Carole Owens: A common, disturbing story

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STOCKBRIDGE — It is not a welcome subject but one that continually confronts us. In the last six months, Berkshire Eagle headlines included: "DA Launches Transformative Effort to Combat Domestic Violence " (April 10), "Police look into assault report at Bard College at Simon's Rock" (Sept. 28), "Growing outrage over Garrison Keillor appearance in New Marlborough" (Oct. 4), and "Read Snyder's book for Domestic Violence Awareness Month" (Oct. 27)

It is subject matter that divides us. We stand on one side of the issue or the other. The DA should have focused on something more important or it was high time. Snyder's book is another melodrama or it is a must read. Simon Winchester rightfully invited a cultural icon to speak or wrongfully feted a sexual abuser. The physical evidence did not seem to support the Simon's Rock student's allegation so we can dismiss all women who accuse or we must urge our police to investigate more thoroughly, take more seriously the female voice,

The side we are on may be less important than our proclivity to reduce a complex, deeply imbedded social problem to a simple binary choice.

At the turn of the last century, Sigmund Freud postulated that sexual molestation in early childhood was causative of psychological problems in his female patients. However, Freud abandoned that theory in favor of a theory that the sexual abuse was imagined.

At the same time that Freud was changing his mind and his theories, in Stockbridge, a man was routinely getting drunk and beating his wife. Everyone knew it but no one said or did anything.

Decades later, a wife complained to a priest that her husband beat her. She was told she must have caused her husband to hit her, and she should correct her behavior. The priest did not construe his advice as victim-blaming but as common sense.


Out of the same belief system, altar boys were sent to confession for lying and falsely accusing priests if they reported unwelcome advances. In California, one boy was sent to the priest he had accused to confess and repent.

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Battered wives are moved out their homes for their safety. In a motel somewhere, they are told not to call friends or family. Or if they must, for their own safety, don't tell where they are. The batterer is left in his home, unfettered, going about daily life.

When a boyfriend beat a woman, he claimed her wounds were self-inflicted. The police report echoed his story. She was not asked for her side of the story as she was considered "nonresponsive." She was taken to a hospital. Although not a resident or owner of the property, the boyfriend was left in her house. He was left alone to tidy the scene and take what he wished, including her car.

A teenage girl reported that her stepfather was sexually abusing with her. The police did not respond but social services did. Social services left the minor in the home and told the mother to keep them apart. "Stepfather and daughter should not be left in same room alone together."

It was the wife and mother as warden; one woman protecting another — society protecting neither.

At work, a woman was constantly pressed for sexual favors by her boss. She finally complained to management. He was left in place. She was moved to another department.

In a he said/she said, the police took a photo of the man to prove he had no defensive wounds and therefore must not have attacked her. They did not conclude that she — 100 pounds lighter and 10 inches shorter — did not or could not fight back. In the photo he is laughing. Whatever the truth — he assaulted her or she injured herself — what was there to laugh about?

These examples span decades and geographic areas from here to California to New York. The women, and in some cases the boys, are different ages, races, religions, and of different national origins. The severity of offenses differs. What then do they all have in common?

This is the first of two columns on sexual abuse and violence. Carole Owens is a Berkshire writer and historian.


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