The Most Wonderful Time of the Year? Violence and the Holidays

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Photo by Sally Crossthwaite

Photo by Sally Crossthwaite

By Ashley-Michelle Papon

George Zimmerman has been described as “the most hated man in America.” In case you spent 2012 avoiding the news about murder cases in Florida due to a Casey Anthony-inspired news coverage hangover, Zimmerman was the overzealous night watchman who was acquitted in the shooting death of unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin. Even before being elevated into the leading news story of 2012, Zimmerman already had a lengthy history of violence. And he continues to make headlines.

This past November, he faced allegations from girlfriend Samantha Scheibe that he leveled a gun at her. This latest development comes just two months after Zimmerman was accused of punching the father of his estranged wife, Shellie Zimmerman, and damaging her iPad.

Earlier this month, Zimmerman’s defense attorney submitted sworn documents to the court on Scheibe’s behalf, expressing that she did not want to press charges and a desire “to be with George.” The response isn’t an uncommon one for victims in situations where domestic violence exists. As Amanda Marcotte writes for Salon, the number of victims who opt not to press charges is alarmingly high, with busy metropolitan areas like Queens boasting a frequency of almost 90 percent in their respective cases. Perhaps more surprising, much of the conventional wisdom we have as to the motivations behind why victimized women back away from legal recourse is wrong.

Rather than fear, Marcotte argues, victims adopt an attitude of sympathy for the very people who victimized them:

“Researchers found by listening to recorded phone calls between men arrested for domestic violence and their victims that the abusers generally started off by getting the victim to question her own version of the story, insisting she remembered the whole thing incorrectly or that she’s making mountains out of molehills. Once softened, he then starts to lean on her sympathy and concern for him. ”

These dynamics are likely confusing to people who haven’t lived inside the bubble of domestic violence.  But to those who have weathered the storms of aggression at the hands of a loved one, Marcotte’s assertions ring only too true.

Last May, I traveled back to my hometown of Kansas City to attend a relative’s graduation from college. Although Joy’s* relationship to me was through marriage only, I considered myself one of her biggest cheerleaders. I edited many of her class essays, submitted dozens letters of recommendation for her scholarships, and helped her pen letters of gratitude for each grant she was awarded. Joy and I weren’t close, but I felt an obligation to give her every advantage I could. So I did, despite our history of differences, which is a rather sanitized way of describing our relationship, especially when alcohol is involved.

The first time I realized she had a problem was a decade ago, when she became verbally abusive and destroyed property at a hotel during her birthday celebration. I decided not to be around her while she was drinking. After a few years of no incidents, I lifted that unspoken imposition. But three years ago, history repeated itself and Joy’s drinking lead to a violent attack on her partner. Afraid she might kill him, I stepped between them, shielding his body with my pregnant belly. I kept her off of him long enough to call the police, who arrested her for battery. He refused to press charges, and Joy was released. After a few days, she gave me another tearful apology. Despite this, I made it clear to Joy that I would never again be around her while she was drinking.

Unfortunately for me, Joy’s post-graduation festivities compelled her to fall back into old behavior patterns.  The nutshell version is this: when I realized Joy was going to be partying, I opted to put myself to bed. I awoke a few hours later to Joy screaming and barging into my room. Her partner tried to make her leave, but then Joy proceeded to attack him. Not wishing for a repeat of what had taken place in 2010, I reacted by trying to call the police. She lunged for me on the bed, cracking my iPhone against the wall. To protect my face, I grabbed the only thing I could—my Macbook Pro, which she promptly threw across the room like a Frisbee. Her partner eventually dragged her off me and out of the room.

Of course, even before Joy came into my life, family violence wasn’t unknown to me. But this assault was the first time I’ve experienced violence since claiming the advocate label for myself, my first time living through the process of becoming a statistic of the system I routinely attempt to break down.

Of course, I’m not alone. Violence in relationships and among families is no longer a hidden epidemic. We all know how high rates of domestic violence are, but it turns out that “the most wonderful time of the year” sees a staggering increase in those figures.

As Tanya Young Williams writes for the Huffington Post:

“Researchers have found that while domestic abuse increases about 22 percent on Thanksgiving, it is really New Year’s that is the biggest holiday of concern. Domestic violence rates increase by an incredible 32 percent during this holiday. Christmas ranks third with a 17 percent increase.”

It’s not hard to see why. Holiday tensions reflect the messy build-up of unmet expectations, unaffordable splurging, the open access to overconsumption (especially of alcohol), and the re-irritation of familial resentments. The prospects are darker when discussing relationships; statistics indicate that most divorces are initiated in January. All of these factors are frequently associated with violence.

While these should never be viewed as excuses or justifications for violence that takes place, it’s important to understand that violence doesn’t take a vacation. In fact, some experts find that even while violence is increasing at home, those being victimized are less likely to look for help during the giving season.

Not that the holidays between November and February represent the only spike in violence. As Bay Area Family Law Blog reports, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July see higher instances of domestic violence. My most recent experience with Joy coincided with Memorial Day weekend, while the previous two incidents had taken place on St. Patrick’s Day—Joy’s birthday.

With these dynamics in mind, Schiebe’s evolution as a victim becomes much more understandable, especially since the confrontation with Zimmerman took place just days before Thanksgiving. As ThinkProgress points out, Schiebe’s behavior isn’t atypical from other situations inclusive of violence. The reasons victims initially cooperate, only to recant or change their minds, are numerous and nuanced.

I didn’t question that I had been battered, but whether to press charges. A police report had been filed after a friend called the police, but the next step was up to me, and I didn’t know what that should be.

To say I was compromised about Joy was an understatement. The assault reactivated some old traumas. The 10-year anniversary of my rape was right around the corner. Try as I might to keep Joy’s assault separate from that experience, I couldn’t. When I was raped at 18, the police made it clear they believed I was lying. I assumed their behavior was a direct reflection of my believability, the fact I somehow failed to be enough of a victim. My Feminism wasn’t developed enough to realize how frequently police fail victims of violence. So I had allowed myself to be talked out of pressing charges, no longer confident that I had been clear that I didn’t want sex when I told my rapist “No.”

At 28, I had no such confusion regarding the definition of what had happened. A broken Macbook Pro, damaged iPhone, and a handful of defensive wounds pretty firmly established Joy had assaulted me—but I was concerned about the next phase of Joy’s life. Even as I logically knew it wasn’t my responsibility to protect the future she was willing to throw away, I nevertheless found myself wanting to do so.  I felt obligated to protect her from the consequences she was due.

In the end, I came up with what I thought was a reasonable compromise. I would not move forward with pressing charges against Joy, if she would agree to therapy and to never drink again in my presence. Joy’s response to the messenger was, “Tell her I said, ‘Go f*&k yourself’.” So I initiated legal proceedings, feeling that it might be the only way to get Joy the help she so clearly needed. My goal was inspiration, not incarceration.

My decision wasn’t a popular one. I was under a lot of pressure to let it go, and watered-down versions of what took place circulated among the family, emphasizing my responsibility while downplaying hers. The last account I heard, Joy acknowledged that she had destroyed my computer, but her defense was that I had been using it to post about her behavior on Facebook. Although a view of my page from the date in question pretty firmly establishes that I don’t posses the magical ability to utilize Facebook when my laptop screen is closed, the attempt to minimize or explain away violent behavior is a common feature of abusers.

Joy’s partner also promised that she had assured him she would get counseling, so I notified the police that I had changed my mind about pressing charges. Family members thanked me—but she didn’t. We didn’t speak. A week later, I ran into her at a family barbeque, which she had known I would be attending. And she made sure to walk by me with a beer in hand. I immediately left, and there’s no telling how the rest of the night went. Chances are decent that if she behaved badly, nobody would tell me. And there’s no telling what consequences will accompany her next drink.

What I do know, however, is that those who don’t press charges should not be simply dismissed outright. The fact that someone like me, a person who arguably ought to “know better” than to believe the promises of a violent person, reveals how complicated the issues involved with violence in family and intimate relationships can be. Even as I know I’ve made the right decision in removing Joy from my life, I agonize about how I handled the legal side of it, and the consequences it may have for Joy and her family in the future.

More than anything, I’m angry that my emotions don’t square with my ideology. As I load up boxes of Christmas gifts to take to the post office to ship to relatives, including Joy’s partner and their children, I’m angry that it bothers me I didn’t include a gift for her. I wonder if the best gift I could have given all of them was pushing forward with the charges so that the next holiday won’t end in violence.

*a pseudonym

Photo by Sally Crossthwaite via Flickr.com under a Creative Commons license.

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