What do you do when you suspect spousal abuse? This isn’t exactly a rhetorical question, but a very real situation. At least I think it’s a real situation. I usually use this space for attempts at humor or to register a complaint, but I’m very serious this time. What does one do when you suspect spousal abuse? I’m going to lay the facts out over the next two blog posts, and perhaps a light will dawn.
In the case of recognizing child abuse, I have some experience, which is the reason I’m unsure how to deal with suspected spousal abuse. About 25 years ago I rented a house with my best friend. One of the house’s several perks was a patio on two levels off the breakfast room. I remember the first night after unpacking. He made a chicken dinner, and I made a pineapple upside down cake. We had a set of double ovens and couldn’t wait to use them both at once.
As we dined on the patio and exclaimed how we couldn’t remember back to a time when we had only one oven to prepare a meal (five days earlier), the peaceful air, perfumed with night-blooming jasmine, was shredded by the rage of a male neighbor over the back fence. My roommate and I were stunned into silence while we exchanged concerned glances. Who was yelling, who was being yelled at, and what could possibly warrant all that vitriol?
As we listened, we were able to determine a few sentences. One that stood out was “How many times have I told you that when the little hand is on the six and the big hand is on the five that it is SIX TWENTY-FIVE?” The question was accompanied by a crash. We sat frozen, hoping that it was an inanimate object being thrown at a wall and not at a tiny child learning to tell time.
The child turned out to be a she, and I saw her a few weeks later when she came roller-blading down the sidewalk and started a conversation with me about my dog. She was missing her front teeth because she was at that age (I hoped), and she was so charming. When I figured out where she lived, I tried to get some information. She spoke of both parents in glowing terms, and she appeared to be a well-adjusted kid with an outgoing personality. She was nothing like the stereotype of a battered child as far as movies and TV had shown me.
Months passed without any further outbursts, and as we settled in and met the neighbors, we came to realize that we were living right next door to the homeowners’ association chairwoman who had proven before we moved in that she knew all the details about anyone and any household that had details to be known. She became close to us by way of proximity, but we enjoyed her company when she dropped by. Soon after the next screaming incident, my roommate took an opportunity to ask her about the family over the back fence.
She reluctantly admitted that she had heard “things.” We barely made any noise by comparison, and she could almost always identify the number and gender of any guests we had who made it into our backyard, but she couldn’t seem to recall hearing anything over the back fence.
She eventually admitted that since she was home during the day, she had been hearing arguments when we had been at work. She didn’t consider them to be fits of rage, but agreed that the man had “something of a temper.” She felt that everything was under control, and there was no need to worry.
My bedroom was at the back of the house, and the Southern California climate allowed us to keep the windows open much earlier in the year. I started to hear more and more coming from the house beyond the fence, and my roommate and I discussed the situation more frequently.
About that time we had new neighbors across the street, and they loved yard work. They were the type of neighbors you really want if you’re concerned about property values, but they weren’t the kind of neighbors you want if you plan to sleep past 8:00 on Sunday morning. Having my room in the back, I missed the heated exchange in the front, but my roommate related everything to me that he could understand. The man over the back fence had become so enraged by the leaf-blower that he had left his house, marched around to our block, and hostilely confronted the leaf-blowing woman who lived across our street.
She was about 6’ tall and flew a helicopter for a living. She drove a giant Ford pickup with a tool chest across the bed. She wore heavy boots most of the time, but the point is that she was having none of this angry man’s tantrum. Avoiding anything physical, she managed to shut down his hate speech and threatened to report him to the police. The scene was most unfortunate for our tidy neighbor, but at least she stood her ground and put him on notice. We assumed that no woman had ever stood up to him.
Regrettably, the consequence of this run-in was that the raging man over the fence began to yell at his kids more and more. Other unseen objects shattered, and there was very little peace. It seemed my roommate and I discussed the situation daily, and we brought the subject of child abuse up with friends and with the next-door neighbor. Everyone except our neighbor insisted that we must get involved because a child needs an advocate. However, we didn’t want to give our names and address after witnessing his reaction to an early morning leaf-blower.
In the end, we placed an anonymous call. In our naivety we foolishly assumed that a professional would show up, find evidence of abuse, and haul the guy away in cuffs. The children in his life would be safe, the spouse would be relieved, and they would say silent prayers of thanks because someone out there had taken pity on their suffering.
In our twenties and unfamiliar with abuse and the systems that deal with it, the thought never occurred to us that children love their parents even when the adults are horrid, that spouses remain in some of the worst circumstances for a variety of reasons, and that an abuser can be as charming as he is violent. Of course he can be charming because he managed to charm someone into his life and keep her under his spell unless his violence had intimidated her into staying. Either way, an abuser possesses charisma.
Proud of ourselves, my roommate and I stood on the patio for several evenings listening for the sounds of joy as the occupants over the fence celebrated their freedom. We never heard celebrating. About two weeks later there came a slam as if a body had been shoved into a wall. “You called them, didn’t you? YOU CALLED!”
We heard a weakened, tearful protest that she didn’t call. He continued to accuse her. There was more noise as he repeatedly demanded to know who’d called. We could imagine him suddenly believing her and realizing that outsiders had gotten involved. We expected him to come storming out his back door and look our way. We scrambled into the house, closed the doors, and drew the floor-length curtains before the angry neighbor over the fence realized that his voice had carried like the leaf-blower, and that we had turned him in.
The nights were eventually peaceful. The family moved, and 25 years later I have no idea what became of them. I’ll explain further in my next post about why I suspect spousal abuse in a particular situation, but you can understand now why I’m uncertain—reluctant—to get involved.
© 2019 by Patrick Brown
To learn more about my books, especially the two featuring Maggie Lyon, visit my author page at: http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1