by Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019; 320 pp.; $25.76 (Hardcover)Buy Book
The spike in intimate partner violence during the pandemic has given No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder a heartbreaking sense of urgency.
No Visible Bruises is a powerful and essential book. With excellent reporting and a novelist’s skill, Snyder thoroughly examines domestic partner violence and the dangers it poses to society, not just the shattered lives of the women and children who experience the violence firsthand. We learn that most incarcerated men are witnesses or victims of violence as children in their homes, and that the primary cause of homelessness among women is domestic violence.
As a former war correspondent, Snyder is accustomed to writing about the ravages of human conflict, and we see the methodical researcher and inquisitive journalist at work in this book. Yet, Snyder imbues the writing project with the compassion and sensitivity the topic deserves. She reveals a personal connection in the “Adapted Afterword” in the paperback version (June 6, 2020). Upon landing back home in DC from a book tour, Snyder receives a frantic voice message from her very close friend whose brother has killed his wife and then himself, leaving Snyder’s friend as the parental guardian for the deceased couple’s children and Snyder with an arguably unwanted personal appreciation for the ravages of family violence.
“This is the story of domestic violence homicide, the immediate victims, yes but also the riptide that tears through the lives of those left behind,” she writes.
Snyder organizes the book into three parts, each with its own central question. Part I: The End starts with the victims, and examines the question, why don’t they leave? Part II: The Beginning brings us inside the lives of the abusers, and asks, can they change? In Part III: The Middle, we meet the problem-solvers looking to intercept and intervene, hoping to reduce the number of deaths. In this final section, she asks what we want to know: What can be done?
The six female domestic violence victims profiled in the book are mothers. Five of them were physically abused or killed in front of their children. One of them, Michelle Monson, is killed along with her children. Snyder devotes significant pages to Michelle’s story, using it as a case study to explore the complexities and tragedies of intimate partner violence: quick courtship between teenage parents, isolation from family, escalating violence, and societal expectations, especially about motherhood. Throughout the book, we hear from mothers directly who have survived intimate partner violence, and learn about those who did not survive, and how motherhood played a pivotal role in their decision to leave, or not leave, their abusers.
For the victims profiled in No Visible Bruises, motherhood defines their actions. Domestic violence for the mothers is fraught with the knowledge that children usually witness the abuse, and are often kidnapped by the abuser, threatened with harm, killed along with their moms, or orphaned if she is killed.
We meet another victim, Grace, who describes an incident where her boyfriend has her pinned to the bed with a loaded pistol pressed against her temple. “I was saying goodbye to my kids in my head and telling them I loved them, because I was sure he would kill me.” Grace spent the next week living with her abuser, pretending everything was fine, letting him believe she had forgiven him. “She pretended to love him to stay alive and to keep her children alive,” writes Snyder.
Michelle has also been prioritizing her children’s safety and well-being in her own dangerous domestic violence dance with her husband, Rocky, as he becomes more violent and threatening. The escalation reaches a dangerous point when he kidnaps his children and is thrown in jail. When he is released, she recants immediately. This fatal decision is typical of a lot of women who retract their stories and drop the charges against their abusers.
Snyder describes this behavior as the most misunderstood occurrence in any domestic violence situation. Women don’t drop charges because they are crazy or stupid or liars or weak. They stay to stay alive. They use the tools they’ve developed over the years to keep themselves, and their children, alive.
“They stay in abusive marriages because they understand something that most of us do not, something from the inside out. Something that seems to defy logic: as dangerous as it is in their homes, it is almost always far more dangerous to leave.” Specifically of Michelle, she writes with such insight and tenderness. “She stayed for her kids and herself. And her staying, to anyone trained enough to see the context, looked a lot less like staying and a lot more like someone tiptoeing her way toward freedom.”
It is a cruel irony: when abused women reach the breaking point and find the resolve to leave, they are at most danger of being killed.
“We know now that it’s the ones who don’t show up in court, who don’t renew the restraining orders, who are in the most danger,” said Kelly Dunne, a domestic violence advocate at the Geiger Crisis Center in Newburyport, MA.
Sadly, a young mother secretly and methodically planning her escape from her abusive husband is all too common. How do we prevent these situations? The solution, of course, is for men to stop abusing their partners. However, the problem of abusive partners is a complex issue rooted in toxic masculinity, misogyny, religious beliefs, and societal norms.
The “elephant in the room” is that men are violent, says Hamish Sinclair, a Scottish-born who has studied violence for decades. His point isn’t that all men are violent, of course, it’s that men, not women, are the predominant perpetrators of violence. Gangs. Wars. School shootings. Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Men are taught to be violent.
Teaching them nonviolent alternatives is the foundation of ManAlive, the batterer intervention program Sinclair founded in Northern California in the 1980s, as well as other programs that proliferated after the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994. Snyder introduces us to one inside San Bruno State Penitentiary, Resolve to Stop the Violence (RSVP), where the inmates/abusers facilitate the group discussions. This is Synder’s window into the world of the abusers and the central question: Can they change?
At San Bruno, we are the proverbial fly on the prison wall hearing from men who have killed or battered their intimate partners. We learn about the similarities of abusers—their manipulative behavior, narcissism, abusive childhood homes, and dehumanizing language. The discussions are meant to hold men accountable for their abusive behavior. We see glimpses of that self-awareness in Donte, whose brutal kidnapping and beating of his ex-girlfriend landed him here. By calling her a ‘bitch’ all the time, he said, suddenly, “what I was really doing was taking away her humanity.”
At the core of a man’s violence toward his partner is a belief system that he is “top of the human hierarchy,” says Sinclair. When a man’s “sense of expectation is most threatened,” he snaps, otherwise described as “fatal peril.” What facilitators in the RSVP program like Donte hope to teach their fellow inmates/abusers, is that fatal peril is a choice, and that they can unlearn to react violently when they perceive their manhood to be questioned.
What becomes apparent in No Visible Bruises, and what makes it so difficult to read, is that these mothers are so ruthlessly beaten down. First, they are violently assaulted (often fatally), psychologically tortured, and verbally abused by their partners. Then they are beaten down by the broken system that fails to protect them and their children.
But within the system is a glimmer of hope. In the final part of No Visible Bruises, the light seeps through the dark as Snyder lays out ways in which small systematic changes can yield positive outcomes. Her reporting leads us into the labyrinth of hospital staff, police, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, and domestic-violence advocates who show us that seemingly minor systematic changes can indeed be effective.
She introduces us to the work of Jacquelyn Campbell, a public health researcher who has identified risk factors that are indicative of imminent danger: strangulation, threats to kill, guns in the house, and alcohol or drug abuse. She brings us into a fatality review team in Montana that combs through case files, relationship histories, and interviews with friends and family looking for red flags that could help prevent future murders. In Massachusetts, we are immersed with a cross-disciplinary team tasked with examining high-risk cases. We learn about the success of evidence-based prosecution from San Diego prosecutor Casey Gwinn.
In understanding the patterns of domestic violence—history of stalking, narcissism, controlling behavior, threats—we can better educate police, emergency room personnel, EMTs, judges, and advocates on the signs of escalation so that they can intercede with protections that save victims.
“Why do victims stay?” That is the recurring question in any discussion of intimate partner violence. The only question we should be asking, argues Snyder, is, “How do we protect these mothers?”
Intimate partner violence is a silent, insidious crime shrouded in shame and fear. In No Visible Bruises, Snyder lifts up the black veil to show us the deep and pervasive public impact of these “private matters” such that by the end of her stunning book, we see domestic violence—strikingly and unequivocally—for the deep-rooted societal issue it is and are left screaming for change.