On Choosing Silence

This post was written by a special guest author, Julia Davidson. Julia is a program manager at Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine. She has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and minored in Women and Gender Studies. In 2013, she received the Outstanding Graduate Award in Women and Gender Studies from University of Southern Maine. She is a fierce ally for survivors of abuse and I am lucky to count her among my closest friends.

I never thought I would know a murderer. A large percentage of homicides in Maine are due to domestic violence and I happen to know a former partner of the aforementioned murderer. I am loathe to bring more attention to him by speaking about that specifically, but it is important to say that neither my friend nor the woman he murdered were the first partners he’d abused, nor the third nor fourth. Though I did my best to draw attention to his behavior before he preyed on another person, dozens of people in his life saw what I saw and said nothing. I am certain that if a handful, or even one key person whom he held in esteem had a frank conversation with him about their opinions of his actions, things may have turned out differently. I heard people I once respected say that it wasn’t their business, that they didn’t want to get in the middle of things. The blame still belongs to the perpetrator, but had more people chosen a courageous route instead of “staying out of it”, his victim would still be walking the streets of Portland today.

Your silence is not neutral.

My memories of the deafening quiet that surrounded and protected this person keep weighing on my mind now that it is October, domestic violence awareness month. Abusers are skilled at creating isolation and provoking fear in order to maintain their control. These threats and an atmosphere of terror and loneliness warp a victim’s perception of their worth and value. Someone who has been told that no one will believe them and they are at fault for their own abuse understandably may come to feel convinced that they are worthless. They are unsure that anyone will believe or support them, and hyper conscious of being a burden. When those abusers are also people with social power, like professors and attorneys and artists, they benefit from an added layer of protection from accountability due to their social position. They often have a cadre of admirers who will protect and defend them. Unlike victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence, those of us on the outside of those relationships have no prohibitions, no consequences besides feeling awkward in speaking honestly about abuse we are aware of. If you see someone you know engaging in abuse, the onus is on you to approach and supportively confront this person. An awkward conversation will not kill you. Maintaining silence in the matter, on the other hand, is incredibly dangerous.

Your silence is a choice.

When a nationwide conversation arises around one instance of sexism fueled violence, our focus is dually on the punishment of the abuser and scrutinizing the choices of the survivor. We are wasting our time when we question a survivor for staying in a relationship or for otherwise not being a perfect victim. It is more appropriate to ask why the abuser chooses to use violence and intimidation, and why their community allowed this to happen. When we focus on punishment and jail time as the answer to violence, we are missing the fact that changing our misogynist culture is the only path to eliminating intimate partner violence. Cultural change can happen with a shift in our personal standards and a common commitment to holding those who’ve acted harmfully accountable. When these discussions reach a fever pitch at the national level, or even when a small policy change happens, we still overlook ample opportunities to consider our own communities and state clearly and firmly that we will not tolerate abuse within our friend circles, in our work places, in our families or on our campuses.

Your silence is political.

If you’ve never lost a friend or family member to violence, I envy you. For a minute, think of a person you’ve known who has experienced domestic or sexual violence in their lives. Now imagine her loss and the world without her. If you’ve ever said that you won’t get involved, that the violence was provoked by the victim, that your friend is a decent guy who wouldn’t hurt anyone, know that you have sent a clear message to all involved. Neutrality in the face of interpersonal violence is a fallacy. It is a convenient theoretical concept, to stay in the middle, but you are siding with the abuser, and your friend who has experienced abuse will know that your choice is to not support them. A perpetrator uses your silence as a tactic in their abuse. “Go ahead,” they’ll say. “Try to get help. None of our friends think I’m abusive; no one has said one word. No one will believe you.”

Your silence is a weapon.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence and would like to talk with an advocate, call 866-834-4357, TRS 800-787-3224. This free, confidential service is available 24/7 and is accessible from anywhere in Maine.

Dani Unterreiner

About Dani Unterreiner

Dani Unterreiner recently graduated with a B.A. in Sociology from University of Southern Maine. She now works in politics and engages in grassroots activism in her spare time. Despite being a mean, scary feminist, she's happily married and the proud mom of a little girl.