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Victim's State of Mind

I first remember learning about the domestic violence issue as a result of watching "The Burning Bed" TV movie starring Farah Fawcett.  An avid reader at the time, I also read the book by the same name.  The movie and the case, in fact, served as turning point for domestic violence victims and brought the issue into the light.  Francine Hughes was ultimately acquitted by using the insanity defense.  Her attorneys argued that years of abuse had affected her thinking and her judgement.

As an undergraduate, I decided to delve into this topic a little deeper and actually wrote one of my research papers about the insanity defense.  I wanted to become an attorney, so this topic was of interest to me.  I learned that the insanity defense was not that widely used and actually was an ineffective defense in many cases. In fact, in order to be effective, the insanity defense would have to demonstrate underlying mental illness as a result of abuse.

Like many people, I had wondered why the victims didn't just call the police.  At the time, to me, the solution was if you had a problem and someone was hurting you then you call the police or some other authority figure.  They would serve you and protect you.  Then, a year or so later, I took a criminal justice class and learned how abusers and other perpetrators manipulate the police into helping them.  A classic example is Jeffrey Dahmer.  One of his victims had escaped his apartment, and Jeffrey Dahmer had actually called the police asking them to return his victim. Abusers may also use the police to intimidate the victim, or they may threaten to make up lies about the victim if they call the police. Then, victims become afraid to report the abuse.

One of the ways that abusers convince victims not to call the police is by saying the victims are abusers, too.  Victims are then further shamed and start asking themselves, "Am I an abuser? Am I no better than my perpetrator?" This theory that victims are also abusing the abusers is called reactive abuse.  However, many experts in the field of domestic violence have identified this as a false claim.  The reason reactive abuse is false is because all forms of abuse are about power and control. That means, in order for abuse to be present, one party is trying to exert power and control over the other party.  When power and control is achieved, victims find it difficult to regain power or control. There are even websites that state that victims claiming they have been abused are actually the abusers because they claim to have been abused.  This is meant as a deterrent to victims to prevent them from reaching out for help.

It should be noted that victims will get angry and may yell at their partners or lash out in response to the abuse.  This is a normal human reaction. Abuse victims, like any other person, have a full range of emotions.  In an abuse situation, the "fight or flight" mechanism is regularly triggered. Victims may not feel like they can leave, or "flight."  Therefore, they must stay and "fight" or respond in some way to the best of their ability.  This is using a self-defense coping mechanism.  When abusers try to convince victims that they, too, are abusive, this is a tactic known as blame shifting.  Abusers then are able to maintain control by claiming victims' reactions are abusive, also.  Blame shifting is a tactic used to confuse onlookers or outsiders about what may really be happening in a domestic violence situation. This may be likened to a playground bully.  The bully pushes a little boy and makes him fall down.  The bully pushes the boy down repeatedly.  Having had enough, the final time the bully pushes the little boy, the little boy pushes the bully back.  The playground monitor sees the two boys fighting, and both students get reprimanded for fighting, although the little boy was acting in self-defense. 

It should also be noted that constant abuse does affect victims' state of mind. Victims may become angry, have changes in their personalities, or experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Feuerstein, S., Fortunati, F., Morgan, C. A., Coric, V., Temporini, H., & Southwick, S. (2005). The Insanity Defense. Psychiatry (Edgmont)2(9), 24–25.