Michelle and Rocky got together young, and quickly. By the time Michelle was just 17, the couple had two young children, but she still graduated from high school on time. Her family saw her as strong, smart, and proud. But they saw her less and less, as Rocky increasingly controlled her with violence and threats of violence. He abused drugs, waved guns around, took the children away to terrify her. She tried to leave him; she got a restraining order. She was trying to save her children’s lives, and her own. It didn’t work. Rocky shot and killed Michelle and the children, then killed himself.
“Michelle was buried with her children in the same casket, oversized, with her arms wrapped around each of them,” Rachel Louise Snyder writes, a detail almost unbearable in its poignancy. Snyder has reported on violence around the world, from Cambodia to Afghanistan to Niger to Honduras. While covering war and famine, refugees and gang members, there was one constant undercurrent, too ubiquitous to be noticed. In every country, “women … were brutalized and controlled by men as a matter of routine,” she writes. “It was there lurking in practically every story I’d ever covered across the world, a shadowy background so obvious I didn’t even have to ask about it most of the time. It was as common as rain.”
In “No Visible Bruises,” Snyder turns her attention to domestic violence, a story she calls “among the most difficult of subjects to report on” because it’s “vast and unwieldy, but it’s also utterly hidden.” Partly, of course, this is because of where it happens. “Our homes and families are supposed to be sacred territory,” Snyder writes. Furthermore, it violates our sense of how life is supposed to be. “Love is what makes domestic violence different from any other crime,” Snyder writes. “That the people involved have said to each other and the world, you are the most important person to me.” For that love to end in injury and even death, she adds, “requires us to mentally, intellectually, and emotionally hurdle beyond what we can imagine.”
To write about domestic violence, then, Snyder has to go both wide and deep. The book opens with a close look at the murder of Michelle and her children, everything that led up to it, and the pervasive guilt and regret felt by family and friends. It is one tragedy that stands in for the millions, and we feel it, deeply. After a broad examination of the damage wrought — not just to individual victims but to families, neighborhoods, communities, societies — Snyder turns to the abusers. If a victim represents the end of the domestic violence process, then the person who hurt her is the beginning. If we want to end the violence, we should begin there, teaching men to recognize and disrupt the process that leads them to hurt the women and children in their lives. Snyder acknowledges that there are male victims of domestic violence, and that intimate partner abuse happens in all gender combinations, but the vast majority of these cases feature a man harming a woman. Indeed, as Snyder paraphrases one of the experts she talks to, “[i]t is men who take their violence out on masses of others. School shootings are carried out by young men. Mass murders. Gang warfare, murder-suicides and familicides and matricides and even genocide: all men. Always men.”
So how can men’s violence be addressed? In the groups Snyder observes, it’s clear that it takes time, trust, and reformed male voices who can talk to abusers from a place of identification. Learning to be vulnerable is a big part of things. Acknowledging the full range of emotions, including those seen as feminine: “kindness, love, fear, pain, sadness, care, nurture.” Here and in the book’s final section, which looks at those who work to assess risk and prevent violence, Snyder speaks with dozens of people, including hostage negotiators, police officers, case workers, and activists. What she concludes is that we are still largely in the dark — we know things that don’t help, we are getting better at understanding the signs and signals of relationships that may turn deadly, but we have so far to go. After all, she notes, “The United States spends as much as twenty-five times more on researching cancer or heart disease as it does on violence prevention, despite the enormous costs of violence to our communities.”
“No Visible Bruises” is both reportage and manifesto. One senses Snyder’s impatience in the short, fragmentary sentences that pepper the book. Her empathy for the victims is powerful, and infectious. But so is her interest in the perpetrators, some of whom may be able to recover, to change and atone. And as she makes very clear, those who undertake reform — studying and quantifying risk, asking smart questions about whether women’s shelters help or hurt, counseling survivors and getting them the support they need — are heroes. “Throughout my reporting, it struck me how often I came upon such seemingly small changes that wound up making the difference between life and death, between a good decision and a bad one,” Snyder writes. May the small changes add up.
Rachel Louise Snyder
Bloomsbury, 320 pps, $28