The trial for Oscar Pistorius, the South African Olympic sprinter who is accused of murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, begins on Monday. Pistorius shot Steenkamp through the door while she was in the bathroom. Prosecutors say that he did it on purpose, suggesting that Steenkamp was hiding in the bathroom during a lovers’ tiff. Pistorius claims that he thought an intruder had broken into the house and he shot in haste rather than determining if it was a robber or just his girlfriend who had gotten up in the middle of the night from their shared bed.
A big part of Pistorius’s defense is to portray his relationship with Steenkamp as a loving one and to portray himself as a grieving boyfriend who should be sympathized with instead of excoriated. On the anniversary of her death at his hands, Pistoriuswrote on his website, “No words can adequately capture my feelings about the devastating accident that has caused such heartache for everyone who truly loved—and continues to love Reeva.” A friend of Pistorius’s provided CNN with some photos of the pair in the weeks and months before the shooting. The photos show a canoodling couple. It’s clear that the Pistorius camp hopes the public will look at these photos and conclude that they were happy and in love and believe it’s not possible that he might have been abusing her.
Regardless of what actually happened that night, however, the pictures should be understood as irrelevant. They could show a happy couple in love, or they could be pictures of a woman in denial who is trying to convince herself that everything is okay. You can’t actually tell by looking, as a woman in love and a woman trying to convince everyone (and herself) that everything is okay look exactly the same. More darkly, that a woman loves a man isn’t really evidence against the contention that he is abusing her. After all, the reason that women stay with abusive men is that they love them. The reason women stay is they believe the abuser’s lies that he didn’t mean it when he abused, and that he won’t do it in the future.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if you could tell that someone is being abused by looking at her? Sadly, many people still fall for the myth that women in abusive relationships look sad and traumatized all the time.
It’s clear that the Pistorius camp hopes the public will look at these photos and conclude that they were happy and in love and believe it’s not possible that he might have been abusing her.
For decades now, domestic violence activists have emphasized that women in abusive relationships tend to react by cleaning up after an episode, putting on a game face, and trying to convince the world that their relationship is just fine. Indeed, abusers count on the expectation that victims will conceal their shameful secret. Activists have also underlined how abusers aren’t abusive all the time, and in fact can provide their victims with a lot of fun and pleasure and even support, all to convince the victim to tell herself that he’s not “all bad.” Most victims spend months and years believing that the good times are the real face of their abuser, and his moments of abuse are nothing but bad episodes.
There was even a popular movie, “What’s Love Got To Do With It,” that showed how Tina Turner was capable of selling herself as a carefree sexpot to the world while secretly enduring appalling levels of abuse at the hand of her husband in private. And yet the myth persists that a woman’s love for a man somehow proves that he isn’t hitting her or that a woman’s smiles in public prove that her home life isn’t periodically marked by bouts of violence.
Despite all this, it seems a lot of people are convinced by a couple of smiling photos that abuse can’t be happening at home. Pistorius’s website runs a stream of supportive messages for him from people who are absolutely convinced he just made a mistake in shooting his girlfriend, despite some of the glaring inconsistencies in his story. The problem is that it’s just really hard for a lot of people to understand that the relationship between an abuser and a victim is a complex one, that real affection can reside right alongside the abuser’s desire to control. The victim can feel a real love or affection for an abuser alongside fear. Or worse, the love that a victim feels for an abuser is frequently used by the abuser to terrorize the victim, and make them feel like they are to blame for not doing enough to please the abuser and therefore deserve whatever abuse they get.
This happens in romantic relationships, but it can happen in friendships, as well. Emily Bazelon, writing for Slate about the bullying scandal in the Miami Dolphins, explains very well how it was possible for Jonathan Martin to both feel that Richie Incognito was his friend while being emotionally abused by Incognito the whole time.
And because they were friends—the kind who went to strip clubs together—Incognito knew Martin well enough to suss out his weak points. The investigators write that Martin’s efforts to socialize with Incognito are “consistent with the reaction of a person who is trapped in an abusive situation.” This explains how, after Martin left the team and Incognito texted him to ask how he was feeling, Martin wrote, “It’s insane bro but just know I don’t blame you guys at all.” He blamed himself and he was still, emotionally, under Incognito’s thumb, seeing what the bully wanted him to see.
Getting you to like them or even love them and getting you to trust them: These are the most potent weapons in abuser’s arsenal. If you love a person and see yourself as his friend or girlfriend or wife, you are going to want to protect him. You are going to want to please him and make him happy. When he yells at you, you’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt. When he says he will never hit you again, because you trust him, you will believe him. When he shows you a good time and demonstrates that he cares about you, you will convince yourself that the occasional bouts of abuse are worth it. This is why victims don’t leave. This is why they might smile for the camera. They may even feel happy at times, when they aren’t being abused. But none of this excuses the abuse itself. Nor does it mean it’s not real.
The truth is that we don’t know what happened between Oscar Pistorius or ReevaSteenkamp, at least not yet. (The court has 107 witnesses on the docket and is looking into phone records, suggesting we will know quite a bit when this trial is done.) It’s possible that they were a happy couple that got along well and Pistorius shot her by accident, as he says. Or it’s possible that they were locked in an abusive relationship and Pistorius shot Steenkamp on Valentine’s Day while they were in the midst of an ugly fight, as the prosecution argues. But the important thing to remember is that we can’t tell either way from pictures of them smiling or from either party’s public avowals of love. By its nature, domestic violence is a secret that the victim hides out of shame and loyalty and the abuser hides out of self-preservation.