This spring, after 24-year-old Federal Way resident Justine Baez and three other people at her apartment building were shot to death by Baez's boyfriend, I wrote a long piece about domestic violence homicides—particularly, the link between domestic violence and mass shootings. Doing research for the story was devastating, because each step was a process of learning more and more about the utter darkness of humanity—listening to terrified 911 calls, reading reports on domestic violence fatalities, watching a memorial of flowers and balloons grow and grow. Even reading about the psychology of partner abuse left me with a trapped, claustrophobic feeling, an empathic gut punch of fear with a creepy residue that stayed for a while.
But it also meant meeting people who work tirelessly to fight that darkness as their regular full-time job, which is incredibly inspiring. And there's a lot of interesting, complicated work going on, across the country, to see what can be done about this particular crime, which can lurk for so long and then explode into so many lives at once.
So I was both thrilled and preemptively nauseated when I opened up the New Yorker this week to find this piece, by Rachel Louise Snyder, about new ways people are trying to predict when domestic violence situations will turn fatal, and learn how to better work with survivors to keep them alive. (A big part of it is making sure solutions don't inadvertently punish the victim.)
Dorothy Giunta-Cotter knew that someday her husband, William, would kill her. They met in 1982, when he was twenty and she was fifteen: a girl with brown eyes and cascading dark hair. Over the course of twenty years, he had kidnapped her, beaten her, and strangled her with a telephone cord. When she was pregnant with their second child, he pushed her down the stairs. After visits to the emergency room, he withheld her pain medicine and, at one point, forbade her to wear a neck brace.
Dorothy and William had two daughters, Kaitlyn and Kristen. Once, in a rage, William sat on Kristen’s chest until she couldn’t breathe; she was eleven. Another time, angered by what she was wearing, he hit her repeatedly in the head. That day, Dorothy took Kristen from their home, in Amesbury, Massachusetts, and drove to a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Maine. (Kaitlyn, who was seventeen, stayed behind in order to graduate from high school on schedule.) Dorothy feared that William knew the local network of domestic-violence shelters; in Maine, she felt, she would be safe.
There she filed a restraining order, telling the judge that her husband would kill her when he found her. But the judge denied the order, citing a lack of jurisdiction. So Dorothy returned with Kristen to Massachusetts, where she met Kelly Dunne, who worked at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center, a local domestic-violence agency. The center helped Dorothy file a restraining order and found a room for her and her daughters in a longer-term shelter. But Dorothy refused. She told the center’s lawyer, “If I’m going to die, I want to do it in my own house.”