When No One Protects You

This piece from The Atlantic really speaks to me today.

Intimate partner battering and its effects (once commonly known as “Battered Women’s Syndrome”) are often described as a set of behaviors where women follow their abuser because they are afraid and traumatized. Its symptoms are most similar to PTSD, according to Rummel, and less similar to mental illness, a common misconception.

Arguments like the one Kelly’s prosecutor made are based on long-standing prejudices that such women who live with abusers are selfish and manipulative. In a report submitted in support of Kelly’s habeas petition, Dr. Geraldine Butts Stahly pointed out that women respond to severe and prolonged physical and sexual abuse through a series of survival mechanisms, such as learned helplessness (where victims are too afraid to defend themselves) and traumatic bonding (where victims form an emotional attachment towards their abuser).

The law permits survivors of abuse to present relevant testimony at their trial to show that they may be less culpable for their actions. But many women facing criminal charges never have this opportunity, either because the attorney fails to produce a suitable expert or because the jury misinterprets evidence of abuse. In addition, criminal laws are more male-centered. “When men experience violence,” said Rummel, “they react immediately. The laws are based on duress and provocation.”

Women, on the other hand, often experience ongoing violence, many times from the very people who are supposed to protect them. “They may not react immediately,” Rummel said. They go about their lives. They raise their kids. They move on. Then their rage explodes.”

I appreciate the focus here on women, and especially women in intimate relationships, but I think a lot of these features — learned helplessness, traumatic bonding, lack of immediate reaction — are a significant portion of any kind of abuse suffered by anyone at the hands of “people that are supposed to protect.” Maybe not always, but often.

Our understanding of agency here is agency under optimal conditions — that of a good, well-behaved and well-adjusted (white) bourgeois American. Someone with a modicum of economic and social support, someone who isn’t an abuser willing or able to help. So, an abused (or traumatized) person is seen as having the same kinds of moral agency as someone who has not been abused (or traumatized), and judged accordingly. The question, “why didn’t you leave?” assumes that leaving is seen as an option. Or even a possibility. But what if it’s not? And what if there’s no place to go, or no one to go to?

What if violence and abuse is all there is and all there has been? What if there is no one or no place that is not violent? What then?