When home is not a haven: Most female homicide victims are killed in their own homes

“No Visible Bruises”

Book review
Barrie Olmstead

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and, since reading Rachel Louise Snyder’s harrowing and deeply affecting book “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us,” this topic has been very much on my mind.

According to a 2018 UN report on the Global Study on Homicide, the most dangerous place for a woman is in her home. As is stated in the preface of the report, “Women killed by intimate partners or family members account for 58 percent of all female homicide victims reported globally last year, and little progress has been made in preventing such murders.” Several years ago the hashtag #WhyIStayed became prevalent on social media, seeking to answer the most frequently asked question regarding domestic violence: Why doesn’t she just leave? Snyder, a journalist and associate professor at American University, seeks to not only answer that question, but also to examine the toxic masculinity and patterns of abuse that fuel domestic violence, and methods that have proven successful in beginning to understand and combat this epidemic.

Snyder begins by examining the case of Michelle Monson Mosure, who was murdered along with her children by her husband Rocky, in Billings, Mont., in 2001. Snyder interviews friends and family and begins to understand how a pattern of abuse emerged in the couple’s young marriage.

Michelle was a teenager when she met Rocky, who was a decade older. She was swept off her feet by someone who represented freedom, with his own place and a steady job. Michelle was 15, legally well below the age of consent, when she became pregnant with the couple’s first child, a daughter. They married and later had a son. The abuse Michelle endured was both physical and psychological. She was alienated from her friends and family, one by one. Rocky acquired a rattlesnake which he kept in a cage in the living room. He kept Michelle in terror by threatening to sneak it into the shower with her, or into her bed while she was sleeping. Her death would look like “a freak accident.” Michelle began to take cautious steps. She earned her high school diploma and arranged for financial aid to obtain a nursing degree, in the hopes of supporting her children. As Snyder notes in the book’s preface: “We mistake what we see from the outside as her choosing to stay with an abuser, when in fact it’s we who don’t recognize what a victim who is slowly and carefully leaving actually looks like.”

Things became progressively worse in September of 2001. Michelle decamped to her mother’s house, where Rocky attacked both of them and took the children. Michelle filed a police report, detailing the abuse and also filed for a restraining order. Rocky was charged with a misdemeanor and was out on a $500 bail within a couple of days. Michelle panicked and recanted, fearing for her life and those of her children. As Snyder notes, “this is one of the most profoundly misunderstood moments in any domestic violence situation. Michelle did not recant because she was a coward, or because she believed she had overreacted, or because she believed Rocky to be any less dangerous. … She recanted to stay alive.”

On the Monday before Thanksgiving of 2001, Rocky shot Michelle and their two children, then himself, but not before sprinkling gas throughout the house and setting it ablaze. Michelle, who had been “tiptoeing her way toward freedom” was “buried with her children in the same casket, oversized, with her arms wrapped around each of them.”

In the second part of the book, Snyder keeps company with some of the abusers, seeking to understand their mentality. One subject, Jimmy Espinoza, preyed on women he deemed weak. “Vulnerability clung to their skin like powder” and they were “controllable.” When Snyder meets him, he is leading an anti-domestic violence program in the San Bruno jail. In programs such as this one, victims meet with offenders to promote reconciliation and restorative justice. Jimmy recounts to Snyder, and the other men in the program, that he had been sexually abused by the friend of a relative at the age of 8. He carried the shame of not fighting back. As Snyder notes, “roughly 12 percent of male inmates in jails like San Bruno today were sexually assaulted before the age of 18. In state prisons, the number is higher, and for those boys who grew up in foster care, the numbers are shocking, nearly 50 percent.”

The rate of recidivism for offenders is high, despite programs that attempt to help them understand the patterns that lead to violence, and strategies to choose better responses.

In the final section of the book, Snyder examines the roles played by advocates for domestic violence victims. One victim shocked a detective when she informed him that “in a shelter, she’d have to share a room with her two daughters, increasing the likelihood” that her husband would “kill all three of them. In her own home, there was a better chance.” A better chance that she alone would die. The detective, Robert Wile, “was struck silent. ‘She was basically telling me, ‘I’m preparing for my own death, and what are you doing?’ ”

Not long after this conversation took place, the victim, Dorothy, did indeed die in her own house, at the hands of her husband. An advocate named Kelly Dunne, who had previously spoken with Dorothy when she called the hotline of a domestic violence center, was spurred to action. At a conference in San Diego, she learned about the Danger Assessment tool, which delineates risk markers such as forced sex and strangulation to determine the probability of homicide, which unfolds on a timeline. Dunne and her staff met with probation and parole officers, batterer intervention counselors, and hospital representatives to break down barriers in communication and to prevent silos between departments. If all of these entities -- “the judge in the courthouse, the detective in the police department, the advocate in the crisis center, the social worker at school, the nurse in the emergency room” -- had all the information about victims such as Dorothy or Michelle Monson Mosure, these deaths may have been prevented.

Snyder is hopeful that collaborative, preventive approaches can curb the death toll from domestic violence. Her book is a powerful inducement, for agencies and individuals in a position to help victims, to be proactive and vigilant. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

(Help for victims of abuse is available by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline at (800) 799?7233 or visiting www.thehotline.org.)

Olmstead is the Adult Services Librarian for the Lewiston City Library. She can be reached at bolmstead@cityoflewiston.org.

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