This Is How Physical Abusers Manipulate Their Targets

“I had no reason to feel compassionate as I looked at him in jail that day.”

Tonic/May 9, 2018

By Elizabeth Brico

I’m sitting in a dim room on one side of a stretch of double-paned glass, clutching a corded phone to my ear. My boyfriend sits on the other side of the glass in a baggy red jumpsuit. I’m flanked on both sides by other women who sit on low, round stools, talking to other men behind glass. My boyfriend nods toward one of the guys. He looks bigger and meaner than my boyfriend, who is thin and huddled behind the glass. He presses his lips to the mouthpiece. “That guy wants to kill me,” he whispers. “I have to get out of here.” His blue eyes are wide, pleading.

I was 17 at the time. I had to use an 18-year-old friend’s ID to get into the jail. Sitting there across from him, I wasn’t sure why I risked my own freedom to visit that man. He spent three days beating me and biting me in a motel, where he held me against my will. For three days, he told me if I didn’t give him money for more nights, he would tie me to a tree in a forest and leave me there until my black eye healed. Before that, he strangled me until I lost consciousness. Before that, he pushed me.

So I had no reason to feel compassion toward him as I looked at him in jail that day. When I came to visit, I wasn’t sure if it was to help him or say goodbye. When I left, I was even less sure. After that, each time he called—and each time I accepted the call—my will to send to him to prison dwindled. Finally, in response to his pleas, I made my own call to the prosecutor and told her I couldn’t remember what happened, and I wouldn’t testify in court.

It would happen again, in the years to come. I—or a worried neighbor—would call the police. My boyfriend would go to jail on assault charges. Then he’d call, ask me to visit, or just beg me to keep accepting his calls. As the phone calls progressed, my desire to testify against him diminished until I finally recanted, and he walked free.

Research from the George Washington University School of Law found that as many as 80 percent of domestic violence survivors recant their testimonies. A lot of people assume the underlying cause of this phenomenon is fear, an obvious factor in abusive relationships. “When you’re in a relationship with someone who has you under siege, they’ve essentially taken you hostage and you’re afraid not to cooperate,” says Julie Owens, a domestic violence survivor who consults for the Department of Justice and has almost 30 years of experience helping people fight domestic violence. I was constantly on alert and frightened around my boyfriend. But it wasn’t the sole driving factor behind my decision to recant.

A 2011 study conducted by researcher Amy Bonomi and her colleagues identified a five-part manipulation used by abusers to get their victims to recant. I had a hard time reading Bonomi’s study, not only because it described a humiliating interplay that I personally experienced, but also because the study was performed by listening in on calls placed from the same facility as the one where my abuser was jailed—and during the same time period as at least one of his jail stints. They listened to calls between 17 couples—incarcerated male abusers and their female partners, who were set to testify against them in court. Their names were not provided in the study. I may never know whether mine was one of the voices on the call but the pattern the researchers uncovered was all too familiar.

The five stages look like this: First, the couple discusses the abuse event. The victim is typically angry and resolves to stand up for herself. In the second stage, the perpetrator minimizes the abuse. In my personal experience, my partner usually blamed me for provoking him or said that it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t gotten high—he just needed treatment. The second stage also often includes mention of some kind of hardship the abuser is facing (the scary guy who supposedly wanted to kill my boyfriend, for example). In the third stage, the couple bonds over the good times—riding bikes together, or their favorite movie, for example. In the fourth stage, having elicited her sympathy and softened her resolve, he asks her to recant. She agrees the way I always agreed. During the fifth stage, they make a plan as to how to effectively go about it, and bond over a shared enemy, like the rude prosecutor or the overly punitive state.

It’s a disturbing study, illustrating how various abusers across different races and economic classes use the same tactics to get themselves off the hook for assault. What the research doesn’t show is what happens next. In my version, I recanted my testimony again and again, until I didn’t. After four years of abuse, it finally clicked inside of me that he wasn’t ever going to stop. There was nothing I could do to make him respect me, and if he didn’t respect me, he had no motivation to discontinue behaviors that worked for him.

My testimony didn’t get him charged with a violent crime; I’d recanted too many times to be able to act as a credible sole witness. Instead he was booked for violation of a no-contact order and witness tampering—a charge that was proven through those recorded jail calls. My testimony, coupled with the amount of evidence I turned over to the police—which included records of more than 800 calls from jail (only a small fraction of which I answered) and an enormous pile of letters—was enough to get him a conviction and five year prison sentence.

A lot of survivors recant for reasons ranging from fear to sympathy to sexism. Our court system, much like our society, is often predisposed against abuse testimony, especially when it comes from women. Getting better justice for domestic violence survivors is “all about getting courts and the legal system to actually treat women like equal human beings and treating violence against women and children as the crime that it is,” says Joan Meier, a domestic violence law expert and professor of law at George Washington University. “We have a lot of acceptance of male violence against women and children [as normal].”

Essentially, if we want domestic violence survivors—male or female—to feel empowered to testify, we need to make them feel safe in sharing their story in the first place. That means no more victim-blaming; no more asking if she did something to make the abuser angry, or how much she had to drink that night. There also needs to be psychological support available during every step of the process. If we can help survivors recognize the manipulation while it’s taking place, we can help them build defenses against it.

It won’t take away the fear, or the very real dangers of testifying against an abuser who will eventually be free again, but it can help a person realize that the relationship is dangerous. Finally understanding that was the only thing that broke my own pattern.