Wednesday, May 23, 2007


Leni Holliman is a humanities producer at Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana.

Every October she manages the taping of all the Montana Festival of the Book presentations in Missoula and then, after editing them, presents them on Thursday nights at 9PM MDT. They can be accessed on any computer by streaming audio. Often the panels are far more striking when concentrated like this but, even better, if you were there but had a schedule conflict, this is a second chance to hear a presentation. I had missed the one I’ll describe here.

A panel of Montana High-Line women gathered to address the issue of domestic violence on the Montana High-Line, specifically a book called “Dancing on his Grave” by Barbara Richard and another called “When Montana and I Were Young: A Frontier Childhood” by Margaret Bell. Barbara was there on the panel and Margaret (deceased) was represented by Mary Clearman Blew who edited the manuscript when it was found among the papers of Grace Stone Coates by Lee Rostad, an outstanding Montana historian. Also on the panel was Judy Blunt, an eloquent describer of High Line hardships (Her book is called "Breaking Clean.) and editor of Barbara Richard’s book.

These thoughtful women were addressing a topic that is so difficult and painful that most people don’t want to hear about it from anyone is who not wearing a white coat. At the same time, as Barbara Richard pointed out, four out of every hundred people is an abuser and out of that percentage a minority are women. They are with us.

Both Barbara Richard and Margaret Bell were victims of men who were psychopaths -- not psychotic since they knew very well what they were doing -- but men who habitually used near-fatal violence on every animal and small child -- esp. girls -- they could dominate, as well as their wives, who defended the men as their only shelter. These men saw their family as livestock, not individual human beings. How they came to this perversion is not known, but they were lacking any empathy for other living beings, which can be an organic defect of the brain -- either lacking from birth, never developed, or destroyed by lesions or substance abuse. (The American Humane Society is an eloquent voice linking animal abuse and violent people.)

The almost equally damaging side effect of this abuse is the need for secrecy and separation, so that the abuser (who must then know at some level that he or she is doing wrong) will not be found out and restrained or punished. Thus the victims are denied chances to be healed or comforted by other people and the perpetrators are neither punished nor treated.

When I was serving a Canadian congregation in a tough part of the prairie, not unlike the High Line, the clergy were asked to attend a workshop presented by provincial mental health authorities. The more conservative preachers had evidently been urging abused wives to return to their husbands and “be obedient” as their religious obligation. This had led to some deaths, of both women and children. The presentation that impressed me most was about how an abuser draws a circle around his target -- maybe puts limits on their household money, which seems reasonable. Then draws another, tighter, circle around them -- maybe forbids them to shop alone. The restrictions get tighter and tighter until certain friends and family are forbidden, certain clothing must not be worn, the telephone is locked, and so on until in the most extreme cases people are locked or chained in closets. In other words, the theory is that abusers have control issues -- cannot control themselves and become intent on controlling those closest to them, maybe to prevent them from leaving.

Very few people have not felt this dynamic from someone else or within themselves but in mild terms, which is why one does not recognize the abuse until -- like the frog that doesn’t feel the water getting warmer -- it’s too late. Often the abuser presents him or herself as needy, deserving of help, or a stormy genius, which “hooks” people who want to be helpers. “Co-dependent” is the term for people who base relationships on their help to others and then get caught by people who are basing their relationships on control, often to make up some deficit like alcoholism or economic failure.

In those Canadian years I belonged to a “sharing group” or “growth group” or whatever you want to call it, which was only open to female counseling professionals -- women naturally inclined to be co-dependent but hoping to help people in a responsible way. One woman had left an abusing husband but had been forced by the courts to give him custody of their small son. After she had left, their house in the country burned and for several days the man let her believe that her son had died in the fire. With all her training, it didn’t occur to her earlier to call the RCMP to get the facts. She was stunned and paralyzed, as is often the case. Her suffering was not physical but it was intense.

Mary Clearman Blew asked why this kind of abuse seems to be more common in the tough Montana back country. Is it seen as being macho? Does the conservative culture feel that it is somehow justified? Is it from constantly handling livestock in a rough way? Feeling that they “own” living beings? How much of it is sexual? Why do people balk at knowing about it? Or do rural people in fact find out about it more often? Barbara Richard ended up self-publishing her book. “It won’t sell,” said the male editors. Why is it only a woman’s issue?

The two men described here were maniacs, stringing up small naked daughters to the rafters and whipping them unconscious. Shooting horses to death while the daughter stood among them, expecting to receive the next bullet. Beating a horse in the head with a fencepost until its eyes popped out or leaving a horse with a broken shoulder to die after days of suffering. But I know of lesser abusers, some of them admired Montana writers or artists or spiritual leaders. A few have repented and changed their ways. Some have found a strong co-dependent who got a grip on them as they aged and weakened. A few are wandering urban streets drunk, living in flophouses, an accident or illness away from death. Nice people pretend they don’t know about all this stuff, as though it were contagious.

If a man writes a convincing book about being confined, tortured and controlled by an abusing woman, will it sell? (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?”) Why in a society as coarse and raunchy and celebratory of extreme violence as this one is, do people balk at knowing their neighbor is beating his children? Or idly burning his dog with cigarettes?

When I was living in Portland,OR, I intervened with neighbors three times. Once I knocked on a door where a couple was fighting and asked if I could call someone to help them. They quieted, then moved. Once I heard a man in the apartment below me threaten to kill the woman who lived there. I was indignant enough that time to go down and knock hard, then tell the guy he had twenty minutes to clear out before I called the police. (The sleazebag was a two-bit drug dealer.) The small boy in the room was gleeful and the guy did leave, thank God.

The third time I walking home on the street at night, already angry about something else, and came upon a man jerking an Asian girl around by the wrist. I demanded that he let her go. He wouldn’t. I hit him with my briefcase, which was a soft nylon one and didn’t impress him. I was yelling, “Call the police!! Help!! Murder!!” Suddenly the girl yelled to the man to run with her and he did. They jumped on a bus and escaped. An undercover cop pulled up -- a woman -- and I told her about it. Eventually I found out what had happened. The girl had sold the man a stolen car and had said she would send the title later, but naturally did not. He saw her on the street and was hanging onto her to make her explain.

I suppose that from his point of view I was an abusing, violent woman. If so, I did a lousy job of controlling him. In fact, our whole society seems a little out of control.


Patia said...

And then, of course, there are the men who think it's okay to take a rifle and shoot anyone who defies their control or gets in their way.

Women in domestic violence situations are in more danger of being killed AFTER they leave.

It astonishes me sometimes to look around and see how many women are murdered by their husbands, boyfriends and exes. It seems to me that as a society, we are largely in denial about this.

And any time you mention it, you get the "Well, women abuse men, too." Yeah, about 5 percent of the time.

Is the denial a form of self-protection?

Barb's book is a devastating, but important read.

Patia said...

I found the YPR listings for the Festival of the Book, but can't figure out where to stream them from?

While I'm at it, Montana Public Radio will air a repeat of this session at 1 p.m. this Saturday.