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Zosia Bielski is a reporter at The Globe and Mail.

Lisa Banfield’s diary told a different story than her memory.

The common-law wife of Nova Scotia mass shooter Gabriel Wortman convinced herself the violence in their relationship was only sporadic. But her journal entries showed otherwise, tracing two decades of coercive control and physical abuse from a spouse who would go on to murder 22 people over two days in April 2020.

Banfield’s relatives, in-laws, friends, neighbours and co-workers all witnessed the abuse but felt helpless to intervene safely. Banfield said she was too terrified to involve her circles; her spouse had threatened to hurt her family. As her employer, he also controlled her livelihood. She blocked out the abuse to get through her days.

Wortman’s mass shooting followed a clear pattern: It came after years of domestic violence. There were overlaps in Renfrew County, Ont., where Basil Borutski murdered three women he had assaulted and stalked over many years. (This 2015 case also illuminated the particular dangers of domestic violence for women living in rural areas, as journalist Sarah Boesveld has highlighted for years.) In more than 68 per cent of mass shootings committed between 2014 and 2019 in the United States, perpetrators had a history of domestic violence or killed at least one partner or family member, according to research published in the journal Injury Epidemiology.

Despite the undeniable links between “private” abuses against women and more outward attacks against communities, our understanding of intimate partner violence remains slim. In Nova Scotia, observers have been unforgiving toward Banfield, suggesting she was complicit in the attacks – placing her partner’s crimes on her shoulders. (Last week, the Crown withdrew criminal charges against Banfield for buying her spouse ammunition, this after she completed a restorative justice program.)

As ever with domestic violence, there is a collective sheen of denial. While observers criticized Banfield for staying with and protecting her abuser, they failed to ask key questions: How did the killer get his guns, and what enabled him to terrorize so many in his orbit for so long?

Though Canada faces an epidemic of domestic abuse, our ability to reckon with this type of violence remains unevolved. The problem of coercive control is grossly underestimated, as The Globe and Mail’s Molly Hayes, Elizabeth Renzetti and Tavia Grant reported in spring. More than anything, the public remains resistant to comprehending why women stay and try to make peace with their abusive partners. After reporting on the problem for nearly 15 years, I can say that women facing abuse rarely, if ever, react to violence the way the public would like them to.

According to a psychological assessment presented during a public inquiry into the mass shooting, Banfield had developed a protective “fawn response” around her abusive husband. “The fawning response involves trying to appease or please a person who is a threat,” the report read. “Fawning behaviours can include believing you can love someone out of abusing, always walking on eggshells to avoid triggering an explosion. … Individuals ignore their own needs or sense of identity to attend to the needs of the other.”

How many women are socialized to behave this way – to pacify and placate in the face of conflict, threat and harm?

After the 2016 sexual assault trial of former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, the court of public opinion zeroed in on the fact that his accusers maintained contact after the encounters. “Many victims struggle to explain their own behaviour. We need to remember that until they were assaulted, they probably held all of the same myths about sexual violence as many other people,” psychologist Nina Burrowes told me during that trial.

Similarly, Banfield faced unsparing questioning as she tried to explain why she acquiesced to her increasingly erratic partner. “Some people are parsing everything Banfield does,” Tim Bousquet, a journalist with The Halifax Examiner, observed during the inquiry. “She’s not emotional enough. She’s too emotional. She’s explaining why she said false things, so that proves she’s a liar.”

We’ve seen this microscopic treatment before. During the defamation trial of actors and ex-spouses Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, which involved Heard’s detailed allegations of physical and sexual abuse, a swarm of online detractors dissected her every word, mannerism and wardrobe choice on the stand. “A public orgy of misogyny,” The Guardian’s Moira Donegan remarked about the trial. “It shows how easily a victim can still be blamed and isolated,” Donegan wrote, “how easily what happened to her can be taken as a failure of her personal character, rather than as part of a social pattern.”

We remain incapable of processing intimate partner violence, treating it as an unsavoury private matter rather than as violence that ricochets off entire communities. On our enduring lack of empathy for women facing abuse, we should ask ourselves why this remains the default setting, and consider the price of inaction.

What else we’re thinking about:

As the ramifications of overturned abortion rights in the U.S. come into sharper focus, Stephanie Nolen’s New York Times story on the punishing impact of pregnancy and childbirth on girls’ bodies feels urgent. Nolen examines the dangers of pushing young girls to give birth, from high risks of maternal mortality and horrifying infections, to premature babies and postpartum depression. As an appeal for humanity, it’s a wretched list to have to compile. Writing about the case of a 10-year-old rape victim who struggled to secure an abortion after the Supreme Court ruling, The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse put it this way: “When a child becomes pregnant before she’s lost her last baby tooth and the state she lives in tries to make her stay that way, there are no winners; we have all irreparably lost.”

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