I checked out the photo essay on domestic violence by Sara Lewkowicz that people were buzzing about. The images are impressive, a few masterful. But the main feeling I had was: “Oh no, not again.” And not for the violence, but for the physical appearance of the victim and the perpetrator.
A rage-filled boyfriend just out of jail and covered in tattoos. And a young woman with bruises on her neck and “victim" written as clearly all over her as her name “Maggie Mae” was dripped in thick black ink across his neck.
In 1991, Donna Ferrato published “Living with the Enemy”, a chronicle of men beating up girlfriends and wives, in gritty black and white, with a cover photo that three decades later is still the iconic image of domestic abuse: The face of a haggard woman with two black eyes.
The problem is that it is not only men who are covered in jailhouse tattoos who brutalize women, and the women who are brutalized are not all poor.
Smart, accomplished and dynamic women are terrorized by men who purport to love them, and successful and admired men do the terrorizing. But this demographic does not open their doors to photojournalists looking to expose social ills, and so we are stuck with the stereotype of a domestic abuser as a societal loser, and a domestic abuse victim as weak.
And that is a big part of why, as I have taken Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse around this year to Rotary clubs and public libraries and gallery spaces, women whisper to me afterward about the abusive relationship-- past or present-- and say, “I am so ashamed.”
Mary Lou, a 79-year old retired teacher from Scarborough, is one of the 20 women in my Finding Our Voices project, and last week the extraordinary Bill Nemitz devoted his Portland Press Herald column to this wonderful woman.
“The cover story appeared in Church World,” his article starts, "… it showed Dr. Charles Smith - college professor, transoceanic sailor; Navy captain - surrounded by his beaming wife Mary Lou and their four children… What the article didn’t say, what no one outside the picture-perfect family knew, was that Charles Smith also beat his wife."
When enough women across all socioeconomic levels step up, like in Finding Our Voices, to say "Me Too" about their domestic abuse experiences, it will become clear that even women in picture perfect families are terrorized by their boyfriends and husbands, and even picture perfect men do the terrorizing.