From Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin, edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder
I. BEFORE THE TRIAL
It’s the Perpetrator; Stupid
You won’t ever know the worst that happened to Nicole Brown Simpson in her marriage, because she is dead and cannot tell you. And if she were alive, remember, you wouldn’t believe her.
You heard Lorena Bobbitt, after John Wayne Bobbitt had been acquitted of marital rape. At her own trial for malicious wounding, she described beatings, anal rape, humiliation. She had been persistently injured, hit, choked by a husband who liked hurting her. John Wayne Bobbitt, after a brief tour as a misogynist-media star, beat up a new woman friend.
It is always the same. It happens to women as different as Nicole Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt—and me. The perpetrators are men as different as O.J. Simpson, John Wayne Bobbitt, and the former flower-child I am still too afraid to name.
There is terror, yes, and physical pain. There is desperation and despair. One blames oneself, forgives him. One judges oneself harshly for not loving him enough. “It’s your fault,” he shouts as he is battering in the door, or slamming your head against the floor. And before you pass out, you say yes. You run, but no one will hide you or stand up for you—which means standing up to him. You will hide behind bushes if there are bushes; or behind trash cans; or in alleys; away from the decent people who aren’t helping you. It is, after all, your fault.
He hurts you more: more than last time and more than you ever thought possible; certainly more than any reasonable person would ever believe—should you be foolish enough to tell. And, eventually, you surrender to him, apologize, beg him to forgive you for hurting him or provoking him or insulting him or being careless with something of his—his laundry, his car, his meal. You ask him not to hurt you as he does what he wants to you.
The shame of this physical capitulation, often sexual, and the betrayal of your self-respect will never leave you. You will blame yourself and hate yourself forever. In your mind, you will remember yourself—begging, abject. At some point, you will stand up to him verbally, or by not complying, and he will hit you and kick you; he may rape you; he may lock you up or tie you up. The violence becomes contextual, the element in which you try to survive. You will try to run away, plan an escape. If he finds out, or if he finds you, he will hurt you more. You will be so frightened you think dying might be okay.
If you have no money, can’t find shelter, have no work, you will go back and ask him to let you in. If you work, he will find you. He may ask you back and make promises filled with repentance. He may beat you and force you back. But if you do stay away and make a break, he will strike out of nowhere, still beat you, vandalize your home, stalk you.
Still, no one stops him. You aren’t his wife anymore, and he still gets to do it.
Nicole Simpson, like every battered woman, knew she would not be believed. She may have been shrewd enough to anticipate the crowds along the Orange County freeways cheering on O.J. Every battered woman has to be careful, even with strangers. His friends won’t stop him. Neither will yours.
Nicole Simpson went to many experts on domestic violence for help but none of them stopped him. That’s what it takes: the batterer has to be stopped. He will not stop himself. He has to be imprisoned, or killed, or she has to escape and hide, sometimes for the rest of her life, sometimes until he finds another woman to “love.” There is no proof that counseling the batterer stops him.
It was Nicole who asked the police to arrest Simpson in 1989, the ninth time the police had been called. Arrest needs to be mandatory. The 1989 assault on Nicole Simpson should have resulted in O.J. Simpson’s ninth arrest. We don’t know by what factor to multiply the number nine: how many episodes of being beaten women endure, on average, per phone call to the police. In 1993 alone, there were 300,000 domestic violence calls to the police in New York City.
Wife-beating is not Amerika’s dirty little secret, as the press and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala say. Feminists have spent two decades exposing wife abuse with insistence and accuracy, organizing refuges and escape routes and changing law enforcement practices so that, increasingly, wife-beating is recognized as a violent crime.
Wife-beating is commonplace and ordinary because men believe they have rights over women that women dispute. The control men want of women, the domination men require over women, is expressed in this terrible brutality. For me, it was for a four-year period, twenty-five years ago in another country. For 4 million women in the United States, one every fifteen seconds, it was yesterday and today.
What no one will face is this: the problem is not with the woman; it is with the perpetrator. She can change every weakness, transform every dependency. She can escape with the bravado of a Jesse James or the subtle skill of a Houdini. But if the husband is committed to violence and she is not, she cannot win her safety or her freedom. The current legal system, victim advocates, counseling cannot keep her safe in the face of his aggression.
Accounts of wife-beating have typically been met with incredulity and disdain, best expressed in the persistent question, “Why doesn’t she leave?” But after two decades of learning about battery, we now know that more battered women are killed after they leave than before.
Nicole Simpson was living in her own home when she was murdered. Her divorce had been finalized in 1992. Whether or not her ex-husband committed the murder, he did continue to assault her, threaten her, stalk her, intimidate her. His so-called desire for reconciliation masks the awfulness of her situation, the same for every woman who escapes but does not disappear. Having ended the marriage, Nicole Simpson still had to negotiate her safety with the man who was hurting her.
She had to avoid angering him. Any hint that her amiability was essentially coerced, any threat of public exposure, any insult to his dignity from his point of view, might trigger aggression. This cause-and-effect scenario is more imagined than real, since the perpetrator chooses when he will hurt or threaten or stalk. Still, the woman tries. All the smiling photographs of them together after the divorce should evoke alarm, not romantic descriptions of his desire to reconcile. Nicole Simpson followed a strategy of appeasement, because no one stood between her and him to stop him.
Escape, in fact, is hell, a period of indeterminate length reckoned in years, not months, when the ex-husband commits assaults intermittently and acts of terrorism with some consistency. Part of the torment is that freedom is near but he will not let the woman have it. Many escaped women live half in hiding. I am still afraid of my ex-husband each and every day of my life—and I am not afraid of much.
Maybe you don’t know how brave women are—the ones who have stayed until now and the ones who have escaped, both the living and the dead. Nicole Simpson is the hero. The perpetrator is the problem, stupid.
II. DURING THE TRIAL
In Nicole Brown Simpson’s Words
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.
There was a time when the law, including the FBI, and social scientists maintained that wife-beating did not exist in the United States. Eventually the FBI did estimate that a woman is beaten every fifteen seconds in the U.S., and the Justice Department concluded the same in 1984.
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 seventeen years to bother to speak at all. 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 twenty-five years ago, I was buried alive in a silence that 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.
III. AFTER THE ACQUITTAL
Domestic Violence: Trying to Flee
Five days before Nicole Brown Simpson was murdered on June 12, 1994, she called a battered women’s shelter in terror that her ex-husband was going to kill her. The jury was not told this, because she couldn’t be cross-examined. Guess not. Most of the rest of the evidence of beating and stalking, from 1977 to May 1994, was also excluded.
O.J. Simpson had stalked her not once, as represented to the jury, but over at least a two-year period. Prosecutors had been permitted to introduce seven incidents of stalking, but they chose to admit only one into evidence. The jury, predominantly women, was not responding to the wife abuse evidence, said observers. In fact, during an interview late last week, one woman juror called the domestic abuse issue “a waste of time.” Polls during the trial confirmed women were indifferent to the beatings Nicole Simpson endured.
As a woman who escaped an assassin husband and is still haunted by fear and flashbacks, I agreed with Deputy District Attorney Christopher A. Darden that, in 1989, Nicole Simpson knew someday her husband would kill her. She’d told many people, including her sister, Denise, that he’d kill her and get away with it. In fact, you can take a battered woman’s knowledge of her abuser’s capacity to inflict harm and evade consequences to the bank.
But five days before Nicole Simpson was murdered, she knew, for sure, she would die. How? Why? Something had happened: a confrontation, a threatening phone call, an unwanted visit, an aggressive act from Simpson directed at her. She told no one, because, after seventeen years of torment, she knew there was no one to tell. The police virtually everywhere ignore assault against women by their male intimates, so that any husband can be a brutal cop with tacit state protection; in Los Angeles, the police visited Nicole Simpson’s abuser at home as fans.
Remember the video showing Simpson, after the ballet recital, with the Brown family—introduced by the defense to show Simpson’s pleasant demeanor. Hours later, Nicole Simpson was dead. In the video, she is as far from Simpson, physically, as she can manage. He does not nod or gesture to her. He kisses her mother, embraces and kisses her sister, and bear-hugs her father. They all reciprocate. She must have been the loneliest woman in the world. What would Nicole Simpson have had to do to be safe? Go underground, change her appearance and identity, get cash without leaving a trail, take her children and run—all within days of her call to the shelter. She would have had to end all communication with family and friends, without explanation, for years, as well as leave her home and everything familiar.
With this abuser’s wealth and power, he would have had her hunted down; a dream team of lawyers would have taken her children from her. She would have been the villain—reckless, a slut, reviled for stealing the children of a hero. If his abuse of her is of no consequence now that she’s been murdered, how irrelevant would it have been as she, resourceless, tried to make a court and the public understand that she needed to run for her life?
Nicole Simpson knew she couldn’t prevail, and she didn’t try. Instead of running, she did what the therapists said: be firm, draw a line. So she drew the sort of line they meant: he could come to the recital but not sit with her or go to dinner with her family—a line that was no defense against death. Believing he would kill her, she did what most battered women do: kept up the appearance of normality. There was no equal justice for her, no self-defense she felt entitled to. Society had already left her to die.
On the same day the police who beat Rodney G. King were acquitted in Simi Valley, a white husband who had raped, beaten, and tortured his wife, also white, was acquitted of marital rape in South Carolina. He had kept her tied to a bed for hours, her mouth gagged with adhesive tape. He videotaped a half hour of her ordeal, during which he cut her breasts with a knife. The jury, which saw the videotape, had eight women on it. Asked why they acquitted, they said he needed help. They looked right through the victim— afraid to recognize any part of themselves, shamed by her violation. There were no riots afterward.
The governing reality for women of all races is that there is no escape from male violence, because it is inside and outside, intimate and predatory.
While race-hate has been expressed through forced segregation, woman-hate is expressed through forced closeness, which makes punishment swift, easy, and sure. In private, women often empathize with one another, across race and class, because their experiences with men are so much the same. But in public, including on juries, women rarely dare. For this reason, no matter how many women are battered—no matter how many football stadiums battered women could fill on any given day—each one is alone.
Surrounded by family, friends, and a community of affluent acquaintances, Nicole Simpson was alone. Having turned to police, prosecutors, victims aid, therapists, and a women’s shelter, she was still alone. Ronald L. Goldman may have been the only person in seventeen years with the courage to try to intervene physically in an attack on her; and he’s dead, killed by the same hand that killed her, an expensively gloved, extra-large hand.
Though the legal system has mostly consoled and protected batterers, when a woman is being beaten, it’s the batterer who has to be stopped; as Malcolm X used to say, “by any means necessary”—a principle women, all women, had better learn. A woman has a right to her own bed, a home she can’t be thrown out of, and for her body not to be ransacked and broken into. She has a right to safe refuge, to expect her family and friends to stop the batterer— by law or force—before she’s dead. She has a constitutional right to a gun and a legal right to kill if she believes she’s going to be killed. And a batterer’s repeated assaults should lawfully be taken as intent to kill.
Everybody’s against wife abuse, but who’s prepared to stop it?
Excerpted from Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin, Edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, 2019, Semiotext(e), Distributed by The MIT Press.