Lydia Bodin has followed the recent travails of Roseanne Arnold with great interest. On April 18, Roseanne filed for divorce from her husband, Tom Arnold, accusing him, in her request for a restraining order, of violent behaviors and concluding that she has become “a classic battered wife.”
On April 21, Roseanne dropped divorce proceedings, recanted her charges and asked for forgiveness.
Bodin, as it happens, is a deputy L.A. County district attorney. Technically, the division she heads is called the Domestic Violence Unit. But she calls it Desperation Central. She prosecutes people--men, mostly--who rape and batter their loved ones, who tie them up and force them to watch as the children are molested, who lock them in closets and force-feed them drugs, who stalk them, terrorize them, kill them.
It’s ugly work, and it has taken years for people such as Bodin, people who toil in the depressing fields of domestic violence, to reap the respect and support they deserve.
So Bodin was none too happy to hear the news that Roseanne Arnold had recanted her claims of being a battered wife. Not because she wants Roseanne to be battered--no decent person would--but because she knew in her gut that no matter what happened between Tom and Roseanne, this was bad news for women who are victimized by the men they love.
“I said, ‘Now we are going to hear this argument--the one people believe because they don’t want to believe women are getting beat up in their homes--that women just lie to leverage themselves in divorce situations. That they don’t tell the truth.”
An overreaction? Hardly.
“The day after I said that,” said Bodin, “it happened in one of our trials. Basically, (a defense attorney) brought up Tom and Roseanne and said, ‘This happens all the time. This is just family stuff. They make these things up. They say one thing one day and say another thing the next day.’ ”
The defendant in the case, said Bodin, a man with a history of violence, was accused of stalking his wife, breaking into her house with a crowbar and a knife and terrorizing her. When we spoke, the jury was still out.
“Where I work, we are talking felony domestic violence: serious assault, homicide, permanent maiming, women forcibly losing babies, really ugly crimes, morally repugnant. And we are almost always looking at a long line of misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence, and these women aren’t lying about it. Many of these women have gone to the courts and gotten restraining orders and they rely on that system to protect them.”
Ah yes, the system. The system Roseanne turned to when she wanted help and protection from the man she claimed abused her.
But the system can be abused, too. And what, if anything, should happen to someone who abuses it, who swears on penalty of perjury that her statements are true, then recants?
Maybe, in the case of domestic violence, nothing should be done.
After all, as Bodin points out, in 80% of the cases that come her way, the victim is reluctant to press charges, or recants, or minimizes the experience.
Perhaps this is what is happening to Roseanne. Perhaps not.
Patricia Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women, says punishing people who are already emotionally confused is probably not the best course. This is why police in Los Angeles--and many other jurisdictions--are instructed to make arrests in domestic violence calls if they see evidence of abuse or believe it to have taken place. The burden of having to decide whether to press charges is no longer on the victim.
But the idea that Roseanne should somehow be held up as a symbol to victims of domestic violence is unappealing to Giggans and other advocates for battered women.
Who--besides the Arnolds after all--knows what really happened?
“And frankly,” said Giggans, “I have outgrown my need for celebrities to validate what is happening in people’s lives. I hope they get some help.”
Who can know what demons and angels inhabit the imaginations of people such as Roseanne and Tom Arnold?
In order to work the Arnolds into a coherent world view, you have to decide if you want to take them as real folks--an image upon which they have built an extraordinary entertainment dynasty--or cartoon figures who blow themselves up, drop anvils on each other’s heads and bounce right back for next week’s episode.
Either way, they have made a grotesque public spectacle of their marriage and, it appears, a mockery of a problem that plagues millions of American women.
Too bad for them. Too bad for us.