Excerpt from The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker, 1997
So what can we tell a woman who thinks she might be killed?
Seek and apply strategies that make you unavailable to your pursuer. If you really believe you are at risk, battered women’s shelters provide the best way to be safe.
Shelter locations are secret, and the professionals there understand what the legal system often doesn’t: that the issue is safety — not justice.
The distinction between safety and justice is often blurred, but it becomes clear when you are walking down a crowded city sidewalk, and an athletic young man grabs your purse or briefcase. As he runs off into fast-moving traffic, justice requires that you chase the youth down to catch and arrest him. But as he zig-zags through traffic, cars barely missing him, safety requires that you break off the chase. It is unfair that he gets away unpunished, but it is more important that you come away unhurt. (To remind clients that my job is to help them be safer, I have a small sign on my desk that reads, Do not come here for justice.)
Shelters are where safety is, where guidance is, and where wisdom is. Admittedly, going to a shelter is a major and inconvenient undertaking, and it’s easy to see why so many victims are lured by the good news that a restraining order will solve the whole problem.
But imagine that your doctor said you needed immediate surgery to save your life. Would you ask, “Isn’t there a piece of paper I can carry instead?”
Los Angeles city attorney John Wilson, a thoughtful and experienced man who pioneered the nation’s first stalking prosecutions, knows of too many cases in which the victim remained available to her victimizer after the man was arrested and released. Wilson attended a talk I gave to police executives, and he later wrote to me. I am comfortable sharing this part of his moving letter:
Your theme really hit home. Unfortunately for one young wife, I failed to heed your advice in mid-April. I filed a battery on her husband, and when he got out of jail, he killed her. This was my sixth death since joining the office, and each of them fit right into your profile.
Having read all of this, you may wonder how there is any disagreement whatsoever about the indiscriminate use of restraining orders and other confrontational interventions, but there is. I’ve heard all sides of it, and I must tell you, I don’t get it. Perhaps since TRO’s are issued in America at the rate of more than one thousand every day, and women aren’t killed at that same rate, it may look, statistically speaking, as if they are successful. I don’t know, but in any case and in every case, police must urge extreme caution in the period following issuance of a TRO. That time is emotionally charged and hazardous, and I hope that when police recommend restraining orders they will also put great effort into ensuring that the woman takes every practical step to make herself unavailable to her pursuer.
Psychologist Lenore Walker, who coined the term “battered wife syndrome” (and who later surprised the domestic violence community by joining O.J. Simpson’s defense team) has said of spousal homicide, “There’s no way to predict it.”
She is wrong. Spousal homicide is the single most predictable serious crime in America. Walker’s error does make clear, however, that there is an urgent need to help police, prosecutors, and victims systematically evaluate cases to identify those with the ingredients of true danger.
Toward this goal, my firm designed MOSAIC-20, an artificial intuition system that assesses the details of a woman’s situation as she reports it to police. This computer program flags those cases in which the danger of homicide is highest. Part of the proceeds from this book go to its continued development, and I am proud to be working with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and the Los Angeles Police Department on the nation’s first use of MOSAIC-20.
This system brings to regular citizens the same technologies and strategies used to protect high government officials. That’s only fair considering that battered women are at far greater risk of murder than most public figures.
In the meantime, restraining orders continue to be what author Linden Gross calls law enforcement’s “knee-jerk response.” I can’t ask rhetorically if somebody has to die before things change, because so many people already have.
Thousands of cases have made it clear to me that getting away safely is wiser than trying to change the abusive husband or engaging in a war, even if the police and the courts are on your side.
As with other aspects of safety, government cannot fix violent relationships. Many people in law enforcement, motivated by a strong desire to help, are understandably reluctant to accept that some forms of criminality are beyond their reach. Thankfully, there are also those in law enforcement tempered by experience who know all about these cases and become heroes. That brings me to Lisa’s story.
Lisa did not know that this police sergeant had looked across the counter into plenty of bruised faces before that night. She thought her situation was unique and special, and she was certain the department would act on it right away, particularly when she explained that her husband had held a gun to her head.
An hour earlier, after climbing out the window and running down several darkened streets, she had looked around and realized she was lost. But in a more important sense, she was found. She had re-discovered herself -the young woman she’d been 15 years before- before he’d slapped her, before he escalated to choking her, and before the incident with the gun.
The children had seen that one, but now they would see her stronger, supported by the police. They would see him apologize, and then it would be okay. The police would talk some sense into her husband and force him to treat her right, and then it would be okay.
She proudly told the sergeant, “I’m not going back to him unless he promises never to hit me again.”
The sergeant nodded and passed some forms across the counter. “You fill these out –fill them out completely– and then I’m going to put them over there.” He pointed to a messy stack of forms and reports piled on a cabinet.
The sergeant looked at the young woman, the woman planning to go back to her abuser, back to the man with the gun he claimed he bought for self defense but was really for defense of the self.
The sergeant then said the words that changed Lisa’s life, the words that a decade later she would thank him for speaking, the words that allowed her to leave her violent abuser: “You fill out these forms and go back home, and the next time I look for them, it will be because you have been murdered.”
If you need to escape a dangerous or extremely risky situation, consider going to a Women’s Shelter or Safe House.