October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). At REACH, we are painfully aware of domestic violence every day. Its effects are obvious on the faces of the survivors that come through our doors seeking help, whether in the form of physical injuries, or the wary looks on their faces.
The other day we were waiting for a candidate for an open staff position to come in for an interview. I saw someone walking into the building and wondered if it was the person we were waiting for, because she looked nervous. But then it dawned on me that there was really no way to tell, because a lot of the people walking into our office look nervous. Why is that?
It might be because they’re not sure they’re in the right place. If you’ve ever visited REACH’s office, you know that there are no signs to indicate you’ve arrived. For the safety of the survivors we work with as well as our staff, we keep our location “semi-confidential,” meaning we only give out the address if absolutely necessary, and we don’t advertise what we are. There is no big sign greeting you and telling you that you’ve arrived at the REACH office.
They may look nervous because they don’t even know why they’re here. Maybe a friend referred them, or a therapist, or a police officer, or a DCF (Department of Children and Families) worker. They might have called our hotline and agreed to come in for an intake appointment. Many of the people who we work with in our Community Program (i.e. not in Shelter) are still with their abusers. They can’t see a way clear, and they can’t imagine being able to leave. They may be looking around nervously, hoping they’re not spotted by anyone they know.
A person coming to the REACH office may have never told anyone about the abuse they’re experiencing at home. Maybe, just maybe, they confided in a friend or family member. Even if they’ve told someone, the person they told may not have believed them. We all want to believe that we can spot an abuser a mile away. This is sometimes known as the “Monster Myth” and we’ve talked about it before. The reality is that abusers are often respected, upstanding members of the community, and they are often charming and master manipulators. If a friend was dating or married to someone like that, and told you they were experiencing abuse, would you believe them? What if they said their abuser was your pastor? A police officer? An elected official?
Too often, our inability or unwillingness to believe the worst about someone we know and respect means an inability and unwillingness to believe victims, and worse, to blame them. We ask questions like, “What were you wearing? What did you do that set him or her off? If it’s that bad, why don’t you just leave?”
That’s why, this year, we have chosen “Listen and Believe” as our theme for DVAM. Those are simple words, but they can mean so many things. This month, we are asking folks to listen.
Listen to your intuition, if you’re worried about someone and you have a gut feeling that something isn’t right in their relationship.
Listen to experts in the field when they tell you the extent of the problem of domestic and sexual violence, how prevalent it is, and what you can do to help.
We are also asking people to believe.
Believe survivors when they tell their stories, even if the abuse they describe is unthinkable, even if the abuser they describe is someone you thought you knew well.
Believe in the power of healthy relationships. Believe that we can change the social norms and stigmas that perpetuate abuse, and believe that we can all make a difference.
It’s October. It’s time to listen and believe.