Hitting Home; Domestic Violence Is the Issue That Embarrasses Traditionalists. Today, despite Greater Awareness and a Variety of Model Programs, Partner Abuse Is Still Far Too Prevalent. (Cover Story)

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A LEATHERY WOMAN WITH A DARKENING BLACK eye smokes cigarettes through the spaces of her missing front teeth and tells the police how her boyfriend slapped and bit her because he didn't like her grandchildren. Another woman tells a counselor at a shelter that she's tried to leave her husband 15 times in the two years that she's been married to him. Still another can't speak at all, her moans incoherent as she's wheeled out of her house on a stretcher covered in blood, her cheek slashed into two loose flaps from the corner of her mouth.

These graphic details of domestic abuse come to us courtesy of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose camera has been mercilessly recording the often unpleasant aspects of our social reality for three decades. In the years since 1967, when his first documentary, Titicut Follies, garnered artistic awards and journalistic respect--and an injunction from the Massachusetts Superior Court, which banned the film in the state for the next 24 years--Wiseman has captured everything from the crumbling walls of a housing project to the locker-lined hallways of a high school, from a ballet company to a state prison for the criminally insane. Using his signature cinema verite style--there is no narration, music, or overt editorializing in his films-- Wiseman has become a barometer of our values and mores, revealing our culture and progress vy observing our social organizations, institutions and institutional practices.

It is therefore telling that Wiseman has chosen to take on the issue of domestic violence at precisely this moment. While the scenes from his latest film, Domestic Violence, are explicit, we've seen these types of images before. Hardly a news cycle goes by nowadays without a domestic-violence story. The media attention is a salutary development; not long ago, domestic violence didn't exist as a legal or social concept.

Yet while we've come incredibly far in our struggle to recognize domestic violence as a national, public problem, battered women now face a new set of challenges--preeminent among them, the religious right's efforts to portray marriage as the panacea for all social and moral problems. If only we could all just pair up in happily heterosexual matrimony and stay that way, the logic goes, social ills such as violence, crime, and poverty would simply wither away.

While ample data suggest the social and personal benefits of a happy marriage, the get-married-and-stay-married-at-all-costs ethos often ignores the damage that bad marriages can do both to adults and to children. And domestic abuse? Social conservatives often pretend that the problem would disappear if only more people got and stayed married. They make it more difficult for women to leave abusive relationships--not only by steeling social attitudes against divorce but by making it contractually harder (through such vehicles as "covenant marriages") for domestic-violence victims to escape.

Moreover, social conservatives tend to confuse marriage policy with welfare policy; indeed, they would like to replace the latter with the former. This is the "get-married-and-stay-married-and-you-won't-need-welfare" argument. Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, argues that marriage incentives must be built into Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)--the basic federal welfare program, designed to provide assistance and work opportunities-- and that divorced and out-of-wedlock mothers should get diminished levels of welfare assistance for not being married. This is a typical conservative argument that not only gets the relationship between poverty and welfare backward--and this is a great source of liberal-conservative argument generally-- but also makes it much harder for wives to leave their abusive husbands, for fear of being financially penalized.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AND THE LAW

It is this sort of rhetoric that threatens to roll back the heroic-- and remarkably recent--achievements of the battered-women's movement. …