An Instagram message of just a few sentences Tuesday instantly flipped the national discussion on domestic violence from the violent football player to the woman he knocked out.
“THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get,” wrote Janay Rice the day after the Baltimore Ravens had released her husband, Ray Rice, who had a $4 million contract this year.
“If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels.”
Now the discourse is not all what’s wrong with the Pro Bowl running back, his team or the National Football League. What’s the matter, many ask, with Janay Rice? Why would she stay with a man who slugged her in that Atlantic City hotel elevator, even marry him a month later?
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Wrong questions, say those who deal with domestic abuse. They end up blaming the victim.
“Everything she wrote makes perfect sense to me,” said MaryAnne Metheny, CEO of Hope House. Domestic violence is so complicated, and having to deal with it in public increases the complexity.
“I can’t imagine what this is like for her,” Metheny said. “We hear from women all the time that they don’t talk about this because they’re embarrassed or ashamed or they feel responsible. I feel her pain and her struggle to live this out in public.”
Janay Rice’s Instagram began: “I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend,” she wrote. “But to have to accept the fact that it’s reality is a nightmare in itself.
“No one knows the pain that (the) media & unwanted options (sic) from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked ... for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific,” Rice wrote.
“Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is! Ravensnation we love you!”
The initial uproar over her Instagram message fueled a social media retort — #WhyIStayed on Twitter — from those who had experience with abusive relationships.
There was also #WhyILeft. A few months ago, the #YesAllWomen Twitter campaign erupted in response to violence against women and the #NotAllMen campaign.
“The question is not, ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’” said Janeé Hanzlick, executive director of Safehome in Johnson County. “The question should be, ‘Why is he hurting her?’ We’re looking at the victim’s choice when we should be looking at the abuser’s choice to abuse.
“He’s the one who chose to punch her in the face,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if they were arguing, or what was going on prior to that. He needs to take responsibility for that, not her.”
Decisions about what to do after incidents of abuse are not always easy, said the experts. But the first matter is to make sure that the abused person is safe.
“Three people die in our country every day due to domestic violence,” Metheny said. “That’s a tragedy.”
Love and hope are two of the chief reasons people in abusive relationships try to stay with their partners — love for the person they fell in love with in the first place, and hope that there can be an end to the abuse.
“A lot of women I talk to say, ‘I don’t want the relationship to end; I want the violence to end,’” Hanzlick said.
And domestic violence victims often blame themselves, concluding that they are the cause of the abuse, that if they work at being better wives or mothers the abuse would stop.
“When in actuality, the abusive person is 100 percent responsible for their abusive behavior,” Hanzlick said.
Women also stay because they still feel committed to their partner and their families, they said. Economics can play a big role, especially when women worry they can’t care for their children without the abusive partner.
Fear can be a factor, and the danger level for the abused person can increase when the relationship ends.
“When the abuser’s power and control is taken away, they may increase efforts to get back, stalking and threatening her and the children,” Metheny said.
Pam, a woman in her early 50s from the area who preferred not to release her last name, left her then-husband three years ago as soon as his verbal and psychological abuse turned physical. But the abuse continued, including an assault and arson.
“One of my things was that I was too easy to forgive and forget,” she said. “I wanted to keep up a good face.”
Like a lot of women, she said, she felt responsible for keeping their marriage together. “For outsiders to put more blame on us, it just piles on to what we naturally do,” she said.
As with any particular abusive relationship, making judgments about the Rices’ decisions is of little use, said those in domestic violence services. The public doesn’t know if there is coercion or fear.
“It’s easy for us to look at the surface and make a lot of assumptions when we really have no idea what’s going on there,” Hanzlick said.
Change on the abuser’s part can happen, they said, but it is difficult and can take years. The abuser must admit responsibility, but domestic violence can be like an addiction.
“That person has to be constantly working on their recovery,” Hanzlick said.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been lambasted for his earlier decision to punish Ray Rice with a two-game suspension, a decision he conceded was wrong. He has since announced a six-game suspension policy for a first offense related to domestic violence or sexual assault, with an indefinite ban for a second offense.
“We appreciate the extra commitment by the NFL on this topic recently,” said Vicki Kraft, president and CEO of Newhouse. “The training components are so important to reducing the devastating effects of domestic violence.”
While the topic of domestic violence often erupts when it involves sports figures or celebrities, it’s a daily reality for many in the area.
“We shelter 122 people in our two locations every day,” said Metheny of Hope House, “and most days we’re over capacity.
More than 4,000 people receive services at Hope House in a year, and Newhouse provided services and shelter to 10,000 last year.
“It’s not like this just happens to a football player and his wife,” Metheny said. “This is impacting thousands and thousands of people every single day.”