Domestic violence is an epidemic in the United States. On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by a partner. Most of these crimes will occur behind closed doors. Very few victims will tell anyone or reach out for help. And if they do, they may likely face cruel and incredibly unfair questions: Why didn’t they just leave? Why couldn’t they tell a coherent story to police? Where are the marks on their bodies?
And the worst question of all — did they do something, somehow, to provoke the violence?
American University Literature and Journalism Professor Rachel Louise Snyder has dedicated the past decade of her life researching, documenting, and dismantling the misperceptions that underlie these questions. Snyder is our nation’s leading writer on domestic violence. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the New Republic, and many other leading news outlets.
Snyder’s most recent book is No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us (Bloomsbury Publishing, May 2019). The critical praise has been extraordinary. Esquire magazine called No Visible Bruises “gut-wrenching, required reading.” The New York Times called it "extraordinary." The Washington Post said that the book is "compulsively readable . . . It will save lives." Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues, called it “a tour de force.”
The book was one of Esquire magazine’s 25 Most Anticipated Books of 2019 and a New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year. It was named as one of the best books of 2019 by Amazon, Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, BookRiot, Economist, and New York Times Staff Critics. It was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Nonfiction, the 2019 Kirkus Award in Nonfiction, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the New York Public Library’s Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. It won the prestigious 2018 J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Award.
Close to Home, Behind Closed Doors
A decade ago Snyder was working as a foreign correspondent, writing stories on human rights issues ranging from child marriage in Romania to forced sterilization in Tibet. Violence against women was present in all these narratives. But it wasn’t until she moved back to the United States that she realized the real magnitude of domestic violence, right here at home.
By chance one day, Snyder met a woman named Suzanne Dubus who was developing a risk assessment tool that identified the 20 highest risk indicators for domestic homicides. The goal was to predict the homicides before they occurred. The idea floored Snyder. “You might as well have said to me you figured out a way to end poverty,” she says. “I was utterly speechless. I drove around with [Dubus] for hours, sitting in the back seat of her car, asking questions and taking notes. I realized very quickly that I had been buying into all these myths about domestic violence. She really changed the course of my life.”
Snyder spent the next several years learning about the size and scope of the issue. The statistics she shares in No Visible Bruises are staggering. Every day, an average of 137 women are killed across the globe by intimate partner or familial violence. In 2017 alone, 50,000 women were killed by partners or family members. And in the United States, 20 people are assaulted every minute by their partners. The overwhelming majority of victims, about 85 percent, are female. In our nation, more than half of all murdered women are killed by a current or former partner.
Blowing Away the Myths
In No Visible Bruises, Snyder goes beyond statistics, bringing to life the people behind the numbers. She tells the stories of victims, abusers, family members, law enforcement officers, caseworkers, prosecutors, reformers, and advocates.
New York Times book critic Parul Sehgal wrote, “There is a fullness and density to every one of her subjects — the former prison guard turned restorative justice advocate, the notorious pimp who now holds antiviolence classes for abusers. She glides from history to the present day, from scene to analysis, with a relaxed virtuosity that filled me with admiration. This is a writer using every tool at her disposal to make this story come alive, to make it matter.”
No Visible Bruises begins with Michelle's story. Michelle met Rocky when she was just fourteen years old. Within two years, they had two children. He brought a rattlesnake home from a national park outside of Billings to intimidate and terrify her, a form of coercive control that Snyder says is common in abusive relationships. He limited her access to friends, family, and work — more coercive control. And Rocky beat Michelle. She finally pressed charges against him, but recanted them after Rocky’s parents unexpectedly bailed him out of jail.
Recanting was a calculated decision on Michelle’s part. Without income, credit, or any job history, she knew she could never get away from Rocky, and she was terrified of him. She allowed him back into their home to appease him and buy herself more time to escape.
With this, Snyder blows away the myth that every woman can just walk away from an abusive relationship. “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,” Snyder writes. “She did not recant because she was crazy, or because she was a drama queen, or because any of this was anything less than a matter of life and death. She did not recant because she had lied. She recanted to stay alive. She recanted to keep her children alive. Victims stay because they know any sudden move will provoke the bear…. They stay because they see the bear coming for them. And they want to live.”
Within two months after being allowed back home, Rocky purchased a gun from the classifieds section of a local newspaper. He shot and killed Michelle, their children, and them himself.
Michele is just once face of domestic violence in No Visible Bruises. Snyder interviews the perpetrators too, like Jimmy, the former pimp who facilitates an anti-domestic violence program, and Donte, who is working the program until he accepts an ill-fated ride home from a friend and ends up back in jail. She sits for two days with the Montana Fatality Team going through every detail of one domestic homicide to figure out how to prevent it next time. She rides along with police officers on domestic violence calls. She takes readers into the lives of victims and perpetrators, law enforcement and advocates.
A Platform for Change
Since the book’s publication last summer, Snyder was interviewed by Trevor Noah on The Daily Show and appeared on Fresh Air, Diane Rehm’s On My Mind, Newsday BBC, The New York Times Book Review Podcast, C-Span’s Book TV, and many others. She has been asked to speak with lawmakers and state congresses, at the upcoming Women in the World Summit in New York, and at the United Nations.
The book has influenced everyone from law enforcement officers in New York, to policymakers in Washington, to movie stars in Hollywood. In New York City, more than 700 NYPD officers received copies. In Washington, DC, the Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services asked her staff to read the book. They are now talking about implementing oversight into domestic violence grantees.
And as a direct result of No Visible Bruises, the District of Columbia has introduced a strangulation statue for the first time, changing strangulation charges from a misdemeanor to a felony. It’s a critically important distinction, says Snyder, because sixty percent of domestic-violence victims are strangled at some point in the course of their relationship with an abuser. Strangulation is a critical factor portending a potential homicide.
Snyder doesn’t want to stop there. Along the way, she has collected lots of innovative ideas for preventing domestic violence. She wants a national hotline for abusers, similar to those for suicide or addiction. She also wants sponsors, like those used by Alcoholics Anonymous, so that abusers (or potential abusers) can find support before they get violent. And she wants to create a teen dating violence app.
On the local level, Snyder looks to the #MeToo Movement as a model for bringing difficult conversations out into the open. She would like to see more domestic violence education in houses of worship and in workplaces. More abused women go to talk to clergy members than police. And many women are killed by their partners at work, or while going to and from work. Colleagues may suspect that something is wrong but don’t know how to broach the subject.
“We need to include all members of society in these discussions,” Snyder says, adding that we need to start talking about the issue as a men’s problem instead of a women’s problem. “Women don’t beat themselves,” she says, paraphrasing Eve Ensler.
Change needs to come from above, too. First, Snyder wants to see the Violence Against Women’s Act reauthorized and better funded. She wants our batterers’ intervention systems to include gender education and restorative justice as their key philosophies. And she wants self-defense laws to start accounting for gender and differences in intent. “When men kill their partners, they kill them because they are losing control; their partners are leaving them or trying to gain some agency in their lives,” she explains. “But when women kill their partners, it’s because they believe they are about to be killed.”
And then there are gun laws and background checks. Owning a gun is one of the top three risk factors for domestic homicide. “Guns make a dangerous situation lethal,” Snyder says. And for every woman who is killed by a gun, nine are almost killed. All too often, guns turn a domestic violence episode into a domestic homicide.
From a Place of Understanding
When Snyder is not researching or writing, she is teaching at American University where she holds a joint appointment at the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Communication.
In addition to her journalistic writing, Snyder is the author of a well-received novel, What We’ve Lost is Nothing. At AU, she teaches nonfiction writing, fiction writing, and literary journalism. She says she works hard to establish a community of trust and respect within her classrooms. “It’s really meaningful to me to be trusted by students with their stories. It’s one of the most important things I do.”
Building trust and relationships are critical to Snyder’s work. It’s how she is able to interview everyone from victims, to abusers, to bereaved family members. When Snyder did a reading of No Visible Bruises in Los Angeles, one of Rocky’s sisters came to the event. Until then, she had refused to speak to Snyder or anyone else about her brother. But she had just read No Visible Bruises. She told Snyder that after finishing it, she was finally able to sleep through the night for the first time since the murders twenty years earlier.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: For More Information
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can help victims and survivors of domestic violence. Call 1-800-799-7233. Or you can chat with an advocate online.