Right out of the gate, let’s go ahead and say the two words that should’ve been dominating the new cycle:
See! That wasn’t so hard. But apparently, it is for the media.
When I first heard of a school shooting involving a man who killed his wife, I immediately googled “San Bernardino shooter, domestic violence”—because beating and/or killing women seems to be a prerequisite for murdering a bunch of strangers in MURICA. But using these search words resulted in literally no hits regarding this tragic story, which kind of baffled me at first.
What the hell else would you call some dude killing his wife?
Sure, he did it at a school and innocent children died in the crossfire. But none of that muddles the motive here—he went there to kill her. Karen Elaine Smith. There is literally no possible scenario this could be other than good ole domestic violence. And yet the media at large still seems to be pontificating over this mysterious event, scratching their heads, just so darn confused as to what in tarnation could’ve happened here.
They wrote endless articles about this “estranged” couple and made a point to tell us how oddly short their marriage was. She left after only a month! I wonder why?! They posted photos and videos of the happy couple on their honeymoon and kept telling us how much he said he loved his little “angel” on Facebook. And can you believe nobody at her school knew anything about their relationship!? Don’t women cluck to all the other hens at work about things like being scared to death of their husbands? SO WEIRD a teacher would be all private about something so humiliating and scary, am I right?
At one point while reading all this garbage, I literally threw my hands in the air and yelled to my computer screen, “Are you people fucking stupid?! HE WAS A WIFE BEATER. DUHHHH.”
And then I thought of Johnny Depp and Ray Rice and every single online story about domestic violence I’ve ever had to suffer through and it hit me—with the exception of a few (usually female) journalists, nobody reporting the news in this country—and nobody in general, minus those of us who’ve actually dated one of these guys—seems to understand the first thing about domestic violence, toxic masculinity’s role in it, or America’s unspoken epidemic around male rage.
And that is exactly why this problem continues to go virtually untreated.
So I’m taking it upon myself to do the media’s job for them. As one of those lucky gals who almost got killed by her very own angry man awhile back, I feel adequately qualified to stand in as your new domestic violence correspondent for a minute here and walk y’all through what the hell just happened in San Bernardino.
First off, this was not a school shooting. Or a murder-suicide. Or a random act of violence by a “lone wolf” or some un-medicated looney tune who just escaped an insane asylum. No, this here was domestic violence. Carried out by a church-going, military man with a warm smile and a cute habit of using Facebook to gush over his wife and upload videos of himself speaking baby talk to her. Awwwwww. So adorable! And then, only weeks later, he just up and murdered her.
I know it’s hard to comprehend all this. I’m sure you’ve seen his pictures. And you’ve maybe even watched his videos. The man seemed pretty awesome! And he probably was in many ways. He seemed like the kind of guy I would have totally wanted to be friends with, based on his kind eyes and funny little remarks about his honey bunny. I’m sure I’m not alone here either.
But it’s a real mind fuck, isn’t it? Seeing him as a human being after knowing what we know now.
I’m sure people might find it hard to reconcile his seemingly sweet nature with a propensity for violence towards the very women he loved (for lack of a better word). But that’s exactly why this news story is so critical and why the media desperately needs to get it right. Because there’s no chance for all the usual he-said/she-said bull donkey to apply here. She’s dead. There’s our proof. We have no choice but believe her now. Which means we also have to accept that it was a seemingly great guy who did it and this may be hard for some people.
Not me though.
I know it’s easier, especially for men, to see guys like this as some other. To feel morally superior to them because you wouldn’t dare hit a woman. And I know it’s easier for women to assure themselves they would never end up with a man like that. You know better, right? You’re no idiot! Well, sorry to break it to you all, but domestic abusers are not monsters with talons for hands or fangs for teeth. And they don’t drag a limp leg behind them as they stalk scared women down the street, yelling some weird-ass mumbo-jumbo pervy nonsense.
Actually, quite the opposite.
They’re usually pretty loveable guys. The kind you and I and everyone we know have in our life. As a friend, a boss, a brother, a dad, an uncle, a coworker, or even a son. We all know at least one of these men, probably several, and most likely we think they’re pretty great! Because they can be a lot of the time, especially around people they aren’t sexually intimate with. And they certainly don’t seem like the wife beater type. They’ve never just come out and told us about the three restraining orders they’ve had with women before their current wife (who they’re about to go murder). No, they’re usually charming, well-intentioned men . . . who are pathologically delusional and incredibly insecure, who secretly live by the toxic masculinity rule book, have no idea how to handle their emotions, probably grew up around this crap, therefore got it honest, and who do some incredibly fucked up shit they justify to themselves as being in the name of “love.”
But you don’t see most of it so you don’t believe it happens or the women who keep trying to tell you it happens. And when you do find out about them, you call them monsters. Well, stop it. Women like me and Smith do not fall for or marry monsters. Give us some credit, will you? I can’t tell you how shocking it was to realize even I, a tomboy and obnoxiously outspoken feminist with thighs strong enough to snap a man’s neck in half if the occasion called for it, was unable to see what a misogynist my ex was until we became exclusive.
Which brings me to the whole marriage thing. Why was it so short?! How could she know him for FOUR YEARS and not see he was the murdering-type before tying the knot? Because that’s how these guys operate. They’re on their best behavior until they get that shit locked down. My ex tried to convince me to marry him within the first month—huge red flag, ladies! But he finally accepted I’m not one quick to commit, so he dropped it. And changed his tactic. One day, he admitted he was trying to get me pregnant so I wouldn’t leave him. “Pfff, good luck trying to get one of your guys past this IUD,” I joked. He insisted he’d find a way. “Well even if one did squeeze past my firewall, you know I’d just abort that shit, right?” He didn’t like how hesitant I was to permanently attach myself to him with a baby, so I quipped back, like an idiot. “If you really wanted to trap me, you’d get us a dog.” Well guess who came home the next day with a puppy he found out on the mesa?
Because, again, that’s how these men operate. They want commitment. Formal ties. A security deposit so you won’t ever, ever, ever leave them. And then as soon as they get you padlocked with a marriage certificate, a few kids, the “in a relationship” status update, or by bringing home a snaggle-toothed mutt with Dumbo ears, they finally feel free to let their guard down and show their true colors. Usually, it starts with accusing you of cheating on them, which is exactly what the shooter did to Smith. And then it’s all down hill from here.
The problem is, by now you’ve already fallen in love with the jerks, making it all the more complicated.
When you eventually (hopefully) try to leave their ass, they tell you they’re gonna hang themselves from a tree with a sign that says “This is what happens when Melanie Hamlett loves you.” When that doesn’t work, they threaten to put videos of you giving them head up on YouTube—videos you didn’t even notice them taking with their phone cuz you were too busy rocking their world. Or, in the case of the San Bernardino shooter’s exes, you find yourself getting suffocated by a pillow or told you and your children will be murdered if you go.
When and if you can actually leave, that’s when shit gets real scary though. Restraining orders only work if you are in hiding because all it takes is one visit for him to kill you. And filing a restraining order to begin with can actually endanger you more because the police have to tell the abuser you filed one. That’s like poking the goddamn bear.
So you don’t bother with that or even trying to leave unless you’re prepared to uproot your whole life, which is what I did. And in the meantime, while you form your exit strategy, you hope to God he holds off on trying to stab you.
If you run away like I did, you still worry about him coming to find you. Because they usually try. Especially if they have the money and means to do so. I got lucky—my ex was a broke idiot who spent all his dough on weed and cowboy boots.
But if you don’t want to leave your life, your family, and your job and you don’t want to have to start all over again somewhere else, you leave the relationship, but stay in town. And as we saw this week, that’s how you end up getting killed at work. Because your ex knew how to find you and had the weapons to take you out, thanks to the NRA’s death grip on congress and our nation’s terrifying obsession with guns.
Do you understand how screwed women in these relationships are? Especially black women, who are four times more likely to be killed by a partner. Do you get now why it’s cruel and idiotic to say women should just leave already? Or to think they’re stupid for staying? We’ve been dealing with this problem for ages, and yet we still have no idea how to talk about domestic violence or deal with it. How could we, though, when even the media doesn’t want to mention it, other than in passing, or really dive into the truth behind these “estranged” couples.
If we want things to change, we have to talk about it. But first, we have to change the conversation. Here’s a start.
Domestic violence is not a women’s issue. It’s a men’s issue.
I’ll say it again for impact. Domestic violence isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a men’s issue. Women are just the ones cleaning up the mess or getting picked off by it because society’s still unwilling to address male violence.
Until we change the narrative around how we talk about it, until we deal with these insane gun laws, and until we address the way society churns out men who try desperately to be “tough,” but end up being insecure, entitled, terrified of other men, and desperate to control the only human beings they feel they can open up to, women will keep getting killed. Let’s just hope change happens before someone you know ends up with a smoking gun in their hand or a dozen bullets in their body. Or before you, or even worse, your kids, get caught in the crossfire like those precious ones in San Bernardino.
But for now, let’s at least start putting these words in your headlines, media folks:
Melanie Hamlett is a writer, comedian, Moth and Risk! storyteller and public speaker.