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Domestic Violence and Coronavirus: Hell Behind Closed Doors

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In many households when men are at home, the women are in danger. And the longer a man is home, the more persistent the need for hypervigilance and the more drawn out the anxiety. The anticipation of violence can be almost as terrible as the violence itself. The pent-up horrors of abusive households are already familiar to millions of Americans. The arrival of a pandemic and all that has gone with it—the stay-at-home orders, the infected law enforcement officers, the economic uncertainty—is likely making it familiar to millions more.

This is not just a guess. For several years, I worked as a lawyer in a domestic violence shelter. My office, a small cubicle inside an already small room, could not be accessed without walking through a common area with a television. After long weekends and during the holidays, the room would have twice as many new faces, always in the same configuration of grief and consternation: Worried mothers watching their exhausted children stare at the television screen. Just off the open TV room, a glass wall with a door marked  off a corridor that led to eight residential crisis rooms that you could access only with a card. Around Christmas, New Year, and the Fourth of July, the rooms had to be shared, and deep into the holidays, even that wasn’t enough. Cots had to be set up in whatever space was available. Women and their children would trip and toddle over pieces of other people’s lives. When all the cots were occupied, we had to turn people away. I knew the cruel chronology of the holidays from personal experience, too. Years before I became a lawyer at a domestic violence shelter, I walked into one the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend.

Now, when pundits, epidemiologists, and politicians repeat the words “stay at home” as a strategy or admonition, I imagine the hell that is brewing behind closed doors—the secret violence against the most vulnerable and those with the least recourse. For the women I represented and the woman I was when I fled abuse, “home” is a word fraught with fear and suffering.

While days may stretch long for most of us now, the days are unrelenting for those facing violence. I think of the children who got small sips of normalcy and safety at school, but who are at home now, being beaten and battered or forced to watch beatings and batterings. The horror of the virus is not simply its own contagion but the virulence of the circumstances it creates.

Financial uncertainty can foment violence in the home. Women make up a larger percentage of the informal economy, providing care to the elderly and children (both jobs unlikely to provide paid leave); women constitute two-thirds of tipped restaurant workers, nearly all of whom have been let go. Studies have shown that conflict evolving from economic stress is a trigger for abusive episodes. The truth is that angry, bored, and isolated men are more likely to vent their frustrations on the most proximate target, which is often their female partner. Abusers know the conditions of captivity that this pandemic has produced, and it will likely only increase the intensity of their wrath.

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