I love hearing about parents who openly share their successes and failures with respect to child-rearing. And I’m a sucker for anyone who’s gone through a tragedy and come out on the other side, ready to help others in similar circumstances.
Lately, I’m obsessed with all things Dominick Dunne. I’ve been watching re-runs of the late crime-writer’s show, reading his memoir, and I saw a movie about his influence in solving the Martha Moxley murder. Just last night, I read his magazine article about his own daughter’s murder http://www.vanityfair.com/magazine/archive/1984/03/dunne198403 (ironically, she was shot exactly seven years to the day after Martha Moxley ).
Dominick Dunne was already an accomplished writer for Vanity Fair in 1982 when his daughter was murdered. At twenty-two, Dominique Dunne had enjoyed a memorable role in Poltergeist, and was already working on another television show when she was strangled by her boyfriend. http://dominique-dunne.com/
Domestic abuse was not a topic widely discussed in 1982, and Dunne wrote later that both he and his family regretted that they hadn’t explicitly expressed their distaste for Dominique’s boyfriend to her. Maybe that would have made a difference, he speculated.
Life should afford us more re-do’s.
Fast forward twenty-five years. I receive a panicked call from an older friend who believes her mid—twenties daughter has paired up with a possible abuser. I school her on how to look up information at the court system. She calls back a day or so later. “Three different women have had restraining orders on him in the past ten years…One woman said he broke her arm!”
We debrief about how she and her husband will handle the information. I encourage her to be direct, but tread carefully, and keep her expectations low. “She may dig in harder if she thinks you’re attacking him.”
But my friend disagrees. “As soon as she knows her father and I are aware of what he’s done in his past, she’ll leave him.” They were a close-knit family, to be sure. No divorces or violence in their family tree. This was an aberration.
A week later, my friend calls back. “She did exactly what you said. She told us it was none of our business, and nearly threatened to stay away from us if we pushed her too hard.” My friend was despondent.
But not for long. She and her husband came up with a master plan. They invited their daughter and her new beau to their home for dinner. Openly and sincerely, they relayed the following.
“As a person involved with our daughter, you are like family to us. You are welcome in our home, in our lives, and can call on us any time. But we know your history with women, and we’re watching you. We’ll be watching how you treat our daughter. We’ll be watching to see if she gives things up that are most important to her, her job, her hobbies, her family ties, and her friendships. If you try to get in the way of any of these things, or do anything to jeopardize her well-being, or should you ever harm a hair on her head, we’ll be there to hold you fully accountable.”
The new beau was speechless.
Over the next five years, my friends kept their word. They included their daughter’s partner in all family events, something the beau appeared to sincerely appreciate. And then their daughter broke up with him, something my friend and her husband sincerely appreciated. The daughter later met someone and married him within a year and a half, and could not be happier.
Breaking the secrecy and isolation typically involved in an abusive relationship paid off. So did expressing parental concerns about their daughter’s safety without trash-talking their daughter’s choices. At no point did their daughter break away, keep secrets, or rush in to protect her boyfriend’s reputation. She didn’t need to. Judgments were suspended, even when concerns were not.
Look, parenting is hard enough, and few things are harder than watching your child choose to couple with someone who threatens their very safety and well-being. But perhaps my friends are on to something. Having a conversation that breaks the silence and isolation while supporting the dignity of all parties and promotes domestic violence offender accountability is a good start.
Dominick Dunne went on to cover stories about criminals of privilege, including most notably the OJ Simpson trial. His writing educated millions on the prevalence of domestic violence, fueled by the anguish that his daughter’s murderer was eligible for parole after just two years in prison. He died in 2009.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Thank you to all the survivors and their families who have helped us identify ways to end domestic violence.
And if you're bored, join me in watching a marathon of Dominick Dunne's Justice program on Sundays.