Domestic Violence: When No Help Arrives

Illustration by Paul Lachine

Illustration by Paul Lachine

By Elizabeth Dermody Leonard

Domestic violence is widespread in the United States, crossing all racial, ethnic, age, and religious groups. Domestic assault is the single most frequent form of violence that police encounter, more common than all other forms of violence combined. Many battered women are sexually abused, assaulted, and raped by their partners, even during pregnancy. Women who leave violent men face significantly increased risk of being killed—up to one-half of female homicide victims are murdered by a current or former intimate. Battering is the most frequent predecessor to intimate homicide, whether the homicide victim is male or female. Although women are eight times more likely than men to be killed by an intimate, as Brenda Clubine (currently serving 15 years to life for the death of her husband) warns, "Any abusive relationship is potentially lethal."

For the abused woman who belongs to the faith community, intimate violence often creates a crisis of faith. Cheryl Sellers (sentenced to 25 years to life) sought help from her pastor as her husband's violence became life-threatening: "I talked to one minister and I was told,'Oh, you're not loving him enough. Just love him a little harder.'" This response to battered women and their children leaves victims feeling that the church places a higher value on the preservation of the institution of marriage than on the well-being of women and children. Who knows how many women have left churches, thinking that was the only way to save themselves and their children?

When the levels of violence and control have gone beyond endurance; when attempts to end the relationship have resulted in stalking, forced return, death threats, and near lethal assaults; when family, church, and/or the law have failed to help:Then a woman may believe her death is certain. In such cases homicide may be the culmination of an escalating trajectory of violence.While men are about nine times more likely to commit murder than women,women represent about one-third of intimate-homicide offenders. Even though most women who kill their tormentors have never before been violent, they often are convicted of murder and given harsh prison sentences. In fact, life sentences are common.

Much of the explanation for these severe punishments lies in the structure of current self-defense laws, which leaves women at a systematic disadvantage.When a woman is attacked by a male intimate who chokes, smothers, or batters her with an intent to kill, her only chance to survive the deadly assault is to grab a weapon and use it. Unfortunately, selfdefense law considers her action "excessive force" since he is "unarmed." Further, if they are married at the time of the homicide and the couple has a life-insurance policy, the wife may be accused of killing for "financial gain," a factor that increases the severity of the sentence.

LaVelma Byrd was attracted to her husband when she met him for the first time in church. He was polite, cordial, clean cut, and he was a minister. Her first marriage had ended in divorce years earlier, but she was certain this marriage would succeed because it would be based on their shared born-again faith. She relates her experiences here:

I didn't want anyone to know what I  was going through with him. The mental abuse was there all along, and then the physical abuse began. At first it was just a push here and a shove there, but then I would get hit upside the head for no reason at all. I would get stomped. It gradually got worse and worse.

I hid it. I wore big glasses to church and would fix my hair so they couldn't see it. I was always protecting him, not looking out for me, but protecting him. I was very submissive to him because I felt that if I did a lot, I wouldn't cause more problems. But it didn't help me at all. I used to use Scriptures, telling him that God said,"Love thy wife as thyself," but it would make him very angry because it was the truth.

I prayed a lot, fasted a lot, read the Bible a lot, cried a lot. I think that made it even worse, with him being a pastor and me going through the things that I was going through. But I was always protecting him. I didn't call the police when he would jump on me because I felt that if I had the police in front of our house it would be the end of his ministry. My head kept telling me:"God will work it out."

I was very confused. I called the minister that was my husband's mentor and told him how I had to grab a knife to keep my husband from beating me up. That was sort of my shield to keep from getting beat up real bad. I told him everything, hoping that, as his mentor, he would talk to my husband and try to bring him to his senses. Later I called him and said,"You didn't believe me when I was telling you about the things at our house." He said,"Well, it wasn't that I didn't believe you, it was just so unbelievable that he would do something like that."

No one else knew until I tried to commit suicide. That's when my children found out what I had been going through. I was in a coma for about three days. The counselor asked if we were having marital problems and I said,"No."

In an effort to conform to her church's teachings on wifely submission, Byrd refrained from speaking up for herself. She worried for the "saints who might fall" if they learned of her husband's violence—that they would leave the church or, even worse, think that such actions were acceptable. She took responsibility for his ministry and "tried to keep him saved."Today, she is trusting God to get her out of prison, where she is currently serving the tenth year of a 26-years-to-life sentence for stabbing her husband while he was choking her. ■

Elizabeth Dermody Leonard is associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center for Women's Studies at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa, Calif. Specializing in the study of family violence, she has conducted extensive research with women serving prison sentences for killing their abusive partners. She is the author of Battered Women Who Kill (State University of New York Press, 2002).

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