Claiming the Power to Resist

— Mayowa Obasaju

Hard Knocks:
Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling
By Janice Haaken
Routledge, 2010, 208 pages, $26.95 paperback.

“Ideological readings of stories require that we uncover the role of social power in this narrative work of the ending and how ruling modes of story production may foreclose on the range of alternative resolutions.”— Hard Knocks (5)

STORIES AND STORYTELLING have power. Stories can help us understand each other as subjects, narrators and protagonists of our own experiences, rather than as objects that are simply being acted upon by forces outside of our control.

Janice Haaken, clinician, researcher and documentary filmmaker, focuses on the power of dominant and subversive stories in the history of the anti-domestic violence movement. In Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling she interviews advocates in the women’s movement.

Haaken’s intent is “...to show the ways in which broader historical and cultural contexts shape how stories about family violence get told and the social symbolic loadings they acquire as they gravitate across the political landscape.” (160)

Haaken’s book is based on more than 200 interviews conducted over eight years from Berlin, Germany; New York City, New York; Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota; and London and Manchester, England. It integrates work from films, training manuals, presentations, pamphlets, and novels.

Readers are asked to visit (or re-visit) battlegrounds of the movement against domestic violence (DV) and the women activists fighting for individual and social change within their specific locales and with their own histories and tensions.

Four major conflicts are illuminated: 1) the conflict of the DV movement/feminism vs. the state, 2) the complicated relationship between the DV movement and other social justice movements, 3) the complexity of female solidarity/sisterhood within the movement across roles, class, race and other manifestations of power, and 4) the tension between acknowledging female aggression and simultaneously holding onto a gendered analysis.

These battlegrounds are explored through use of a storytelling lens, with each chapter starting with a myth and counter myth “to open up a creative space between two opposing claims.” (13) Additionally, the book interweaves psychoanalytic and feminist theory to help explain how unconscious anxieties and defenses act on the individual, group and societal levels to produce narrow stories which can function to limit the effectiveness of the movement.

Haaken emphasizes her choice to integrate psychology, with its often problematic relationship with the movement against domestic violence, because “alternatives to oppression are not a given but rather must be imagined and this imaginative work requires some theory of mind and of how to change minds.” (6)

Her goal is to not only identify spaces of conflict and challenge, with an explanation of the role of history and identities, but to deepen capacities so movements can “remain a vital source for social change.” (172) She aims to do this through an identification and discussion of the complexities within each of four main battlegrounds, all of which are sites of battle fatigue.

Complex Conflicts

In Haaken’s explanation of the conflict between the movement against domestic violence and the state, we observe many advocates’ ambivalence towards working with the police and the courts. She describes how the movement has dealt with this ambivalence about working with the state by dividing the state into the “bad” and patriarchal criminal justice system and the “good” and maternal social welfare state.

The limitations of this split are made apparent in the spaces in the social welfare state where the child welfare and the movement against domestic violence overlap. For example, women who have been battered have had their children taken away from them for failing to protect them from violence in the home. This sets up battle lines between child welfare advocates and advocates against domestic violence, shifting the focus from challenging the state to challenging one another.

Additionally, this split between the “good” and “bad” state  makes it difficult for advocates to identify the complexity of their own ambivalent emotions and actions.

Advocates discussed being both committed to helping women and angry towards women who went back to their partners. They saw their roles as both agents of oppression and agents of change. Yet they also acknowledged that the spaces to identify their complex emotions are very limited, and Haaken points to how this contributes to battle fatigue.

Haaken also considers the relationship between domestic violence and other movements. She describes how historically many advocates emphasized the unique aspects of domestic violence, and men’s choice to use violence, in order to gain protections and interventions from the state.

This strategy, however, risked splitting the DV movement from broader critiques and analyses of violence that understood violent crimes within the context of social justice issues such as unemployment and militarism. Such a split, in Haaken’s opinion, limits the effectiveness of anti-violence work.

An added complexity is the “turf battle” between advocates and activists of other justice movements. Though problems with housing and domestic violence were linked in many locales, with many women staying in shelters much longer than in previous years, those involved in each area of struggle often do not build coalitions with one another.

Haaken points out how female solidarity/sisterhood has been valued and idealized within the movement against domestic violence. While acknowledging “a proud legacy of street fighters” (165), she also discusses how this narrative simplifies the reality that in these relationships other power dynamics, and therefore conflicts — along race, gender and class lines — are often recreated.

Acknowledging these conflicts is perceived as a threat to the solidarity held so dear. Despite the experience of and/or commitment to the fight against domestic violence, this may be a “very poor, very small thing to keep them together in shelter life.” (116)

Haaken points to the movement’s struggle with issues of different social realities and identities such as dealing with violence in lesbian relationships, working with women on the streets, transwomen, substance abusers, those recently out of jail, and many more who did not fit into the dominant story of the domestic violence victim — white, middle class, and blameless.

Haaken describes how in her community, African-American advocates have been vocal critics of the power dynamics within the shelters, between survivors and staff. For example, rules and restrictions, such as those disallowing male children over the age of 12 in the shelters, can cause conflict between survivors and staff.

Additionally, many advocates and survivors decry rules that significantly control the lives of women, such as those around curfews, household chores, and monitoring women’s comings and goings. Furthermore, African-American survivors have demanded an expansion of services from a primary focus on refuge to one that adequately addresses issues such as employment, housing and education.

While the advocates may acknowledge that such practices are problematic, they often do not alter them due to a number of issues: 1) their own limited power in the organization in relation to shelter managers, who enforce policy without participatory process, and 2) anxiety that such challenges could disrupt solidarity, a solidarity based on the narrow story of domestic violence survivors whose lives are “normal” with the exception of patriarchal victimization, and who need the “good and nurturing” shelter to protect them from “bad” men.

Haaken also points to a battleground regarding how to acknowledge female aggression as more than defensive, while still holding firm to a gender-based analysis of violence. She posits that we can do so if “we begin with the premise that the regulation of aggression is part of human defensive systems.” (167)

Although we all have capacity for aggression, societal hierarchies authorize who are acceptable targets and perpetrators of violence. Both women and men can transfer rage to targets or be victims themselves, but Haaken points out that society offers more compensation, both private and public, to men victimized by other men (such as combat veterans). She also describes how the DV movement’s minimization of female aggression has been actively questioned amongst the poor and communities of color.

Intersections of Oppression

“By revolution of the mind, I mean not merely a refusal of victim status. I am talking about an unleashing of the mind’s most creative capacities, catalyzed by participation in struggles for change.” (Robin D.G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The black radical imagination, Boston: Beacon Press, 2002, 191)

As has been done with narrative and liberation theories, Haaken integrates feminist and psychodynamic theories, in a non-pathologizing way, into struggles of justice. The battlegrounds described by Haaken highlight some of the complexities and tensions in the DV movement, complexities which have been obscured by dominant stories of interpersonal violence.

Splitting between idealized “good” and “bad,” as highlighted in the summary above, is one of the psychological “defenses” through which these tensions are unconsciously suppressed, and can weaken us individually and collectively.

Haaken points to the need to identify the multiple historical complexities, present stories, and the power of the schisms in the movement against domestic violence. She also discusses the need for an increasingly deeper understanding of how intersections of oppressions function.

In the stories she uses from New York City, Pine Ridge, London, Manchester and Berlin, she highlights the role of race, class and colonization in the history of the DV movement. Additionally, her conclusion references some of the groups and organizations that have worked on issues of gender-based violence from a different stance than the traditional movement such as Incite!, Critical Resistance, and Sistah II Sistah.

Haaken states that “...it remains to younger generations of activists to create their own stories and to wage their own battles, even as we elders stand ready to watch their back.” (172) Younger generations in fact have created our own stories and have brought plots and subplots to the center. There are many more groups, collectives and bodies of work (such as anthologies, blogs and zines) that highlight the need for intersectional, critical, self-evaluative practices in social justice and revolutionary struggles around gender-based violence.

Some of this work has focused on the role of state violence and the conflicts that arise from taking state money, above and beyond the issue of funding control. They have also tackled and integrated issues of the “nonprofit-industrial complex,” the prison-industrial complex, gender non-conforming realities, reproductive justice, queer justice, trans justice, environmental justice and radical self-care for movement workers, and have developed coalitions with one another.

Among the contributions that Hard Knocks provides are some insights into weaknesses of the mainstream movement against gender-based violence, notably that without attending to the psychological dynamics of participating in these movements, we make ourselves more vulnerable to the dominant narratives that marginalize complexity and reduce our sustainability. In her work, Haaken implies that a thoroughly intersectional perspective will help us avoid repeating this pattern.

Intersectionality, a theory highlighted by Kimberle Crenshaw, asks us to understand that oppressions are not additive nor do they function independently of one another. Instead, they interrelate and are shaped by and shape one another.

Using such a multidimensional approach is challenging. However, it can allow for more nuanced, critical understanding of broader movement work, and perhaps more importantly, may enable our movements to more effectively liberate ourselves, with all our complex social positions. In failing to address the complex web of power dynamics that the majority of women live within and struggle against, the movement against gender-based violence may continue to have limited ability to end this very violence.

ATC 151, March-April 2011

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