Drive along the oldest and most beautiful roads that wind through Wellesley and Weston; you’re passing through some of the most coveted real estate in the Northeast. Large and graceful homes abound, often with velvety lawns and expansive landscaping. Elegant driveways, sometimes lined with elaborate fences of stone or wood and guarded by ornamental gates, serve to hint at power, privilege, and prestige beyond. Surely the inhabitants of these homes have drawn the familial long straw…haven’t they?
Social service professionals say that life in the upscale, affluent suburbs doesn’t exempt us or our neighbors from some less-than genteel behaviors. Although we might find it difficult to face some ugly truths about our most picturesque communities, experts say domestic abuse is a very real problem, and that the perception that “it cannot happen here” is a mistaken one.
Domestic abuse doesn’t affect only those in poorer communities. True, it’s more often reported there, but that’s part of the problem. Domestic abuse can and does happen everywhere, and eighty-five percent (or more) of its victims are women. But in communities like ours–where affluence and prestige are distinct hallmarks of the culture, and there’s so much pressure to keep up appearances–domestic abuse often goes unreported, and its victims are, in many ways, unique.
Trouble in Paradise?
Wellesley resident Laura Van Zandt, Executive Director of REACH (an acronym for Refuge, Education, Advocacy, and Change), points out that “abuse is a pattern of power and control. It’s not always physical. Emotional and economic abuse are significant in upscale communities. In an urban situation, the neighbors can hear. But here, as one survivor says, ‘it happens down the long driveway.’ It can easily go unnoticed.”
Sometimes women in abusive situations don’t have access to financial resources, even if they’re working and providing income. And well-educated women tend to assume that services, like counseling, court advocacy, and shelter, are ‘not for me,’ but instead are for the poor and uneducated.
- “The more time he has to tear down your self-opinion, the more difficult it will be for you to believe that you deserve better treatment.
- The more time he has to hurt you emotionally, the more likely your energy and initiative are to diminish, so that it gets harder to muster the strength to get out.
- The more damage he does to your relationships with friends and family, the less support you will have for the difficult process of ending the relationship.
- The longer you have been living with his cycles of intermittent abuse and kind, loving behavior, the more attached you are likely to feel to him…”
Van Zandt goes on to offer a possible profile: “The suburban abuser can be someone with an important job, lots of friends…popular in the community. He may make excuses–stress, drinking, anger, jealousy–but these are not the reasons for his abuse. He would never treat a colleague, neighbor or friend the way he treats his spouse: He abuses her because he believes he can.”
Sue* lived in Weston and seemed to have it all, including the country club membership and a large, impressive house. With her husband, who was a well-connected investment banker, Sue had three beautiful children. The family often attended church, and Sue was an active volunteer in the community, serving as a board member, and heading up a number of committees.
Sue sighs. "The public has a vision of abusers as men who go around in tee shirts with a pack of Marlboros rolled up in the sleeve. My husband had a fancy education and wore a suit every day. He was really bright. When you have someone like that–someone who is exceptionally bright but also wealthy and abusive–it’s a recipe for some really diabolical behavior."
In Sue's case, the abuse was never physical. "I saw the signs before we were married, but I didn’t recognize them for what they were. It was classic emotional abuse: denigrating me, isolating me from family and friends. It was all very subtle, at first. But after he found out I was going to leave him, he conducted a smear campaign."
When she confronted him, Sue’s husband accused her of paranoia, intimated to friends and acquaintances (and the children) that Sue was suffering from mental illness, and implied that she was simply too unbalanced to be credible. “In a way, I think he believed it,” Sue explains. “It enabled him to avoid confronting the truth about himself, which would have led to his losing the power and control that he was so accustomed to having.”
Sue says, “I knew that no one would believe what was really happening in our house. Even I would sometimes say to myself: ‘is this real, or am I losing my mind?’ I made audio tapes of him threatening me and emotionally abusing the children, just so people would believe me. In response, he hired some sophisticated, big-gun lawyers. And when it was over, our divorce cost more than a million dollars.”
Riva* was 21 and a recent college graduate when she got married. Her husband, an MIT graduate, had also been the valedictorian of his high school class. “He was bright, witty, imaginative, attractive, and fun.” “But,” she adds, “his wit turned out to be cruel and biting.” Like Sue, Riva can look back now into the fun-house mirror of her suburban life, and see signs that at the time, she missed.
“After he hit me, he would say that it was my problem, my fault. He never acknowledged any need on his own part to get help. And as a victim, you’re always of two minds. Once you have loved a person, it’s hard to believe that they can also be this…monster. You’re not believed because, in part, you don’t want to believe it yourself. My parents never knew. I was much too embarrassed to tell them. I got very good at covering things up. Even my therapist never saw the bruises.”
Like Sue’s husband, Riva’s husband refused to get help. “I kept hoping there would be a change, because I had started out loving him. While it’s happening, it’s so hard to be clear about it. I knew the kids knew, but they would melt away into their rooms when the fighting started. He would yell, throw things, become destructive. I would think ‘is he right and I’m wrong?’ To stop it, you have to get clarity; to move from being aware to being outraged! There has to be something inside you that finally says: ‘If you don’t get out now, you are going to lose yourself.”
Both women say that if their husbands had expressed remorse and gone for help, they might have stayed in their respective marriages. “During the marriage,” Riva says, “I told one expensive therapist about how, when I didn’t give my husband the cream for his coffee, he threw the cup against the wall. And the therapist said ‘maybe you need to pay more attention to how he takes his coffee.’ So I stayed longer than I should have, and I got [physically] hurt. It’s important to talk to the right people. I spent a lot of money on therapists and lawyers who had good reputations, but who gave me bad advice because they didn’t really know how to advocate for a victim of domestic abuse. You need access to a professional or a volunteer who specializes in domestic abuse, domestic violence…someone who really ‘gets it.’”
Chris*, a bright, articulate attorney, had just moved to a house in Wellesley with her abusive husband, who had promised to moderate his drinking, along with his steadily worsening behavior toward Chris. “I wanted to try and make my marriage work,” she explains. “When he first struck me, I thought ‘this can’t be happening to me. I have a graduate degree.’ I also thought ‘what does this say about me? I can’t tell anyone; not my friends, and for sure, not my mother.’ In retrospect, I enabled him to isolate me. My reticence to tell people what was happening made it easier for him to be a bully.”
Both Chris and her husband had high, six-figure incomes, but Chris’ husband routinely opened bank statements and other mail addressed to Chris, and closely monitored her cash flow. Ultimately (partly, she says, because at the time she didn’t have children and had a job that gave her plenty of self-esteem), Chris was able to “squirrel away some money” and leave her abuser for the safety of her own apartment, and the start of a new life.
“You know,” muses Chris, “you can have all the money and the biggest house in the world, but if you cannot sleep because you feel emotionally or physically unsafe, then you really have nothing at all. Emotional and physical well-being…the ability to sleep safely and soundly all night without fear of hearing your abuser’s footsteps coming down the hall…these are things that cannot ever be bought.”
What Happens, When It Happens Here?
Liz Kirsch, Executive Director of Newton’s The Second Step, explains that “it’s often hardest for women in upscale communities to leave. They have so much to lose. And their abuser has the ability to hire an expensive lawyer, may attempt to withhold money or other resources, and try to get custody of the children.”
Jaquelin Apsler, Executive Director of Domestic Violence Services of Central Middlesex, which serves affluent communities like Concord and Carlisle, concurs. “The abusers here tend to be very powerful community members, making them more difficult to go up against. In many cases, they know exactly how to utilize–really play–the legal, financial, and political systems.
Apsler also points out that most victims–suburban and otherwise–don’t realize how much of a detriment it is for children to grow up in abusive households. “Maybe you think your kids are distracted, or sleeping, and don’t hear what’s going on. But the truth is that these kids are much more likely to become involved with substances, engage in other risky behaviors, and become abusers themselves. Domestic abuse really invades a child’s spirit, safety, and sense of well-being. Just having this knowledge about her children…can motivate a victim to leave.”
What’s Unique About Where We Live?
Kirsch says that The Second Step is located in an affluent suburb precisely because the founders wanted to make the point that domestic abuse happens in the suburbs as well as in the city. “It’s crucial for such communities to understand the complex issue of domestic abuse, and take an active role in ending it.”
Kiersten Warning, founder and former Director of the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Program (now part of Domestic Violence Services of Central Middlesex, which Apsler heads), gets very specific, listing some characteristics that make Wellesley and Weston, along with other communities that have similar demographics, unique for its victims, and for those who provide services and support to them.
n Isolation Affluent communities can resemble rural communities, with large tracts of land separating neighbors. Despite closer proximity in some of the more traditional subdivisions, suburban neighbors are often strangers to one another, each family absorbed in its own activities.
n High levels of education Victims in affluent communities are often themselves doctors, lawyers, professors. This often increases the level of shame and self-blame they feel about being in an abusive situation. It also fosters the need for a comprehensive network that can service this unique population’s complex needs (for example, providing legal and other information about divorce, banking, custody, real estate and property division, and estate and retirement planning, along with safety planning).
• Elevated income and social status Neighbors and friends might not be able to accept the knowledge that domestic abuse affects their upscale community, or anyone they know. Family members may minimize the abuse, making remarks like: “What are you going to do? Leave your big house with your kids who have known only the best? How bad can it be?” Victims might be driving expensive cars, but have little or no access to cash, credit cards, or checkbooks. Furthermore, they may possess scant information about family finances.
• Stereotypes Residents of affluent communities may feel uncomfortable asking for help from social service agencies. They may feel that working with such agencies would be an insult to their pride; even domestic violence agencies geared specifically toward working with suburban victims suffer from stereotyping. Additionally, reverse stereotyping can occur: Children from affluent families may be seeing therapists or psychiatrists, but their care is often managed without working with the parents to investigate the root causes of the children’s behavior. Often, little or no attention is paid to the parents in these families.
• Systems Warfare Suburban abusers are often adept at manipulation, and the threat that the victim will be left with nothing if she leaves, is common. This contributes to the number of silent victims, those who will never call for help because they fear being left in an unfamiliar situation, without the support or income to which they may have always been accustomed.
If You Suspect You May Be a Victim of
Toni Troop, the Director of Development and Public Relations for Jane Doe, Inc. (a statewide coalition of more than 60 organizations) makes some recommendations. “Reach out,” urges Toni. “Don’t be alone. Contact your local domestic violence program and through them, find a support group, or someone to help you get a job, or help navigating the legal system.”
Sue says, “If it’s emotional abuse that you’re experiencing, start reading! Educated women are well-positioned to do this; they’re experienced at information-gathering. Consult with as many domestic violence experts as you can, including lawyers and doctors. It’s important to know you’re not alone. What you’re experiencing is not just a grumpy spouse. It’s a pattern of destructive behavior, which is different, and far more dangerous.”
Sue also advises victims: “Take up a sport, become a museum docent, go to nursing school, or enter an MBA program. Get yourself into a community where you can focus, test yourself, get positive reinforcement, develop independence, and, in general, acquaint (or re-acquaint) yourself with your own mental and physical strength,” she says. “You’ll need it in order to leave.”
What Can The Rest of Us Do?
If you suspect a friend may be a victim of domestic abuse, Toni Troop offers this advice: “Call a domestic abuse organization and find out how you can advocate, be supportive, and remain non-judgmental.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an informative website that provides some additional, useful guidelines:
• Don’t be afraid to let them know that you are concerned for their safety.
• Acknowledge that they are in a very difficult and frightening situation.
• Encourage them to participate in activities outside of the relationship with friends and family.
• If they end the relationship, continue to be supportive of them.
• Help them develop a safety plan.
• Encourage them to talk to people who can provide help and guidance.
• Remember that you cannot “rescue” victims of abuse; they must decide they want to do something about it.
Troop says, “If you’re a man and you’re uncomfortable with the culture of your workplace, say so. Speak up against violence! Maybe you can help build a children’s playground or playroom at a shelter, go into a classroom and talk to boys, support activism, and help build public awareness. Really, this is an issue that touches all of us, and requires that we all become part of the solution.”
Kirsch says “the good news is that we can effect change; intervention can have an impact. But only fifty percent of our funding comes from federal, state, and city sources. That means we, and other organizations like us, rely on private donations for the other fifty percent of our funding.”
At the November Gala held by REACH at the Westin Hotel in Waltham, Michael Bolton (singer and an avid REACH supporter) thanked the glittering crowd of donors and volunteers. “I am just one of many, many individuals who have zero tolerance for domestic violence,” he wrote. “It really does take us all to make the disgrace known as domestic violence go away.”
* Not her real name
There are a number of local and national resources available if you want to seek help, learn more, volunteer, or provide much-needed financial support. Here is a sampling:
“REACH is committed to advancing the safety, healing, and empowerment of those who experience domestic or relationship violence, through direct services and education while promoting social justice for individuals and families of all backgrounds.”
P.O. Box 540024, Waltham, MA 02454
24-hour hotline 1.800.899.4000,
The Second Step
“Provides services to women and their children that enable them to remain free from abusive relationships and lead productive lives. Provides transitional housing and support services to women and their children who have successfully taken the first step away from domestic violence. Provides a broad range of services to empower these women to heal, to maintain independence, and to achieve economic self-sufficiency.”
P.O Box 600213, Newtonville, MA 02460
Jane Doe, Inc.
“The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence brings together organizations and people committed to ending domestic violence and sexual assault.”
14 Beacon St. Suite 507, Boston, MA 02108
“A resource for all victims of domestic violence. Each caller speaks to a trained advocate who will provide non-judgmental support and assistance. SafeLink does not provide advice. Callers are assisted in identifying the options that are appropriate for their situation. SafeLink fully respects the individual circumstances of each caller and emphasizes the importance of safety planning. SafeLink also informs callers about available resources in their own communities and in turn, community-based programs are able to promote SafeLink as an additional resource for victims of domestic violence. All calls to SafeLink are confidential.”
24-hour hotline: 1.877.785.2020, www.casamyrna.org/programs/safelink.html
“Emerge’s mission is to eliminate violence in intimate relationships. In working toward this goal, Emerge seeks to educate individual abusers, prevent young people from learning to accept violence in their relationships, improve institutional responses to domestic violence, and increase public awareness about the causes and solutions to partner violence.”
National Domestic Violence Hotline
“NDVH provides empowerment-based crisis intervention, information and referral to victims of domestic violence, their friends and families. The Hotline serves as the only center in the nation with access to more than 5,000 shelters and domestic violence programs across the United States, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. NDVH operates 24 hours each day, 365 days every year, in over 140 different languages, with a TTY line available for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing. All calls to NDVH are anonymous.”
24-hour hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) www.ndvh.org
You can contact the local police for support and protection; in our communities, they are also excellent resources for information.
Sergeant Deborah Ordway, 781.235.1212
Weston Police, 1.781.893.4800