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No Visible Bruises: Passionate, lucid study sheds light on hidden violence

Non-Fiction: No Visible Bruises: What We Don't Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us

Rachel Louise Snyder

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Domestic violence… one in five Irish women has been assaulted by a current or former partner

Domestic violence… one in five Irish women has been assaulted by a current or former partner

No Visible Bruises

No Visible Bruises

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Domestic violence… one in five Irish women has been assaulted by a current or former partner

Domestic violence is one of the world's biggest problems, lurking in plain sight. In the US, 50 women are killed each month by their partners by guns alone; in the UK, two women are murdered weekly. One in five Irish women has been assaulted by a current or former partner.

Traditionally these crimes have been minimalised as family quarrels that are nobody else's business; that affect a minority, people who have made poor life choices.

Rachel Louise Snyder is determined to overturn such assumptions in this passionately written, highly intelligent and lucid book. No Visible Bruises arose from her reporting for the New Yorker, where she probed ways to combat crimes that she prefers to describe as "intimate partner terrorism".

It won rave reviews when it appeared in the US and was a New York Times and Esquire book of the year. It's not hard to see why. Snyder weaves compelling personal accounts through her deeply researched narrative. She knows that while facts are important, human stories, in all their complexity, are the best data points.

She begins by turning a lens on a single family. A young mother, Michelle, was brutally murdered by her husband, Rocky, along with their two children. Snyder follows various threads of the narrative, speaking to Michelle's mother, father, friends and sisters, as well as to Rocky's parents.

She traces how their relationship evolved, showing how it had many of the predictors for violence from early on.

They got together at a tender age - Rocky was 24, Michelle was just 14 - and were immediately inseparable, enmeshed. Rocky took drugs and became increasingly violent and controlling, stalking Michelle when she tried to take classes.

By foregrounding Michelle's story, Snyder pays her a respect she didn't receive when she was alive, and at the same time showcases the human impact of domestic violence.

The book's delicate focus on women like Michelle doesn't diminish Snyder's use of statistics. She tells us that 137 women are killed by their partners across the globe each day, 50,000 in 2017 alone; that every minute in the US, 20 people are assaulted by their partners.

Between 2000 and 2006 - a period including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - just over 3,000 American soldiers perished, but more than 10,000 Americans died in "domestic homicides".

Then there is the meagre response. In 1990s America, pet shelters outnumbered domestic violence shelters by three to one.

Although men are also victims of domestic violence, Snyder is not afraid to put her finger on an unspoken part of the picture, which one researcher describes as the elephant in the room.

"It is men who are violent," she writes. "School shootings are carried out by young men. Mass murders. Gang warfare, murder-suicides and familicides and matricides and even genocides: all men. Always men."

And why? A culture of toxic masculinity that prevents many men from expressing emotion while also suggesting they are superior to women, at the top of the hierarchy.

Yet the murderers whom Snyder meets aren't different from the norm; they are often terrifyingly normal - charming and more appealing than their victims (although as she acknowledges, they have often been victims of abuse as children). As a community worker she interviewed put it: "The average batterer is pretty likeable."

An expert storyteller, Snyder deploys sophisticated narrative devices, whetting our curiosity by disclosing key facts, then telling us she will come back and explain them later.

She also brings herself into the account, which makes it both more personal and - since she's a woman - more self-aware.

Snyder is an interesting figure, a university professor who dropped out of high school. She's white and successful, inherently more privileged and protected than many of those she speaks to.

When she visits one of her interviewees in prison, she can't help cracking a joke at an unsmiling guard. Afterwards she tries to imagine one of the regular visitors, "the black woman who comes every Sunday, trying to get away with what I'd tried to get away with," and is filled with shame.

Domestic violence does not play out in a vacuum but maps onto a host of public health worries, from mass shootings (in the US, abusing or killing one's partner is often a first step towards more widespread violence) to child welfare to homelessness.

It's also clear that fixing the culture would benefit both women and men. When Snyder speaks to Michelle's father and father-in-law, each grieving the loss of their child and grandchildren, she observes how hard they try not to cry, and considers, "How unfair it is that we live in a world in which they're made to believe their tears are shameful."

No Visible Bruises is much more than a long-form study of a thorny problem; it's literary non-fiction at its best, an authoritative, multi-dimensional work that melds hard-headed reporting with self-reflective analysis.

By shedding light on a form of violence that's not only hidden but also ignored, Snyder's book is likely to play a part in making it visible, understood and, perhaps one day, addressed.

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