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Domestic Violence

Domestic Violence, 2001

This documentary follows several weeks in the life of The Spring, a Florida shelter for women and children victims of domestic abuse. Beginning with footage of police officers responding to various domestic abuse calls, we then see the intake process, interviews with women and children, therapy sessions, group classes for adult women, and conversations between the social workers at the shelter.

Oof. I would imagine that most people know someone (or several someones) who have been in relationships that became physically abusive. It can be an incredibly complex situation, and doubly so when there are children in the mix. This film illuminates the struggles and the unhealthy patterns that many of the victims must cope with as they attempt to break free from their situations.

Something that I appreciated early on in the film is one of the social workers who talks about the fact that 15% of the people they help are men, and that 15% of the abusers of their population are women. The ages of those impacted range from children to the very elderly. The abusers range from spouses to children to siblings to uncles. As one social worker says, this is a problem that touches every demographic. It's important information to get out there, because the nature of the shelter means that the victims on screen are exclusively women and their abusers are exclusively men.

I know that laws and police practices have evolved a bit since this film was made, but some of what appears as protocol is startling. In the midst of talking to the police, a woman remarks that the week before her boyfriend(?) fired a gun at her. Were the police called? Yes. What did they do? They took away the gun. When a woman begs the police to help her teenage son--who has threatened her and trashed her house--her only choices are to have him arrested or have him committed to a mental hospital against his will. You can sense frustration from the police and from the social workers at these limitations. One officer--the one talking to the distraught mother--even explicitly says, "I wish there were more programs out there".

The scenes in which the women speak to each other are the ones that reveal the deepest hurt. Many of the women came from homes in which they were physically and sexually abused. They not only blame themselves for the abuse that they receive--for not cleaning the house well enough, for not paying enough attention--they also blame themselves for picking their abusive partners in the first place. One woman talks about finding her husband going into their daughter's room and reveals that she attacked him to keep him from raping their daughter. Another woman with a similar story talks about what must be wrong with her to have partnered up with a man who she found out had been a convicted pedophile. And the startling visual element underscoring everything is the visible damage that has been done to many of the women: bruises, black eyes, braces on wrists. One woman describes running away from her husband after he had pulled all of her clothing off and trying in vain to flag down cars that just drove right past her. There are so many ways that their self-esteem takes hits, and those who look the other way when they do ask for help seems to be one of the worst snubs.

The scenes with the kids are also really hard to watch. In one scene, kids have drawn pictures of what happened. "That's when daddy got the scissors to cut mommy's hair while she was sleeping." And there's something really depressing when one girl talks about her parents fighting about bills and the other kids nod knowingly. In a different scene, a social worker does an intake interview with a little girl. She asks the girl, "What do you think is the saddest thing?" and the girl answers "When my daddy dies, I won't cry." When the social worker asks the girl what makes her father angry, the little girl can only come up with, "Sometimes we walk on the grass." I appreciated a scene where a social worker speaks to children, one of whom talks about spanking (legal in Florida) as abuse. And the social worker affirms this feeling, telling the child, "There are some kinds of abuse that are legal, and other types that yes are still abuse." The definition that the children are given is "hurting someone on purpose" and I SO appreciated that this was validated. There are many legal ways that adults hurt children on purpose, and I thought that this was a great, empathetic way to talk about this.

It is also interesting to see the conversations among the social workers and between the social workers and their clients. In one case, a man attempts to counsel a woman who is being stalked by her ex-husband, who is calling her at work, and paging her with the number of a funeral home. The social worker himself cannot seem to decide on the best advice. His initial reaction is that she should ignore the calls/pages. But then he seems to double back, noting that if she cuts off the attention she is giving him, he might do something more "extreme". Finally, he ends up suggesting that what she should really do is move to a different city (with her two children) and find a new job. She can only look at him incredulously. She has spent two years getting her life in order and now she is being told to change it all again.

In another heartbreaking series of conversations, the staff of the Spring must decide what to do about a mother and her two children. They have very strong reason to believe that the son (who is 12) has raped the daughter (who is 9). They want to get the children into the shelter because their father has been convicted of sexually assaulting them both, but they are also concerned for the safety of the other children if the 12 year old were to attack someone. In a nutshell it is an example of the complexity of helping victims who have also at times been perpetrators. Many of the victims of domestic violence also struggle to find ways to express their emotions and anger in a healthy way.

I think that it is easy to look at those who have been in abusive relationships and judge them for their behavior. I think that this film goes a good way toward understanding how complicated it can all be, especially to those who are living it. They develop their own frame of logic. For example, if you testify against your husband, he will be angry. And he will do a year in jail at the most. So if you recant, then you keep the peace. For other women, they are financially dependent on their partners, which adds another level of complication.

I thought that this was a solid documentary that mostly was content to sit and observe and not try to deliver any kind of message (aside from the implicit criticism of the lack of options in helping victims of domestic abuse and especially helping borderline cases where mental illness is clearly a factor). I would have liked to know more about what happened to some of the women after what we see.