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Heroes of Their Own Lives: the Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880-1960.

Heroes of Their Own Lives: The Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston 1880-1960. Linda Gordon. Viking, $24.95. Last November, the country was shocked to learn of the death of seven-year-old Lisa Steinberg in New York City -- police evidence indicated that her death resulted form beatings by one or both of her adoptive parents. The most distressing aspect of her story, of course, is that home is not the proverbial calm harbor. Adding to the shock over the Steinberg case was the fact that the family was part of New York's upper middle-class, a segment of society believed to be civilized and kind.

Americans tend to think that domestic violence is an isolated, recent horror. In fact, battering, child neglect, abuse, and incest (the four types or domestic violence as defined by Gordon) are ancient problems, and the United States began actively trying to control them 100 year ago. Gordon traces the history of family violence and society's response to it through case studies taken Boston's child protection agencies from 1980 to 1960.

Gordon doesn't just recount poignant family histories. She shows how the four types of crimes are often linked and simultaneous, particularly wife-beating and incest. She also contends that social currents reflected and shaped standards of family behavior by creating narrowed emphases for agency workers, sometimes to the detriment of the very families they were trying to aid.

For instance, around the turn of the century, when feminists descried "drunkenness" and believed that brutality was inherent in men, social workers, who then were mostly affulent do gooders, focused on the father or husband, often naively blaming everything on the influence of liquor. Following World War II, fascination with the science of psychiatry often resulted in workers making diagnoses that dismissed woman in abusive relationships as masochistic or the stories of incest victims as fantasies growing from their neuroses.

Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her narative is scholarly, thick with professional research, and not for those uniformed about the basics of family violence. It, is, however, fascinating reading for historians of social work and feminism and for those interest in patterns of socialization. There are also tidbits about the evolution of well-known phrases, such as "dirty old man," which referred to a sexual assilant, often a shop keeper, who would bribe his poorer employees with candy. His victims were not tempting or even pubescent. Their average age was 10 years old.

Perhaps the most important message in Gordon's books is that family's sickness: it is, instead, she says, a result of "normal patterns of parental and male domination reflected in a distorting mirror." She believes that family violence is a social problem: "Its cause and solutions have been beyond the means of individuals alone."

she argues that agency procedures often forced victims back into their situations. Because incest victims were subject to pelvic examinations to prove their allegations and were often taken from their families and placed in foster care situations, many preferred to remain silent. gordon also believes part of the reason many women and children stayed in abusive homes was a lack of adequate support programs for single, working mothers.

Of spouse abuse, Gordon writes: "One assault does not make a battered woman; she becomes that because of her socially determined inability to resist or escape: her lack of economic and independence, law enforcement services, and, quite likely, self-confidence. Battered behavior is also socially determined by a husband's expectations of what a woman should do for him and his acculturation to violence. Wife-beating arose not just from subordination but also from contesting it. Wife-beating sends 'messages' to all who know about it or suspect it: it encourages timidity, fatalism, manipulativeness in women."

Gordon's book shows how cultural attitudes, "everyday structures of society," and governmental policies can inflame "human foibles." As such, her booking is excellent cautionary reading for policymakers entrusted with making the American home safe.

-- Laura Elliot
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Author:Elliot, Laura
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1988
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