A few weeks ago I was at a campground when I heard something going on in the adjacent tent: a woman’s voice softly saying “ow” and “you hit me,” and every now and then a muffled grunt from a man.
I was alone and I froze, hoping things wouldn’t escalate. They didn’t. I heard her say something about “moving aside” and then she went to sleep.
In the morning, I didn’t say anything about what I had heard, even though I knew which woman was in the tent that night. The whole situation reminded me of Easter dinners at my auntie’s home and her daughters would bring over their physically and emotionally abusive boyfriends to share in the celebration. So many times, there I was: a kid sitting at the table, next to a man who beat my cousin, waiting for the potatoes. We ate our meals, laughed and joked, and ignored the bruises.
I thought as an adult I would do better, I wouldn’t be silent in the face of violence: but that’s not how I acted at the campground. Like so many people, I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
Being a witness to domestic violence is a traumatic and nearly universal experience — 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But it doesn’t have to be.
October is domestic violence awareness month. This year, many advocates are focusing this time on teaching witnesses and bystanders how they can help to stop harm between intimate partners. In particular, the campaign is reaching out to boys and men who may find it difficult to see how they can champion the cause.
“Most men are as appalled by violence just as much as we are and they just don’t know how to get involved,” said Karen Cavenaugh, executive director of the Campaneras shelter in Holyoke. “We want them to be involved and there is a way.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, contact any one of these anti-abuse service providers:
Elizabeth Freeman Center, Pittsfield: (866) 401-2425
Safe Passage, Northampton: (413) 586-5066
NELCWIT, Greenfield: (413) 772-0806
Womanshelter/Companeras, Holyoke: (413) 536-1628
YWCA, Springfield: (800) 796-8711, Westfield: (800) 479-6245
Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project, statewide: (800) 832-1901
Safelink, statewide: (877) 785-2020
This year the Massachusetts Attorney General and the New England Patriots teamed up to launch a program called Game Change, in which male student athletes, coaches, and faculty from 90 high schools in the state were trained over the spring in anti-violence strategies. Education was provided by service organizations, advocates, academics, members of law enforcement, and people who work directly with families suffering from domestic violence.
Companeras was one of six shelters in the state selected by Game Change to support the program. Right now, about a third of the participants in the first wave of education are learning how to teach the strategies they learned to other students and staff at their respective schools. Students at North Adams, Pittsfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, and Springfield high schools are participating, according to the AG.
And on Oct. 4, Tower Square in Springfield will feature an exhibit, “Displays of Character: Men Reimagining Manhood,” 13 interviews and portraits of men who became White Ribbon Day Campaign Ambassadors — the state program that promotes men pledging to stop domestic violence when they see it.
Cavenaugh said witnesses to domestic violence must first and foremost keep themselves safe. This likely means not getting directly involved in a fight between two or more other people. Usually the most helpful and effective thing a bystander can do is find a way to talk to victims by themselves; even an abuser’s trip to the bathroom can provide enough time to help the victim.
“If the situation is escalating, the only thing a bystander, who thinks someone is going to be hurt, can do is call 911 — that’s the only thing you can do,” she said. “But if it doesn’t get to that level … know your local resources and try to give a supportive look, get the person to see you away from the abuser and try to slip this person a [shelter or crisis center] phone number. It can be as subtle as that.”
Cavenaugh also suggests that people who are the friends or family of someone being abused can help by talking to victims about the violence, without judgement, and helping them gain the confidence in themselves to leave the dangerous situation.
“Tell them, it’s not their fault. Try to counteract what the abuser is telling them, because the abuser is taking away their self esteem,” she said.
I never want to be in the situation I was in at the campsite again. I want to be able to act against such a sick form of violence that it uses love to disguise malice. I saved the number for the statewide domestic violence crisis line into my smartphone — Safelink, (877) 785-2020 — so that when I witness abuse again, I can try to stop it.
Contact Kristin Palpini at firstname.lastname@example.org.