This past weekend I heard two disturbing and tragic national news stories.
In one, a man walked onto a dance floor at a Seattle area casino and opened fire on his estranged wife and her companion, injuring seven people, police said. In the other, a man opened fire at a Texas roller skating rink during a birthday party for one of his children, killing his estranged wife and four of her family members before turning the gun on himself, police said.
The police released this statement, “The couple had been involved in ongoing marital problems and it is believed that this led to the shooting.”
We hear these news stories, and it’s important to me that people understand what domestic violence is about: how and why this happens. Is it about marital problems? Do the men just flip out or lose control? I’ve been working to end violence against women for over 25 years, and I have learned from the women seeking safety.
I don’t believe this is about marital problems— many people have intense marital problems that don’t manifest violently. I don’t believe this is about “flipping out” or “losing control,” as if the men are not responsible for their actions; how can they be out of control when they are making choices every step of the way? These men were in control when they got their guns and loaded them. They were in control when they left their homes and got into their cars, drove to specific locations — the casino, the roller skating rink — and chose where to park. They were in control when they got out of their vehicles and chose to walk in with their loaded guns; they were in control when they aimed their weapons and chose to shoot their estranged partners and others.
This is about a cascade of personal choices the men made, where at any point they might have made other choices. The only thing the men did not have control of was their estranged wives. They were estranged — alienated — my hunch is, because of his use of abusive power and multiple tactics to diminish her autonomy, her sense of self, her freedom. Domestic violence is not about marital problems or about losing control of yourself. Domestic violence is about one partner believing they have the right to exert power over another, to usurp another’s autonomy, to express “love” as ownership.
And in these cases, when the women tried to empower themselves, the men believed and/or felt they had the right to walk into public places and decide who lives and who dies, for all the world to see. Most often in Juneau, we don’t experience such blatant tragic consequences of domestic violence. Yet every day at AWARE, we welcome women into our safe shelter so that they and their children can have some reprieve from the abusive atmospheres created by an abusive partner in their homes. We don’t tell women what to do or how to do it — she’s already lived that experience and that’s what she’s trying to escape. We offer another way of being, of living, where her choices are respected. We listen with the goal of understanding, and work to provide options for her to make informed choices suited to her life.
I wonder if these tragedies could have been prevented, and how. I wonder about the emotional trauma and damage inflicted on the patrons at the casino, on the 30 children and adults attending the child’s birthday party, on the families and friends of the men, women, and children who were present. We all feel the aftershocks of domestic violence, even when we think we don’t know anyone who creates an environment of control and fear in their home, or that we don’t know a woman or child who lives in an environment of fear in their own homes.
How can we make a difference? Marital problems and stressful situations are part of life’s challenges. They do not cause domestic violence. Each of us must take responsibility and be accountable for our choices; we must ask if our choices are respectful of ourselves and of others. And if they are, then we may find that we like ourselves and that our relationships are healthier; and if we’re unsure or if our choices are not respectful or if they diminish ourselves or another, then we must challenge ourselves to find a solution, including asking for help.
If you would like to learn more, or if you are in an abusive relationship and would like advocacy/support, please contact AWARE at 586-6623 or 800-478-1090. Services are free and confidential.
• Tabachnick is Executive Director of Aiding Women in Abuse & Rape Emergencies (AWARE), Inc.