Witness to Domestic Violence
Copyright 2000 By Neil Chethik – www.NeilChethik.com
I can't forget the moment she almost launched herself from that moving car. One day last summer, I was driving on one of the busiest roads in my home town, a 5-lane thoroughfare that runs from the south end of Lexington, Ky., through the city's main shopping district on its way into downtown. My son and a friend of his, both five-year-olds at the time, were in the back seat of my car, laughing and bantering following an afternoon at a local park. We were taking my son's friend back home.
Suddenly, in the far right lane up ahead, I noticed a man inching along in a Jeep. It was one of those Jeeps with no top, no doors, no windows, so I could see the driver clearly as I approached. He was a big fellow, nearly bald, wearing a white t-shirt over broad shoulders.
As I passed him on his left, I saw why he was driving so slowly: He was talking with a woman on the sidewalk. I figured that he was asking directions, or that he knew the woman and was checking to see if she wanted a ride.
When I glanced into my rear-view mirror, however, I could see the man, who looked to be about 40, abruptly stop the Jeep, scurry around the back of it, and grab the woman hard by the arm. As she resisted weakly, he tugged her to the passenger side of his vehicle, pushed her onto the front seat, and scrambled around to the driver's side. Then, with two people on board now, the Jeep lurched away from the curb and headed in my direction.
By this time, I was stopped at a red light perhaps 100 yards up the road. I continued to watch in the rear-view mirror as the Jeep swerved erratically from the right lane into the center one (my lane) and then to the lane immediately to my left.
The light changed to green, and as I started my car moving, I saw out of my side-view mirror that the Jeep was approaching fast to the left of me. Because of its weaving path, I was focused on the vehicle itself, and didn't notice, until he passed by my window, that the man in the t-shirt was pounding on the woman with his right fist as he struggled to steer with his left hand.
My reaction was instinctive. I started honking my horn. I kept honking, it seemed, in time with the man's steady drumbeat upon the woman. I'm not naive about domestic violence, but I found it shocking that a man would be pummeling a woman while traveling 30 miles per hour in an open vehicle in mid-afternoon on a heavily trafficked stretch of road.
The man in the t-shirt apparently realized I was honking at him, and he slowed his vehicle so it was immediately to the left of mine. We were both still moving, now in lockstep, probably at about 25 miles per hour. I rolled down my window, and if I had reached out my hand, and the woman had reached out hers, she and I probably could have touched.
It was here that I got my closest view of her. She appeared to be in her mid-30s, with dark, almond-shaped eyes, puffy from tears. She looked at me pleadingly; without a seat belt on, she was able to turn her whole body in my direction. Then I saw her feet, in brown sandals, slide toward the edge of the Jeep where the door would have been. For a long moment, her toes gripped the steel edge of the doorway, and it seemed that in her desperation, she might actually try to jump out of her vehicle toward mine.
Then I shifted my gaze to the man behind her. His wide eyes were set in a face full of rage, rage that now was directed at me. With expletives deleted, this is the essence of what he was saying to me: Stop your car! I'd like to kick your butt!
At that moment, I remembered that I had two children in the back seat. And instinct took over again. I twisted the steering wheel to the right, and at my next opportunity, turned down a side street, away from the raving man.
"This isn't the way to my house," my son's friend chirped pleasantly from the backseat. Apparently, wrapped up in their play, the kids had been oblivious to all that had just occurred - except for the hard wrong turn. "I know," I answered, and I drove, shaken, to the child's home.
It's been six months since the incident. But I haven't been able to forget it. I've replayed the events dozens of times in my head. I don't second-guess my decision to steer clear of that Jeep. To expose children to such an irrationally violent person would have been foolish.
But what if those kids hadn't been with me? What would I have done then? What should I have done?
Recently, I tried to answer that latter question. I called my local police department's family-abuse unit, and told one of the detectives what had happened. I asked him what I should have done. He told me that no member of the public should ever intercede in a domestic-violence situation (of which there were more than 600,000 reported last year in the U.S.), and that I probably shouldn't even have honked my horn.
The most effective thing I could have done, the detective told me, would have been to write down the make, model and license-plate number of the Jeep, as well as a description of the man, the woman, and their location. Then, I should have called 911. In such cases, the detective assured me, "We respond immediately."
With that information, I'm certainly better prepared to react in future incidents of this nature. But I imagine it'll be awhile before the image fades of that woman in the Jeep, her eyes puffy, her toes curled, as she considered launching herself from her moving vehicle onto one of the busiest roads in town.
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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.NeilChethik.com .
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