Perceptions and Beliefs about Interpersonal Violence
By George Kronnisanyon Werner
My mother was 18 when she was betrothed to my father in traditional marriage. My father was at least 12 years older than my mother, and my mother was his third wife. In all, my father had at least four wives with whom he had at least 26 children. Of the 26 children, my mother had 13. The last of all 26 children, I never saw my father put his hands on my mother or yell at her, but I saw the scars, emotional and physical, on my mother. By the time I was old enough to know right from wrong, my father and mother had already separated. My mother later told me that she had to run away from my father because she could no longer bear the physical and emotional abuse.
Some of my childhood memories recall the many nights when mother would wake up, kneel at her bedside, and sob until dawn. Her tears were mixed with whispers to a God upon whom she has always relied for protection and guidance. As the sun rose, she would have an early shower to attend prayer meetings at the Robertson Memorial United Methodist Church about a stone throw away from grandmother’s house, where mother had fled to after she ran away from my father. I still have vivid memories of my mother’s eyes firmly fixed on the Crucified Jesus. In many ways, she felt the Cross gave meaning to her pain and helped her live in the moment with serenity and integrity.
My mother became a wounded healer of many a battered wife and many a bruised husband. Women from the neighborhood, who themselves were fleeing abusive relationships, came to my mother by day and night. They told hallowing stories of husbands who came home either drunk or frustrated from unsuccessful fishing or hunting trips. Sometimes my mother would bring husband and wife together to resolve their differences. Such moments shed light on interpersonal violence as an expression of a cry for help, from one to another, and a demonstration of vulnerability. Interpersonal violence can be seen as a form of love gone wrong.
There was a palpable measure of vulnerability about my father and the many husbands who came through my grandmother’s house. While they told their stories, the men wept unceasingly about their inability to control their anger and their daily struggles to measure up as husbands. I saw many a husband bend down to “hold their wife’s feet,” asking for forgiveness and demonstrating humility. I would like to believe that these men loved their women and their children. As my mother used to say, “We’re all good people who do bad things sometimes.” Unfortunately, sometimes these bad things are done in the glaring view of children.
Much of my recent working with young people, whether in postwar Liberia or within the juvenile justice system of the United States, leads me to believe that interpersonal violence is a complex, multi-faceted reality for many. The guns in inner cities across the United States and the guns being traded in civil wars across Africa leave a legacy of death, violence, destruction, lawlessness, complacency, and emotional instability.
When the Liberian Civil War broke out, for instance, we were forced to live through terrible experiences of interpersonal violence involving death and destruction. We were conditioned by the adults around us to hate “the enemy,” and the so-called enemies were our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our community leaders turned killers. We were told to return violence for violence and, because the war lasted over a decade, from 1989 to at least 2000, these destructive lessons were strongly enforced. As children, we learned to revere the tradition of war and interpersonal violence.
Now, I work as a clinical therapist for the Pennsylvania Clinical Schools (PCS) with juveniles charged with various crimes. The mission is to provide the highest quality treatment which is specific to offending behaviors. One hopes that by re-educating young people (aged 12-21) to respect and value themselves and others, the cycle of interpersonal violence can be interrupted and, ultimately, stopped.
Many of these children and their parents have experienced interpersonal violence at varying levels. I meet with families who have been torn by years of interpersonal violence fueled by deprivation, fight over drug territories, hatred, and suspicion. Sometimes it is difficult to tell a victim from a perpetrator, or a perpetrator from a victim. Abuse, be it physical, emotional, or sexual, has a way of being cyclical. Sometimes interpersonal violence runs through the family and has both direct and indirect victims.
Recently, I attended the funeral of a 16-year-old boy who was shot and fatally wounded on May 18, 2007, a block from his West Philadelphia home. He had been one of my patients and had been discharged to his grandfather a year prior to his untimely death. Unassumingly shy and courteous, he was not a child that one would have thought would be a victim of gun violence. For some reason, the police concluded that it appeared he was the target of the shooting. As I looked at him, and watched the many mourners paying their last respects, it occurred to me that interpersonal violence could sometimes strike when least expected and can claim precious lives, often to the point of hopelessness or death.
One does not have any convictions about either victims or perpetrators. One tends to see interpersonal violence as an integral part of the human condition, a desire of one to control the other, a symptom of human need, and a manifestation of the growing inequality between the powerful and the marginalized, between the accused and the accuser, between victim and perpetrator. As a student of Social Policy and Practice, one hopes to be educated so as to discover and learn new ways of attempting to change society’s choices by helping leaders see other possibilities about interpersonal violence in all its complex forms and causes. Education can provide the necessary building blocks upon which one could address the needs of the afflicted while seeking to identify the causes of social injustice and inequality, which form the basis of interpersonal violence.
As a clinician, one hopes to help ameliorate the effects of interpersonal violence on society’s most vulnerable and to be a part of discovering the causes of interpersonal violence. However one evaluates interpersonal violence, there are grim consequences for victim, perpetrator, and the wider society. Individuals who commit acts of violence against others, like my father, are human beings in need of some degree of rehabilitation. Those who become targets of interpersonal violent acts, like my mother, could be helped to turn their pain and suffering into sources of healing and encouragement for others. While the government cannot meet all of the needs of people experiencing interpersonal violence, it is uniquely placed to protect all of its citizens and ensure that victims and perpetrators can all access services to help change their situation.
There are many different ways to approach this complex problem of interpersonal violence. While there are common factors related to this issue, ultimately interpersonal violence is an individual expression that has untold impact on others, the community, and society, in general.