Sixty percent of the men come to the program through a court referral, while the rest generally come on their own. Studies have shown that as many as 69 percent of physical and emotional abusers who complete the Menergy program do not relapse.
Since the program’s inception, there has been a great societal shift in gender roles. But Lapp said Menergy has always been interested in how men are socialized.
Lapp noted that those who come to Menergy do not necessarily have angry impulses, but rather issues revolving around how men and women are supposed to be. Many men Lapp deals with express rigidly ingrained ideas linking strength with dominance; they feel powerless when not in control. Menergy is not focused merely around anger management, but rather how men feel when they are frustrated and hurt. While men are conditioned to believe that dominance and overt displays of power engender respect, the organization helps them to see things differently, particularly to address the impact of their actions on their children and partners. “The goal becomes to push and reshape their imaging of what strength really is,” Lapp says. “Many men have experienced that respect is linked to dominance, overt displays of power, and the confidence that engenders.”
While intervention for domestic violence victims has been at the core of Menergy’s work, Lapp notes also that men are traumatized and hurt because of how and where they were raised; Philadelphia is a hard place, he acknowledges, due to its extremes of wealth and poverty, and as the big city with the deepest poverty. The daunting challenge when taking on domestic murder/suicides is restoring a sense of hope to those who have lost it. “Men are doing a lot of damage,” Lapp says. “But it’s also a tragedy what we have set men up for in this society.”Header photo by Derek Bridges via Flickr