Roseanne, what have you done?

May 03, 1994|By Robert Ikemi & Susan Fogel

EITHER Roseanne Arnold has constructed a publicity stunt so tasteless and harmful that atonement is all but beyond reach, or she has provided a picture-perfect portrait of a battered wife. The speed with which she made claim to battered-wife syndrome and then recanted with an apology to her husband has given commentators permission to trivialize the horrors of domestic violence. Surely this was not her intent. However, her actions may have seriously set back the domestic violence movement.

The media thugs were quick to point to Arnold as proof that women fabricate stories of spousal abuse to get attention. Others, perhaps more charitable, simply dismissed the Arnold saga as a publicity stunt. Just about all of them found it convenient to use the celebrity excuse to avoid discussing the serious and too-long-neglected issue of abusive relationships and domestic violence against women.

Domestic violence shapes the lives, and often the deaths, of millions of women who are abused by the men close to them. The FBI has reported that domestic violence accounts for 30 percent of the homicides in which women are the victims. As many as 35 percent of all emergency-room visits by women are related to abuse. And yet, in one sweeping verdict on the Arnold case, the urgency for understanding domestic violence is dismissed.

Is Ms. Arnold's behavior a valid example of the effects of domestic violence? We will never know for sure. We can only speculate and compare her words and actions with what we know about domestic violence and relationships gone awry.

Abusive relationships involve complex, interrelated behaviors on the part of both the victim and the abuser. These relationships cycle through three phases: building of tension, explosion of violence, then reconciliation. Some abusers and victims cycle through the phases quickly, in days or weeks; other couples take years to pass from phase to phase. The cycle is one of continual repetition; sometimes, only death ends it.

Outsiders are easily deceived by these relationships. The victim and the batterer are bound together by secrecy and deception. The victim remains silent because she feels that she is responsible for her condition and she fears further violence if she confronts her abuser. Society helps to reinforce the secrecy by treating the claims of abused women with skepticism. In one study, emergency-room physicians failed to identify 92 percent of the cases attributable to spousal abuse.

Ms. Arnold's abrupt dismissal of her husband from their production company following a venomous argument and her subsequent accusations of abuse at his hands were called "crazy" by many people. If Ms. Arnold really were an abused woman, her "crazy" behavior would be normal in terms of what is known about abusive relationships. An abuser will turn reality upside down. He will say, for example, that the victim's "crazy" behavior provoked him, that she was really the dangerous one in the relationship. The victim loses her bearings and becomes entirely dependent on her abuser for her understanding of reality. If the victim sounds crazy to us, it's because the abuser has driven her crazy.

To many of us, the Arnolds' marriage and professional lives seemed broken beyond repair. Now we hear that they are getting back together. Could this be the reconciliation phase in the life of the abuse victim? Many domestic violence victims live on the hope that the promises will be kept, that life together will be fine, because thinking about the repetition of the cycle is unbearable.

It is not unusual in domestic violence situations for the victim to return to the familiarity of a dangerous home life after escaping to a safe place. Fear of the unknown and economic dependence on the abuser drives some women back. Others are too tired to run, certain that their abuser will pursue them. Many know, if only intuitively, that leaving can be more dangerous than being beaten; in fact, victims who leave are 75 percent more likely to be killed by their abusers than those who stay.

From the outside, these choices are puzzling; it becomes easy to dismiss what looks like self-defeating behavior and minimize the problem of domestic violence.

No one who has experience with these truly serious problems would wish them on Roseanne Arnold or any other woman. If she is truly a victim of domestic violence, she must seek help. In so doing, she can help expose a national epidemic that has always hidden in the shadows.

If, on the other hand, Arnold overstated her situation, more than an apology to battered women is in order. It will take a second career as a celebrity educator on domestic violence before her dues are paid.

Robert Ikemi and Susan Fogel are staff attorneys at the California Women's Law Center in Los Angeles.

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