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Instead of speaking on behalf of survivors, please work to enable them to speak for themselves. I am a survivor of child abuse and nothing you say here speaks to my experience. Reading this interview was yet another experience of erasure. If you allow survivors to speak for ourselves, I promise you, we will say many different things because we face different situations that require different solutions. Some people will want counselling. Some people will want the criminal justice system. They will not use the word “carcerality” and will not have an unified theory of the evil state.

That you thought of abusers as bad throwaway people tells me so much about how little you listened to abused women and children. If you had listened to them, you would know that we thought of them as flawed people, with whom we deeply identify with, and whom we love deeply. Yet we do not know how to get them to stop hurting us. Sometimes things get so bad that we do want them to go to jail, to be punished. We do not speak with a unified voice and you do not speak for us.

I have come to expect high-minded callous insensitivity from the likes of Martha Nussbaum (see her article on “Transitional Anger”), but to be honest I did not expect to have the same reaction to one of the founders of the first women’s shelters. This shaming of people’s impulse to punish is so very upperclass, on a continuum of upperclass expectations of behavior to not feel or show anger and aggression. Anger and aggression is a natural part of the self defense response. It is already muted in abused women and children, in those who are vulnerable. Please do not dampen it further. What are you asking of us? That we forgive and forgive and when they kill us, you will forgive on our behalf?

Please do not say ever again in the presence of a survivor that nobody had taken any time to love and care for violent men and show them a different way of being. Do you not know that how much abused women and children love the violent men who are their husbands and fathers? Yet the immense love that abused women and children pour out does nothing to stop them from beating us, maiming us, or even killing us. Or is it that what they really needed was just the love of a social worker? The love of society? The love of ancestors or perhaps Jesus Christ?

Yes, abusive men often show deep remorse after committing violence. But what often occurs after a few days or weeks is more violence. This is a cycle abused women and children know very well. That they can say it is wrong and feel that it is wrong does not mean they will be able to stop themselves next time. In relating to these abusive men from a position of safety where you are a helper or one who bestows and are never at their mercy, you have no experience of the threat and danger they pose and no real understanding of violence.

It is disingenous to suggest that the criminalization of domestic violence has led us to mass incarceration and for profit prisons. You leave out the primary motivation in seeking criminalization, which was to keep women and children safe. You elide the fact that in many circumstances, the wishes and desires of the community is in direct conflict with the interest of vulnerable women and children. Many communities do not care to stop domestic violence, child abuse or sexual assault. You underestimate what was acheived by criminalizing domestic violence. The criminalization of domestic violence was how many communities were even able to begin conceptualizing it as a wrong.

While you congratulate yourself on being able to see the humanity in violent men, I should remind you that every survivor knows the humanity of their abuser by necessity. We are always making desperate appeals to it, walking on eggshells trying to avoid setting off the cycle of violence into motion again. The terrible truth that you fail to recognize is that it is not the absence of humanity that explains terrible acts of violence. Every survivor knows, what I certainly know, is that it is humanity that is capable of cruelty.

To all the “white feminists” who placed the safety and wellbeing of women and children over the needs and wishes of the community, I express my heartfelt gratitude. Thank you for seeing us and saving our lives.

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Dear reader,

I am grateful to you for sharing your experiences of having been a survivor of child abuse. My heart goes out to you. I learned so much. Thank you for writing about the terror of living in a home with an abuser. Thank you for reminding me that the “immense love that abused women and children pour out does nothing to stop them from beating us, maiming us, or even killing us.” And these words of yours will especially stay with me: “we thought of them as flawed people, with whom we deeply identify with, and whom we love deeply.” Thank you.

I deeply believe that there is much that you and Kalei agree upon. At the very core, you both believe that survivors deserve more options and more autonomy.

Restorative justice honors the autonomy that you believe in. The survivor first decides whether she wants to do a restorative approach. This means she can decide the terms of the agreement, and she can stop the process at any point. She decides what she wants the person who did harm to do—attend counseling, pay rent, pay for her own counseling, stay away, or all of the above. If she doesn't feel that he's fulfilled the terms, he goes to prison. She has the option of having a representative so that she never has to see him in person. "Forgiveness" is not expected at all; it is never a goal. The point is not forgiveness. It's to give her the choice of how she believes she can best heal.

All of those options—financial restitution for the survivor, mental health support for him—are basically impossible if the abuser were in prison. (And, if the person who harms her is undocumented or has a green card, he would likely get deported.) There are some survivors of violence who feel that prison doesn't heal them; the fear and anxiety never goes away even when he's locked up. If he gets out, he may be more violent. Certainly he will be unemployed. Wealthy women who send abusers to prison don't risk going homeless, but poor women do. They have no money to pay rent, much less get counseling.

After reading your post several times, I do believe you'd be open to restorative justice approaches, because they center experiences of the survivor. The real disagreement probably has to do with whether prison should always be the stick. This is a tough and hard question. I do believe that in the case of indigenous communities, it’s a bit insulting to suggest that they need to be saved with Western-style judicial courts. Indigenous people have practices that predate these systems, and the history of that importation is deeply entangled with land theft and genocide. Ongoing restorative justice practices in native communities in Canada, New Zealand, and Australia tell us that such approaches are possible and that they are more likely to decrease violence and honor survivors’ autonomy.

You write that criminalization has effectively stigmatized domestic violence. In some communities, yes; in others, no. Empirically violence against women and children still is rampant—I think we agree about that. Studies suggest criminalizing has decreased violence in some communities where prison is already stigmatized, but it continues to exist in places where men regularly disappear into prisons or immigration detention. This is in part because marginalized communities tend to distrust the police.

We also have to ask: What has been the cost of that criminalization? Studies show Black women have borne the brunt of it. The studies on mandatory arrest laws, which require police to arrest anybody they think has been violent, are especially striking. Because police view Black women’s acts of self defense as violence, and to arrest them alongside their abusers. In situations of intimate partner violence, child services are more likely to take away Black women’s children.

As with our last disagreement, I think you avoid the question of prisons and whether the status quo is something that you want. I do believe that ultimately we would agree that it can’t hurt to explore solutions beyond criminalization. What would those solutions look like, and how might they lessen the costs of criminalization? When survivors get children taken away or are arrested themselves, it’s a loss. When twenty year olds who hurt their partners get locked up for decades, it’s a loss too.

I also want to say something about the power of testimony. Yours is eloquent and heart-wrenching. When you write about the pain you’ve experienced, I want to follow you wherever you take me. Still, I worry that your message tries to speak for all survivors in advancing your own political views. I don’t know if this is your intention. My sense is that you do sincerely believe in empowering survivors who have diverse opinions on prisons, so long as they are survivors. But this belief doesn’t completely come across in your post, which begins by saying that survivors want different things and ends by saying VAWA was incontrovertibly a great thing. (See below for some quotes from Marie Gottschalk: VAWA helped legitimate three strikes laws, 10 billion dollars of prison constructions and death penalty expansion.)

Last, you suggest that those who are reluctant to use prisons are “upper class." Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s poor people who see cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers disappear behind bars. They believe in prison in some cases and don’t believe in it in others. Certainly they have seen that in some cases prison can create in people more despair, trauma, and increased capacity for violence.

The desire to punish is something that exists in all of us, but it’s disproportionately poor people and their loved ones who get locked up. The ruling class—judges, legislators, Senate-appointed parole boards, political executives—generally agree with the view that criminalization should be the only and exclusive way in which society communicates stigma. Mine is a minority view. But that is why I believe it must be articulated and fought for.

Albert and I started this newsletter to have a more real connection with readers & to create friendships. Thank you for sharing your experiences and views.

Sending peace and love,

Michelle

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And here are some quotes from Marie Gottschalk on VAWA: “VAWA was part of the landmark crime bill, which allocated nearly $10 billion for new prison construction, expanded the death penalty to cover more than fifty federal crimes, and added a “three-strikes-and-you’re-out” provision mandating life imprisonment for federal offenders convicted of three violent offenses. In the name of protecting women and children, it contained several measures that challenged established privacy protections, including a mandate that all states establish a registry for sex offenders or risk losing federal money.”

She continues: VAWA “became a war flag for Congressional leaders who wanted to show they are tough on crime […]To secure passage, VAWA’s supporters ended up aligning themselves with some of the conservative political forces that had been prosecuting the war on crime so zealously. They also distanced themselves from progressive groups and minorities fighting for measures like inclusion of the Racial Justice Act in the crime bill, which would have allowed people on death row to appeal their sentences on the basis of racial discrimination.”

And this: “The activism on behalf of VAWA stands in sharp contrast to feminist groups’ relative passivity in the concurrent debate over welfare reform. They did not become deeply involved in the legislative battles that culminated in passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which dismantled AFDC, the country’s main welfare program for the poor since the New Deal and an important source of economic support for some abused women.”

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Challenging the taboo on the retributive emotions, the legal philosopher Jeffrie

Murphy invokes Greek myth as a narrative metaphor for the proper foundation of justice. Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, transforms the Furies from persecuting monsters into Eumenidies (kindly ones) by including rather than banishing them. Expanding on this vision, Murphy argues that the crime victim’s resentment and indignation are in fact valid feelings that deserve social recognition and respect.

“Criminal law institutionalizes feelings of anger, resentment and even hatred that

we typically (and perhaps properly) direct toward wrongdoers, especially if we have been victims of those wrongdoers….Passions such as resentment can, of course, provoke irrational and dangerous conduct (which passions cannot?), but this is no more reason for condemning them in principle than it would be for condemning the sexual passions. The case for rational control and institutionalization of a passion must not…be confused with a case for the utter condemnation and extinction of that passion (1998, p. 4).”

Going further, the philosopher Bernard Williams argues that the capacity to feel

indignation, both on one’s own behalf and on behalf of others, is in fact the basis of an

important social bond. Rather than a toxic passion that ought to be suppressed, he views indignation as a source of empathy and connection. He explains that people are capable of reacting with indignation not only when their own honor is violated, but also when they witness the dishonoring of others. These “shared sentiments,” according to

Williams, “serve to bind people together in a community of feeling (1993, p. 80).”

Similarly John Braithwaite, a major theorist of restorative justice, argues that the

expression of community resentment and indignation on behalf of the victim is an

essential positive element of crime control.

In advancing his view of restorative justice, Braithwaite criticizes both right and left-wing positions on crime. He rejects both the punitive, “law-and-order” orientation traditionally associated with the prosecution and the permissive or rehabilitative orientation traditionally associated with the defense bar. He is particularly critical of the traditional left for its virtually exclusive focus on protecting the rights of the criminal defendant, a stance that offers no positive program for holding perpetrators accountable and therefore effectively abandons the crime issue to the right. Braithwaite proposes Restorative Justice as a third way; he advocates “vigorous moralizing about guilt, wrongdoing and responsibility, in which the harmdoer is confronted with community resentment and ultimately invited to come to terms with it

(1989, p. 156).”

In the conception of sophisticated theorists like Braithwaite, restorative justice

principles offer the potential for vindication of the victim that conventional justice so

conspicuously lacks. In practice, however, the Restorative Justice movement has evolved out of religious or progressive concerns for the fate of criminal defendants, an abhorrence of punishment, and an idealistic longing for harmony and community consensus. Because the movement has been highly defendant-oriented at the grass roots level, it has reproduced many of the same deficiencies as the traditional justice system with respect to victims’ rights. The concerns of victims are insufficiently represented, and the interests of victims may be easily subordinated to an ideological agenda, in this instance an agenda of reconciliation rather than punishment (Daly, 2002; Stubbs, 2002). Howard Zehr, a major theorist of the movement, admits that he initially viewed victims as a nuisance:

“In my earlier work with prisoner defendants, I had not understood the

perspectives of victims. Indeed, I did not want to, for they served primarily as

interference in the process of finding “justice” for the offender(1990, p. 172).”

Zehr’s later work shows an evolution towards greater consideration for victims.

He now asserts that “victims must be key stakeholders rather than footnotes in the justice process (2001, p. 195).” This is an important advance for a movement that originated primarily in concern for offenders. It would be unrealistic to expect, however, that a movement that has only recently recognized the legitimacy of victims’ interests could develop a clear vision of justice from the victim’s perspective. For this, one must turn to the victims themselves.

Judith Herman, Justice from the Victim’s Perspective

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Not sure how the statement could be clearer: we do not speak with an unified voice and you do not speak for us.

Here’s another try: academics/activists/social workers should not speak on behalf of the communities they serve. Instead, please work to enable them to speak for themselves.

The previous comment was written with input from two other survivors, both of whom contributed ideas and phrasing. We all found the interview difficult to read. The primary aim of my responses was not to engage in a substantive debate about policy but to point out the insensitivity to people’s experience of violence in your discussion of abolitionism and restorative justice. What you give as hypothetical examples are someone elses’ lived experience and often our lived experience do not conform to your ideological commitments. In discussing our exchange, I am hearing from others with experience of violence that they find the discourse in academic/activist circles so distressing that they avoid it altogether. I don’t want to be in this space any longer (sorry for crashing your party), but thank you for acknowledging my response.

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To the survivor whose comment spoke such beautiful truth, thank you. Amen.

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