Updated: Jun 13, 2019
You may not think of Crime Con, the annual all-things-true-crime convention, now in its fourth year, as the natural place for bloody serious conversation about domestic violence and coercive control. But it is.
It may also not be obvious that what the Nancy Graces, the murderinos, OJ trial veterans, podcasters small and large, and real-life law enforcement folks of every stripe, that gathered in over-heated New Orleans this past weekend, have in common is - they all grapple with a whole lot of dead women.
Maybe it gets lost in the miscellany, maybe in the sensationalism and the 'murder-porn' of it all, but for all intents and purposes, 'true crime' may just be synonymous with 'violence against women'. Yes, there are male victims of course in the stories, investigations, docu-series, exposés - but the overwhelming majority of crime victims are women. And a great many of those dead women are killed by a man they know well, not a stranger.
This fact is not lost on our Executive Producer Laura Richards, who has made it her life's work to help us all better understand criminal and violent behavior - the hows, whys and therefores of domestic violence, stalking and homicide - with a laser focus on victims and prevention. Laura spent a decade at New Scotland Yard as Head of the Homicide Prevention Unit and Head of the Violent Crime Intelligence and Analysis Unit and then spent another decade or more founding Paladin, the world's first National Stalking Advocacy Service, and then spearheaded the Domestic Violence Law Reform campaign, which resulted in the criminalization of coercive control in the UK.
Aside from bringing a wealth of encyclopedic knowledge and analytic prowess to bear on specific cases, Laura connects what happens in particular cases to larger patterns, makes connections between individual behaviors and public consciousness, and tells us stories that turns on the lightbulb. One such lightbulb moment for me, came during the 'Dirty John' Lunch & Learn session, when Laura explained that these days, the two calls police fear most are 'domestic violence' and 'active shooter' calls - because the risk of getting killed is so high. She then points out that most active shooter cases ARE ongoing domestic violence cases, listing example after example of mass shootings that originated in domestic violence with one female target - ex-girlfriend, wife, estranged partner, mother - that then turned into public massacres. We need to see the patterns.
If mass-shootings is the larger pattern, taking ultimate power over human life - domestic violence is a smaller pattern, taking control over one woman, one family. And that smaller pattern can be broken down into an even more granular pattern - coercive control. The stories never begin with a massacre, or a murder-suicide, or even a garden-variety 'the wife ran off and twenty years later her remains are dug up from the backyard' scenario. According to research by Dr. Evan Stark, Laura Richards and others, it starts with grooming, coercive control, a gradual entrapment and then destruction of autonomy. The entrapment is accomplished by intense courtship, love bombing, monopolizing time, isolating, gaslighting - followed by increasingly controlling behavior, setting rules, surveilling, micro-management, threats. The victim becomes increasingly unstable, fearful, unsure of her judgement, ashamed, her personality diminishes. The pattern escalates to humiliation, intimidation, cruelty, restriction of movement, food, money, sexual abuse and violence - tactics working in concert to gain complete domination. And it is when that malevolent control, that domination is threatened that the abuser turns homicidal. 76% of domestic homicides happen on separation. That is a pattern.
Femicide is also a pattern. Defined as 'the intentional killing of females (women and girls) by males because they are female', The World Health Organization observes three categories - Intimate Femicide, Non-Intimate Femicide and Honor Femicide. We can't say that it is systematic, as in genocide, because it is too unorganized, too random (although in some parts of the world it looks damn methodical) but with 87,000 murders of women last year worldwide, 34% at the hands of an intimate partner, and 24% by a relative, we do know that the most dangerous place for a woman to be, where she is most likely to be killed - is in her own home. Just like Jennifer. And there are a lot of Jennifers. Enough to make a pretty solid pattern.
Yet, we are living through a moment where we'd rather not gender anything. We don't want to cast blame on a whole gender. We don't want the other whole gender to be identified as victim. So its IPV - Intimate Partner Violence. Neat, neither female nor male, academic, very clean. Not messy. And in some DV circles we equivocate even more, we don't even want to articulate the brutality at all, so we call it 'person who does harm'. No gender, no her, no him, ambiguous what harm might mean. We 'both-sides' it, we call it a conflict, and pretend that all things are level. We go full ahistorical and ignore millennia of gendered inequality. Because violence is violence, abuse is abuse, anyone is capable, and it's bad no matter who commits it. I have sat in rooms full of advocates in the highest level of DV NGOs and government agencies where you can't say out loud that domestic violence is a male-on-female violence problem. All the while, we know that every 16 hours a woman is killed by a male partner or ex-partner in this country.
At Crime Con we could talk very openly and frankly about that grizzly, messy, brutal fact and I for one was glad to name it, discuss it, and have it become a tangible, touchable thing.
Listen to Laura and her co-hosts Jim Clemente and Lisa Zambetti do deep-dive expert analysis of crime from a victim perspective on the hit podcast Real Crime Profile