Predatory violence has forever in our history been minimized or dismissed by people who cite a man's image when statements about his abusive behavior have been made. When men are charged with rape, everyone talks about their academic achievements or athletic accomplishments. When Catholic priests raped children for decades, no one who knew of their evil deeds did anything to secure consequence for them or to establish safety for thousands of children who would fall prey to them year after year. After all, they were esteemed leaders - they could not possibly be monsters who victimized those more vulnerable than themselves, right? And victims of domestic violence have gone unnoticed and unprotected throughout history because we as a culture choose to look at the outward image of a man rather than look at his actual behavior. His image is given much more validity than the words or cries of the people he chooses to hurt.
Why does this happen? Why do we dismiss the reality of horrible atrocities and cling to an image? It's because that's so much more comfortable for us. It's comfortable to think of monsters who do horrible things as the boogeymen who lurk in shadows. It is comforting to think that men who excel in school and sports are all around good people and not rapists. It's easier if we believe that men who are priests act with care and compassion when interacting with children. And no one wants to believe that men who are politicians, teachers, coaches and neighbors are actually terrorizing their families behind closed doors. Those realities imply that we have an awful lot of work to do and an awful lot of wrongs to fix. That's overwhelming. It's much easier to pretend that public images are all there is to see.
But by choosing to blindly hold on to those images no matter what reality comes into view, we perpetuate the violence. We become part of the problem.
I would like us as a community to reflect on how we're responding to the recent tragedy of the Nelson family. I don't know details about what life was like in the Nelson home, but here are some things I know to be true about domestic violence:
• Children who live in violent homes often strive to perfectionism to avoid being the target of violence. To make mistakes is to risk being blamed for the latest violent episode.
• Pets in homes where domestic violence is happening are at significant risk. Cruelty to animals is actually an indicator of lethality, or the potential to kill.
• The presence of firearms in homes where domestic violence occurs makes a lethal assault five times more likely.
• Leave-taking is the most dangerous time for a victim. Most domestic homicides happen while the victim is attempting to leave or shortly thereafter.
• Abusers are often charming and well-liked. They present themselves as loving towards their partners and children in public.
• One of the reasons victims of domestic violence don't reach out to others is shame. They're invested in the ideal public image of their family. Telling others about the abuse would tarnish that image.
• Victims of domestic violence also hesitate to reach out for help because they don't think they'll be believed. They think others will talk of how nice their abuser appears, and their stories of violence and fear will be dismissed.
Here are some other things I know to be true: Real life monsters don't look like boogeymen hiding in shadows. Real life monsters look like athletes and priests and neighbors and coaches. We may never see for ourselves the most violent side of our world's scariest monsters. That's why we need to believe victims when they tell us about abuse. That's also why we need to accept the fact that men who we thought were loving and non-violent sometimes do the most horrific things. To continue in denial after the violence has come to light is unconscionable. It contributes to the problem.
I don't know every detail of the Nelson family's life, but what we all know at this point is that John Nelson murdered his wife, his three children and the family dog. And I know it didn't have to happen. Nobody had to die.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, you can call the Genesis House hotlines 24 hours a day, seven days a week at (440) 244-1853 or (440) 323-3400. If you're thinking of leaving an abusive relationship, call Genesis House to develop a safety plan first. Telling your abusive partner you plan to leave is often not safe for you to do. Our advocates can talk through options that might help you stay safe during this critical time. We will believe you, no matter what image he presents to others.
Virginia M. Beckman is executive director of Lorain County Safe Harbor/Genesis House.