The threats and stigma makes stories about domestic abuse difficult to tell and even more difficult to illustrate.
I recall in the late 1980s following up a police scanner assault call and arriving on the scene as a woman ran out of a house crying, blood streaming from her scalp.
A firefighter saw me arrive and asked that I not take a picture. It was a highly unusual request, and the emotion in his voice gave me pause.
I asked why.
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He explained that this was a safe house and publishing the location would place the women seeking refuge at risk.
Her ex had followed her after she had left him.
I was standing on a public sidewalk and could have made a photograph but didn’t.
After it was over, I thought the victim may have been persuaded to share her story and the photo could have been cropped to conceal the location.
The image was never made, that story never told. Society is slow to learn and change when a story is never told. Silence can’t stop violence.
For many victims, breaking away requires extraordinary strength. Too often they are blamed, or blame themselves.
Over the years, language has evolved — wife beating, battered women, domestic violence — but the story arc is often the same. One partner, tender in the beginning, starts with a shove, then a slap, followed by beatings.
There is more help and awareness today.
A 24-hour crisis hotline with counselors is available in San Luis Obispo County: 805-781-6400.
Law enforcement is better trained, and we have more shelter programs.
Still, society has not progressed as far as one would hope. The sports pages all too frequently carry stories of athletes who don’t limit their aggression to the playing field, and the violence doesn’t stop with celebrities.
Newspapers continue to deliberate on how to tell the story.
In 1978, the Telegram-Tribune chose to manufacture a photo illustration for a story from an anonymous source, with a reporter posing as the victim.
Today, The Tribune would not create an illustration for a news story like this. The Tribune continues to have a policy not to identify victims of domestic violence or to publish their photos unless they consent.
Just as in this compelling 1978 interview with a victim of domestic violence, The Tribune would not include her full name today without permission.
On Feb. 28, 1978, Telegram-Tribune reporter Steve Swenson told a story that was just coming into national awareness:
Women in pain: They go from beloved to battered
Their love seemed like a dream.
He was 6 feet, 4 inches tall, powerfully built and handsome. She loved his tenderness, his sensitivity to her feelings and his devotion.
She was 20. He was the rebound to her three-year marriage with a man who rarely spent time with her or a daughter.
This tall, romantic lover seemed too good to be true.
She didn’t know as he kissed her then that his hard fists would later bash her mouth.
She didn’t know as he stroked her neck that his powerful hands would later choke her.
She didn’t know as he whispered endearments that he would eventually break both her eardrums.
It took nearly four years after he first shoved her before she left the man who threatened her and then finally came close to killing her. Love had overruled her pain for that long. Fear, however, didn’t leave her when she left him.
Now 28 years old, the San Luis Obispo woman told her story to the Telegram-Tribune.
We’ll call her Joan. She said she can’t divulge her real name because the man who beat her lives in San Luis Obispo. She’s not sure he won’t try again.
He didn’t beat her when they first met and started living together. He gave her gifts, spent most of his time with her and made her feel she was the most important and loved person in the world.
“He was a real ego booster,” Joan said.
She said she wasn’t aware that he took acid and other drugs when he was in the Army. Nor was she aware that his father had beat his mother.
It became apparent he couldn’t get and hold a job. Drugs became his comforter, she said.
“He was not going to support me or my daughter, so I went to work,” Joan said. “He resented that.”
He resented her strong will, the way she was able to articulate her feelings and the way she criticized him, she said.
“He was a subservient person most of the time until he beat me,” Joan said. “Then I was.”
“He couldn’t fight me with words,” she said. “He couldn’t express himself in any way other than blows.”
They lived together almost a year before he first pushed her. “I was not distressed by it,” she said. “I could understand why he was doing it.”
But the abuse got worse, she said: Blows, choking and slapping.
Sometimes it seemed that she provoked the beatings, but others had no provocation, she said. “It even got to the point that if he didn’t like an expression on my face, he’d strike me.”
Each time he would attack her, “I’d go limp,” she said. “I would never fight back.” She said she doesn’t know whether that was a good idea, but he seemed shocked once their dog pulled him off.
“When we were getting along, we’d ignore it (the beatings),” she said. “I was afraid to bring it up for fear he would start it again. I had this strong hope he would get better.
“He was never belligerent or impolite to anyone else,” she said. “He never lifted a finger against my daughter.
“I had a tremendous fear that if I went somewhere, he’d follow me and really hurt me,” Joan said. “He told me he was going to put me in the ground where I belonged.”
One day while she was bending over a pile of laundry, he came over to her and pounded her to the floor. He complained to her, “You’re so strong.”
Her reply was, “Yes, I am strong, and yes, I’m leaving. I decided to leave for my sake and my daughter’s sake.”
But leaving him didn’t remove her fear or danger. He came to the apartment in the middle of the night. He waited for her there when she came home from work.
“Whenever I’d hear a noise from my bed at night, I’d start physically shaking,” she said. “I was afraid for my life.”
She got, at considerable expense, a court order prohibiting him from coming near her. But police officers told her they couldn’t really enforce the order, she said.
(Spokesmen for the San Luis Obispo Police and the county Sheriff’s Department said law enforcement practices have changed since Joan’s experience. Officers would try to separate the two, and if that didn’t work, they said they would arrest the man.)
Police officers had also told Joan they couldn’t arrest the man unless he committed a heinous crime against her.
“He might do that,” she said she feared, “and I wouldn’t be there to tell the police.”