The Ernest Becker Foundation
|LOV VII: Domestic Violence - New Insights|
|Written by Jim Champion|
The seventh annual Love of Violence conference—Domestic Violence: New Insights—took place at Seattle University on October 12-14 2001. Jamie Arndt introduced Becker's work in a pre-conference lecture that summarized Becker's view of human culture. As the shared, symbolic conception of reality which imbues the world with meaning and permanence, culture is the source of self-esteem and beliefs, those vital, fragile "constructions" that demand social validation. Violence arises when self-esteem seems fundamentally threatened by others standing for different beliefs and world views. This impulse towards violence can even be witnessed in experimental research. Arndt outlined Terror Management Theory, the ongoing empirical substantiation of Becker's thesis begun by Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski, now joined by the new generation that Arndt represents.
Roland Maiuro's keynote address focused specifically on "anger, hostility, and psychological abuse in violent domestic relationships." He summarized the implications of research that he has conducted on several fronts and while it is not possible to list here all the findings from this research—suffice to say that anyone who listens to the tape of his lecture will hear a state of the art commentary on the field. As he discussed the history of typologies of the perpetrators of domestic violence, he showed the methodology he has used in his new simple measure of sadistic hostility.
Saturday began with a talk by Brian Sullivan, a psychotherapist well acquainted with the grief, depression, and violence encountered in the mental health trenches. Sullivan admonished the audience to recall that "the victims" of domestic violence—and folk of all kinds who are living, minute by minute, in abject anxiety and hopelessness—"are not in a theoretical place." When bodies are in post-traumatic stress, we should be less concerned with our theoretical explanations than with attending to their concrete situation.
Donald Dutton developed a number of points in relation to his classification of batterers, while also denoting the essential traits of borderline personality organization. Pointing out that domestic violence is an in-group phenomenon, Dutton stressed factors such as family violence, shaming, and parental abandonment in developing a trauma model of abusiveness. While anxiety in the Beckerian sense may lie behind an abuser's use of power and control, it may be less the fear of death than rage at abandonment of intimate attachments that is the driving factor. According to Dutton, "there is a pre-oedipal sense of annihilation that is the precursor to the fear of death."
Topics discussed in the succeeding panel included: the ideological divisions that mark the domestic violence field of research, the role of parenting styles in personality formation, the peer group factor, the environmental factor, and the "brain" factor." The discussion also focused on issues of intervention, with several audience members asking the panel to speak on the possibilities of treatment of violent abusers, including any role that religion may play in healing.
Religion took center stage in the subsequent presentation by Merlyn Mowrey who spelled out Becker's theory of religion, while criticizing a number of limitations that stem from his unacknowledged patriarchal assumptions. Tracing the historical shift from primitive communities to more hierarchical societies that require the creation of scapegoats and victims, she questioned whether religious mystification and absolute transcendence could ever offer promising solutions to the deep-seated problem of violence. She concluded that Becker's confidence in the religious hero—especially the ideal mediated by Christianity—was "misplaced." Discussion followed.
Jamie Goldenberg on "Female Corporeality" asked, "What are the Implications of Women's More Creaturely Nature?" She reframed Becker's insight into the problematic ways humans relate to their own bodies, especially the functions that remind us we are animals and bound to die. We are inclined to respond with disgust when the boundaries between humans and animals are blurred because we are in flight from our own mortality. Her experiments actually demonstrate such attitudinal changes when mortality is salient. She discussed the implications of these studies for understanding domestic violence, noting in particular how death anxiety plays out in the objectification of women and in various forms of sexism.
From her study of newspaper "Underreporting of Domestic Violence in Washington State." Cathy Ferrand-Bullock of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma of the University of Washington provided an analysis. She detailed eight misconceptions about domestic violence that are indicated in this landmark study. She also discussed the ramifications of the overwhelming evidence that the reported information about domestic violence is regularly distorted and framed in a way that severely limits the public's understanding. A panel discussion followed, which included Margaret Hobart, Kevin Kawamoto, and the moderator, Roger Simpson.
Tom Duncanson on the "Twilight Stories of Men who Batter" noted our proclivity for isolating and fetishizing evil, a tendency he discerns whenever we use "domestic violence" as a mere abstraction. He spoke about men he faces in group therapy—what they really utter about themselves, as well as what they say in the parking lot afterwards. Intermittently, Jeff Stepp recounted several harrowing cases of domestic murder that occurred in a period of only four months in Alaska. Many questions arose as these stories were told, including the degree to which our culture can be said to be complicit in such events.
Using video clips from movies, Jeff Greenberg then gave an address entitled "Beckerian Perspectives on Domestic Violence" beginning with charts modeling the psychodynamics of spousal abuse. He argued that Becker's work is crucial to the development of such a model, for it explains why self-esteem, in its relation to death anxiety, is so problematic in the abusive situation. Greenberg then turned to scenes from three videos—"The Burning Bed" (1984), "Once Were Warriors" (1995), and "Straight Out of Brooklyn" (1991)—in order to show how we can find key elements of this model graphically depicted in contemporary film. Jim Hernandez reminded the audience that Becker himself had used a cinematic work—"The Pawnbroker" (1965)—to develop his main ideas in Angel in Armor.
A final panel on Sunday morning met to address the issue of teaching the works of Becker. Daniel Liechty, Tom Duncanson, Jamie Goldenberg, Jamie Arndt, Jeff Greenberg, and Donald Dutton all noted the surging applicability of Becker in view of a need to understand the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Several panelists noted that their undergraduate students had reacted to these recent events with surprising awareness of the ambiguities of the historical moment, rather than by merely parroting demonizations of the enemy that are readily supplied by jingoistic nationalism.
A certain urgency was apparent in this final discussion, as both panelists and audience members spoke more personally of how they try to deal with the darkness of violence, whether it is witnessed in spectacular calamities on national television, or encountered in more insidious ways on the streets and in the homes of the nation.