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The ugly secret

An increase in domestic abuse spotlights the role of verbal violence


by Julie Gruenbaum Fax

November 17, 2010 | 11:57 am

Marcia and Norman Burnam, with children Bruce and Beth, in 1989. The couple  divorced in 1995, after a 41-year abusive marriage.

Marcia and Norman Burnam, with children Bruce and Beth, in 1989. The couple divorced in 1995, after a 41-year abusive marriage.

Marcia and Norman Burnam were crossing Madison Avenue in Manhattan on their way to American Jewish Committee headquarters, where Marcia, an AJC national governor, was about to chair a meeting. She was going over the agenda in her head when her husband looked at her.

“You know, you are so fat and so ugly and you have such lousy taste and no one likes you. I am humiliated to be seen with you,” he said.

Marcia was used to this. Throughout their 41-year marriage, Norman constantly told her how inferior she was — her looks, her intellect, her cooking, her clothing, even her voice. But on that day in 1990, on her way to chair a national meeting, she had an epiphany.

“For the first time, I realized that what he said had no basis in fact,” Burnam said.

That a prominent Jewish couple from upscale Bel Air could carry a dark secret like domestic abuse was hardly acknowledged when the Burnams got married in 1954, and was only slightly more out of the closet when they divorced in 1995.

Today, for the most part, the Jewish community no longer turns a blind eye to domestic abuse. Jewish social service agencies play a large role in helping victims of domestic violence, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and rabbis and community leaders consistently, if not frequently, put the issue in the public eye.

Still, the cycle of abuse can remain even more hidden when the abuser is not actually hitting, punching or shoving his partner, but rather is using words and manipulation to keep her in a constant state of fear and self-doubt.

“Many people feel that unless they are physically hit or punched or kicked, they are not in an abusive relationship,” said Karen Rosenthal, director of shelter services for Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Los Angeles. “Anyone who feels afraid, who feels bullied, who doesn’t have a voice in the relationship, who feels unequal — that is an abusive relationship.”

Ten years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a shocking statistic: One in four women in the United States is physically or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner in her lifetime. About 85 percent of victims of intimate-partner violence are women, and domestic violence affects same-sex couples as much as it does heterosexual couples. New data has not been issued, but in hard times like these, experts say, the numbers only go up.

Abuse is more prevalent in economically disadvantaged families, according to a 2001 study by the National Institute of Justice, but money concerns affect families no matter what strata they started in. Over the last two years, Los Angeles Jewish agencies dealing with domestic violence reported an uptick of as much as 25 percent in calls to hotlines and requests for therapy.

While no studies have measured the prevalence of domestic violence in the Jewish community, it is widely assumed that national statistics apply equally to Jews.

Emotional abuse, which does not leave bruises or broken bones, is not a crime and doesn’t need to be reported; as a result, no studies quantify its prevalence. Indeed, psychologists have only recently standardized the clinical definition of emotional abuse.

And if society has a hard time measuring and defining emotional abuse, so, too, do the women in such relationships. Many spend years suffering without realizing that what they are going through bears the name of domestic violence.

Today, Marcia Burnam exudes confidence and wit, but for years she thought Norman’s constant criticism was for her own good. When he told her that her voice was too baby-dollish, she changed it. She wore only black, because he said she was too fat to look good in anything else. Although he owned a multimillion-dollar real estate business, she had to account for every penny she spent, she was required to have her shoes resoled, and she clipped double coupons.

Still, she didn’t end the marriage until he physically assaulted her.

The first time, it was a swat with his cane, which she caught midair. A few months later, the day after she told Norman she was moving out — at 67 years old — he grabbed her by the throat and pressed down till she was nearly unconscious. When the in-home male nurse pulled him off, Norman was laughing.

Norman was placed on a 72-hour psychiatric hold, and Marcia’s daughter and nieces came to escort her away.

“My daughter threw her arms around me and hugged me and told me not to worry about anything, and she sat with me while I shook and cried,” Marcia recalled. “We were outside, and I could hear him screaming inside, and all I could think was, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.’ ”

‘I enjoy being with him’

Why do women stay in these relationships? For one thing, getting out of a relationship can be dangerous.

Women are 25 times more likely to be seriously injured by a spouse soon after they are separated than when they are still together. Leaving means the batterer is losing control, and that can send him over the edge.

Marcia at an AJC dinner where she was honored recently.

In fact, domestic violence centers don’t always encourage women to leave, but rather to set up a safety plan for herself and the kids.

There is usually a thin line between emotional and physical abuse. Nearly all sexual or physical abuse is also psychological abuse, and emotional torment is often a precursor to physical violence.

But even without a physical threat, getting out of an abusive relationship is complicated.

“People often think they wouldn’t let it happen to them. Any woman who is self-confident and educated and strong thinks, ‘If someone did that to me, I would leave.’ But the truth is, the behavior escalates very slowly, and part of the pattern is wearing down the women’s self-esteem, their sense of self and their sense of control, so by the time it’s escalated, she’s been completely worn down,” said Ava Rose, director of National Council for Jewish Women’s Women Helping Women program, which carries a caseload of about 50 victims of domestic violence at its Fairfax Avenue storefront and receives about 50 calls a week on its Talkline, many of them relating to domestic violence.

Sandy (her name and details have been changed to protect her) worked in corporate finance for years and lived in Pacific Palisades, waiting until she was 46 to marry a man she thought was the perfect guy — he was Jewish, a professional, and sweet and attentive while they dated for a year.

But things changed after they married. He called her stupid and ugly and old and made her feel like she couldn’t do anything right. He shoved her once, and she called the police.

Getting out of the 17-year relationship has been anything but clean.

Even after having been divorced for seven years, she can still be wooed by him, and at one point, he talked his way into moving back in to the house, staying for more than a year. She threw him out again two years ago, but he still comes over all the time.

“I enjoy being with him, and I’m afraid of being alone, and there is a side to him that is wonderful and makes you think maybe it will work, maybe he’s changing,” she said. “I have no family here. He’s all I have, and I’m scared that if something happened to me, I’d have nowhere to go except to him.”

She supports herself, but they continue to have some financial ties, and she worries she will lose her home without him.

“I’m just stuck,” she said, repeating the refrain several times. “I keep thinking that my future is going to be with him, and I don’t want it to be with him, but I can’t imagine it not being with him.”

Marcia Burnam didn’t feel truly free from her husband until he died, two years after their divorce. She stayed with Norman for so many years because she believed in shalom bayit, peace in the home, and felt it was a Jewish woman’s obligation to maintain the family. Her mother and mother-in-law — both, like her, stalwarts of the Jewish nonprofit world — were abused, so she had no healthy role models, she said.

And Norman needed her, she said. He had a rare neurological disorder that caused wild fluctuations in his blood pressure, and she knew more about how to handle it than any doctor.

Jewish women, according to a 2004 study by Jewish Women International (JWI), often delay seeking help and are less likely to utilize shelter services, preferring instead to rely on family and friends for refuge and private therapists for help. Often, that means they don’t get tied into the full network of domestic violence services.

Ethnic or religious expectations also keep them tethered to their abusers.

Shirin (her name and other identifying details have been changed for her protection) was in an abusive relationship for 25 years and tried to leave multiple times before she finally divorced her husband, a wealthy, good-looking businessman. They lived in a beautiful home in Westwood with their three children and were on the A-list in Iranian Jewish social circles.

“They didn’t know how he had treated me in the house just one hour before, that I was crying because he was putting me down and calling me names, and now all of sudden we come to this party and I have to put on makeup and smile, and hear people say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. He’s such a nice person. Such a gentleman.’ ”

In the Iranian Jewish community, divorce is still frowned upon, and airing dirty laundry is believed to shame the family and harm the children’s future marriage prospects — notions that for many years also hampered the Orthodox community’s willingness to deal with domestic violence. While those myths are slowly being chipped away in Orthodox circles, they linger on in the Iranian and other immigrant communities.

Shirin recalls her friends trying to convince her to stay in the marriage. “Oh come on,” they would say. “All Persian men are like that. That is the way all Mideastern men are; that is not a reason to get divorced.”

But she had other reactions, as well.

“In a gathering, a family friend, a woman in her late 60s, approached me, held my hands and said, ‘Don’t give up, be strong, free yourself, don’t suffer like me and others like me, enough is enough. For how long more should we suffer the humiliation and control and stay quiet? Don’t give up,’ ” Shirin said.

After she filed for divorce, her ex-husband tried to pit the kids against her. He tried to suspend her health insurance and her credit cards and accused her of child abuse. His income suddenly decreased to about one-third of what it was before she’d filed, and savings and investments disappeared. In the divorce settlement, she got the house, with no furniture, and just enough money to maintain it. He still hasn’t given her a Jewish divorce, a get, and she is certain he will use that to exact more concessions.

Shirin didn’t finish college and has never worked outside the home, but she is certain she will be able to gain independence. What is more difficult is rebuilding from the inside.

“My challenge now has been to prove not just to myself, but to my children, that I am capable, that I can take care of myself without him,” she said.

‘I didn’t like myself anymore’

Abuse often occurs cyclically — a violent episode, followed by the victim threatening to leave. The abuser will then promise to change and will be on good behavior for weeks, sometimes even months. During that time, the victim often convinces herself that things will get better.

But without serious intervention, tension builds, and more often than not, another outburst restarts the cycle.

Shirin would experience months at a time of abuse-free living during her 25-year marriage. But most of the time, her husband was brutal. 

He told her she was ugly, unworthy, stupid. She was not allowed to make any decisions about spending, scheduling or socializing. He told her she should have liposuction, dress as well as he does, find a career, be a better cook. If she laughed, he said she was too carefree; if she cried, too emotional. She was either a neglectful mother or too doting.

“After a while, you try not to show any emotion at all. You know no matter how you act or behave, you will always be in trouble; you’re always being put under a magnifying glass,” Shirin said in an interview at JFS, where she is in a support group. “I got to a point in my life that I didn’t like myself anymore. He made me believe that I was worthless and not good enough.”

She says sometimes she wished her husband would hit her.

“Then I would have proof — a bruise, a cut — to show that he did these things to me. But what he did to me doesn’t show on your body. It is all on the inside,” Shirin said.

Her husband isolated her from her family, so that she had to secretly tell her parents when to find her and the kids at the park.

Driving a wedge between the victim and people who care about her is a common tactic an abuser uses to make his victim entirely dependent on him.

Kendall Evans, program manager of Another Way, a 52-session batterer’s intervention program at the Open Paths Counseling Center in Culver City, said batterers often come from homes where there was abuse — boys who grow up in abusive homes are more likely to become abusers, and girls are more likely to become victims, studies show. Research also indicates that a weak attachment with primary caregivers is also a factor in abusers’ inability to self-regulate or be part of an equal relationship, Evans said.

Evans said studies show a 30 percent reduction rate in recidivism after a 26-week intervention program, and while no studies have been done for 52-week programs, he believes the success rate would be higher.

“What I would say to a survivor is, ‘It is not your responsibility to fix this person. You cannot be loving or compassionate or kind enough to make them stop when you are the target, so your job is to get safe and keep your kids safe.’ “

Progress and needs

But Jewish women who do come forward often have trouble finding the legal, financial and counseling services they need, perhaps because, according to a 2004 report from JWI, even some professionals and law enforcement agencies adhere to the myth that Jewish families don’t suffer from domestic abuse.

Jewish organizations are doing much to combat that.

Last year, 275 Jewish domestic violence programs across the country served thousands of clients of all backgrounds, according to JWI. Nearly 14,000 teens were reached last year with programs promoting healthy relationships and identifying the red flags of dangerous ones.

Education is vital. Last year, JWI designated a Shabbat in the Washington, D.C., area where 10 rabbis delivered sermons about domestic violence.

“Within the next two weeks, the Jewish domestic violence programs saw a surge of very high numbers of Jewish women” — around 20 women in two weeks — “who came forward because their rabbi had spoken out,” said Deborah Rosenbloom, JWI’s director of programs.

Locally, JFS’ Family Violence Project has a caseload of about 400 women a year, Jews and non-Jews, in counseling, group therapy or case management. Its 24-hour hotline received about 7,000 calls last year, and the three shelters — two 30-day emergency shelters, one with a kosher kitchen, and an 18-month transitional shelter — provided 3,200 shelter bed nights last year. Around 10 percent of the women who utilize JFS’ services are Jewish.

There is no charge for any service, and about 50 percent of the $1.6 million budget comes from federal, state and local government sources — funding that has proven unpredictable over the last few years. In 2008, JFS lost $200,000 in state funding, and each year is threatened on the California budget chopping block (though it emerged intact again this year).

The Obama administration is the first to have a White House adviser on domestic violence, and last month the White House put out a comprehensive plan to make all departments responsive to domestic violence.

Since congress passed the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, the rate of nonfatal intimate partner violence against women has decreased by 63 percent and the number of women killed by an intimate partner has decreased 24 percent, according to the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). And yet, nearly 1,000 women were killed by in intimate partner in the United States in 2008.

Among the charities Marcia Burnam supports are domestic violence shelters and educational programs.

Talking to Marcia, it’s hard to believe she was ever a victim. She is funny, assertive and smart, and shows no signs of a shrinking personality. She almost never wears black anymore — choosing instead the brightest colors she can find.

She loves to talk about her rich family history, the trips she’s taken, the funds she’s raised and the programs she supports through the American Jewish Committee, Hebrew Union College and Jewish Family Service. She has been honored multiple times by these organizations.

“I have led a fabulously interesting life, and I feel very lucky,” she says, wondering how much more she might have accomplished had she not been in an abusive marriage.

She regrets staying with Norman for so long, mostly because of the damage he did to the kids, and, though she says she emerged in one piece, there is still some permanent damage.

“He’s still in my mind,” she said. “I asked my shrink, ‘When can I get rid of him?’ and he said, ‘Easy — as soon as you learn to walk without your legs.’ ”

She pauses and shakes her head. “Forty-one years. Who am I kidding?”


For the story of Olga, click here.

Resource List:
National Domestic Violence Hotline: thehotline.org, (800) 799-SAFE (7233).
Jewish Family Service 24-hotline: jfsla.org, (818) 505-0900.
National Council for Jewish Women Talkline: ncjwla.org/community_services/women_helping_women, (323) 655-3807 or (877) 655-3807.
Batterers Intervention Program: openpaths.org/our-services/domestic-violence-anger-management, (310) 691-4455.
Jewish Women International: jwi.org.

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