Bloody and bowed

Anna Quindlen

October 30, 1990|By Anna Quindlen

DETROIT — SOME DAYS it seems that all the troubles in the world are coming through the phone lines into this unprepossessing suite of offices just outside the city limits.

"National Domestic Violence Hot Line," says one of the women answering the phones at 1-800-333-SAFE, her face mottled in the glow of the computer screen. "Are you safe?"

"Do you and your children have a place to spend the night?"

"Have you called the police?"

"How often has he hit you?"

The single largest cause of injury to women in the United States is abuse by the men they live with and, often, love. This comes as a surprise to many people, but not to the women who answer hot line.

They know that more than a quarter of the women treated at hospital emergency rooms have been abused, and that a third of the women murdered each year are killed by their husband or boyfriend.

Domestic Violence Awareness Month is drawing to a close. There have been TV feature reports, proclamations and magazine stories. Right in there with the silver patterns, Bride's magazine provides advice on how to spot an abuser before the wedding. Miss America has taken an interest in the subject.

It has become common to cast a bright light on our social problems: rape, incest, child abuse. This is a good thing, but it convinces us that things are better when they are not.

Years ago women were afraid to tell because nobody talked about it; today it's talked about so frequently on TV shows and radio call-ins that they may be afraid because they fear their friends would be incredulous. The problem is out in the open, but the people are still behind closed doors.

Treatment is easier than prevention. If we really tried to unravel why so many men beat their wives, it would tell us something about ourselves, male and female alike, that we don't want to know, something humiliating and perhaps indelible.

I told a woman in this field that I had heard many men were using their fists because they were threatened by the new liberated woman. "Yeah," she said, "and before that they were doing it because their dinner was cold."

So we make things better after, after the bruises and the broken bones. When Debi Cain, who runs a shelter in Pontiac, got started 13 years ago, there were no shelters for battered women in Michigan. Now there are 48.

On Friday, Congress passed a resolution directing the states to consider domestic violence in custody proceedings. Many judges don't.

At a time when some corporate sponsors have become penurious and cautious -- AT&T's cowardly abandonment of Planned Parenthood because of its support of abortion rights comes to mind -- Johnson & Johnson spends $500,000 annually for the hot line, which will provide computerized shelter listings and trained listeners for nearly 100,000 callers this year.

Many women do leave, finding a haven at a shelter, rebuilding a life. Many of them stay because they suspect they can't raise their children on one income in a two-income world. So they become adept at the use of foundation to conceal bruises. It is axiomatic that hardly anyone ever really runs into a door.

Debi Cain still marks the anniversary of the day when a nurse who came to the shelter after yet another fierce beating went home. Her husband called and told her that if she didn't, he would kill their kids.

Then he put his gun on the hall table, and said, "When Mommy comes, go outside and play." He shot her in the head, on their front lawn on a summer day. The children watched.

There is a new generation of boys and girls out there who will believe that a relationship between a man and a woman is like a boxing match in which one contestant has no arms.

Teaching them otherwise is the real answer, but the people who could take care of that are at the other end of the phones, knocking the receiver halfway across the room because if he told her once, he told her a million times not to tell, and anyway she drove him to it, and it's only because he goes a little crazy when he gets jealous, or when he's drunk, or when he's had a hard day at work. And the telephone -- he knows it's her boyfriend.

It's her fault he has to hit her. He's sorry. It won't happen again. He knows he said that the last time. But this time he means it. The children listen and watch and learn.

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