Why Don't Women Leave Batterers?

Knocks to the head may diminish them so much that they can't.

Posted Sep 16, 2014

So it seems we’re taking our national news these days from nontraditional sources.

The celebrity gossip web site TMZ was the first media outlet to successfully look under the hood of the story about the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice whamming the woman who is now his wife, knocking her out cold, and then treating her unconscious body with all the cool of someone who, to quote Bob Dylan, has been through this movie before.

When Rice’s wife Janay publicly stood by her man, web chatter took a left turn, proclaiming her not a victim but a gold digger after Rice’s millions. That’s when more informed voices started to chime in with the myriad of sad reasons that battered women stay with their abusers. I won’t repeat the reasons here. No doubt you’ve heard them all these past few days.

But then, shortly after TMZ’s moment in the journalistic spotlight, Rosie O’Donnell scored points (in my book, anyway) when she weighed in the Ray Rice scandal.

They’re encouraged and paid to be violent…. It would be wonderful if they were able to separate the violence of their job with [sic] the violence of their life. But I don’t think that’s how human brains work…. But I do understand how a guy who knocks people over and pushes them down for a living might do that in his private life, even though it’s wrong.

Rosie’s reaction was exactly my reaction to seeing the elevator video. But then, the very same week, the New York Times ran a front page story about traumatic brain injuries and NFL players. According to the Times the NFL expects about one third of its players to develop cognitive and other neurological problems at notably younger ages than men in the general population.

While Rosie may have been right in suggesting that engaging constantly in violence on the football field encourages violence at home, what she apparently missed is that brain injury alters brain function enough that, no matter what your day job is, violence becomes an almost automatic response to stress. Way back in 1994, researchers learned that men who’d had a traumatic brain injury were more likely to be physically abusive husbands. By 2011, other researchers had concluded an eight-year study showing an increase in violent behavior among young people with a recent brain injury. And in all of the years in between—and since—study after study have found that battering men have endured significantly more brain injuries from sports, street fights, falls, or any number of calamities than men who are not violent.

Now, I don’t excuse Ray Rice’s violence towards the woman who is now his wife. But I can imagine that years of hard knocks on the football field diminished his judgment and possibly his IQ, quickened his hair trigger, and in short made him the man he is today. And in all of this information about traumatic brain injuries in batterers there may also be an answer to what has become the question of the week: If she's not a gold digger, why did Janay Rice marry Ray Rice, and why does she intend to stay with him?

Well, did you see what kind of injury he gave her? Being knocked out cold and for a long time makes her pretty typical of battered women.

In one study 40% had taken blows to the head resulting in loss of consciousness. In another study—this one of women living in a battered women shelter—almost 30% reported having had 10 brain injuries during the previous year. Why do battered women like Janay Rice  stay with the men who hurt them? Of course they may love their batterers or think the abuse is their own fault. But it could also be that head injuries have left them with diminished cognitive abilities, poor judgment, and hair triggers of their own. Whatever kind of woman they were before head injuries, they may have become ones who think it’s a good idea to spit, for example, in a violent lover’s face. By the time battering becomes commonplace in a relationship, some women may be too medically fragile and confused to figure out how to leave, and how to fend for themselves alone. 

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Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist (Scientific American, Discover, Vermont Public radio, and other outlets). Her debut novel is Hysterical: Anna Freud's Story. It's the fact-based, fictional autobiography of Sigmund Freud's lesbian daughter. Booklist called Hysterical “an avidly researched, shrewd, and unnerving first novel” that is “complexly entertaining, sexually dramatic, [and] acidly funny.” LAMBDA Literary said it's got a "plot so rife with tension it will make you squirm." O, the Oprah Magazine recommended it in its June 2014 issue.

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