WHEN SHE WAS BAD: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence
By PATRICIA PEARSON
In Canada: Random House Canada, $29.95
In U.S.A.: Viking, $23.95
The Woman's Prescription (RX) for getting rid of HIM!
Page 142-145 reads as follows:
If severe male violence is physical, bringing women like Hedda
Nussbaum to the brink of death, it might be said that the most extreme
form of female-perpetrated abuse is situational. Women can operate the
system to their advantage. Donning the feminine mask, they can
manipulate the biases of family and community, much as Marybeth Tinning
did, in order to set men up. If he tries to leave, or fight back, a
fateful moment comes when she reaches for the phone, dials 911, and has
him arrested on the strength of her word: "Officer, he hit me." The
tactic is reminiscent of well-to-do late-nineteenth-century American men
having their wives committed to insane asylums--for a week or
forever--solely on the basis of their say-so. Since women had been
stereotyped as fragile and prone to hysteria, it was possible to
persuade authorities of their insanity. A century later, a confluence
of social forces has created a parallel opportunity, but with the sexes
reversed: Men can be committed to prison on the strength of stereotypes
With mounting pressure on North American police forces to
disavow misogynistic attitudes and take the word of a woman over a man,
female psychopaths and other hard-core female abusers have an extremely
effective means to up the ante and win the game. It isn't what abusive
men do, the robbing of breath, but it is as surely the ruin of a life.
The most common theme among abused men is their tales not of physical
anguish but of dispossession--losing custody of children due to
accusations of physical and sexual abuse, and having criminals records
that permanently shatter their integrity as loving men and decent human
Andrea, the woman who never thought of her mother as an abuser, just a drunk,
remembers when her mother flew into a tantrum because her
exhausted husband refused to go out and buy her a bottle of gin. She
called the police and claimed that he'd pushed her down the stairs. The
investigating officer, a woman, saw the situation for what it was and
declined to press charges. In the 1990s, that officer's response would
be held up as evidence of indifference to women, which is why several
North American jurisdictions have now implemented mandatory arrest
policies in domestic violence cases, overriding individual police
discretion. Prosecutors may now also override the discretion of the
complainant, ignoring her desire to recant or drop charges.
"I got arrested twice," says Peter Swann, pacing his boardinghouse room and
completing his tale of how Dana undid him. "I did sixty days and two years' probation.
It was very unpleasant and scary, and I was wondering, what the hell did I do,
what did I do to deserve this? The first time it happened, I spent one night in jail.
Then I went to stay at a co-worker's. Dana found out where I was, she
called around, and she asked me to come home. Well, she had my
daughter, so, yeah, I went back. The second time she got me arrested, I
was still on probation. She nailed me two days before my last meeting
[with the probation officer]. I was going to go camping that weekend,
everything was packed. She had a fit. The gear went flying. Thrown
out in the backyard. "You're not going camping.' You can tell when she
starts. The look on her face. She's building up the pressure like a
volcano." But Dana didn't explode the way a man of her ilk might, by
beating Peter senseless, because she couldn't. What she could do was
destroy his property and pick up the phone.
On the strength of his first conviction, he was easily convicted
again, and on the strength of that, Dana won custody of Grace. A new
boyfriend came to live with her in their house. Having spent all his
money fighting the custody battle, Peter had no resources left with
which to fight for his household possessions. He fell into a downward
spiral of poverty, alcohol, and self-recrimination. Having lost his
job, he fell behind on his child support payments, and got branded, on
top of all the other labels, a deadbeat dad.
Dinnertime has come and gone without dinner. Peter's landlady
taps on his door and invites herself in, a plump woman in her sixties
clad in a bright blue housecoat, to offer a plate of chocolate
doughnuts. She listens to his meandering soliloquy for a moment, then
interrupts. "You mustn't blame yourself, dear," she says, and she has
clearly said it before. She turns to the visitor: "I was in that kind
of situation myself. My husband was a very respectable banker. He beat
me black and blue." Settling herself in the room's one chair, she
offers her observations of Dana, and her Scottish accent lends a proper,
even disapproving, air, though her face is relaxed and quick to smile.
"She's a spiteful woman, she is. The time I remember most it was Pete's
birthday, and Dana promised faithfully she'd bring Grace at four o'clock
so Pete could take her to dinner. Well, hours and hours and hours
later, he said to me, 'She's not coming, will you come and have a drink
with me?" So we did. Dana showed up, finally, at midnight, which is a
disgusting time to bring a child over. She came in, took one look at
the glass in his hand, and said, "She's not staying here, you're drunk,'
and off they went! I mean, that was a set-up."
Maybe it was, but who would believe it? Take one look at Hedda
Nussbaum and understand perfectly what she's been through. But a
stumbling, inarticulate, alcoholic, twice-convicted deadbeat dad? Where
would you even begin? "Peter's not perfect, he's not a perfect man,"
says his landlady, "he's not a perfect husband, but he doesn't deserve
the punishment he's getting. He doesn't deserve this."
No person, male or female, gay or straight, complicit or not,
deserves to wind up in the vortex of violence. but how will we find a
way out if what we want is the simplest answer? Trying to make a neat
and pretty package of relational discord is as impossible as bottling
love. No two people live it the same. The one decent thing we can do
in our rush to categorize, simplify, and hurl blame is to stop for a
moment and recognize, as Ruben says, "the human face of pain."
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