The judges and cops and court officers pay attention to Buel because domestic violence is a daily hassle that takes a lot out of them. And if there's one thing Buel knows, its how batterers manipulate the law enforcement system. They listen because Buel has that most unassailable credential, an honors degree from Harvard Law School. But mostly they listen because Buel has been on the receiving end of a fist.
"Sometimes I hate talking about it," she confides. "I just want people to see me as the best trial lawyer." But, as Deborah D. Tucker says, "she grabs them by the heart." Tucker, head of the Texas Council on Family Violence and chairman of the national committee that pushed the Violence Against Women Act into the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill, explains: "She gets people to feel what they need to feel to be vulnerable to the message that domestic violence is not we/they. Any of us can become victimized. It's not about the woman. It's about the culture."
Certainly Buel never had any intention of speaking publicly about her own abuse. It started accidentally. She was in a court hallway with some police officers on a domestic violence case. "See, a smart woman like you would never let this happen," the chief said gesturing her way. And in an instant Buel made a decision that changed her life irrevocably, and the lives of many others. "Well, it did happen," she told him, challenging his blame-the-victim tone. He invited her to train his force on handling domestic violence. "It changed things completely I decided I had an obligation to speak up It's a powerful tool."
It has made her a star, says psychologist David Adams, Ed. D. By speaking from her own experience, Buel reminds people that law can be a synonym for justice. In conferences and in courts, she has gotten even the most cynical judges to listen to battered women -- instead of blaming them. "I am amazed at how often people are sympathetic as long as the victim closely resembles Betty Crocker. I worry about the woman who comes into court who doesn't look so pretty. Maybe she has a tattoo or dreadlocks. I want judges to stop wondering, 'What did she do to provoke him?'" Sarah Buel is arguably the country's sharpest weapon against domestic violence.
Buel finishes her talk, and in the split second before the audience jumps to its feet cheering, you can hear people gasp "Whew!" Not because they're tired of sitting, but because in her soft but hurried tones, the prosecution of batterers takes on a passionate, even optimistic, urgency. It's possible, she feels, to end domestic violence, although not by prosecution alone. Buel does not dwell on herself as victim but transmutes her own experience into an aria of hope, a recipe for change, "so that any woman living in despair knows there's help."
Not like she knew. She herself was clueless.
One of five children, Buel was born in Chicago but moved endlessly with her family from the age of four. Her father, an auto mechanic fond of drink, always felt success lay elsewhere. Her mother, a Holocaust refugee who fled Austria as a child, went along selflessly -- she didn't know how to speak up," says Buel which fueled her own desire to do so.
In the seventh grade, Buel was put on a secretarial track. "I was told I wasn't smart enough. So I refused to learn how to type." When she was 14, her parents divorced. Rather than choose which one to live with (her siblings split evenly), Buel headed for New York.
She went to school -- at first -- while working as a governess. For the first time, she saw television and while watching Perry Mason decided "this is what I want to do." The next year Buel bounced around to different schools and families including her mother's. "I went home for three months, but it was too different," she recalls.
Buel eventually went back to New York, where she had relatives, and began a very erratic course through high school -- cutting class and shoplifting with a cousin. By the time she was 22, Buel was an abused woman. It came completely out of the blue. She was listening to a song on the radio, "Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog." "I bet that makes you think of Jeremy [a boyfriend of hers way back when she was 15]," her partner said. Actually what she was thinking was how stupid the song was. "Admit it," he insisted, "it does, doesn't it?" No, she said, it doesn't. He accused her of lying -- and slapped her across the face.
The verbal and psychological abuse proved more damaging than the physical abuse. There was endless criticism. "He always said I looked frumpy and clumpy. He was enraged if I bought the New York Times." He read the tabloid Daily News. "'Isn't it good enough for you?' he demanded. He was extremely jealous. If I so much as commented on, say, a man's coat, he'd accuse me of wanting an affair and flirting. If I wanted to take courses, he insisted the only reason was to flirt with other men. I didn't cook like his mother, clean like his mother. By the time I left I thought, 'The only thing I do well is, I'm a good mother.'"
Suddenly, Buel is surprised to find herself revealing this much personal detail. "I never tell other women the details of my own abuse. They'll measure. Was theirs more or less?"
In 1993 and 1994, a coveted Bunting fellowship from Radcliffe College allowed Buel to work only part time as a public prosecutor. Now in between court appearances, she crisscrosses the country, finally able to accept invitations to train judges and address gatherings such as this, a first-ever assembly of Virginians Against Domestic Violence. She has visited 49 states. She has testified before Congress. She was even asked to introduce the president of the United States at a press conference last spring, when the federal government set up a new Violence Against Women Office.
But no matter who she talks to or what she says about domestic violence, "it always comes down to one thing," says Buel. "They all ask the same question: Why do they [the women] stay."
First she points out that there are half as many shelters for battered women as there are for stray animals -- about 1,800 -- and most do not accept children. For every two women sheltered, five are turned away. For every two children sheltered, eight are turned away.
A Texas study shows that 75 percent of victims calling domestic violence hot-lines had left at least five times. Buel herself first went to the Legal Aid Society. There was a three-year wait for help. They never informed her about safety, never told her about alternatives. She did see a counselor at a family center, but her partner wouldn't go; he would only drive her.
Buel left her abuser and got a job in a shoe factory. But the wage was so low she couldn't pay the rent and a babysitter. "I went back because he said he was sorry, it'll never happen again. When I realized it wasn't true, I left again. I told him I was packing to go to my brother's wedding. I took a bus to New Hampshire, where my mother lived. That didn't work out -- she was living on a remote farm, I had no car, and my son was allergic to many of the animals -- but I never went back. So 18 years ago I stood on a welfare line with three kids, my own son and two foster children I was raising. But you can't live on that amount of money. We trade our safety for poverty. We go back because we don't know what else to do."
Batterers are expert at portraying themselves as the injured party. The first time her batterer threw her against a wall, Buel's son screamed, "Don't hurt my mom." Then the batterer shouted, "See, you're turning the kid against me."
"I used to think, 'Why me? I must have done something terrible.' Women come to think it was their fault. They feel guilty for not doing a good enough job as a morn because they are unable to protect themselves, or their children."
A major obstacle to leaving, says Buel, is battered women's fear of losing their children or of being unable to protect them. "A Massachusetts study documented that in 70 percent of cases where fathers attempted to get custody of their children, they did so successfully. So when the abuser says to her, Sure, you can leave, but I've got the money to hire a good lawyer and I'll get the kids,' he may be right.
"We go back because we think we'll figure out a way to stop the violence, the magic secret everybody else seems to know. We don't want to believe that our marriage or relationship failed because we weren't willing to try just a little harder. I felt deeply ashamed, that it must be my fault. I never heard anyone else talking about it. I assumed I was the only one it was happening to."
One of the biggest reasons women stay, says Buel is that they are most vulnerable when they leave. That's when abusers desperately escalate tactics of control. More domestic abuse victims are killed when fleeing than at any other time.
Buel has a crystal-clear memory of a Saturday morning at the laundromat with her young son, in the small New Hampshire town where she had fled, safely, she thought, far from her abuser. "I saw my ex-partner, coming in the door. There were people over by the counter and I yelled to them to call the police, but my ex-partner said. 'No, this is my woman. We've just had a little fight and I've come to pick her up. Nobody needs to get involved.' I still had bruises on the side of my face, and I said, 'No, this is the person who did this to me, you need to call the police.' But he said. 'No, this is my woman. Nobody needs to get involved.' Nobody moved. And I thought, as long as I live I want to remember what it feels like to be terrified for my life while nobody even bothers to pick up the phone."
It's time, Buel sighs, to stop asking why they stay and start asking what they need to feel safe. "I'm obsessed with safety now," she confides. "More important than prosecution, more important than anything, is a safety plan, an action plan detailing how to stay alive." And so a first encounter with a victim requires a verbal walk-through of what she'll need to feel safe at her place of work, at home, on the streets, and suggestions about what she'll need for leaving -- birth certificates, legal papers, bank accounts -- and for dealing with the abuser.
Buel entered Harvard Law in 1987. "I would love to have gone sooner but I had no idea how to get there. I didn't know you had to go to college to go to law school." She imagined you first had to work long enough as a legal secretary. In 1977, after two months on welfare, Buel entered a federally funded job-training program that, despite her awful typing, landed her in a legal services office. Eventually, she became a paralegal aide and began helping domestic violence victims.
In 1980, she started seven years of undergraduate study, first at Columbia University on scholarship, which necessitated "nine horrible months" in a drug-ridden building in New York while on welfare, so that instead of working nights she could spend them with her son. Ultimately she returned to New England and, two nights a week, attended Harvard Extension School, a vastly different world from Harvard Yard. She did well.
Days were spent working as a women's advocate in federal legal services offices, first in New Hampshire, then in grimy Lowell, Massachusetts. Buel started shelters and hotlines for battered women. She helped draft an abuse prevention law. She dreamed about being a voice for the women she represented.
She learned to write. She took classes in public speaking. Toward the end of her undergraduate studies, her bosses asked her where she wanted to go to law school. "Harvard," she replied, "because they're rich and they'll give me money." The lawyers laughed and told her that wasn't how it worked: "They do the choosing, not you." They took pains to point out she just wasn't Harvard material. "You're a single mother. You've been on welfare. You're too old."
Angry and humiliated, Buel began a private campaign that typifies her fierce determination. In the dark after classes, she drove around the law school, shouting at it: "You're going to let me in." Soon she got braver and stopped the car to go inside and look around. Then she had to see what it was like to sit in a classroom. She decided if she ever got accepted, she'd choose one of the orange-colored lockers, because her son was a fan of the Syracuse Orangemen.
Harvard Law not only accepted Buel but gave her a full scholarship. Once there, she was surprised there was nothing in the criminal-law syllabus about family violence -- this despite the fact that women are more likely to be the victim of a crime in their own home, at the hands of someone they know, than on the streets. Buel mentioned the oversight to her professor. He told her to take over the class for one hour one day. She thought she'd be educating movers and shakers for the future. "I was amazed when, during the next six weeks, no less than 16 classmates came up to me either because they were in violent relationships or their parents or friends were."
When Boston-area colleagues requested help on an advocacy program for battered women and she couldn't do it alone, Buel put an ad in the student newspaper; 78 volunteers showed up for the first meeting. By year's end there were 215. She started a pro bono legal counseling program. The Battered Women's Advocacy Project is now the largest student program at Harvard Law; a quarter of the participants are men.
In 1990, at age 36, Buel graduated, cum laude. She sent a copy of her transcript to her old junior-high teacher with a note suggesting that she not judge the future of 12-year-old girls.
At first Buel thought it would be enough to become a prosecutor and make sure that batterers are held accountable for assaulting others. But she has come to see it differently. "That's not enough. My role is not just to make women safe but to see that they are financially empowered and that they have a life plan." So every morning, from 8:30 to 9:15, before court convenes, she sees that all women there on domestic issues are briefed, given a complete list of resources, training options, and more. "We surveyed battered women. We asked them what they needed to know. I wanted everyone to listen to them. Usually no one ever does. Most people tell them what to do. 'Leave him.' 'Do this.' 'Do that.' You can't tell women to leave until you give them -- with their children -- a place to go, the knowledge how and the resources to get by on their own, and the safety to do so. It's all about options."
What's more, Buel now sees domestic violence as just one arc of a much bigger cycle, intimately connected to all violence, and that it takes a whole coordinated community effort to stop it, requiring the participation of much more than attorneys and judges. It takes everyone; even the locksmith, so that when a woman suddenly needs her locks changed, the call will be heeded.
Rather than drive her own career narrowly forward, Buel has instead broadened her approach, venturing into places few lawyers ever go. She regularly attends community council meetings in Germantown, a dreary outpost of public housing in Quincy, known for its high crime rate. The council -- Head Start teachers, the parish priest, two cops who requested duty in the projects, a few community members -- celebrates mundane triumphs. A parents' dinner at Head Start. A potluck supper at the church.
Buel is absolutely certain that this is the real answer to crime. It is the prevailing fallacy to assume that big problems require big solutions. First a community has to knit itself together -- and from the sound of things the best way is on its stomach. "People here hear that some things are unacceptable," says one. A cop reports, remarkably, there has not been a single incident in a month.
Buel tells the assembled that emergency housing funds are available for battered women whose husbands are not paying support. "This is how I get the dirt on what's going on," she tells me. "These officers will call me when there's a domestic violence problem but the woman isn't ready to enter the legal system. At least we can keep on eye on her, and the children, to make sure she's safe."
Buel is particularly concerned about the children. She knows that children who witness violence become violent themselves. "Some take on the role of killing their mother's batterer," says Buel, who notes that 63 percent of males between ages 11 and 20 who are doing time for homicide have killed their mother's batterer. "We adults have abdicated the role of making the home safe."
Children who witness violence may commit suicide as adolescents, says Buel, pointing to soaring suicide rates among teenagers. Or grow up to soothe the pain with drugs. Or run away from home. A University of Washington study demonstrates that the vast majority of runaway and pregnant teenagers grew up in violent households.
Because she cares so much about the kids, in 1992 Buel started the What Is Your Dream Project in an adolescent center in Chelsea, a depressed community. It grew out of her frustration about pregnant teens, the group at highest risk for domestic violence. "Most of them have no person in their life talking to them about the future. That made me angry. That's how I was stereotyped. There was no assumption I'd be college-bound." The program trains at-risk teens to champion younger kids, telling them about educational and job options, about grants for beautician school or training as electricians or computer technicians, for example. "It was a powerful force for me to name going to law school as a dream. It focused my life," Buel recalls.
For her unusually diversified approach to domestic violence, Buel gives full credit to William Delahunt, her boss, the district attorney. "He has allowed me to challenge the conventional notion of what our job is."
"My boss gets complaints about me all the time," Buel says proudly. There was the batterer who, despite divorce and remarriage, was thought to be the source of menacing gifts anonymously sent to his ex-wife -- a gun box for Christmas, a bullet box for Valentine's Day, followed by the deeds to burial plots for her and her new husband. The woman repeatedly hauled her ex into court for violating a restraining order; one lawyer after another got him off. "Finally I got him for harassing her in the parking garage where she was going to college; of course he denied it. The lawyer contended she was making up all the stories. But a detective found a video-tape from the garage, which corroborated her charge. In the appeals court, his lawyer, a big guy, leaned into my face and hissed, 'You may be a good little advocate for your cause, but you're a terrible lawyer.'" She won the appeal.
Because the students asked for one, Buel teaches a class on domestic violence to 43 students at Boston College Law School. Over a third of them are males.
And she lectures widely to the medical profession. "Doctors see abused women all the time and don't know it," she says. She is especially interested in reaching family doctors and obstetrician/gynecologists, because in over a third of instances, abuse occurs during pregnancy -- as it did for her. It is the primary time for the onset of violence. Her goal is to see that all doctors routinely ask every woman at every visit whether she has been hit or threatened since her last visit, explain that they are now routinely asking the question, state that no woman deserves to be abused, and then provide information and referral if she has. This simple question, by exposing abuse to plain daylight, brilliantly erases some of its shame. It is only when shame is gone that abused women can ask for help.
You could say that 1994 was the best of times and the worst of times for domestic violence. Spouse abuse was "discovered" by Congress, which passed the Violence Against Women Act. Among its provisions are federal standards that permit enforcement of restraining orders across state lines, the single most important weapon women have to keep abusers from threatening or attacking them or their children.
And spouse abuse was "discovered" by the public at large after O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. Clear evidence quickly emerged that O.J. Simpson had beaten his wife in the past. To those who know about domestic violence, Simpson fit a well-established pattern -- when his partner got serious about leaving him for good, he began a campaign of terror. He began stalking her. He followed her movements. He peeked in her windows. He wouldn't, couldn't, let go.
Despite his ultimate acquittal, O.J., nevertheless, was the answer to some people's prayers. Like Deborah Tucker's. One of those whip-smart, wise-crackin', well-coifed dynamos that Texas seems to breed, who have you howling on the floor while they're stripping your political illusions, Tucker not only heads Texas's Council on Family Violence, she runs the new national Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE). If the world of action against domestic violence has an axis on which it turns, Tucker is its south pole to Sarah Buel's north.
"Many people worked awfully hard for 20 years to see that violence against women was taken seriously and recognized as a crime. We had seen a law passed, established 1,800 organizations around the country providing services to battered women. We had built an infrastructure to respond to domestic violence and educate about it. Now all that was needed was visibility for the cause. Many of us talked among ourselves that that would happen only when a famous person killed his wife." Of course, no one imagined that person would be black, opening the racial divide. Tucker is now more cautious about what she wishes for.
O.J.'s arrest, says Tucker, "put domestic violence on the map. O.J. and Nicole were wealthy. They were visible. We tend to accept domestic violence in invisible people. We were at a juncture where something like that needed to happen. Social change is slow.
"The murder created a vehicle for common discourse about spouse abuse. The trial was a fiasco. The prosecutor never educated the public about stalking or about patterns of domestic violence. O.J. had followed Nicole and watched her. Everywhere I went, people asked: 'Why would he do that? He was divorced; he even had a girlfriend.' It was a chance to discuss tactics of power and control that do not stop with divorce, a chance to point out that women are in more danger when they leave -- though everyone always asks why they stay."
If the Los Angeles D.A.s did little to explain, that is not the case with Buel. She has talked almost nonstop since.
In her travels, Buel has observed firsthand that many jurisdictions have figured out how to reduce violence against women. She sees her mission as spreading the word about them. Buel's considerable charisma stems in no small measure from her conviction that the solutions are out there, if only everyone knew about them. "People are always surprised at my optimism," she says.
"There's no one solution," she insists. "You need a message from the whole community. People point to the policy of mandatory arrest of all batterers in Duluth, Minnesota. But Duluth also has billboards that warn, 'Never hit a child.' " Buel's list of what works includes:
o the end of silence about spouse abuse.
o probation officers sensitive to the safety needs of victims and serious monitoring of offenders.
o mandatory group treatment programs for batterers. Programs must last at least a year, hold them alone accountable, and teach them to respect women.
o sanctions for failure to comply with probation or restraining orders.
o the use of advocates to follow cases.
o training cops in how to investigate and gather complete evidence when answering domestic violence calls.
Buel waves an investigation checklist she got from police in San Diego. If information gathering is done correctly, prosecution can proceed even when the victim refuses to press charges or come to court as a witness. "When a woman refuses to testify, she's not 'failing to cooperate,' " she says. "She's terrified. She's making the statement, 'I want to stay alive.'"
I ask Buel about her working relationships with judges. "In Massachusetts, I'm characterized as too harsh. I simply ask for some mechanism of accountability. Judges here are appointed for life without mandatory training. Many come from the big law firms that represent the batterers. Some do a great job. Others lose sight of the victims and children."
Discrimination against women through the law infuriates Buel. A recent study shows that a batterer who kills his wife typically gets a jail term of two to four years. But a woman who kills her abuser gets 14 to 18 years.
Of course, a great deal of domestic violence never finds its way into the criminal justice system; it's handled by private psychotherapists. "No one wants her husband arrested," especially women from the upper income strata, says Buel. She regrets that she is rarely invited to speak to the mental health community.
"Unfortunately," she charges, "most therapists, including family counselors, have little training in domestic violence. They are often conned by the stories of the batterers, experts at shifting blame. Without realizing it, therapists often put women at greater risk of abuse. There is nothing victims can disclose to them for which there will not be later retaliation. At the very least, therapists don't think in terms of safety plans for the victims.
"Batterers are extraordinarily talented in sucking in therapists, the community, even their wives' families. Their whole M.O. is manipulation. They'll get the priest to testify that they're family-loving men, but the priest isn't there during the abuse. They are notorious liars; they'll say whatever makes them look good. Even if the woman gets a restraining order barring her partner from having any contact with her, these guys will make calls or send flowers. They're not really showing love, just proving they can get around the system, showing who's boss." In the toxic world of domestic violence, simply receiving an unsigned birthday card can be a deadly threat.
Yet domestic violence thrives in the best of zip codes, including the bedroom communities for Boston's medical chiefs. "Two of the worst cases I ever prosecuted involved doctors," says Buel, who finds that domestic violence is increasing in severity among wealthier families. "There's a much greater use of weapons. Ten years ago you would never have heard of a computer executive putting a gun to his wife's head."
Because too many victims stay with their batterers, Buel has begun to radically shift her approach to ending violence. "I'm learning new ways to compromise, reaching out to defense attorneys." In this she is crossing a divide most feminist lawyers shun. The defense attorneys, after all, represent batterers, "because they have the money." But they also have some power over their clients. "Some defense attorneys are willing to change their practices, to agree to take on batterers only if they go to a treatment program and stick with it."
This braving of the breach gives the lie to any suggestion that Buel is motivated by vindictiveness. She rolls her huge eyes at characterizations of activists as man haters. Or as do-gooders blind to the "fact" that people don't change.
There are men in her life. First and foremost is her son; he's away -- but not too far away -- at college. And there is a serious relationship. "He works in another domain, so there's no sense of competition. He is very emotionally supportive and respects the work I do. I had pretty much given up. Most men say I'm too intimidating."
Not David Adams, who runs the first and arguably best counseling program set up in the United States for men who batter. "It's taken someone like her to move the system forward. Only recently have the courts begun to hear women's concerns; they're more attuned to men's perspectives and complaints. She's a tremendous leader widely respected in the criminal justice system. She's become the conscience of the system, always looking at ways victims can be helped and perpetrators held accountable."
Holding men accountable for their violence is a full-time job for Adams, who sees 300 abusers a week at his Cambridge-based Emerge program. "These guys constantly minimize their own behavior. They'll say, 'She provoked me; if she'd only just shut up or respect me more.'" Excuse number two is "I lost control. I just snapped." Observes Adams: "But their 'snapping' is awfully selective; they snap only with the victim, not with their boss or other people."
Battering, Adams insists, "is primarily an instrument of control. It's not anger, though abusers always claim they're impulsive. It is purposeful, though from the outside it looks as if it's irrational behavior. And there's a logic to it; it enforces social rules. It is a learned behavior that's self-reinforcing -- batterers get what they want through violence -- and socially reinforced through beliefs about women as the social and sexual caretakers of men." He finds it takes at least nine months in the program just to puncture men's denial.
Returning to Boston from Williamsburg, Buel attends back-to-back meetings. First is the board session of a foundation that funds battered-women's shelters. Next comes the Domestic Violence Council, a regional group of private and public attorneys who share information and strategies. Buel started the council in law school. It has grown exponentially since, and now meets at one of Boston's prestige law firms. Discussions this day focus on:
o Lawyers' safety. Being the barrier between a woman and her batterer sometimes leads to threats, or worse; victims and their attorneys have been murdered -- even in the courthouse. A lawyer reports that her tires were punctured.
o A new cultural trend toward what look like organizations for the preservation of fatherhood. Masquerading as involved fathers, members are often batterers who use their kids as a way of stalking or threatening ex-partners. A law student assigned to check out one group's roster reports that 86 percent of the men have restraining orders against them.
o Monitoring the courts. For two years, practicing and student attorneys have been trained to evaluate how the state's judges handle domestic violence cases. Now they're assembling a committee to meet with those doing a bad job -- those who, say, don't ask about kids or weapons when considering requests for restraining orders -- and inform them how to do better.
The day has no end. Dinner isn't simply a meal, it's an opportunity to give support and advice to two Harvard Law grads who have formed the fledgling Women's Rights Network. Where should they go for funding? Does she know a defense attorney in Edmonton (Canada) for the international information they are putting together on domestic violence?
And Buel whips out some formidable pieces of paper, legal-pad sheets neatly filled with the names and phone numbers of people -- 73 per side -- whose calls she must return. There were, I think, four of them, neatly written, neatly folded, representing two or three days' worth of calls to her office and her home. She keeps her number listed so women in trouble can find her. Somewhere on the list is an Edmonton attorney.
The two young women complain that despite its own budget surplus, Harvard Law has cut funding for law clinics, needed now more than ever as the public sector cuts back. "They'll no doubt use the money to put in more rosewood desks," they scoff.
But all three know it is the very credibility a Harvard Law degree bestows that compels the attention of so many others. And that, says Buel, "also pisses me off. People who wouldn't pay attention to me before suddenly hang on every word."
That seventh-grade teacher, I am certain, the one who almost derailed her for good, is never far from Buel's mind.