An Encounter with “Domestic Violence”

The title of this post refers to “domestic violence” in quotation marks. Those marks, commonly called “scare quotes,” are intended to signal that I am speaking of something that is not quite what it seems or is supposed to be. There is domestic violence, where one person commits violence against another in a domestic setting (typically, a home or an intimate partner relationship); and then there is “domestic violence,” which may involve something else entirely.

On that subject, this post summarizes some materials presented in two other posts. It is not necessary to read those two other posts to understand this one; they may just be helpful for people who want more details. One of those other posts provides more complete information on the factual situation discussed here; the other contains an analysis of concepts of domestic violence.

The Factual Background

In summer 2003, one year after my divorce, I met a cute woman and began to date her. Sometimes she called herself “the crazy lady.” I thought she was being too hard on herself. At first, it seemed to me that she was just distraught over her divorce and other hardships in her life. As many other people with an interest in mental health have done, I made the mistake of indulging my compassion for a confused or unstable individual in my personal life, rather than treating her on a strictly professional basis or referring her to other professionals for appropriate care. I thought that, along with the usual pleasures of dating, I could help her, and that I might also learn from her situation.

Within a fairly short time, however, experiences with this woman, whom I will call Heather, did prompt me to back off. There had been some discoveries to give me pause. For one thing, she had been convicted of felony possession of LSD. I wondered whether “acid” was the cause of her undeniable mental difficulties. She had been admitted to inpatient psychiatric care on multiple occasions, had been determined to have a permanent mental disability sufficient to qualify her for Social Security compensation, and was taking powerful psychoactive prescription drugs, some by injection. There definitely was some strange behavior.

I stopped dating her, but stayed loosely in touch. I felt bad for her. I was willing to talk to her on the phone, listen to her complaints, advise on her difficulties, and generally try to be helpful. Matters remained on that basis for the better part of a year. Then, in August 2004, I decided to put my things in storage and commence a year of sleeping outdoors – of setting up my tent, that is, and using that as the place to which I would retire after finishing my day’s labors as a graduate student at the University of Missouri – Columbia. The immediate stimulus for this decision was a shortage of funds; the longer-term motivation was to continue to enjoy and develop my interest in leisure and outdoor pursuits.

Ultimately, I put the bulk of my things in a self-storage unit there in Columbia. But the original plan was to accept Heather’s offer to let me store my things in her basement. Whatever her difficulties, she seemed to consider herself an honorable person, and for the most part she did not in fact steal, damage, or tinker with my stuff. It was admittedly a risk to take this approach – it seems I had still not learned how rigorously one might have to protect oneself from a person with mental difficulties – but there appeared to be two advantages to this limited entanglement. One was, again, monetary. Her teenage daughter had recently filed a complaint against Heather – based, I think, on domestic abuse – and had moved out. We agreed that I would pay her $13 for each night I stayed in that now-empty room. I only stayed there a few times before other developments intervened. But it did seem, at the time, that this would be a small source of funds for Heather and an occasional help for me. People in difficult circumstances do sometimes have to make the best of their options. The other perceived advantage was that I would be able to lend a hand in some matters and, in fact, I did – babysitting for her ten-year-old son while she was at the doctor’s office, fixing things, doing laundry, cleaning up some of the enormous mess in that house, and so forth.

The flaw in this plan was that Heather expected my occasional presence in her house to develop into a romantic reinvolvement. By mid-September, she finally understood that that was not going to happen. At that point, she decided I would have to move out immediately. So apparently her talk about a mutually beneficial arrangement was insincere. She had not demanded that my sexual involvement would have to be part of the deal, but I now saw that that was a condition of staying there and storing my things there.

In my impression, Heather was capable of rash and self-damaging behavior. It seemed appropriate to try to persuade her to slow down and think about what she stood to gain from the original agreement. On my own behalf, too, there were several reasons to postpone the project of moving all of my stuff out of her basement, having just moved it in a few weeks earlier. It was hard work – there were a number of heavy boxes and items of furniture to be carried up and down stairs by myself. Moving was also time-consuming, and I was now well into a semester in which I had to carry 16 graduate credits and a 15-hour assistantship. The disjointed and sometimes difficult transition to sleeping in a tent was also taking time: without my own living space, everything seemed more difficult.

As one might have anticipated, Heather was not interested in slowing down and thinking about it. When I failed to move out quickly enough, she locked me out of the house. This forced me to get by, for more than a month, with just the few items of clothing that I had taken with me for one week’s outdoors living.

One of the things that I had not yet fixed at Heather’s house was the lock on the back door to her garage. It was jammed. When my need for clothes and other items became desperate enough, I broke that lock and went into the house. Heather was there; I had already discovered that she had deadbolted the front door and was still refusing to let me in. Once I was in the garage, I could walk into the house; there was no lock on the door between the garage and the kitchen. However, Heather put her weight against that door and tried to prevent me from opening it. When I did push through, she tried to hit me with a baseball bat. I took the bat away from her. Fortunately for me, there were no knives on the kitchen counter, but I did see her looking around for some other weapon. Then she evidently changed her mind; she left the kitchen. I didn’t have any interest in interacting with her. I just went to the basement, got some things, and puttered around with the computer I had set up there. Meanwhile, she grabbed her son and left. An hour or two later, two of her male friends appeared. One was a reasonable-looking middle-aged man – dressed in, I believe, a plain white T-shirt. The other had the look of someone who might have spent some time in prison or in some other institution. They did not threaten me, but there did seem to be a sense that I could be in physical danger if they became displeased.

Heather then filed papers seeking a restraining order against me. Fearing that a restraining order would adversely impact my newly commenced pursuit of a degree and career in social work, I paid an attorney $500 to oppose that order. For someone living in a tent, this was a huge expense. After taking my money, the attorney essentially said that it would be futile to oppose the order. When we actually got into court, it appeared that he might have been wrong — that, in fact, I would have done better without him. Either way, in certain regards summarized below, my career-related concerns proved to be justified.

Thanks to the involvement of the legal system in the restraining order process, those events in mid-September produced another month’s delay — during which, as noted above, I had to make do without most of my clothing and other possessions. I did not gain access to my things again until mid-October, when Heather and her friends piled them in her driveway during a rainstorm and told me to come pick them up.

Illustrating the Nomenclature

With that factual background, we come to the point of this post: applying concepts of domestic violence to a particular situation, on the basis of the analysis of terminology provided in the accompanying post.

First, this series of events included some physical behavior and some actual violence. Heather’s physical acts included her facilitation of my move into her basement under false pretenses, locking the deadbolt so that I could not enter my only fixed place of residence, throwing her weight against the kitchen door so that I could not move around inside the building, and preventing physical access to my things when there were perfectly workable alternatives. Since the accompanying post recommends treating sexual abuse as a form of physical abuse, Heather’s attempt to coerce sex should be mentioned here as well. By comparison, my own physical and violent acts consisted of struggling to enter my residence and protecting myself against attempted assault with a deadly weapon. There were no consequences to Heather for her physical acts. The court’s investigator concluded that I posed no threat, but recommended a restraining order against me anyway, apparently just to cover herself against possible liability. This outcome was consistent with the decidedly anti-male tendency in definitions of domestic violence discussed in the accompanying post.

The accompanying post also notes certain attempts to include psychological and emotional abuse within definitions of domestic violence. In the spirit of opposition to exaggerated definitions, these nonviolent behaviors are probably better referred to as domestic abuse, not violence. They could also be termed intimate partner abuse; it is not clear how long and extensively a former couple must be separated before it becomes bizarre to continue to refer to them as intimate partners (especially when the initial involvement was brief), or whether one partner’s rejection of (or revulsion toward) that label should be taken into account. Among psychological and emotional abuses cited in the other post, the ones referring to “intimidation” and “threatening physical harm” seem especially apposite. (The latter might be better included among physical behaviors.) I am not certain whether the visit by her odd male friends should count as intimidation. For my part, I did not intimidate or threaten Heather.

Heather’s use of legal force to intimidate and to compel compliance with her wishes, in breach of our agreement, was extremely abusive on physical and psychological levels. This claim may seem nonsensical from a woman’s perspective: it appears that middle-class white female professors in schools of social work are especially likely to assume that the police are Good and what they do is Right. It is no doubt easier to think that way when, as noted in the other post, the law displays profound and consistent bias in their favor. But in practice, the law does generally compel people to endure very expensive, unhelpful, and damaging processes and conclusions.

Heather’s pursuit of a restraining order was essentially risk-free to her. She did not even need to pay a lawyer; in the courtroom, she had a social worker virtually wrapped around her, displaying inordinate solicitude for this poor waif. There were no such resources for me and, as noted above, the outcome was not only virtually predetermined, but came with a special $500 fee for those who would try to protect themselves against it.

In addition, the experience of being labeled a sort of criminal was very dispiriting. The restraining order made me feel like a criminal, however inappropriate and unnecessary it may have been. It may be difficult to convey what this sort of humiliation is like, to those who have not experienced it. There was also a piercing of the presumed aura of safety. I was now a marked man. The cops had something on me. It was not much, but it was enough to use as a pretext for subsequent brutality. (My first exposure to police brutality resulted in a successful lawsuit, filed in 1981 against the police department in a large city.) It did not feel safe to be in Columbia, MO. The restraining order itself, and its consequences for me within my social work program (below), prompted me to leave at the end of that school year. Despite repeated trips in the vicinity, I have returned only once in the ensuing eight years, to spend an hour visiting a friend. It is not so much that danger stalks at every turn; it is that, as I say, the place simply felt unsafe.

Economic Abuse in Particular

In addition to the physical and psychological forms of abuse discussed above, the accompanying post mentions economic abuse. In the present fact situation, that category is best addressed by shifting, at this point in the discussion, from domestic violence to “domestic violence.”

To some degree, the foregoing discussion has already explored the difference between those two terms. The analysis of real physical and psychological abuse in the preceding section demonstrates that Heather behaved abusively on multiple levels. But the analysis of nominal or so-called “domestic violence” came to exactly the opposite conclusion. In that analysis, it was I, not Heather, who had done wrong, and who needed to be barred, attacked, restrained, threatened, stigmatized, and financially penalized.

Now, who was responsible for the farcical “domestic violence” analysis? Heather, obviously, but that does not carry much weight: in her own words, she was the crazy lady. The real question is, how did her nonsense come to represent the policy of social workers and law enforcement?

Part of the answer is, as always, “the system.” The judge just rubber-stamped whatever the lawyers put in front of him; my lawyer ripped me off, in legal business as usual; the investigator made sure to protect herself against liability; the social worker was living out some do-gooder fantasy. As the other post observes, in this country you can get a restraining order to prevent David Letterman from beaming his thoughts at you through the TV set.

Certainly it would help to have a competent legal system. But it can be a bit glib to blame it for everything. Within the scenario discussed here, there were opportunities for responsible individuals to make a difference at every step along the way. The judge, the lawyer, the investigator, the social worker – each of these people had an option of derailing an abusive process. Quite aside from the question of what one can get away with legally, there tends to be a question of what one should do ethically. As usually happens, those who choose (and are able) to remain in an abusive system, and to facilitate its daily abuses, tend to be those least concerned about doing the right thing. The system is corrupt because of the people in it. For the sake of their own privileges and comforts, they eliminate those who would try to make it better.

The question of economic abuse arises now, all these years later, because some of the damage done in that episode nine years ago lingers today. The damage in question is not that done by Heather, the police, the judge, or the lawyer. What continues to cause harm is the damage done by the social workers.

Note, there, that I use the plural. There was only one social worker present when we went into court on the restraining order. But other social workers managed to interject themselves into the matter thereafter. In other words, it was not enough that the innocent party was getting pummeled: when the social workers saw a pile of bodies, they jumped on top.

It took years for me to piece this together. My head was just not in a place of imagining that the social workers in question could be such horrible people. It was the first year of my MSW program. I was still pretty much on board with social work’s positive image of itself. Then, and for years thereafter, I thought that there must be some reasonable explanation for the treatment I was getting – some sincere misunderstanding that we could talk about and sort out.

I guess what I did not fully appreciate was that, in a place as gossipy as a school of social work, a small hint may be the tip of an iceberg. That belief can make a person paranoid but, as the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t prove they’re not out to get you. So when Rochelle Honey, a fellow student, accused me of being a domestic abuser, I should have realized that this was surely a story that had been told to everyone in the School of Social Work except me. Although, to think of it, there still was probably not much I could have done about it. My effort did eventually establish that these people just did not have any interest in discussion and mutual understanding. All they wanted was to be able to make the accusation. I guess that could be a basis on which they could position themselves as someone’s savior.

Rochelle did not tell me much, but she did say that there was a webpage listing me as a domestic abuser. Evidently some busybody was in the habit of just writing down the name of every man who had a restraining order entered against him, and publishing that as a local report of the bad guys. Rochelle wouldn’t tell me where the webpage was, and I couldn’t find it. I don’t know how long it carried my name. It may still be out there somewhere.

I don’t know whether the person assembling that list was some kind of idiot. Maybe s/he had an axe to grind. Regardless, you might pray that, by the time the tale reaches a master’s-level program in a research-oriented institution of higher education, it would encounter people who would have the brains to ask a few questions. But if you did pray that, you might wind up doubting God, because he certainly did not deliver common sense or critical thinking to the denizens of the School of Social Work at the University of Missouri – Columbia.

I don’t just mean the students. I mean the professors. Years later, I finally put two and two together, and understood why Kalea Benner, one of my professors, was staring so hard at me during a class session on domestic violence. At the time, I figured she was just assuming that, as one of the half-dozen males in my cohort, I must partake in some degree of generic blame for whatever we were talking about. I finally understood why Larry Kreuger, with whom I had had such a good relationship, suddenly turned on me and tried to get me thrown out, in an abusive disciplinary procedure that had absolutely no justification. I finally understood why the professors as a group ostracized and isolated me.

It was an interesting dynamic. It would be repeated in my social work PhD program at Indiana University. For all I know, the ostracism that I encountered at IU was perpetuated by the same gossip, passed on from one school to another, all originating in Heather’s completely unjustified restraining order.

The reader may now understand why this post has focused particularly on the economic dimension of domestic abuse. We do not presently have dossiers that follow us around, containing the details of our romantic or psychological or emotional foibles, available online for $25. But we do have court records. Falsehoods and distortions in those records can be, and are, enormously damaging to men’s careers, as their lives progress. Judges, prosecutors, and police are often grossly irresponsible in their creation of those records. The pathetic thing is that social workers are too – that, indeed, many of them seem positively eager to invent “domestic violence,” as if to prove that every man is ultimately a scoundrel. This is evidently what one should expect from an overwhelmingly female profession, and from the males who thrive in it.

So Heather did her damage, and it had its ramifications. On a short-term basis, I was lucky. I didn’t get locked up or beat up. I didn’t get very involved with her. Other guys are not so lucky. They may be dealing with someone with similar levels of psychological difficulty; the unfortunate difference for them is that the hooks get in deeper.

But Heather did do long-term damage. As just noted, I am not even sure how much damage she did. It would take another five years before I found a school that could deliver a halfway acceptable completion of the MSW that I had thought I would be completing at Missouri. She may also be the reason why I do not have a PhD. I don’t know; I don’t even know how to find out. Like faculty members at Missouri, the abusive social work professors at Indiana University refuse to explain their behavior.

I do know that I went back to school in my fifties to get that PhD, and it didn’t happen, and now apparently it never will. That outcome appears to be a direct result of a system, and of a social work education, that seems to thrive upon a misandristic and illogical concept of “domestic violence.”

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