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More than Victims: Battered Women, the Syndrome Society, and the Law.

Less than three decades ago, popular wisdom had it that domestic violence was a rare event. We knew, of course, that occasionally men hit their wives, but a powerful and complex mythology surrounded domestic violence that silenced the many (we now know) women who were its victims: it only happened to those kinds of people; men had the right to "discipline" their wives; if it occurred, it was because the woman had failed in her wifely duties; it was a woman's responsibility to keep the family together, no matter what. Then in the early 1970s, several ground-breaking books appeared, most notably Erin Pizzey's Scream Quietly or the Neighbors Will Hear, in which women told their personal stories of domestic violence, thus breaking the silence and dismantling the mythology. Since then, our attitudes, official responses, and laws have changed dramatically. Among the most controversial of these changes forms the topic of Donald Downs's book: the development of the battered woman's syndrome as a defense to homicide charges.

Prior to this development, if a battered woman killed her abuser, she had, in most cases, two possible defenses: self-defense, which required that the harm be imminent, or insanity, which required that she claim (and prove) that she could not understand the nature of her act. Since in many of these cases, the woman had killed a sleeping or not attacking man, self-defense was not workable. Insanity, if she could show it, would most likely result in her incarceration anyway and attached a huge stigma to her mental capacities. Then psychologists and lawyers came up with another possibility: a defense based on the fact that the long-term battering had made the woman so helpless and passive that she saw killing as her only possible escape from the abuse. She could not leave, she could not get help, she could do nothing but kill. This state of mind, named the battered woman syndrome by psychologist and frequent expert witness Lenore Walker, has become the primary defense used in court by battered women who kill.

But the emergence of the battered woman syndrome defense has stirred up a heated debate and a plethora of scholarship. Its supporters see it as a way to get the law to recognize the realities of women's lives; its detractors see it categorizing women as helpless and incapable of rational thought and action, descriptions of women that have been used to prevent women from practicing the professions, from executing wills, from doing much of anything to control their own lives. Downs situates the battered woman syndrome as part of a larger problem of "syndrome logic ... that has contributed to understanding and justice ... but ... is also ridden with pitfalls that call for examination" (p. 4). His detailed and thoughtful examination of the pitfalls of the battered woman syndrome comprise the matter of this new, important book, the central thesis of which is "that the reality of domestic violence requires the criminal law to pay great heed to the defense claims of battered women and children, but that the syndrome connection is a problematic way to accomplish this task" (p. 7). The book is not only an exploration of this thesis but also a search for a better way to defend battered women who kill. The latter, for me, separates this book from the wealth of material criticizing the battered woman's syndrome defense. Downs acknowledges that the law often ignores the realities of women's lives, but asks why women's experiences cannot be accommodated without resorting to syndrome defenses. In fact, the reliance on such a defense, he claims, represents our failure to protect abused women in the first place.

Downs expands his thesis and searches for a new defense by dividing his book into four sections. He first discusses the growth of syndrome logic; he then explores the nature of domestic violence and the particular problems it presents for the criminal justice system; he next analyzes actual cases in which the battered woman's syndrome defense was used with both positive and negative results; and last he proposes a positive legal policy alternative. Each section is rich (and dense) enough to be read for its own sake and I summarize at my peril.

Drawing on diverse sources, Downs maintains in his first section that the political, social, and scientific climate of the twentieth century has created a society of victims and survivors, in which an ethic of suffering has replaced an ethic of achievement. The family in particular, earlier regarded as a haven of safety in a mean world, has been revealed as a frequent site of crime and brutality. The second section, which focuses specifically on domestic violence, depicts this crime and brutality. It also evidences Downs's even-handedness, a strength of the book that makes it one of the best treatments of the subject of domestic violence. Downs explores the controversial literature that claims that domestic violence is perpetrated as often by women as at them, and concludes that the "findings ... counsel us to exercise caution in the face of pressures to think of abuse as one-sided in terms of gender. But there is no evidence that shows men living in the same fear for their lives as battered women" (p. 57). Downs delineates the characters of batterers, the nature of battering relationships, and the key tenets of the battered woman's syndrome in concluding that the fear that many battered women experience, which may resemble paranoia, actually results not from passivity or helplessness, but rather from a heightened sensitivity to their situations: "prior abuse can shape a battered woman's perception of what is impending; thus, even if she is wrong about imminent danger, her mistaken belief might be reasonable under the circumstances" (p. 96). The battered woman's syndrome suggests that battered women have a confused sense of reality; Downs argues that they may, instead, have a sharpened sense of their situations.

In his lengthy third section that discusses numerous specific cases, Downs first depicts the usefulness of the battered woman's syndrome. It widens the frame of the admissible narrative in a case of a battered woman who kills her abuser and allows more of the story of the battering relationship to be told. It also captures the reality of the battering relationship and helps to answer a question often posed by the prosecution: why didn't she just leave? It gives judges and juries a hook on which to hang their sympathy for a killer and provides defense counsel with a tool for plea bargaining and sentence reduction. Nonetheless, the battered woman's syndrome, Downs argues, contains a fatal flaw: the emphasis on a battered woman's lack of reason, a flaw that undercuts women's fight for equality and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Downs concludes this section with a critique of the syndrome society: "Syndromes seem to open our eyes to empathy, but not in a way that is conducive to the equal respect that leads to equal citizenship.... A society that values political freedom has no choice but to take the principle of responsibility seriously" (p. 183).

So, as Downs poses the question, how do we "serve the demands of responsibility and empathy at the same time"? (p. 183). The answer to this question in the context of battered women who kill comprises Downs's final section. The proposal is thorough and detailed and a summary cannot approximate its exactness nor should it substitute for reading it in full. Essentially, though, Downs proposes modifying the law of self-defense, maintaining its requirements of imminence, retreat, and proportionality, but injecting these requirements with the realities of the battering relationship. Downs hopes, finally, "to move the focus of battered women defenses away from the discourse of psychological syndrome and toward more just and responsible ways to deal with batterers that are consistent with the discourses of reason, informed common sense, and individual responsibility" (p. 250). The task is well worth the undertaking and More Than Victims is a powerful step in the right direction. Women as well as men need to be protected from violence, and women, in particular, require better understanding of their sometimes oppressive situations. But they also need to be able to participate fully in the discourse of politics and citizenship. Downs offers a solution that helps to make both possible.
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Author:Phelps, Teresa Godwin
Publication:The Review of Politics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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