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What Can My College Community, and the US, Learn from a Death by Domestic Violence?

May 9, 2010
UVA vigil for Love

Vigil for Yeardley Love at UVA / Helber for AP

Yesterday  University of Virginia student and lacrosse player Yeardley Love was laid to rest. The 22-year-old would have graduated on May 23. Instead her life ended early last week after her former boyfriend, fellow UVA student and lacrosse player George Huguely, allegedly attacked her at her apartment. Hours after Love was found dead on Monday morning, Huguely was arrested and admitted to entering her apartment, kicking down her locked bedroom door and attacking her, shaking her so that her head repeatedly hit a wall. His attorney is calling Love’s death an accident. Huguely is charged with first-degree murder.

The case has quickly become national news.  As a University of Virginia alum the news of Love’s murder, and the reactions of the public, fill me with a myriad of emotions. Sadness over the death of a member of my college community. Frustration that the small but dedicated student and administrative feminist community in which I participated on campus cannot stop all such tragedies from occurring, no matter how much it talks about the issue and tries to raise awareness of resources available to those in need of help. Anger that national attention only turns to violence against women when the victims are young white women or famous women.  And a wary hope that this young woman’s death will catalyze lasting change in the way the UVA community, and people around the country, think about and respond to domestic violence. 

On Wednesday a vigil for Love was held in the UVA amphitheater, which serves as a focal point for many events on the college grounds. It has also served as a site for the school’s annual Take Back the Night vigil, where survivors of sexual violence stand behind a barrier to conceal their identities and tell their stories to hundreds of their peers. Last year I sat in the amphitheater on a frigid April night and listened to friends of mine, and strangers, women and men, speak of the assault, rape and abuse they suffered,  almost always at the hands of significant others, family members, and acquaintances.  Now, the vigil for Love serves as a horrible reminder that intimate partner violence and sexual violence are not only causes of physical, emotional and mental devastation, they are matters of life and death.

UVA’s President John Casteen spoke at the vigil for Love. I read his remarks posted online and two things struck me. One, it irks me that he repeatedly says that no woman who is beaten or killed deserves it. This shouldn’t have to be said. It should be understood by everyone. But unfortunately, I know that some people have to be told this is true, and some people don’t believe it—primarily, of course, the people who commit such violence themselves. Two, his speech includes a call to action that I hope the administration and the student community will take to heart.

My hope for Yeardley, and for you, is that her dying inspires an anger, a sense of outrage that engenders determination here and wherever Yeardley’s name is recognized that no woman, no person in this place, this community, this state, our nation need either fear for her safety or experience violence for any reason: not because of her sex, not because of her size, not because of an attacker’s advantage or arrogance or mindless sense of right to abuse, to harm, perhaps to kill; and then that memory of Yeardley’s name, her personal strengths, her successes, her human worth may survive the memory of the dying about which we ache tonight, and that you and we and all who know the story of Yeardley Love will learn the lessons of her living, of her life.

For those who were already angry about violence against women, and already engaged in efforts to eradicate it at the university, Love’s death has certainly increased their support base which will hopefully lead to the success of new initiatives. For example, support is being galvanized for one group of students’ efforts to establish a safe house specifically for UVA students suffering abuse. Renewed attention is being brought to the UVA Women’s Center’s efforts to engage the university’s sports community on the problem of partner violence. And the UVA administration’s handling of cases of violence against women in the past will be scrutinized.

Meanwhile, the reactions of the media and the public are revealing of the way our culture tries to make sense of domestic violence. People are discussing alcohol and a history of violent behavior as factors in Huguely’s actions. One journalist has pointed to the hypermasculinity and exclusivity of male sports culture as a cause of increased violent behavior among athletes, and another argues that this explanation ignores rape culture in American society at large. One astute reader takes the Washington Post to task for running a headline depicting Love’s death as a melodramatic, doomed romance. In comment threads, people speculate on rumors that Huguely suffered abuse himself as a child or that he must be mentally ill. They discuss Love and Huguely’s privileged background, either pinpointing it as a reason for Huguely’s behavior or expressing surprise that something like this could happen among the well-to-do.

I hope that as the discussion of this case continues, more people will begin to understand the reality of domestic violence which, as the UVA Women’s Center explains, is this:

According to Bureau of Justice statistics, on average three women are murdered by their intimate partners in the U.S. everyday. Intimate partner violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly against women who are between the ages of 20 and 24 without regard to race, ethnicity, economic status, and education.

Love’s death is not an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern of violent crime against women. I learned a lot about this pattern while helping to organize the production of a one-act play about domestic violence for UVA’s Take Back the Night events one year. I learned that domestic violence is now often called intimate partner violence (IPV) by activists, in order to raise awareness that abuse happens among unmarried couples and LGBT couples in addition to the married, heterosexual couples that people usually think of when they hear the term ‘domestic violence.’   I learned that incidents of domestic violence increase during times of economic stress, such as the current recession. And though I knew it in a nebulous way before, I came to understand just how difficult it can be for a woman to escape an abusive relationship when her partner is threatening to kill her, her children, or himself.

One of the main goals of projects like Take Back the Night is to educate a community about violence against women so that it can understand and recognize these incidents, and intervene. Another goal is to offer healing to those that have experienced such violence. But Love’s death is a painful reminder that education and healing aren’t just important ends in themselves, they are also means to work toward a shift in our cultural paradigm about gender. Violence against women won’t end without it, and undoubtedly that shift won’t happen for a long time. But the deaths of Yeardley Love and the other victims of domestic violence whose names we don’t know should spur us on to that day.

To get help for yourself or someone you know who is experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline or the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

  1. May 11, 2010 11:54 am

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    • May 12, 2010 9:28 am

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