You Didn’t Talk About This At The Country Club

May 20th, 2013

From Leslie Morgan Steiner’s  book”Crazy Love”

Updated October 12, 2014

Kit, it might be good if you’d provide a statistic. I’m no expert, but it’s my understanding that domestic violence only affects poor, uneducated people.  Lawyers, doctors, and professors do not beat their wives and children.”  Sociology professor to Kit Gruelle

One of the scenes I found most compelling when I was looking at footage a couple of years ago for the upcoming HBO documentary “Private Violence” is the one above.  My friend, colleague, and narrator, subject and special adviser to the film, reads this from her sociology professor in a scene we hope will challenge one of the age old myths of domestic violence- that it doesn’t happen to people who grew up like me.

I was raised  in a family of privilege in the 1950’s, 60’s, and early 70’s in a small city in Iowa.  We had a lovely home with a swimming pool, in a pretty neighborhood.  My father owned his family cattle business, my mother was a community volunteer and a member of the Junior League.   My parents’ friends were CEO’s, doctors, lawyers, and “pillars of the community”. We had great vacations, summer camp, and college educations provided.   We spent much of our time at the Country Club, playing with the children of those pillars of the community.

I don’t think I’d ever heard much about family violence.  I’d never seen it in my home, because there wasn’t any.  I don’t remember any friends who ever spoke of it.  It just wasn’t discussed.  As Gloria Steinem says frequently, “there was no word for domestic violence,  it was just called “life”.  It wasn’t a life I knew.

The first time I heard from a victim of this secret subject was when I was in my first year of college.  The story was from an older woman, I’ve just called her “Emma” when I’ve told her story.

Emma was a neighbor, a woman of wealth and position, a college graduate with a lovely home, a grandmother. Emma was the May Queen at her University, where she graduated in 1922.  She was knocked down by her husband in the hallway in that lovely home in the 60’s, and hospitalized with a broken back.  The man wasn’t her first husband, they had no children together, and she was fortunate as she had means, owned the home, and was able to get him out of the home with the help of family. So many women aren’t that fortunate.  He was never charged with anything.  Few men like him were in those days.

I was stunned by her story, and was certain that this was a rare case, particularly among people like that… like us.  My social work education and career opened my eyes to the scourge of family violence, the victims, the perpetrators and the kids permanently scarred who witnessed it.  Perhaps this fueled my later support of violence prevention.  Or perhaps it was for Emma, who had her back broken.

One of the myths of domestic violence is that there is what my friend, colleague, and long time domestic violence victim’s advocate Kit Gruelle , receiver of the rather stunning note above, calls “the typical victim”.  She scoffs at that phrase. To her the “typical victim” isn’t typical, and whatever the unenlightened think it is, as she says musically, “it ain’t that”.  And, it isn’t.

We still too often see “that” victim as poor, struggling, and uneducated, as did her professor, when she was completing a degree in social work.  The note wasn’t written in the 1960’s.  It was a couple of years ago.  And though Kit says today that many of her teachers were absolutely amazing and well versed in domestic violence, this one, a PhD in Sociology, wasn’t.

When we began gathering stories for a history project of just a few of the millions of victims of domestic abuse, Kit wanted to make sure we had footage of women who’ve experienced abuse who didn’t fit “the profile”.  She knew of many.  She can leave the names off and tell you their stories.  She found one during the filming, who not only told us her story, but told readers of story in her book “Crazy Love”, told countless interviewers, and recently told close to a million people via a TED talk.  Her name is Leslie Morgan Steiner and her talk, viewed over 2,000,000 times is here.   It’s powerful, it’s honest, and it’s worth watching.

Leslie, in 2009 to CNN, summarized the attitudes some of us still have of families with power, stature, wealth, or celebrity.  It was shortly after after the highly publicized story of the assault of Rihanna by Chris Brown, “ Like Rihanna, I had a bright future in my early 20s. I met my abusive lover at 22. I’d just graduated from Harvard and had a job at Seventeen Magazine in New York. My husband worked on Wall Street and was an Ivy League graduate as well. In our world, we were the last couple you’d imagine enmeshed in domestic violence.”

She’s right.  We wrap a bubble around those of status, fortune, fame and privilege.  We have footage from years ago of Senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime sponsor and supporter of the Violence Against Women Act, talking about that bubble. He speaks of  people who don’t want to think it happens in the house next door and says, “It DOES happen in your town, it DOES happen in your neighborhood..” And it does.

Dr. Susan Weitzman, who spent years researching what she calls “upscale violence”, and authored the 2000 book  “Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages” has profiles of both victim and perpetrator on her site.  She echoes much of what Kit Gruelle has to say about what Dr. Jeanne King calls “Domestic Violence, Tiffany’s Style”.   There are specific challenges to this type of case, including societal disbelief, peer pressure to remain silent, and the difficulty of taking on someone with wealth, position, and power.   Gruelle says, “Because their husbands are men of position and this guy has a very public persona, it adds another complex layer for the victims. Everyone in the community has their mind made up about this guy.”  

As more high profile cases of abuse “Tiffany’s style” keep coming to light, it’s worth remembering that the “typical victim” isn’t so typical any more and perhaps never was. I still go to the Country Club with my mother, and I sometimes look around the jovial and gentile crowd and think about the stories that might always be hidden, that may never be talked about, but stories and experiences surely, for the victims and the families, that won’t be forgotten.

Emma, this one is for you.


8 Comments on “You Didn’t Talk About This At The Country Club”

  1. kit gruelle said at 9:29 am on May 20th, 2013:

    This is all so true Cindy, and so sad that we cling to stereotypes. Stereotypes are blinders~we KNOW battered women, but we don’t SEE them because they have letters after their names, or their partners are bank executives, doctors, lawyers, professors, clergy, etc.
    A case in point, with graphic YouTube footage to help smash the stereotype, is the Shenkman case in Connecticut. It’s worth it to look it up. She was a successful attorney and he was a prominent publicist for big-name celebrities. She tried to leave him and he retaliated by taking her hostage, blowing up the house, and continuing to threaten her IN THE COURTROOM, to the judge.
    In order to see domestic and family violence for what it really is (intimate terrorism), we must move beyond the tightly-constructed stereotype of who victims and offenders are and open our eyes to the whole picture.
    Thank you for writing about this hidden, tragic aspect of an already misunderstood crime/social issue!

  2. Doreen Nicholas said at 9:36 am on May 20th, 2013:

    Thank you both for your wonderful talents and exposing the truth about domestic violence for all of us!

  3. cindy said at 8:26 pm on May 20th, 2013:

    Thank you Kit,
    I have heard about the Shenkman case, it’s horrible, and I probably should have mentioned it. I always wonder how many of these crimes go unreported, probably many! I admire these women for speaking out. They’ve opened the doors for others who live through this. The legal factor is so intimidating for these women. The men usually have large war chests and allies in the right place, which further discourages them.
    Thanks for writing, for sharing, and most of all, for doing the work!

  4. cindy said at 8:27 pm on May 20th, 2013:

    Thank you for writing, Doreen! It’s such a hidden issue still for families like this. I hope it helps others to read that they aren’t alone. Please come back to the site soon, and thank you for your kind words.

  5. Anne Caroline said at 12:18 pm on May 21st, 2013:

    Emily Post started writing about etiquette because her husband was abusive. She wasn’t alone. I heard the stories from the children of many of her friends at the Tavern Club in Chicago. And, I’m sure you are aware of Doris Buffett’s story as well as the stories of Jane Fonda and Eve Ensler. You know my story.

    Katharine Graham, Charlotte Fedders, Pat Conroy, Chevy Chase, Halle Berry, Tina Turner, Sandra Boss, Nancy P. Tyler, Carolyn Jessop, Martha Beck, Michele Weldon, and several First Mothers of US presidents are also on a very long list of survivors of very powerful abusive men.

    We aren’t “victims.” We are survivors determined to make a difference.

  6. cindy said at 9:04 pm on May 21st, 2013:

    Hi Caroline,
    Thank you for using the right word “survivors”, and I certainly hope that you didn’t get the impression that all were victims. If so, I do apologize. Yes, there are many, indeed and I could have added more names to the list of women. Perhaps that would have been better, and made it more understandable. I chose to talk about 2 survivors, “Emma” and Leslie Morgan Steiner. Both went through abuse at different times. Emma in the 1960’s when it was more rare to speak out.
    Leslie was in a time where the subject had started to be discussed.
    Agree, that it’s certainly not rare in our society and has been happening to partners of powerful men since the dawn of time. And women are using their voices to both speak out and reach out to others. But, there is still a hidden element to some of this as I’ve heard from some survivors who have kept it quiet for years.
    The woman I refer to as Emma is explained in your email, and there is a reason her name was changed.
    You do a great service to women, Caroline and I’m thankful you are here doing all that you do!
    Warmest wishes as always,

  7. Connie Hayek said at 2:17 am on March 15th, 2014:

    It is so easy to think that these things only happen to ‘other people’. As I was reading this, I was reminded of a family I met while volunteering at a DV shelter. The sisters and mother came in with the hopes that I could convince their sibling and daughter that she needed to leave an abusive relationship. They didn’t want to give any more than their first names. I remember thinking, ‘these women are carrying handbags that probably cost more than my monthly house payment’.
    None of them wanted to speak of it…the DV that is. At a loss, I decided to describe to them what DV looks like, the cycle that never ends (not without some type of intervention, anyway). I then asked if any of this sounded familiar. The victim/survivor didn’t want to speak initially but her sister finally said, “you’ve just described her life”, followed by nods, and tears, around the table.

    I gave them names and numbers of therapists with experience in DV. I’ve often wondered if they ever received the help they desperately needed. Financially, they didn’t “need” the DV shelter, but emotionally, they all clearly needed the support of others who understand.

  8. cindy said at 4:04 am on March 17th, 2014:

    Thanks, Connie! I hope they did receive help. It’s such a huge problem, people tend to think we’ve solved it all in this country, and sadly, though DV has gone down in numbers, there is still much work to do.

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