I typically ignore national awareness initiatives saddled to particular months. There are simply too many of them. For example, October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month; Crime Prevention Month; Health Literacy Month; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender History Month; National Breast Cancer Awareness Month; National Cyber Security Awareness Month; National Disability Employment Awareness Month; National Family Sexuality Education Month; and everyone’s favorite, Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF Month. These are all worthy causes, which is part of the problem. There are countless important issues vying for our attention. The result is often despondency, if not numbness.
But an email I received announcing Domestic Violence Awareness Month stunned me. It shared that one in four American women have been physically abused by an intimate partner; the majority never tell anyone.
One in four women? Think of the kind of response one in four muggings would receive, or one in four carjackings. If one in four persons had their cars stolen the government would surely declare war on car thieves.
Despite that one in four women are battered, Americans are largely reticent about violence in intimate relationships. And it is our collective silence that is likely the greatest obstacle to overcoming violence in our homes — and the reason to speak often about the issue even when so many causes are clamoring for our attention.
Domestic violence is more than a women’s issue. It is a generational problem, encompassing a wide swath of the American population — much more than one in four women. Domestic violence is a legacy passed down from parents to their children, who then pass it on to their children once they learn that violence is a ‘normal’ way of dealing with frustration, anger, fear, shame, and other difficult emotions. Domestic violence is also normalized when children learn not to speak about the violence they witness.
We rarely talk about this inheritance, or that domestic violence is an origin of many social ills, including poor school performance, mental illness, drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness. To explain human behavior, we are often more swayed by stories that focus on the genes we inherit than on conditions we see in our homes when growing up. Genetic stories are much easier to tell. Our genes are outside our control, innocently carrying our traits to future generations. Domestic violence, however, has a way of stealing innocence, regardless if you are a perpetrator, victim, or observer. Perhaps that is why there is so much silence. The very nature of domestic violence — the sick power dynamics and loss of basic human dignity to all involved — destroys the sense that life is to be cherished. The very young cannot escape this loss, even if all they do is witness the violence.
You can now mail a swab of cells from the lining of your cheek to a laboratory and have your genetic lineage returned to you. National Geographic has a great program, The Genographic Project. It can link the DNA carried in your cells to the great human migrations that have occurred across centuries and continents.
The thought of swabbing my cheek is tempting if the results can give me the sense that I have been part of a grand experiment in human survival. Too bad there aren’t also celebrated repositories where we share our stories of family violence — how our mothers, grandmothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters survived — and where we learn how to live each day more compassionately and without violence. This too would be empowering. But shame often hides these stories, and the silence that fills the void guarantees the need for Domestic Violence Awareness Month for years to come.(I posted an earlier version in 2009. Sadly, its relevance continues.)