This isn’t over.
On Tuesday, a broken brute finally did something halfway good. Though it was laced with clueless rationalizations for his heinous murder of Jennifer Martel, Jared Remy’s guilty plea spared her loved ones more pain and brought his trial to a close.
The trials of domestic violence victims continue. They suffer mostly in the shadows, beaten and terrorized in their home, surrounded by neighbors who cannot or will not see what is happening mere feet away. The lucky ones find help and get out, crowding into emergency shelters or finding protection in counseling or court orders.
Numbers from a single day last fall show the size of the problem. In a census taken Sept. 17, Massachusetts domestic violence programs reported serving 2,234 victims. Of those, 902 adults and children took refuge in shelters and transitional housing. The rest got counseling and legal help. Overburdened programs turned another 343 people away that day. Emergency hotlines took 560 calls. And these are just the abuse victims who sought help.
Every so often, their unseen miseries burst into public view, carried forth by a case that is impossible to ignore. Martel’s murder was such a case. Remy’s celebrity (his father is Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy), the gruesomeness of his crime, the presence of their 4-year-old daughter during the murder — it all made powerful and ordinary people take notice.
In the nine months since Martel died, we have had healthy discussions about the abuse women and men suffer at the hands of those who profess to love them. And legislators, led by a House speaker shocked into action by the murder, have strengthened penalties for abusers. From an unthinkable crime has come a good that will be Jennifer Martel’s lasting legacy.
But most abuse is more mundane and insidious than the stories that make headlines. Domestic murders usually have their beginnings with monitored phone calls and belittling talk, with financial control, and shoving. Like the judges, prosecutors, and relatives who missed Remy’s murderous potential, most of us do not register the seriousness of these offenses until it is too late.
Measuring their own situations against the extremes, even some victims fail to see it. That worries Risa Mednick, who heads Transition House, which runs an emergency shelter in Cambridge. An acquaintance recently told Mednick she was in an abusive relationship, but didn’t seek help because she didn’t think anyone would take her seriously.
“She told me, ‘I know this is hurting me and my child, but it’s not as bad as the things I see in the news,’ ” Mednick said.
Her shelter is full of women who don’t look like those in the news. Poor women, immigrant women, women of color, women who should be planning retirement instead of calculating their chances of survival.
Last November, one of them told Speaker Robert DeLeo her story. At 59, she fled her husband after a decade of physical, emotional, and economic abuse. After her daughter was safely in college, she left her home state for the first time, boarding a bus with a change of clothes and $15.
“I had no idea I could get help,” she said. “I felt ashamed I couldn’t fix it.”
We have come so far, especially over the last nine months. But we’re still too late to save women like this from years of abuse, to convince them they have nothing to be ashamed of.
It is “not just about the acute moment,” says Toni Troop of Jane Doe Inc. “The more we can help people in the beginning, the better we can prevent tragic murders such as Jennifer Martel’s.”
Legislation and outrage serve their purpose. But the real work here is in remaking the way people relate to each other and in doing it early. It is in convincing victims they’re worth more than their abusers claim. It is in making sure those seeking escape aren’t turned away. It is in turning people from the notion that they can own someone.