Creative Writing at The New School

by LaVonne Elaine Roberts

Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2019.

Sometimes a book comes along and, long after it is absorbed, nothing is the same. Rachel Louise Snyder's No Visible Bruises demands that we have a conversation about an insidious national epidemic—domestic violence that our nation has avoided for far too long. One in every four women is a victim of domestic physical violence at some point in her life, and the Justice Department estimates that three women and one man are killed by their partners every day.

You point out that most (54%) mass shootings intersect with domestic violence. As a Texan, I grew up hearing about Charles Whitman, who, on August 1, 1966, after fatally stabbing his mother and his wife, killed 14 people and wounded 31 others. Is there any hope that convicted domestic violence abusers may be required to surrender their firearms and prohibited from purchasing any more?

That, in a nutshell, is the holdup for the reauthorization of VAWA's 2018 bill. The NRA came out against it because they don't believe convicted abusers should have to give up their 2A rights. It's maddening--guns at all costs, guns at the expense of human lives. It shouldn't be political, but it is. That said, I'm speaking in a different state nearly every week at the moment, and across the board, the people I'm meeting are against guns. I spoke in Dallas last week to a ballroom full of people of all political stripes who believed abusers should lose their guns. This gives me hope.

You point out that while the link between mass shooters and domestic violence is slowly becoming known, yet strangulation as a specific sign of lethality in the context of domestic violence remains largely unknown. What policy changes would you most like to see?

We must reauthorize VAWA and expand its budget, and we must rewrite some of our body of jurisprudence within the context of domestic violence. I'm referring here mainly to self-defense and stand your ground laws, which don't account for the different ways victims in such circumstances act versus, say, a stranger picking a fight with someone.

While reading your book, I kept thinking about how the #MeToo movement has united women in supporting each other more vocally. I loved that you brought attention to Martina Latessa and what a difference it makes having a female officer working with victims. What can we do to make sure there are more women like Martina out there helping female survivors?

It's not just that Martina is a woman; it's also that she meets victims where they are most comfortable — in their own homes or spaces. This is psychologically so important to gain trust. Of course, I also think we should send Martina overseas to wherever they're doing the most advanced cloning! She is a singular force. The DV homicide rates in the Cleveland districts where she operates have gone down since her pilot project began, incidentally. But you mention the #MeToo movement, and I'm so glad because, to me, the #MeToo movement offers a roadmap for how to share our stories without judgment or shame. There is so much shame to being a victim of DV, and a lot of that comes from cultural messages we all receive about DV as a priority for law enforcement and judiciary, or DV as a circumstance because someones' made a bad choice. #MeToo got us all sharing our stories in such a powerful way, and that needs to happen in the context of domestic violence next.

You write about studying fiction in graduate school and then gravitating to nonfiction because you understood it to be a more direct source of change. Did your background in fiction help on a craft level?

Yeah…my background is in fiction, which turned out to be lucky because my task was: I want to write a book that I think no one will want to read. So how can I write a book that covers an unpleasant topic, but yet is so compelling you can't put it down. That was my charge. In fiction, you're always writing toward a conclusion that — unless you are John Irving — you probably don't know ahead of time. With my book, I knew I wanted it to read like a novel, but I also knew where the stories were going to wind up. I couldn't pretend Michelle Monson Mosure wasn't going to die. So, as a creative writer, how do you get around that? The idea of surprising your reader? It took me a long time to figure out — several years. I realized that the tension in her story would come, not from how her life ended, but from the intersections where system after system failed her. Those were the heartbeats, as it were. That's where the emotional depth would really reside, and readers, the more they got into her story, would start to see these systemic failures, and so her doom begins to carry this enormous, terrible weight. I really did think, "Well, we have 400 years of not caring about this subject in this country. We'll probably continue to have more. So I have to make readers care about this one person, this one loss. And then she becomes a stand-in for hundreds of years of our collective culpability." The writing of it was so intense for me that I also could only read poetry during the actual writing process, too. Writers of different genres have more alike than different; that's my view. I probably get it from my grandfather, who was a journalist and a poet.

Based on book sales, media coverage, and The National Book Circle's nomination, you've brought a lot of attention to domestic violence. Any changes you'd like to see that haven't happened yet?

Oh my god, SO MANY! We need to get VAWA signed. We need to do much more comprehensive programming in middle and high schools (shout out to One Love Foundation for all the great work they do with this age group). We need to put more resources into batterer's intervention, so we learn what works and what doesn't. I think we should have the National DV Hotline phone number on every package of pads and tampons in this country. I think we should have interactive teen dating apps where kids could post questions anonymously and get answers in real-time. I think we should have sponsors for abusers who graduate from batterer's programs in the same way that AA has sponsors. I think we should have an abusers hotline in the same way we have a suicide hotline. We need to be able to hold abusers pre-trial if they are particularly dangerous. Prosecutors need to do more evidence-based prosecution. Our self-defense laws need to be adjusted to take gender, physical ability, and strength into consideration. Restorative justice and gender inequality education need to be front and center of any batterer's intervention.

How did you come up with the term intimate terrorism?

It's not my term, really. Researchers and advocates have been calling it intimate partner terrorism for a long time now. I just took out the partner because domestic violence can come in a lot of different constellations: siblings on siblings, parents on children, and vice versa.

As someone who facilitates writers' workshops in shelters for survivors of violence, I appreciated that you wrote about the work being done to predict domestic violence homicides before they happen. As you so rightly said, "escaping a dangerous relationship hardly ensures the danger is over." For anyone close to someone living in an abusive situation, what can they do to support the victim?

This is a difficult question — and I get asked ALL the time. The problem is, there's no one way to intervene. It depends on the dynamics of the relationships, and the resources available in any given jurisdiction. But in general, I would say that victims need to be acknowledged when it comes to what's going on. They can't just be told to leave, full stop. For many, that's simply impossible. It's too dangerous. But they can create the space just to get victims to talk. They can not give up on their family members who are in these situations. So often you hear from families who say, "She was with him for 20 years. We just couldn't take it anymore." And they close themselves off. I understand this proclivity, but they should take time to understand the dynamics at work — it's in my book--why any given person can't leave. Family members can also share the risk factors of DV homicide from the Danger Assessment to get a sense of the level of danger; the DA is easily findable via Google.

I confided in a female psychiatrist that a woman in a shelter for victims of violence who was in my writing program returned to her abuser. She responded, "I don't buy it. Why would any woman stay." I kept thinking—she's a mental health practitioner. She's a woman. If she doesn't get it, how will anyone? You point out that "we mistake what we see from the outside as [a victim] deciding to stay with an abuser, when in fact we who don't realize what a victim who is slowly and carefully leaving look like." Does your No Visible Bruises speak to someone in an abusive relationship as much as someone who doesn't understand domestic violence? Was that your goal?

Totally. It is validating. Remember that the goal of emotional abuse is to destabilize someone emotionally and psychologically. Abusers will say it's all the victim's fault, and at some point, that message sinks deeply into a victim. My book tells them they're not crazy, and they're not wrong, and the choices they're making make sense in the context in which they're living. It's been stunning to me how many victims have gotten in touch with me and told me their stories. At the same time, police need to read it, and judges, and family members and politicians.

You pointed out that it is well known in the domestic violence world that most survivors leave seven or more times before they can achieve self-agency, free from their abusive partners "Leaving is never an event; it's a process," stood out to me. As you know, it's acutely painful to watch a person return to an abusive partner, especially when there are children involved. What can we do to be supportive when people we love make compromised decisions?

I think the first thing is to realize the decisions might not be compromised at all. There might be real barriers to their leaving. And those barriers — even if they're emotional or psychological — are every bit as powerful as, say, economic barriers. This is what I mean when I say open up the space to share without judgment. The phrasing of the question carries an inherent judgment.

One critic suggested that your book doesn't fully represent marginalized communities, so I want to ask the following: Do you feel that your book is inclusive of all identities experiencing or associated with domestic violence?

I've gotten that a lot, and it makes me realize just how much we see the world through the white gaze. There are a TON of people in my book who had their identities and names changed for various reasons of protection. Those protective measures also include race. Michelle and Rocky are white, but one of the primary narratives is a person of color who, through my careful use of a very white-sounding pseudonym, has their identity entirely hidden. At the same time, native communities and immigrant communities and other communities of color DO face unique challenges that white communities often don't face. I am fully aware of that, but this is really the first narrative reportage book on domestic violence. You can't cover everything. You have to make decisions. I also don't talk about the crisis in our family courts today. And I don't spend much time on kids who grow up in abusive homes. There's a lot that I don't include, and I hope my book is just the first of many more to follow by others.

Thanks to your book, readers know more about cohesive control laws, which exist in countries like the UK and France. Do you feel like your writing is inspiring more conversations and creating more awareness around these issues?

I hope so. Idaho just became the first state to pass a coercive control law. We'll see how that works.

Are you still in touch with Donte and Community Works?

Community Works, yes, a bit. Jimmy, no—as I mentioned in the book. He still struggles with addiction, but he's trying. I think we exchanged a Facebook message once or twice, but that's it. I haven't talked to Donte since the book came out. He was transferred to a different penitentiary, and I don't know where he is at the moment, but I have faith that he'll find me. He knows how to find me…And I hope he will soon.

One of the things I struggle with the most is suffering from secondary trauma when working with survivors of violence. Despite trauma-informed care training, the stories get under my skin and haunt me, especially the children. I can't begin to imagine the emotional toll of speaking to men who inflicted violence. How did you practice self-care while researching and writing your book?

I'm still working on this. I'm not very good, especially because I am traveling and speaking somewhere nearly every week, so my body clock is all off. The other day I couldn't remember what state I was in for, like, ten minutes. But I quit drinking, and I'm taking boxing classes and both help. When I was researching the book, I took a whole year off at one point and just painted and read poetry. I also wrote a memoir, which I'm revising now.

When you wrote, "the most significant cultural barrier existed between the police Dept. and the crisis center." You pointed out the police dept. employs men primarily, and the crisis center employs women primarily. Before the formation of a High-Risk Team, police officers viewed the female workers at the crisis center as the "Men Hate Us Club." You wrote that one of the crisis center advocates said she and her colleagues were known as the "feminazis" and that they thought of the police officers as "they were the assholes who only cared about overtime." I think it's essential for all the stakeholders fighting for survivors of violence to break down barriers to work together. Do you see other areas where conversations should happen?

Yes, of course. In our homes. In our places of worship. In our schools.

I imagine the need for a book for children of domestic violence and family members who fear for loved ones subjected to abuse. Any thoughts on your next book? I completely agree--something like how Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi partnered together for an anti-racist book based on Kendi's incredible work. That's in my mind a bit. But my next book will be my memoir.

And of course, the real question I'm sure most people are hesitant to ask--have you ever experienced violence in a relationship?

I get this a lot. My ex-husband was definitely verbally and emotionally abusive, but I would say I was too sometimes. We didn't bring out the best in each other. My father was violent a few times — beyond just spanking, say — and that's something I'll delve into in my memoir. My father was not a man prone to violence, but I was a very, very difficult kid. I was just walking rage, and pain. I did a lot of drugs. I ran away more than a dozen times, and sometimes I'd be gone for days. He literally did not know how to handle me. So it wasn't a kind of classic abuse situation in that I fought back, but it's something I very much want to examine. My father died six weeks ago, and it's still pretty devastating to think of him gone from my life.

What has happened since your book came out?

Washington, DC's local government, has now put forth a felony statute for strangulation as a result of my book. I'm speaking every week somewhere different about the book, and I think I've spoken to thousands of people in the past six months. I was a keynote speaker at the NYPD conference this year. One county in Massachusetts has made the book a roadmap for revamping their entire DV systems, so the DA has made evidence-based prosecution a priority in her administration. She has also made sure the police are trained in strangulation (50 had been trained at my last count), and she's creating a high-risk team in her county. This is all in Pittsfield, MA. The DA did this fantastic thing where they partnered with the local bookstore to make it a community read, and the bookstore donated 20% of their profits to the local DV advocacy group. That advocacy group, in coordination with local government, created funding so victims could get the book for reduced cost or free. And they had me come and present to 500 community members at their local theater.

There were reps from DV, the police, the DAs office, law enforcement and a couple of judges, as well as healthcare workers, social workers and teachers from the local schools. It was an amazing virtuous circle and it struck me as a perfect roadmap for actual real change. I heard recently that the undersecretary for the Dept of Health and Human Services read the book and wants to create a task force to talk about oversight with their DV grantees. For those that have read the book, Cleveland's numbers from the first and fifth district, where Detective Latessa works, have come back and shown huge reductions in DV homicides, so they're expanding their program to all five of Cleveland's Districts. I'm also working on meeting with various folks to try and get the national DV hotline phone number on every package of pads and tampons, and all the ideas I gave you below? I'm giving those ideas away to every group I meet with freely. I have no ownership over them. I don't need to get credit. But I very much feel like this issue is being taken seriously in a way that it has' t in a very long time, maybe ever, and we can do so much. Mine is the first book of its kind: a social issue written from a literary journalism perspective, as opposed to an academic text, or a memoir or self-help book. It offers endless possibilities. My agent and I are also beginning talks about turning it into a YA book.

Rachel Louise Snyder is the author of Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade, the novel What We’ve Lost is Nothing, and No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. Her print work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times magazine, Slate, Salon, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the New Republic, and others.

LaVonne Elaine Roberts is a short story writer, essayist, and memoirist. She is the 2020 Diversity Fellow for Drizzle Review and a member of the Blue Mountain Review Southern Collective. Her work at Drizzle will include curation of a special issue on ageism in literature, due out summer 2020.  Her essays, short stories, and poetry have been published widely, including in Our Stories, Too: Personal Narratives by Women, WordFest Anthology 2019The Blue Mountain ReviewLIT MagazineThought NotebookThe Dead Mule School of Southern LiteratureLitroamong other publications. She is the founder of WRITE ON!, which facilitates free writing workshops for marginalized populations. She resides in New York City, where she is completing an MFA at The New School and a memoir called Life On My Own Terms.

About The Author

Founded in Greenwich Village in 1931, Creative Writing at The New School continues to promote, engender, and shape innovative literature.