Sunday, June 24, 2007

Review: Fleeing the House of Horrors

[Aysan Sev'er. Fleeing the House of Horrors: Women Who Have Left Abusive Partners. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.]

There's something weird about life experiences that manage to be both intense and ordinary. I'm thinking about things like sexuality, violence and mental 'illness', and there are probably others. Now, all of these, particularly the first two, also exist in a strange, ideological space of texts (words, images, videos, etc.) where they are divorced from real people's real experiences and can be cynically mined for narrative intensity in a way that both takes advantage of and heavily obscures their actual intense social power. But what I'm really talking about is how they are lived: For many (violence, mental 'illness') or practically all (sexuality) people, these kinds of experiences can be a powerful presence in our everyday lives, an intense source of shape for our days and our very selves. Yet precisely because they are so powerful -- that is, they can elicit such powerful reactions of various sorts from other people and from institutions -- we carefully guard their visibility to others and their presence in the narratives we construct about our lives (even at times the ones we tell only ourselves), or we must navigate high levels of social surveillance, regulation, and often punishment, or both.

Sharing stories can be a way to build individual and collective power for people facing oppression, violence, or exploitation; it can pierce isolation and spread strategies. Doing this via texts rather than depending on it to happen person-to-person can be particularly important for these intense-yet-ordinary phenomena, where isolation is so common and the stakes of making a bad choice about sharing can be so high. For people who do not experience the oppression in question but wish to support those who do, such texts can be key to the learning that is key to acting as an ally. First person stories of oppression may not in and of themsleves be sufficient knowledge to guide the action that will change the circumstances that produced them, but they are definitely necessary.

Fleeing the House of Horrors is a work of feminist sociology. It is an academic book that adheres to disciplinary norms as modified by years of feminist insight and agitation. It is based on detailed interviews with 39 women in Ontario who had successfully left a relationship with an abusive male partner.

The book spends the first few chapters setting the stage in terms of past research and academic writing in the general field of male violence against women, including controversies within the field, various theoretical frameworks, and a look at what is known about incidence. Then, like any good social science text, it spends a chapter talking in detail about the study's methodology, including, like many a good feminist text, situating the author and talking a bit about her experience of doing the study. The rest of the book is spent analyzing the interviews, with attention to the nature of the abuse experienced by the women, the experiences of the women's children, survival strategies used by the women, the impact of both positive and negative social support systems, and aggression by the women themselves. The book ends with a proposal for a simple model "about what works in terminating abusive relationships and establishing more functional lives" [p. 176].

I read this book because, as I've mentioned before, in the near future I'm going to have to start doing some writing related to violence against women and I am trying to educate myself. It is also a topic which evokes something of a visceral reaction in me, and one that I think is of great political importance, so this is definitely an area where there is a confluence between my work-related reading and my desire to shape for myself a good political self-education. These things have shaped my reading of this book.

The most powerful part of the book is the material at its core: the voices and stories of the women themselves. As well, I think the author does a good job (with a potential exception noted below) of balancing the inclusion of the voices of the women themselves as individuals telling their own stories in all the specificity that implies, with the skilled drawing out of themes and potential commonalities across the interview pool. The stories are utterly heartwrenching, and the strength these women demonstrate in their efforts to survive and thrive is profound. As a source of the kind of gut-level sense of context that I will need for the writing that I will be doing, and as a politically important glimpse into experiences that I do not share but which are nonetheless connected to privileges that I experience, the many chapters describing the content of and analyzing the interviews themselves were extremely valuable.

As powerful and useful as this book is in its use of the interviews in more traditional feminist ethnographic ways, I also couldn't help wondering what might be learned by beginning from the experiences of women in such situations and exploring the ways in which these women's lives have been ruled and regulated by using feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith's institutional ethnography approach.

Another reason I chose to read this book was because it summarizes some important pieces of the academic literature around violence against women. While it is unlikely that what I write will take its primary cues from academic approaches, I still feel that it is important for me to have some awareness of it, and I may wish to draw upon bits and pieces. This book was exhaustively documented but reasonably concise and accessible, so it was quite useful in meeting this need.

At the same time, it was in reading the chapters providing theoretical context that I felt some political misgivings. I also feel some misgivings about these misgivings -- this makes it several mainstream feminist books in a row where I have felt the need to include a criticism of this sort in the review. Obviously silence on the subject is no answer at all, I just hope I'm also being as effective and upfront as these books deserve in extracting from them and naming what I need to learn and what I have learned as I am in naming my concerns with them.

So. The problem has to do with the ways in which the book does and does not attempt to understand the specificities of the experiences of women with different social locations. There is a recognition of variation in access to resources, some of which are directly connected to class but other which are more social in nature and have a more complicated relationship to class. This is very important, though it stays focused on class as understood in distributive, though not purely economistic, terms rather than considering class as undersetood in relational terms. There is also some recognition that things like racial background, cultural background, experience of migration, and so on have potential significance. Interpersonal racism and lack of social networks due to migration to Canada are recognized at the individual level as potential shapers of experience, but by and large the variable given most attention as a potential determinent of group-level experience is culture. On the one hand, this impulse has positive aspects because it seeks to recognize specificity in experience. The author is also explicitly wary of the ways in which culture talk can feed into racism in the dominant society. On the other hand, its conceptualization of culture does not seem to go beyond the standard, liberal multiculturalism approach, which dehistoricizes culture and attributes to timeless "patriarchal cultures" things which may also be connected to class relations, racialized community formation within a white supremacist state, and other things. (For a much more sophisticated approach see, for instance, "A Question of Silence: Reflections on Violence Against Women in Communities of Colour", Himani Bannerji's contribution to this book.) Though changes in this area may have made less of a differnece in the analysis of the interviews than I had initially feared, simply because the author stays very close to the level of immediate, personal experience in her analysis, it does have a big impact on what larger social changes we might decide to aim for in trying to resolve the underlying oppressions, so it is still of great political importance.

This shortcoming shows up in other ways as well. For example, in outlining some different theoretical frameworks to approach violence against women, there was at least some limited engagement with a few different approaches -- including (to my surprise) traditional Marxism, primarily via some of Engels' work; radical feminsim; and socialist feminism -- but no women of colour feminisms.

And it does show up to a certain extent as a potential for missed insights in the analysis of the interviews. For instance, there was a recognition that racism could in theory limit access to professional supports, but she noted with a certain puzzlement that despite many of the women talking about negative experiences with professionals (courts, police, government, welfare, social service agencies, shelters) and half of the sample being women of colour (all Black or Latina) none mentioned experiences of racism as being a problem in that context. Sev'er speculated that this might be a reluctance to share such things with her as a white woman. I would add that this would probably be compounded if the interviewer was not in a position to recognize certain kinds of problems in accessing services as being related to racism in the absence of the interviewee actually using the r-word, which I suspect might be the case. In contrast, there were a number of crucial points in the text where she responded to some element of gender oppression not necessarily based on the label the participants attached to it, but based on the actual experience they described. (A particularly concerning statement that may be illustrative of where the author was at is her opinion that "no ethnocultural group (with the exception of the Native Canadians) gets isolated and scapegoated in terms of its propensity for committing crimes (general or against women.)" [p. 22]. It is astounding to me that a politicized, lefty, feminist academic based in a city with as significant a history of anti-racist struggle as Toronto could make such a ridiculous statement in a book published in 2002.)

So. Despite a failure to fully engage with the sources of specificity for women's experiences, and thereby probably restricting the relevance of the analysis to only parts of some women's experiences rather than their totality, it is, as I have said repeatedly, a powerful and useful book for this particular white man to have read. Whatever it may have missed, it is relentless in drawing the reader's attention to the fact that women all around us are experiencing these things everyday, and employing many different tactics in their courageous efforts to survive and, perhaps ultimately, to thrive. It is truly an important excavation of one crucial area of intense-yet-ordinary experience.

Yet that very fact makes the reading of it a bit weird. I mean, how could it not? In making such invisible aspects of daily life for so many women visible for all to see, it should give most readers more than a touch of vertigo as it pierces the socialized pretense that 'everything is okay' that so often guides our behaviour even when we know intellectually that everything is far from okay. But it's not just that, I don't think -- there's also something weird about plucking these experiences from invisibility and plunking them down in a context of academic discourse. Oh, I agree there are important reasons for doing such a thing, and certainly the author's feminism means that she refuses to follow the malestream academic tradition of detachment, so the affective dimensions of her participants' experiences and of her own experience of doing the work remain visible. But even in its feminist variants, the requirements of academic writing are such that they leech away the intensity that the writer surely feels and the reader should feel. And when the proper response is grief, rage, and action, that's a little weird too.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

she also over- generalizes uses the 39 interviews she has conducted