Since 1985, the month of October has been recognized as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in our country. I’m quite sure that the original organizers had envisioned a community with far less intimate partner violence by the year 2021 when they worked to have the month designated to the issue 36 years ago.
Unless you have been taking a vacation from virtual or television media, you’ve likely heard of Gabby Petito.
I don’t want to tell Gabby’s story without highlighting the fact the thousands of women who don’t look like Gabby go missing and are murdered every year in our country. Most never receive even a moment of media attention. Those women’s lives were every bit as valuable and important as Gabby’s life.
There is a huge problem with our national media’s bias when it comes to reporting on missing and murdered women in our country. Not pointing out that inequity would be disrespectful to those beautiful souls who we lost with absolutely no public outrage or media attention.
Gabby was a talented, adventurous and intelligent 22-year-old who set out on an adventure of a lifetime this July. She was excited about her four-month journey across the U.S. in a converted van with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. They had planned to explore national parks and preserves while documenting the adventure on social media.
The trip culminated with Brian returning to his home in Florida with Gabby’s van. Gabby was nowhere to be found and Brian refused to give any information about what happened to her. A nationwide search fueled by social media true crime fanatics ensued. Gabby’s face was on the news and all over social media on a daily basis.
Still Brian and his family stayed silent.
Tragically, Gabby’s remains were found in a National Park in Wyoming on Sept. 19. Her cause of death was determined to be strangulation. Conveniently, Brian set off on a hike in a Florida reserve on Sept. 14. On Friday authorities confirmed that human remains found near Brian Laundrie’s backpack and notebook in that same reserve are his.
Gabby’s story ignited the country and shed light on the epidemic of intimate partner violence. Gabby’s story is way too common. Close friends and family state that they never saw any signs of violent behavior during the couple’s 4-year-long, on again off again, relationship. What they described was toxic jealousy, controlling behavior, isolation, and extreme emotional abuse.
Many of you may have seen a new Netflix series titled “Maid.” Alex’s story in the series is very similar to Gabby’s. She feels that she can’t ask for help from law enforcement or social services since the abuse isn’t physical. Gabby’s real-life story and Alex’s fictionalized one both highlight what is called coercive control.
Coercive control refers to a pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. These behaviors give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave.
Coercive control describes a pattern of behaviors a perpetrator uses to gain control and power over their romantic partner. They use tactics that erode a person’s autonomy and self-esteem. These tactics can include acts of intimidation, threats, and humiliation.
Cases like Gabby’s aren’t easily prevented.
When we get calls from survivors who have experienced physical violence, our job is much easier. Offer a safety plan which may include a temporary protective order, discuss reporting the assault to law enforcement and make referrals for legal and financial resources which are available in the community. Offer emergency shelter and financial assistance to ensure safety. These steps are far from easy for the survivors, but at least they have options and choices.
Victims of coercive control who reach out for help in an absence of physically violent tactics have far fewer lifelines available to them. Yet they are as likely to have their lives tragically ended as is a victim who has experienced multiple assaults.
There are no simple fixes to this complicated issue.
Hospitality House spent a year working on a Strategic Plan to address intimate partner violence in our community. That plan focuses mostly on prevention. Healthy relationship programming should begin in preschool.
That really is the only path to reducing the number of lives we lose every year.
During the year 2020, 130 Georgian’ lost their lives due to domestic violence. Thirty-six of these cases were murder suicides. Many of these deaths could have been prevented if the resources were available to establish and implement a curriculum of violence prevention from pre-K through high school.