By Linda G Mills, Published by Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540, Copyright 2003 by Princeton University Press, 178 pages, $19.95.
"As a feminist, I want to underscore the importance of seeing violence as a dynamic and to suggest that reducing violence against women rests on our capacity as feminists to recast how we think about intimate abuse. I am unsatisfied by the mainstream feminist argument that women's violence is somehow excused because it is defensive. I am unsatisfied with the mainstream feminist effort to minimize women's violence by elevating men's violence. I am unsatisfied that violence against women is seen only as male exertions of power and control, and I am unsatisfied that women are viewed only as victims--- that violence in intimate relationships by men and women has not yet been understood as inextricably intertwined. I am unsatisfied that this narrow-mindedness is advanced in the name of feminism and in the name of protecting women from men's violence. I am unsatisfied not only because I am concerned with the argument's paternalistic, judgmental, and even abusive tones but also because I do not think it serves the specific interest of survivors of intimate violence or the overall goal of reducing violence against women. Developing alternative approaches for the thousands of couples entering the criminal justice system, even for the most violent of them, that incorporate the notion that intimate violence is a dynamic is a topic I address directly in the next few chapters."
This seeming political polemic is found in chapter 5, page 98, in a thin book of 148 pages, before notes and index. Many may be turned off by what appears at first glance to be an emotionally biassed rhetorical declaration, but I must say it is backed up by what precedes it. The argument is substantiated by the citing of hundreds of studies of violent couples, thousands of interviews of the men and women involved, married and not, including straight and homosexual couples and couples of various ethnic minority groups. The author has compiled a monumental accumulation of data relevant to the issue at hand and has the voice of authority. Without her strong feeling about the damage done by mainstream feminists, this work would not have been accomplished.
As a professor of social work in New York University's Ehrenkranz School of Social Work and an Affiliated Professor of Law at the NYU School of Law, and Vice Provost for University Life and Interdisciplinary Initiatives, she comes well equipped to tackle this thorny subject. She has gone about this research as an ardent and devoted social worker, obtaining interviews of the many people involved, as well as the violent couple. The interviews include other social workers and psychologists, psychiatrists and prosecutors, and the policemen and policewomen themselves. She has gone into the subject at length and depth and with gusto, and leaves us with a bountiful section of notes for each chapter and a comprehensive index.
The index, however ample, curiously lacked the name of Camille Paglia, which is a disappointment, as I am sure Paglia, with her own unique brand of feminism, would have cheered her on and given support and encouragement. Paglia, a more conservative feminist, also resents the casting of women as victims by 'mainstream' feminists who blame men for everything that is wrong with the world.
I could not help but realize that Mills' repeated appellation of "mainstream" feminism, was a euphemism for liberal and politically-correct. Others, such as Bernard Goldberg in his book, "Bias," blame the liberal media for casting themselves as 'mainstream,' while categorizing the contrasting conservative point of view as somehow deviant, dissident and out of the mainstream. Recent popularity of conservative media voices have come as a counterpoint and counterbalance to the liberal, (politically-correct, postmodern, deconstructionist) position, making the author's point more tenable in recent times than from a few years before, when this study was first undertaken.
Early in the book, Mills relates that mainstream feminists blame 'patriarchy' for the abuse of women and discount the woman's own role in the generation of violence in the couples' lives. She takes time to explain her position about violence, that it is not just physical violence, but emotional violence, which we call cruelty, provocation and sometimes sadism and brutality. We know that words and actions have the capacity to inflict pain, and they are in the spectrum of violence that may or may not erupt into physical violence, which may sometimes escalate to serious injury, mayhem and death.
Here in Michigan we know of a seemingly normal and well adjusted schoolteacher, who went to Home Depot, bought an axe, an electric carving knife and garbage bags and proceeded to come home and split her husband's head open, afterwards dismembering him, disposing of the body parts in the garbage bag and thence into a dumpster, then calmly going to her classroom the next day to teach. Such examples are not lost on Dr. Mills, who admits they are on the extreme edge of the bell curve. However, her bell curve spans the extremes from primitive carnage on the one hand to petty provocations on the other.
Dr. Mills could see, time and time again, that there is indeed a cycle of violence, from words to actions, from female to male and male to female, from parent to child and longitudinally to adulthood and future generations. It is now well known that those who participate in violence have a long history of it, going back to childhood and previous generations, ultimately back to the stone age.
The author takes pains to show in the early chapters that mainstream feminism was successful in the past to designate spousal violence as patriarchal, the man feeling he has the right to punish and abuse the woman, coming from millenia of recorded history and encoded in Western Civilization itself. Only recently, with increased awareness of racism and civil rights has the situation between men and women been cast in a similar light--- perpetrator and victim, domination and submission, exploitation and subservience. The dynamic between men and women has been cast as male chauvanism, justified in the bible and labeled 'patriarchy,' at the same time insisting that the woman's role of childbearing and housekeeping is honored and sanctioned by God.
Mainstream feminists have called a halt to such categories and distinctions and interpreted them as profitable to capitalists and the economy. Now that women have come out from under this religious ideology, men have been threatened psychologically--- their role in society, their self-esteem, their dependency needs, their 'need' for dominence. And so the mainstream feminists concluded that some men simply resort to beating up women, and for a long time have been getting away with it, like with a wink from the cop who comes to the domicile after a 911 call from a battered wife. In the past, the man was hardly ever arrested, even though he was obviously guilty of assault and battery.
Mainstream feminists have done something about this awful injustice, but Dr. Mills points out, time and time again, that the backlash has been overdetermined. Mainstream feminists have abused their power and influence to obtain laws mandating incarceration and prosecution of the male, according to professor Mills. In addition, designating the woman as helpless victim has disempowered her. Especially in some ethnic minority groups, such as the African-American, Asian and the Hispanic, the woman, despite her lumps, knows she contributed to the violence and wants her man back. Mills has shown that often, after the incarceration and prosecution, the man comes back madder than ever and does further damage. She offers statistics which undeniably show that these mandates have often resulted in more abuse, rather than less. She convincingly persuades the reader that incarceration and punishment of men are not answers to or the solution of the problem of intimate abuse.
Toward the end of the book, professor Mills shows the way to a better answer to the endemic problem of intimate violence, one that is familiar to the psychoanalyst and dynamic psychiatrist, and that is to interview the couple at length, separately and together, and include in the problem-solving equation, the police, prosecutors, judges and lawyers. As a law professor herself, Dr. Mills is superbly qualified to do this. And since she is psychoanalytically oriented, she knows that all the players have a personal history of violence and that as a result, there is much transference and countertransference which tend to distort the reality of the couple involved and interfere with problem-solving.
Therefore she recommends that more and more, those concerned with the problem obtain a deeper understanding of themselves if they are to be
more effective at managing and bringing about improvement of the situation. She cites some work which is encouraging in this direction, while the reader can only wonder how this ideal set of circumstances can come about.
Professor Mills speaks the truth when she says the problem is endemic. Our defense mechanisms, our repression and denial of our own histories of violence interfere with dealing with these situations rationally. What we may dismiss as petty and insignificant in our own lives is not so miniscule as we would like to think. There are many instances of violence that we all personally experience and participate in which we defend against assiduously.
Guilty as charged, I say, and therefore I find the book to be marvellously provocative and evocative as well as illuminating. After a while I came to believe that the polemical tone was justified and the drumbeat of repetition necessary for Dr. Mills to make her point. The book is not just about intimate abuse, it is about the human condition. In this case the author has some theoretical and practical advice on how to improve it, which is what we are all about, are we not?