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Cat Brooks discusses the obstacles and complications behind ending domestic violence

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Several weeks before Gabby Petito was killed, police responded to reports of a turbulent physical interaction between her and her then-fiance, Brian Laundrie. He's been named as a person of interest in her homicide. And law enforcement is continuing to search for him. This case is putting a spotlight on domestic violence in the United States. About 1 in 4 women and nearly one in 10 men have experienced some form of violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime. We turn now to a survivor of domestic abuse for her experience and insight into this intractable problem.

Cat Brooks was just 19 when she married her husband. She eventually escaped. Today, she's a theater artist and anti-police-brutality activist and executive director of The Justice Teams Network. Some advocates maintain that the police have a necessary role to play in addressing domestic violence. Others, like Ms. Brooks, would like to see a shift to other alternatives. She joins us now from California. Welcome to the program.

CAT BROOKS: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cat, I can't imagine a single person gets involved with someone thinking the relationship is going to become abusive. How did your marriage start?

BROOKS: It actually started in the ruins (ph). I struggled with substance abuse when I was a teenager and went to NA. And he was there. He was 10 years older than me. And he lured me in. He was smart. He was funny. He was charming. And I was, of course, you know, vulnerable and scared and going through a really difficult process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell me how the abuse began to show itself in your relationship?

BROOKS: Yeah. It started with verbal abuse and him sort of belittling my dreams. I was, you know, graduating high school and actually had a full ride to a university. So it would start, you know, degrading that opportunity, trying to stop me from that opportunity. Then the isolation started, right? There was a problem with all of my friends.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's typical - right? - when they try and sort of remove you from people who might give you support.

BROOKS: They don't want people to see what's happening to you. They don't want you to have support. And so isolation is one of the top things that batterers do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And at some point, it did escalate to violence, though. What happened?

BROOKS: The first time he hit me, it was just a backhand. I don't remember what we were talking about. I just remember we were in the car. And I said whatever I said, and he slapped me. And I remember being so shocked, stunned that that had happened. But then it gets normalized. You know what I mean? It just - it becomes part of the relationship. And then the cycle - there's the battery. And then there's what they call the honeymoon period, right? - the apologies. I promise it'll never happen again. It's when they're the sweetest that they've ever been, which, of course, always just leads to another session of abuse.

For me, it was particularly difficult because my mother was actually on the front lines of the domestic violence movement in Las Vegas, which is where we were. And so I had this added level of shame - right? - because I was supposed to know better. And here I was in the very situation I'd watched my mom dedicate her life to helping women escape.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you did have this interaction with law enforcement - right? - at a certain point.

BROOKS: Yeah. So I was in the theater program at my university. So I was in rehearsal late, which is typical for actors. And I got home. And he was angry about it. And he beat me particularly bad that night. And I was laying on the floor. And I heard him call the police. And what he said was, I need help. My wife has attacked me. The other thing I should mention is, you know, I'm Black. He was white.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Not a small thing to mention.

BROOKS: Well, it matters, right? - because two white officers showed up. And even though I was clearly battered and bleeding, and he was fine, the police decided that I was the primary aggressor, which is actually a law that my mom had helped get passed - the primary aggressor law. They talked to him. They talked to me. And they decided I started it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though you were the one bleeding and in obvious distress.

BROOKS: Yeah. Yup. And then the district attorney went for me, and he went for me hard. I went to go try to talk to him and explain to him that I was a battered woman. He cared not. And the only reason why I didn't go to jail was because my batterer wasn't done with me yet. And so he tanked the prosecution's case by telling the truth. But that was really just to keep me in the household.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, we hear the statistic that it takes victims at least seven attempts before they finally leave their abuser. I'm wondering when you decided or how you were able to get out of this terrible situation.

BROOKS: Well, once it became clear to me that the DA was intent on sending me to jail, I finally had to tell my mom. And so she helped me get help that was, like, immediate. I remember I told her. And within hours, we were packing my stuff while he was at work. And I was at her house. But that didn't necessarily end my engagement with him, right? That was a much longer struggle.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For people who think or know that someone they care about is being abused by a partner, what would you tell them is the best way to provide support? And what shouldn't they do?

BROOKS: Well, what they shouldn't do is shame them, right? So there's an assumption, A, that, just because someone is in a domestic violence relationship, that they want to leave. Sometimes, they just want the perpetrator to get help, right? - the causer of harm to get help. Sometimes, they want to keep their families together. And so folks need to know that that option is on the table. And it's not for you to make that decision for them. Identify community resources but community resources that don't involve the carceral state is what I would suggest. Be a safe house, right? Like, if that person needs to come to you, be a place where they can come and figure out what it is that they're going to do for the next couple of weeks. Be an ear.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You have built a career on finding alternatives to policing. You described how detrimental it was to have the police involved in your case. Advocates have highlighted other situations where involving the police can be harmful, if you are undocumented, for example, or if you don't want your partner to be arrested or go to jail, as you've mentioned. As a survivor, what do you think needs to change about the way we respond as a society to intimate partner violence?

BROOKS: We need to understand that the causer of harm has learned in their life to process their trauma using violence and that the answer to that person not repeating that behavior or causing further harm is not to throw them inside of the most violent institutions in this country and then spit them out with no resources or support. The answer to interrupting violence is addressing the trauma that is causing that person to act out, right? We need holistic responses to community crisis. And what we've done in this country is that we've made the carceral state the answer to all of our community crises. And it's not working. It simply exacerbates the cycles of violence. And most importantly, the survivor should dictate her pathway or his pathway to healing, health and safety.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Cat Brooks. She is the executive director of Justice Teams Network in Oakland, Calif. Thank you very much for telling us your story.

BROOKS: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.