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The Men Who Kick Down Doors: How Domestic Violence Mirrors War

The term "domestic violence" undermines just how violent it is.

| Thu Mar. 21, 2013 3:59 PM EDT

Some 3,073 people were killed in the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11. Between that day and June 6, 2012, 6,488 US soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, bringing the death toll for America's war on terror at home and abroad to 9,561. During the same period, 11,766 women were murdered in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends, both military and civilian. The greater number of women killed here at home is a measure of the scope and the furious intensity of the war against women, a war that threatens to continue long after the misconceived war on terror is history.

Getting the Picture

Think about Shane, standing there in a nondescript living room in Ohio screaming his head off like a little child who wants what he wants when he wants it. Reportedly, he was trying to be a good guy and make a career as a singer in a Christian rock band. But like the combat soldier in a foreign war who is modeled after him, he uses violence to hold his life together and accomplish his mission.

We know about Shane only because there happened to be a photographer on the scene. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz had chosen to document the story of Shane and his girlfriend Maggie out of sympathy for his situation as an ex-con, recently released from prison yet not free of the stigma attached to a man who had done time. Then, one night, there he was in the living room throwing Maggie around, and Lewkowicz did what any good combat photographer would do as a witness to history: she kept shooting. That action alone was a kind of intervention and may have saved Maggie's life.

In the midst of the violence, Lewkowicz also dared to snatch from Shane's pocket her own cell phone, which he had borrowed earlier. It's unclear whether she passed the phone to someone else or made the 911 call herself. The police arrested Shane, and a smart policewoman told Maggie: "You know, he's not going to stop. They never stop. They usually stop when they kill you."

Maggie did the right thing. She gave the police a statement. Shane is back in prison. And Lewkowicz's remarkable photographs were posted online on February 27th at Time magazine's website feature Lightbox under the heading "Photographer As Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence."

The photos are remarkable because the photographer is very good and the subject of her attention is so rarely caught on camera. Unlike warfare covered in Iraq and Afghanistan by embedded combat photographers, wife torture takes place mostly behind closed doors, unannounced and unrecorded. The first photographs of wife torture to appear in the US were Donna Ferrato's now iconic images of violence against women at home.

Like Lewkowicz, Ferrato came upon wife torture by chance; she was documenting a marriage in 1980 when the happy husband chose to beat up his wife. Yet so reluctant were photo editors to pull aside the curtain of domestic privacy that even after Ferrato became a Life photographer in 1984, pursuing the same subject, nobody, including Life, wanted to publish the shocking images she produced.

In 1986, six years after she witnessed that first assault, some of her photographs of violence against women in the home were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and brought her the 1987 Robert F. Kennedy journalism award "for outstanding coverage of the problems of the disadvantaged." In 1991, Aperture, the publisher of distinguished photography books, brought out Ferrato's eye-opening body of work as Living with the Enemy (for which I wrote an introduction). Since then, the photos have been widely reproduced. Time used a Ferrato image on its cover in 1994, when the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson briefly drew attention to what the magazine called "the epidemic of domestic abuse" and Lightbox featured a small retrospective of her domestic violence work on June 27, 2012.

Ferrato herself started a foundation, offering her work to women's groups across the country to exhibit at fundraisers for local shelters and services. Those photo exhibitions also helped raise consciousness across America and certainly contributed to smarter, less misogynistic police procedures of the kind that put Shane back in jail.

Ferrato's photos were incontrovertible evidence of the violence in our homes, rarely acknowledged and never before so plainly seen. Yet until February 27th, when with Ferrato's help, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz's photos were posted on Lightbox only two months after they were taken, Ferrato's photos were all we had. We needed more. So there was every reason for Lewkowicz's work to be greeted with acclaim by photographers and women everywhere.

Instead, in more than 1,700 comments posted at Lightbox, photographer Lewkowicz was mainly castigated for things like not dropping her camera and taking care to get Maggie's distraught two-year-old daughter out of the room or singlehandedly stopping the assault. (Need it be said that stopping combat is not the job of combat photographers?)

Maggie, the victim of this felonious assault, was also mercilessly denounced: for going out with Shane in the first place, for failing to foresee his violence, for "cheating" on her already estranged husband fighting in Afghanistan, and inexplicably for being a "perpetrator." Reviewing the commentary for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jina Moore concluded, "[T]here's one thing all the critics seem to agree on: The only adult in the house not responsible for the violence is the man committing it."

They Only Stop When They Kill You

Viewers of these photographs—photos that accurately reflect the daily violence so many women face—seem to find it easy to ignore, or even praise, the raging man behind it all. So, too, do so many find it convenient to ignore the violence that America's warriors abroad inflict under orders on a mass scale upon women and children in war zones.

The US invasion and occupation of Iraq had the effect of displacing millions from their homes within the country or driving them into exile in foreign lands. Rates of rape and atrocity were staggering, as I learned firsthand when in 2008-2009 I spent time in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon talking with Iraqi refugees. In addition, those women who remain in Iraq now live under the rule of conservative Islamists, heavily influenced by Iran. Under the former secular regime, Iraqi women were considered the most advanced in the Arab world; today, they say they have been set back a century.

In Afghanistan, too, while Americans take credit for putting women back in the workplace and girls in school, untold thousands of women and children have been displaced internally, many to makeshift camps on the outskirts of Kabul where 17 children froze to death last January. The U.N. reported 2,754 civilian deaths and 4,805 civilian injuries as a result of the war in 2012, the majority of them women and children. In a country without a state capable of counting bodies, these are undoubtedly significant undercounts. A U.N. official said, "It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities." Thousands of women in Afghan cities have been forced into survival sex, as were Iraqi women who fled as refugees to Beirut and particularly Damascus.

That's what male violence is meant to do to women. The enemy. War itself is a kind of screaming tattooed man, standing in the middle of a room—or another country—asserting the law of the strongest. It's like a reset button on history that almost invariably ensures women will find themselves subjected to men in ever more terrible ways. It's one more thing that, to a certain kind of man, makes going to war, like good old-fashioned wife torture, so exciting and so much fun.

Ann Jones, historian, journalist, photographer, and TomDispatch regular, chronicled violence against women in the US in several books, including the feminist classic Women Who Kill (1980) and Next Time, She'll Be Dead (2000), before going to Afghanistan in 2002 to work with women. She is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It's Over (2010). To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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