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Jewish Journal

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.

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