Deborah K. Shepherd
A terrible tragedy has occurred in our community. It is terrible for the children of Sarah Gordon, who are the living victims of this violent act, especially, and for her family. But it is also a tragedy for all of us. Sarah Gordon, who was just 30 when her husband shot and killed her, was a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter. She may have been a sister and a niece. She was surely a neighbor, a friend, a colleague, an employee, a community member. She might have been a soccer or Little League or class mom, a volunteer, a parishioner, a customer. In short, Sarah Gordon touched many lives, and all of us are saddened and diminished by her death.
Sarah’s killing raises many questions, some of which are productive, and may help us understand how to lessen the chance of this kind of tragedy happening again in our communities. Some questions, though, serve to perpetuate this horror and should never be asked: These are the victim-blaming questions: What was wrong with her that she didn’t leave? What did she do that drove him to it? The questions we need to be asking must focus on the abuser, instead: What was wrong with him that he could commit such a horrible crime? What in his thinking led him to believe that violence was an acceptable way to handle marital conflict?
We know that the time a victim leaves her abuser (and I use “her” given that the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic violence are female, especially those who are severely injured or killed) is often the most dangerous time for a victim, because the abuser may feel that he has finally lost control of her and he will do whatever it takes — even kill her — to see that she doesn’t get away. And yet there are many brave women who are helped to devise a safety plan and who do take those steps to get free from a partner who abuses her.
We also know that there are so many factors that keep a woman with an abusive partner: She may be unable to maintain the family financially; she may believe that her children are better off in a two-parent home; and very often, she may love her partner in spite of it all. These women are equally brave as they try to protect themselves and their children from abuse in situations in which it is impossible to extricate themselves. Many of the women who seek our help don’t want to leave him, they just want him to stop the violence, the abuse. It is very common that a victim will try to leave an abuser seven or more times before she finally gets away.
This is not a time to question a victim’s actions, but it is a time to question ourselves. What information do we need to help a friend who may be a victim of domestic violence? How can we help someone we know who may be abusing his partner? How can we help our children learn that violence is never the way to handle conflict?
It will take a community to end domestic violence. Are you ready to do your part? Is this the day you’ll say to a co-worker who has come to work with bruises — “Are you o.k.? I’m worried about you. I have some information about people who can help you”? If you are a health care worker, is this the day you start asking every patient, “Are you safe at home”? If you are a parent of small children, is this the day you share that “hands are not for hitting” and that there are better ways to handle conflict? If you are an employer, is this the day you devise a domestic violence policy for your place of business? If you are the leader of a faith community, is this the day you deliver a sermon about treating partners with respect and that abuse — whether physical, sexual, emotional, or financial — should never be part of any relationship? If you are a teen, is this the day you help your peers learn the “red flags” of an unhealthy dating relationship? If you are a neighbor, is this the day you admit that the abuse going on next door is not just a “marital spat” that’s “none of your business,” and you call 911?
As we mourn Sarah Gordon and grieve with her family, let’s make a vow that we will do all that we can to reach the goal of “Never again” in our communities — never one more life lost to domestic violence.
Deborah K. Shepherd is the Executive Director of the Family Violence Project.