“Just Lovely People”: How Neighbors’ Media Descriptions of Domestic Violence Homicide Perpetrators Normalize Abuse

Monday, July 2

A common media response to domestic violence homicides or domestic violence murder-suicides is to interview neighbors. Most often, neighbors express grief, shock, and sadness. There is rarely, if ever, any mention of domestic violence or control. These are, after all, just normal families. These are, after all, as one neighbor described an Australian family who was shot dead in May 2018, “just lovely people.” The perpetrator of the shooting, who murdered his wife, daughter, and four of his grandchildren, was included in this description.

This is not rare. Neighbors often describe perpetrators as mild-mannered and gentle, hard-working, caring and devoted parents, partners, or grandparents. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is a male, and the neighbors are quick to mention he enjoyed fishing, golfing, caring for his kids, or picking up his partner from work.

From these media sources and interviews comes a picture of quiet, simple domesticity, ordinary, everyday couples and families whose murderers and abusers were merely “in the wrong frame of mind at the wrong time.” They present domestic violence and domestic violence homicide as a single, broken pinpoint at the end of an otherwise smooth, normal road.

What journalists and reporters fail to mention is that domestic violence homicides and other related crimes are not carried out by individuals whose intimate or familial relationships were loving, gentle, or mild-mannered. These are not otherwise smooth, normal roads. Domestic violence is a continued pattern of abuse that often, and nearly always, escalates, sometimes to the point of taking one or multiple lives. Kit Gruelle, a domestic violence survivor and advocate who was profiled in a 2014 documentary, describes this escalation as not “like a tsunami,” but as “constant, seemingly gentle waves.”  It is nearly always a cycle, complete with tension-building, acute battering, and honeymoons. Often, it involves numerous forms of abuse, such as emotional, financial, and physical/sexual. What the media, and what neighbors, commonly portray is a final act of violence removed from its cyclical context.

Removing this context is harmful at best, and at worst, it is dangerous. It informs the public that abuse is a single act, rather than dozens, even hundreds, of individual acts that blend together. It informs victims and survivors that their abusers are merely “just lovely people” who snapped. It informs victims and survivors that they are “lucky” if there was no homicide, which ignores the severity and psychological damage of abusive patterns that were already in place, perhaps for weeks, months, or years. And it cements the public’s opinions of domestic violence as a private matter that is only important, only significant, if it overspills into a public matter. Kit Gruelle asks, “Why does society drive the getaway car?” For perpetrators of domestic violence homicide, the quotes that media sources take from neighbors provide fuel to that car. It lets perpetrators off the hook.

In 2016, the New York Times interviewed a woman named Rachel G. She is still alive today, living just outside Boston. She is not one of the 55% percent of female homicide victims who are killed by a current or former intimate partner. And so for some, her story is not significant. However, as Gruelle points out, Rachel experienced waves of abuse. She was the victim of what forensic social worker Dr. Evan Stark coined “coercive control.” Her ex-partner would install spy cameras in her house, isolate her from family and friends, and not allow her to be alone in rooms. He even forced her to share a toothbrush with him.

If Rachel G. had been the victim of a domestic violence homicide, it is likely that journalists would have interviewed her neighbors. It is likely that they would have described her abuser as “charming,” the exact word Rachel used to describe him when they first met. It is likely that they would have described him as a caring family man, as a devoted father who worked hard to make ends meet. It is very unlikely that the media would interview, or include, any quotes from anyone who would point out details of the coercive control she experienced.

None of this is to say that neighbors are at fault for the way they choose to describe perpetrators. For someone in a state of shock or grief, it can be hard to think about the impacts their descriptions may have on society’s views of domestic violence. And it is also true that many neighbors may be totally unaware of any prior abuse. Abusers are often experts at manipulating peers, at presenting a charismatic facade that hides the abuse they may perpetrate against their victims on a regular basis.

However, the media is, in many cases, at fault. Their intentions may be good, but the results are woefully inadequate. It is time that, after a crime of domestic violence occurs, we stop portraying abusers as caring, loving, or normal. Abuse is not normal, nor is it caring or loving. Killing someone is the epitome of uncaring. It is time that we stop interviewing grieving neighbors and instead interview those individuals, if they are able and willing, who can portray what has really happened: abuse as a cycle, as a pattern, that did not stop until it ended in the worst possible way that abuse can end – with the loss of life.

Written by Meggie Royer, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates.

If you have comments or questions, please reach out to mroyer@wadvocates.org or 651.726.5233.

Futures Without Violence, 1985
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