Domestic Violence is a Public Health Issue
Rachel Louise Snyder on Its Effect on Communities
On June 7, 2019, I got off a plane to a frantic voice mail from my friend, Michelle. I was in the middle of the book tour for No Visible Bruises, with people spilling out their stories of domestic violence to me in book signing lines; I had come to both love and dread these lines. One woman said her daughter had been killed just months earlier. Another, in tears, stood up in a crowded ballroom and said she couldn’t go home, she was in danger right in that moment. What should she do?
On that June morning, I stood on the jet bridge in Washington, D.C., waiting for my luggage and heard Michelle say only that something was happening at her brother’s house, and she didn’t know what, and could I call her? It was urgent. I didn’t listen to the entire message; I just called. She answered before it even rang, her voice coming from somewhere inside her belly, a voice somehow familiar and yet foreign to me, a version of her that I hadn’t ever heard. “Something’s happening at Jason’s,” she said.
I asked what.
“Lola’s hurt. Or he’s hurt himself. I don’t know.” Michelle was speaking in fragments, between frenetic breaths, repeating everything twice. She’d been calling his phone over and over, and then Lola’s phone and neither of them were answering. She’d gotten a single call from Jason just minutes earlier that said that he and Lola had “failed the girls”—their daughters—and to “please take care of them.” He told Michelle to get to Washington, D.C., as soon as possible. Then he hung up. Michelle hadn’t been able to reach him since. She was talking to me from O’Hare Airport, trying to get a seat on the next flight out.
I had known Michelle for 20 years, maybe longer. One forgets years once decades pile up. Much of our friendship had developed during long walks near the lakefront in Chicago, talking about intensely spiritual and soulful topics: What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can one stay open and loving in a world in which evil resides? I looked to her for her wisdom—she was a self-employed therapist with a full schedule in Chicago—and I found she was that rare person I could talk to, literally, for hours.
Michelle’s brother, Jason, worked for the State Department, and his wife, Lola, worked for the Department of Commerce—big jobs that sent them all over the world. I didn’t know either of them in the deep way I knew Michelle. She had two beloved nieces, Jason and Lola’s daughters, who stayed with her in Chicago during summers, sometimes for a month or more. The little girls would hang out with their fun, cool aunt, go to summer camps in the city. Sometimes, during those summers, Michelle would bring the kids to our shared friends’ house and the adults would chat over wine while the kids played. Back then we all lived in Chicago—our friend group who’d met after grad school and become close.
But then, one by one, we left. I was the first to go. To Cambodia, and then Washington, D.C. Eventually most of us moved to D.C. Ann and Mike, Don and Soleak. Everyone except Michelle, and one or two others. We all stayed friends through marriages and children and moves and career changes. We raised our children as cousins. Michelle would visit us, and we would beg her to move. All the cool Chicagoans move to D.C., we’d say. Sometimes I’d give her a list of reasons why: Because D.C. residents need therapy more than Chicagoans! Because D.C. is just basically a suburb of New York! Because D.C. has us!
Eventually, Jason and his wife, Lola, who’d lived all over the world, relocated to Washington, D.C., where they wound up in the same neighborhood as my then-husband and me. Their elder daughter was put in the same class at school as my daughter, and the two girls bonded, unaware of their parents’ uncanny connections. “You’ve known each other for longer than you remember,” I told my daughter when, after weeks of her talking about this new friend, I finally put the pieces together. And bonus: Michelle was her new friend’s aunt. Michelle, who was a kind of beloved aunt to all our young children. The world seemed very small indeed. The morning Jason came to my house to pick up his daughter after a sleepover, I said to him: “You won’t believe this. Your sister is one of my best friends.” He grinned. You’re that Rachel! he said. Michelle’s Rachel! We would tell Michelle she had to move here now. The universe was practically begging.
In 2017, Jason and Lola began to have problems. I was not privy to the nature of these problems. Not really. I wasn’t friends with either of them in any specific way, other than through noting the curious overlaps of their lives and mine and now our daughters’. At one point, Michelle thought I might be a good sounding board for Lola as she went through her divorce. (I had just been through my own divorce.) Michelle connected us. I went out a few times for drinks with Lola. Her anger was apparent, and I knew that kind of anger. The anger that just says, “I’m done. I’m out of this. I’m out of here.” Lola was just starting to come up against the bureaucracy of divorce, which locks you in place for too long. I had just emerged from that bureaucracy. She confided a few things to me and they did indeed seem similar to some of the issues I’d faced (a husband who didn’t want a divorce; a wife with a bigger career than her husband). But as much as I related to her, I also didn’t want to be in the middle of this awkward situation: close friends with the sister of the man she was trying to leave. It felt messy. So I tried to keep a boundary up—I interacted with Jason and Lola largely in arranging playdates and sleepovers with our girls, or catching up with school news. When Michelle came to town, she would stay with me and both her nieces would sleep over and we would have a silly time in our pj’s, watching movies together at night and then eating pancakes in the morning.
On that June morning last year, I ran from the jet bridge. Ran through the airport. Called my ex-husband, who lived a couple of blocks from Jason and Lola, and asked him to go see if they were okay. When he arrived, the SWAT team was there. Paul, my ex, put me on the phone with the SWAT leader and I gave him Michelle’s contact information, the girls’ names, the school. The officer took down my information. By the time I arrived from the airport, their house had been designated a crime scene, and either Jason or Lola (we never knew which of them it was) had been taken to the hospital by ambulance. All of our daughters were still in school, and we talked about logistics: how to collect them and where to take them and for how long. Michelle had to be the one to tell her nieces, of course, but tell them what? At some point, I remembered their dog, Otis. A neighbor had taken him. Fifth grade graduation for my daughter and their eldest daughter was supposed to be that evening; the kids had practiced for it for weeks. Do we wait until after graduation to tell them? Do we skip graduation altogether? I called the principal. Jason and Lola’s daughters had been released to their nanny and a friend of their mother’s. Michelle’s flight landed early that afternoon and she went straight to them.
I picked up my daughter from school and Paul came to my house. Together we sat down with her, told her something had happened at Jason and Lola’s house, but we didn’t quite know what yet. We told her it was serious. We told her we would answer her questions as we learned the answers ourselves.
Slowly, we gathered at my house. First Paul and my daughter, then the Chicago-turned-D.C. gang, then Michelle arrived, and her mother, and her cousin, who was a child trauma therapist, and some other friends and we sat filled with the nervous energy that one feels from being blindsided; we knew we were in the midst of a trauma. We needed to do something, but there was nothing to do. On and off, detectives would come by and interview Michelle and her mom in my home office. Someone else thought to order food. Maybe it was me. I hadn’t been home in weeks myself. I had an urge to clean my house, even as it was filled with people, to bring some kind of order to the chaos.
We would not know for many hours what had actually happened, and it would be weeks before we could begin piecing together all the details. We knew at some point early in the afternoon that Lola had not made it; by evening we learned Jason was also dead. This is how Michelle says it now: “My brother took his own life, after taking that of his wife’s.”
The language of it matters to her because it captures, somehow, the desperation and pain of her brother, while still acknowledging the horror of what he did. Friends and family of Lola’s would surely say it differently, and my belief is that we must allow each person to find their own appropriate language. There is no shortage of pain here. My daughter would spend the summer in trauma therapy; I myself am still on a waiting list, though it has been nearly a year now. And the nieces. The nieces. Perhaps, if there is one tiny sliver of hope in all this, it is that they are with someone beloved to them who is, as it turns out, professionally trained in child trauma. I might think the universe really did want Michelle to move to Washington, DC, but then I remember an Amy Schumer skit, the punchline of which goes something like: “the universe doesn’t give a shit about your sorry ass little life.”
The view from Michelle’s living room window in Chicago was stunning. She looked out over North Pond Nature Sanctuary, a 15-acre pond, wildlife habitat, and nature trail that attracts more than 200 bird species and migratory animals, including peregrine falcons and great horned owls. From her window, I could see families of mallards and Canada geese swimming around the pond. No matter the season, she and I would walk the circumference of that pond on my every visit, and she would point out turtles hiding in thick aquatic grasses, or we’d watch chipmunks scamper across the wood chip path. Occasionally, a heron swooped onto the extended branches of a hickory tree. Beyond North Pond was Lake Shore Drive, and then the golden sand of Fullerton Avenue Beach and Lake Michigan. Three hundred miles long and a hundred miles across, Lake Michigan might as well be an ocean. This view still comes to my mind when I think of Michelle, or when I talk to her. When we get the kids together for pizza/movie nights or when we swim at a local pool in good weather. This view appears when I think of those losses that came to her at once, on that single morning, from that single phone call. She lost her home and her city; she lost her routines and she lost a stable career. She lost the illusion of a life humming along as expected, some highs, some lows, some gifts, some challenges. She lost people she loved, and she lost that view.The message that domestic violence touches every life becomes more urgent, more crucial, every day.
Michelle walked out of her life on June 7, and she never went home again. Imagine that. Just imagine. As I write this, she has accepted an offer and is about to close on the condo she owned in Chicago, with its view. She spent the summer with just the single carry-on backpack that she’d brought with her that day in June, back before we knew the extent of what had happened. She wore my too-big clothes, slept in my guest room, borrowed my shoes. Surely, she had expected to be gone just a couple of days; instead, it’s as if the world blinked and swept her away to someplace else entirely. Not just a new geography; that’s the least of it. But a new life entirely, where she must start over, as a single parent now, with its own bureaucracies she’s still wading through and will be for the foreseeable future. Somehow she must also rebuild her professional life. If there is any kind of salvation in all this it’s that we—her forever tribe—are all here, holding her. And we know, we recognize, how lucky those girls are to have her, to have been kept and held in the community they knew and loved, with an aunt they knew and loved, but still.
This is the story of domestic violence homicide, the immediate victims, yes, but also the riptide that tears through the lives of those left behind. The families, the friends, the coworkers, the neighbors, the entire community. Before last June, I had a privilege I wasn’t even aware of having, reporting on domestic violence from the outside. In my book, No Visible Bruises, I talk to families who’ve gone through this very thing, and now all those stories, all that terror and trauma, have barreled right into the heart of my house and my life and—perhaps even more to the point—the life of my daughter, and my dear friend, and two other innocent little girls whose lives would be forever transformed. Most days I still do not have words for this.
Michelle lives near me now, fun aunt turned surrogate mother. Jason and Lola’s house sits vacant, waiting for bureaucracies to determine its future. We spent the summer in a state of emotional whiplash. Sometimes I look at her—did I mention that she is stunning? Tall and thin, elegant, dark hair, with an inner calm that radiates around her—and I want to wrap my arms around her and tell her I can’t believe it. Any of it. All of it. People who meet her, from attorneys to other neighborhood parents, are amazed at how she moves so fluidly through this situation, through the very worst thing you can imagine, like a dancer in a silent, graceful arc across a dark stage. Smooth, steady, unshakable, her focus never moving beyond the girls who are now her charge. She loves them now as she always did: fully, unblinkingly, and in every subjective way that any parent loves a child.
“Domestic violence, rather than being a private problem, is a most urgent matter of public health.” What I wrote in the preface to No Visible Bruises years ago feels tactile to me now in a way it didn’t then. The message that domestic violence touches every life becomes more urgent, more crucial, every day. In the weeks before the book was published, new data in the United States was released that domestic violence homicides had been on the rise since 2013 and have increased 33 percent since 2017.
Other countries, too, are struggling with rising rates. Canada, where domestic and dating violence declined over the past decade, now seems to have such incidents “spiking”; a sergeant from the Calgary Police told a local reporter that they were in the midst of an “epidemic.” In South Africa, where violence against women has become a national crisis, one woman is killed every three hours—a rate estimated to be five times higher than in Western Europe. France held a series of conferences across the country, bringing together police, French officials, and domestic violence associations, to combat their country’s own increasing trend of femicide; according to the New York Times, in 2019 France reached one hundred domestic violence homicides earlier than ever before, calling it a “terrible benchmark.”
Between 2011 and 2018, the number of femicides in Turkey nearly quadrupled. The United Nations estimates that twelve thousand women are killed annually in Russia. In Brazil, where data is difficult to confirm and almost certainly underreported, femicides are up 4 percent since 2018. In Spain levels of domestic and sexual violence are so alarming that activists took to the streets across 250 Spanish cities on a single night—September 20, 2019—to protest what organizers said was a lack of attention and action from lawmakers; they called the demonstrations a “feminist emergency.” Other feminist emergencies: Women in China are rarely granted restraining orders against abusers, despite the Chinese government’s widely lauded 2016 law against domestic violence. Conservative governments in Hungary, Poland, and Croatia have been defunding women’s organizations and backsliding in terms of gender equality policies for a decade. More than one billion women globally lack legal protection against domestic violence. And now, as I write this in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we don’t know what might happen in the billions of households around the world where domestic violence is dangerous, and so often turns lethal. We know only that the numbers will rise.
No Visible Bruises tells stories from the United States, but the pattern of rising intimate terrorism and domestic homicide are the same no matter what country you’re in. The aggressive behavior, the gendered roles, the coercion, the psychology of a victim’s actions and, perhaps most importantly, the risk indicators: they appear again and again, in cases all across the world. Strangulation and forced sex, beatings while pregnant and unemployment, threats of suicide and substance abuse. The escalation of dangerousness.
Countries around the world will soon have this book in translation, and for me, the goal of No Visible Bruises was simple: to get something about domestic violence launched into the public’s view. A very basic book that could, perhaps, destabilize the status quo. And the status quo was largely to ignore it for far too long. I didn’t write it for the experts, though I’ve been heartened at the number of experts who have read it and reached out to me. I wrote it to give a view into the victims and the perpetrators, and to the front-line advocates. But mostly I wrote it for the layperson, the one who knew nothing but assumed everything. The woman who questioned the very nature of her suffering. The man who believed this was still a woman’s problem. The LGBTQ youth who feels entirely unseen. And for people like me, who bought into myths she didn’t even know she was buying into. In this way, I suppose I wrote it for the person I once was, before I learned all that I know now.
—Rachel Louise Snyder, October 2019. June 2020 marks the one-year anniversary of Lola and Jason’s deaths.
From No Visible Bruises by Rachel Louise Snyder. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2020 by Rachel Louise Snyder.