Love and Violence: Valentine’s Day Edition

On Monday, February 6, Florida couple Joseph Bray and his wife Sonja got into a fight because, she says, he failed to wish her a happy birthday.  According to the arrest affidavit, the fight escalated; Joseph Bray pushed Sonja Bray onto their couch, grabbed her neck, and raised his fist to hit her, although he did not strike her.  Joseph Bray was arrested and when he appeared in court on a domestic violence charge, you can be sure the judge issued appropriate sanctions.

Or not.

Judge John Hurley ordered in lieu of posting a bond that Joseph Bray get his wife flowers and a birthday card, take her to Red Lobster for dinner, then take her bowling.  And he ordered the couple to see a marriage counselor. 

Judge Hurley called the incident “very, very minor.”  Given Joseph Bray’s “otherwise clean record,” Judge Hurley believed his order “was a better resolution than the other alternatives.”

(You can read the story here and here.)

Now, I don’t know this judge and I don’t know these people.  I haven’t personally read the arrest affidavit.  But I do know that being shoved onto a couch and having someone put his hands around my throat and make a physical gesture that threatens to cause me physical harm is not “very, very minor.” Even if no one was actually physically injured (as Sonja Bray even testified).

On one site, a video of the hearing is posted along with the story.  In the video, Judge Hurley questions Sonja Bray about what happened that evening.  At one point Sonja Bray begins sobbing. “I love my husband,” she said.  She wanted him to come home.  The judge’s voice is kind as he asked her questions. As he said, “I have to determine how serious this is.”  Sonja Bray said she was not afraid of Joseph Bray harming her.

And so, Judge Bray issued his order for a romantic date night, even though one of the first things Sonja Bray told him, in response to his question, is that she had called the police on her husband at least once before.

I believe that Judge Hurley believes he is doing the right thing.  He’s giving Joseph Bray a little slack, a little lesson on how, perhaps, a husband should treat his wife on her birthday.  But what his order does is trivialize the threat of violence that Sonja Bray experienced, a threat significant enough to her to make her call police.  Even worse, as the judge stated his conditions, people in the courtroom began to giggle.  When the judge ordered Joseph Bray to take his wife bowling, a man I think might be Joseph Bray’s lawyer quipped, “Does he have to let her win?”

Part of the problem seems to be that when there is no actual violence, we diminish the threat as something “very, very minor.” As if one must have physical bruises to be considered abused.  And even if there are physical bruises, we sometimes still consider the incident minor, an aberration perhaps brought on by something the victim must have done. This is especially so if the batterer is contrite after the incident, as most usually are.  That domestic violence is minor, that it’s an aberration in certain relationships, brought on primarily by some other trigger other than the abuser’s own conduct – these are the fictions we like to tell ourselves.

And what makes matters worse is when we, as a society, embrace the batterer.  R&B singer Chris Brown is a case in point.  In February 2009, he bit, beat, and choked his then-girlfriend, R&B singer Rihanna.  Brown was charged with two felonies, assault likely to cause great bodily harm and making criminal threats. He entered a plea agreement that put him on probation for five years and required him to perform six months of community service.  Last Sunday, three years later, Brown performed at the Grammy Awards for the first time since that incident.  According to an editorial on The Western Front,

Grammy Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich told ABC [N]ews, “I think people deserve a second chance, you know.  If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.”

As the editorial writer succinctly states, “Let’s make one thing completely clear:  the Grammys was [sic] not the victim of Chris Brown’s raging fists, Rihanna was.” However, there seems to a line of women who would not call Rihanna a victim at all; in fact, these women seem eager to be in her place.  One blogger collected a disturbing number of Twitter posts from women who all said pretty much the same thing:  “Chris Brown can beat me up any day.”  For example, @briquirkk tweeted:  “I’d let chris brown punch me in the face.”  Tweeted @_anniegregg, “Everyone shut up about Chris brown being a woman beater…[Expletive] he can beat me up all night if he wants.”

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women, and most incidents go unreported.  We need to think carefully about the messages we send about domestic violence not only as men and women in relationships but as lawyers and other players in a system that is meant to deal with it. It is a serious crime and should be treated as such.


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Nicole Koch

    Great article Professor Mazzie!! Thanks for shedding light on such an important issue that society tends to shove under the carpet.

  2. Nick Zales

    This article raises an important topic. Perhaps, though, it is dealing with symptoms rather than the root cause. To me, the question is this: Is violence an acceptable way of resolving disputes? As lawyers, we would, of course, jump right in and say no. But in the real world, violence is used to not only resolve problems but it is also a matter of national policy.

    I remember a time when we called ourselves a peaceful nation. No longer. Today, we are inundated with images of violence. Whether it is another war, another violent TV show or a best-selling video game, violence is everywhere. This is no excuse for violence against each other, but when you live in a world where violence is everywhere you turn, it has an effect.

  3. Andrew Golden

    I understand your premise, Professor, but I really think you’re assigning a bit more value to the Twitter posts about Chris Brown than is probably necessary or reasonable. And even if we were to take them seriously — and I’d note that if we had a nickel for every stupid thing said on Twitter, we could probably all retire tomorrow — I wouldn’t go so far as to say the posters are arguing that Rihanna isn’t a victim; at most, I think they’re saying that they’d be willing to accept being beaten in return for being able to be with Chris Brown. Which, of course, is a bit ridiculous to say, but this is also the same site on which death threats were issued against a woman potentially carrying Justin Bieber’s child, so I wouldn’t exactly call Twitter a haven for intellectualism.

    Granted, I’m not a Chris Brown fan by any means; at gunpoint, I could probably list maybe 3 songs he’s done, if that many. But since you brought him up: why exactly shouldn’t people attempt to embrace Chris Brown and provide him with a second chance? I don’t consider domestic violence to be a minimal issue by any means, but his act of violence occurred a little over 3 years ago, and he pled to a felony abuse charge (in a situation where, were it to have happened here, it may well have not met the statutory requirements to be anything more than a misdemeanor battery charge), and to date has, to the best of my knowledge, performed well on his probation. He took prompt responsibility for his actions, showed genuine remorse, and has seemed to focus on proving to others that this was an exception rather than the rule.

    I’m not sure what else he can be asked to do, and I think we do a lot more harm than good in society by branding felons as outcasts and pariahs. Should we keep him under a magnifying glass? It’s fair to do it; he brought it upon himself with his actions. But is it impossible for him to have actually learned a lesson from his terrible actions?

  4. Melissa Greipp

    It’s important to remember the cycle of domestic violence: abuse, guilt, excuses, “normal” behavior, fantasy and planning, and set up. Here is a good website explaining the cycle.

    It’s typical in the cycle for a victim to make repeated calls to the police, for smaller incidents of abuse to escalate to more invasive threats and physical, emotional, or sexual violence, for the victim to recant, and for the perpetrator to use candy, flowers, promises, and even cards from jail, etc. in an attempt to keep the victim from testifying.

    Local shelters like the Women’s Center Inc. (in Waukesha) and Sojourner Truth House/Sojourner Family Peace Center (in Milwaukee) are doing an outstanding job of working with victims.

    I’m going to put in a word here as well for Meta House in Milwaukee, which helps women who have substance abuse problems and are a particularly vulnerable population.

  5. Rebecca Blemberg

    One thing that troubles me about the “tweets” (and, granted, people do say outlandish things in that forum) is that people are not suggesting we give Chris Brown a second chance, to believe he may have learned a lesson. They’re essentially excusing the conduct. In fact, they assume he’ll engage in similar conduct again. The tweets don’t say the writers will embrace a Chris Brown who knows better; they say the writers will willingly embrace Chris Brown and endure violence. They have a right to say it. It doesn’t mean others shouldn’t remark about how distasteful the comments are or how they minimize the violence and terror of the actions.

  6. Nick Zales

    Melissa Greipp’s comments are good and her links are excellent. Thanks, Melissa! There is no excuse for domestic violence. And, believe it or not, men are often victims but the stigma attached keeps them quiet.

    While I was addressing the macro issues, and the other commentators the micro ones, I was thinking about this: Peace. What is peace? Is it more than the absence of war? Our federal government runs four colleges devoted to war (West Point, Annapolis, etc.) but none devoted to peace. Many people claim humans are inherently violent, but I don’t believe that. Consider the United Nations. Why doesn’t it work? It doesn’t work because people do not want it to work. War is big business.

  7. Lisa Mazzie

    @Nick — you raise a great point: that I am perhaps addressing the symptoms rather than the cause. I agree that as a society we aren’t doing such a great job suggesting that violence isn’t the way to handle conflict, for violence does indeed seem to be the way we handle things. Not that this excuses violent conduct. Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave some more positive, peaceful examples of conflict resolution!

    @Andrew — I do believe in second chances. But I agree with Rebecca’s comment above. The tweeters are willing to take a violent, abusive Chris Brown, not a repentent one. A recent story claims that Brown’s new pickup line is, “I won’t beat you.” Do take that story with the boulder of salt it warrants; however, if it is true, it shows that Brown has not truly repented for he doesn’t seem to see that he did anything wrong.

    One other point that I had wanted to make in my original post, which Melissa gets at in her comment, is this: a victim may refuse to testify against her abuser (and very often this is true) and the victim may claim to love her abuser (as Sonja Bray did); however, this in no way means that the victim is not being abused.

    Thank you for all the comments. I think we’ve all raised some interesting and thought-provoking issues.

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