The killing last month of Barbara St. George of Norway is a travesty, not only because of the horrific way in which it happened, but also that it happened at all. It is yet another reminder of the scourge of domestic violence, and once again we as a society don’t get it.

In St. George’s case, we couldn’t ask the usual question, “Why didn’t she leave?” She had left, and she was still in danger – killed, police say, by a spouse who drove over her with his truck and left her body under a wheel. He has been charged with murder in her death.

The greater truth is that she was the victim of a power imbalance that enables men to kill their spouses and partners.

We still ask, “Why didn’t she leave?” – in effect, blaming women for their own murders – but we don’t ask, “Why did he do it?” The answer: because he had power and she didn’t.

Society lets it happen.

When I was a reporter in Portland, police had to catch a perpetrator in four hours after a victim called or the case would be closed.  Imagine what awaited her when he returned home after she had challenged his power and masculinity. This dangerous protocol was used in other places as well.


When I went to the Minneapolis Star Tribune as a reporter, my first assignment was to write about a state report on gender bias in the courts, which proved to be mainly about domestic violence and the orders for protection that were the state’s main tool for keeping abusers away from their victims.

This was in 1989, and Minnesota was a leader in efforts to combat domestic violence. It had 16 battered women’s shelters and 48 community advocacy programs, and ran 4,900 community forums attended by thousands.

But in the report, Minnesota didn’t look so good. In some ways, it looked like the Dark Ages, when spousal abuse was viewed as a private family matter. The report found that many abusers were never arrested, judges were reluctant to issue protective orders, abusers routinely ignored those orders, prosecutors failed to prosecute them and judges failed to jail them.

Judges were quoted as saying, “If you’d have dinner on the table, this wouldn’t have happened,” and, “You’ve been married 10 years, you must like being hit.”

After writing that story, I decided to look at the never-before-asked question of, “Why did he do it?”

In fact, Minnesota had experts who had answers. They said emphatically that men were not out of control or mentally ill when they battered or even killed their spouses. “It’s very controlled, calculated behavior,” said Chuck Niessen-Derry. “Men who batter are not out of control” – as evidenced by the fact that men don’t beat their wives in church or the supermarket.


“There’s no evidence they’re different from any other male,” said Evan Stark, with characteristics widely shared by men: difficulty expressing feelings, inability to accept dependence or weakness in himself, and a need to dominate.

Those who worked with both victims and abusers saw battering as a deep-rooted cultural problem that has its origins in inequality between men and women.

“Battering is a disorder of the system of power,” Stark said.

It has always been so, but this is no longer an open question. The United Nations recognizes domestic violence as a “pattern of behavior in any relationship that’s used to gain or maintain power and control over an intimate partner.”

It has been more than three decades since I began writing about domestic violence. Still, we as a society don’t get it. We don’t demand an answer to the question, “Why did he do it?” We don’t ask why he didn’t leave and let his wife or girlfriend live her own life. We don’t ask how he could so brazenly, for his own perverted gratification, leave his children without a mother.

Surely we, as a society, can do better.

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