Words matter. O.J. Simpson's defense team asked Judge Lance A. Ito to order the prosecution to say domestic discord rather than domestic violence or even spousal abuse--already euphemisms for wife-beating--and to disallow the words battered wife and stalker. Ito refused to alter reality by altering language but some media complied--for example, "Rivera Live," where domestic discord became a new term of art. The lawyer who successfully defended William Kennedy Smith on a rape charge also used that term systematically.
Where is the victim's voice? Where are her words? "I'm scared," Nicole Brown told her mother a few months before she was killed. "I go to the gas station, he's there. I go to the Payless Shoe Store, and he's there. I'm driving, and he's behind me."
Nicole's ordinary words of fear, despair and terror told to friends, and concrete descriptions of physical attacks recorded in her diary, are being kept from the jury. Insignificant when she was alive--because they didn't save her--the victim's words remain insignificant in death: excluded from the trial of her accused murderer, called "hearsay" and not admissible in a legal system that has consistently protected or ignored the beating and sexual abuse of women by men, especially by husbands.
Nicole called a battered women's shelter five days before her death. The jury will not have to listen--but we must. Evidence of the attacks on her by Simpson that were witnessed in public will be allowed at trial. But most of what a batterer does is in private. The worst beatings, the sustained acts of sadism, have no witnesses. Only she knows. To refuse to listen to Nicole Brown Simpson is to refuse to know.
The law, including the FBI, and social scientists used to maintain that wife-beating did not exist in the United States. But in recent years, the FBI acknowledged that wife-beating is this country's most commonly committed violent crime.
Such a change happens this way. First, there is a terrible and intimidating silence--it can last centuries. Inside that silence, men have a legal or a tacit right to beat their wives. Then, with the support of a strong political movement, victims of the abuse speak out about what has been done to them and by whom. They break the silence. One day, enough victims have spoken--sometimes in words, sometimes by running away or seeking refuge or striking back or killing in self-defense--that they can be counted and studied: Social scientists find a pattern of injury and experts describe it.
The words of experts matter. They are listened to respectfully, are often paid to give evidence in legal cases. Meanwhile, the voice of the victim still has no social standing or legal significance. She still has no credibility such that each of us--and the law--is compelled to help her.
We blame her, as the batterer did. We ask why she stayed, though we, of course, were not prepared to stand between her and the batterer so that she could leave. And if, after she is dead, we tell the police that we heard the accused murderer beat her in 1977, and saw her with black eyes--as Nicole's neighbors did--we will not be allowed to testify, which may be the only justice in this, since it has taken us 17 years to bother to speak at all. I was a battered wife; I had such neighbors.
Every battered woman learns early on not to expect help. A battered woman confides in someone, when she does, to leave a trail. She overcomes her fear of triggering violence in the batterer if he finds out that she has spoken in order to leave a verbal marker somewhere, with someone. She thinks the other person's word will be believed later.
Every battered woman faces death more than once, and each time the chance is real: The batterer decides. Eventually, she's fractured inside by the continuing degradation and her emotional world is a landscape of desperation. Of course, she smiles in public and is a good wife. He insists--and so do we.
The desperation is part fear--fear of pain, fear of dying--and part isolation, a brutal aloneness, because everything has failed--every call for help to anyone, every assumption about love, every hope for self-respect and even a shred of dignity. What dignity is there, after all, in confessing, as Nicole did in her diary, that O.J. started beating her on a street in New York and, in their hotel room, "continued to beat me for hours as I kept crawling for the door." He kept hitting her while sexually using her, which is rape--because no meaningful consent is possible or plausible in the context of this violence.
Every battered woman's life has in it many rapes like this one. Sometimes, one complies without the overt violence but in fear of it. Or sometimes, one initiates sex to try to stop or head off a beating. Of course, there are also the so-called good times--when romance overcomes the memory of violence. Both the violation and the complicity make one deeply ashamed. The shame is corrosive. Whatever the batterer left, it attacks. Why would one tell? How can one face it?
Those of us who are not jurors have a moral obligation to listen to Nicole Simpson's words: to how O.J. Simpson locked her in a wine closet after beating her and watched TV while she begged him to let her out; to how, in a different hotel room, "O.J. threw me against the walls . . . and on the floor. Put bruises on my arm and back. The window scared me. Thought he'd throw me out." We need to hear how he "threw a fit, chased me, grabbed me, threw me into walls. Threw all my clothes out of the window into the street three floors below. Bruised me." We need to hear how he stalked her after their divorce. "Everywhere I go," she told a friend, "he shows up. I really think he is going to kill me."
We need, especially, to hear her call to a battered women's shelter five days before her murder. In ruling that call inadmissible, Ito said: "To the man or woman on the street, the relevance and probative value of such evidence is both obvious and compelling . . . . However, the laws and appellate-court decisions that must be applied . . . held otherwise." The man and woman on the street need to hear what was obvious to her: The foreknowledge that death was stalking her.
We need to believe Nicole's words to know the meaning of terror--it isn't a movie of the week--and to face the treason we committed against her life by abandoning her.
When I was being beaten by a shrewd and dangerous man 25 years ago, I was buried alive in silence. I didn't know that such horror had ever happened to anyone else. The silence was unbreachable and unbearable. Imagine Nicole being buried alive, then dead, in noise--our pro-woman, pro-equality noise; or our pro-family, pro-law-and-order noise. For what it's worth--to Nicole nothing--the shame of battery is all ours.