The Proof is in the Pudding: When Domestic Violence Victims Are Forced to Substantiate Their Experiences

Tuesday, September 4

In a criminal case, the “burden of proof” refers to the prosecution’s responsibility to establish a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In daily life, the “burden of proof” doesn’t fall on prosecutors. It falls on victims, who are often pressured into providing, and expected to provide, “proof” beyond a reasonable doubt that they were abused. With cases of domestic violence, if the public asks or pays attention at all, often times it’s to refute, distort, and pull apart victims’ narratives in an attempt to discredit them.

In 2014, NPR interviewed a language columnist from the Boston Globe to ask about the origin of the phrase “the proof is in the pudding.” Ben Zimmer, the columnist, informed NPR that the phrase is a new twist on an old proverb, one which used to be “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” “And what it meant was,” Zimmer said, “that you had to try out food in order to know whether it was good.”

When Karen Monahan accused Congressman and Minnesota Attorney General candidate Keith Ellison of domestic violence, hundreds of his supporters demanded that she release video evidence to back up her claims of assault. Here was a domestic violence victim who was expected to lay bare her most private and painful moments for innumerable strangers. Here was a domestic violence victim who had eaten the pudding, who knew violence and the cycle of abuse just as well as any other victim, who had been forced to “try out the food” (and the food was poisonous), who was, instead of being believed, harassed by people who had never eaten the pudding at all.

Domestic violence is complicated, to say the least. Even the word “domestic” provides insight into its complex and convoluted nature – it occurs in domestic settings, by people we love and would do anything for, by people we want to help, by people who don’t get better despite our most desperate hopes and pleas.

Just because a domestic violence victim doesn’t want to offer up “proof” doesn’t mean there is no proof to offer. It means that violence and power and control are earth-shattering. It means that abuse is debilitating and all-consuming. It means that, given the choice between letting others into our most horrific moments or keeping them out, many of us would likely choose the latter. And it means that those who have never gone through domestic violence are far too often the ones to argue that victims have never gone through it either.

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Kelly Sundberg is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Ohio State University. Kelly Sundberg has a PhD. Kelly Sundberg is a mom. Kelly Sundberg has a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. These characteristics alone could be enough to easily persuade the public and the media that Kelly Sundberg was not, and never could be, a domestic violence victim. But add on the fact that Kelly Sundberg, whose April 2014 essay on domestic abuse went viral online, is still in love with her abusive husband several years after divorcing him, and she has certainly not met the burden of proof that society demands victims meet.

In her essay, “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” Kelly wrote about how grateful she had been for her husband Caleb, how generous he was, how loving. How, despite the beatings and the bruise he gave her on her foot that evolved into the colors of a sunset, she craved the moments when “[they] laid in bed, [their] son between [them.”

Like Karen Monahan, Kelly Sundberg was reluctant to let anyone else into her most private, violent moments. And because of her reluctance, because she did not readily offer up proof, because she did not release evidence just like Karen Monahan is not releasing evidence, she does not meet the burden of proof. Because she still loves Caleb, she does not meet the burden of proof.

Neither does Emma Sulkowicz, pejoratively referred to as “Mattress Girl” after she carried a mattress around campus at Columbia University in 2013 in protest after being raped by a close friend. Her text messages to her rapist and abuser, Paul Nungesser, were released to the public and scrutinized closely. In some of her messages after the rape, Sulkowicz asks Nungesser for a “paul-emma chill sesh.” In some of her messages after the rape, Sulkowicz tells Nungesser she loves him. To the public, especially to a public who has never eaten the pudding, Nungesser doesn’t look like a rapist at all. He looks like a lover, a friend, a caregiver. A good and kind person who would never violently sexually assault someone he claims to care about.

And so Emma does not meet society’s burden of proof. Because there is so little understanding that victims can love their abusers, that victims can and often do try to pretend that nothing happened, that victims often try to make the abuse and the events go away, that they often put on a good face for their abusers in order to reduce chances of more violence, that they can trauma-bond with their abusers.

It didn’t matter that Karen Monahan waited years to divulge her abuse at the hands of Keith Ellison precisely because she loved him and didn’t want to adversely affect his political career. Or that Kelly Sundberg still loved Caleb but still left him. Or that Emma still cared for Paul Nungesser.

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To those who have never eaten the pudding, a victim who loves an abuser, who refuses to share their painful moments, who does anything at all deemed to be “un-victimly,” is not a victim at all. So we must remember the complexity of these issues, the sheer painfulness and enormity of them, the fact that when victims don’t meet our expectations, often they’re meeting a need for survival. We must remember that abuse does not make sense. And it is not our responsibility to force the very people who have gone through the abuse to make it make sense for us.

In an email statement to Jezebel several years ago, Emma Sulkowicz wrote that her personal life was being treated “as a mine that [strangers] can dig through and harvest for publicity.” If this is the only way we care about domestic and sexual violence victims, then we don’t care at all.

Written by Meggie Royer, Education and Outreach Coordinator at Women’s Advocates, mroyer@wadvocates.org.

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