Beyond its sharp violence, the most striking thing about the elevator video of Ray Rice decking his wife, Janay, was how fast it happened. The speed and closeness of the action made the violence feel private, almost intimate, a secret no one was supposed to see.
Private is the last thing the punch is now. The addictive video spawned a furious aftermath: the shamefully late decision of the National Football League to suspend Ray Rice indefinitely (having handed him a mere two-game suspension when he committed the act last February) and of the Baltimore Ravens to end Mr. Rice's $35-million contract with his beloved team; the surging anger (mostly of women) not just at him but at his wife, for not having left her husband; the subsequent moderation of those views, thanks to the Twitter hashtag #WhyIStayed, itself started by a survivor of domestic abuse. Whereupon Janay released her own statement, via Instagram, accusing TMZ and her online scolds of re-victimizing her, and re-declaring her love for her husband, as victims of domestic violence often do. The elevator video was our latest chance to stare into the dark hole of domestic violence.
The next morning, on my way to work, I stopped by the women's shelter a few blocks from my home. I live in an upscale neighbourhood where houses now start just under a million dollars. The shelter looks like any other place, and most locals don't know it's there. There'd been a bit of a stir the night before. A former resident had come by "to get her stuff," a counsellor told me at the front door, "but she arrived with her abuser, so now she can't ever come to this shelter again. As she needed to again this morning, when she called."
"He got mad at her again last night, after they got home?"
I asked if I could talk to someone in the shelter about what had happened to Janay Rice. The superviser said no. I understood. Besides, there was another shelter around the corner. Why wouldn't there be? Half the women in this country have experienced some form of sexual or domestic violence. On any given day, more than 3,300 sleep in shelters to escape it.
Their stories are starkly similar, I later discovered. Theresa Daniels was 20 and on vacation in Prince Edward Island when she met her husband, a teacher and "a dream come true." You hear that a lot. He was 40, but "he would hold the chair out and push it in." They'd been married a year when the telltale control-freak signs began to appear (they always do, in abusers): He was stingy with financial information (check), didn't like her talking to other people (check), insisted on doing all the grocery shopping himself. (It kept her inside.)
At first, like most abused women, she thought she could change him. "I thought that, if I loved him enough, and he loved me, we could work it out." She's dark-haired, pretty. Then came the name calling and the mocking, the complaints about her cooking and her housework. Eventually – right on schedule – "he had gobbed in my face and punched me." Depression, self-doubt and hopelessness followed (hers, check, check, check). He drank a lot and took pills, sometimes at once. The kids saw it all. He was a hunter and had a gun. She took to shelters, and at first when she came home, he was full of loving remorse. Then it happened again. She often called the police, and they often expected her to work it out with her husband.
She related these intimate details of her long sadness to me, a stranger, over the phone. Made public, they seemed to have no power. "Psychologically, he's been calling you names so much, you begin to wonder, maybe he's right. Maybe I deserve this." It took her six years and two tries to leave him – not bad, the average is seven. Twelve years later, she still feels frightened whenever she sees a white truck, still lives in a one-bedroom condo in Scarborough with four children, $50,000 short in child support. Still has the same nightmares, every night.
As horrendous as the stories are, they don't stop men from abusing women. They pose the wrong questions. "In the past 24 hours," an abuse counsellor named Noa Ashkenazi told me after #WhyIStayed started trending on Twitter, "I have been asked 100 times, 'Why do women stay? None of you ask, 'Why do men hit? Why do men abuse the women they love?'"
Until very recently, that was the most private question of all – the unspeakable mystery of the source of the demons that drive an abuser to abuse. Was it being raised without a father? Did he witness abuse as a child? Is the abuser pleading, however ineffectively, to be heard or forgiven?
These days men are trying to answer the question by refusing to call it a mystery. Eleven years ago, the self-described anti-sexist educator Jackson Katz co-founded the Mentors in Violence Prevention program at Northeastern University in Boston. Using what he calls "the bystander approach" in a series of role-playing situations, Dr. Katz, now 54, has been training the U.S. military, college students and athletes to confront sexism in non-violent ways – thereby taking on cultural norms of male dominance and physicality that have been millennia in the making. It's a long-term project: After falling for a decade, rates of domestic violence have now flat-lined.
"It's an ideological problem," he insists. "It's an attitude about entitlement, about power, about who has the right to control the system. The key is to empower men who are not abusive to challenge men who are. To change the social acceptability of sexist behavior." The revenge of the nerds is now official.
Janay Rice was never to blame. "Does anyone think that, if Ray Rice was married to another woman, this wouldn't happen?" Dr. Katz believes violence was a choice Mr. Rice made (however instinctual it looked in the video). "Men who are abusive of women are not abusive in other circumstances. He's not abusive of his boss or his coach, even though the coach is screaming at them. Because he knows that's not a situation where he's automatically in control."
If Ray Rice is a survivor, he'll bow his head and own that video, using it to transform himself from being the poster boy for abusive behaviour to being the poster boy for the movement of men who want to understand their own behaviour, even retrospectively. (He's certainly not playing football any time soon.)
"It still gets back to it being a choice about your emotions, and not a big mysterious thing," Dr. Katz insists. "It's not something beyond our understanding." It's not love. It's reason.