The Language We Use to Talk About Domestic Violence Isn’t Enough

On a cold October morning, Colin Canham and his wife, Sara Emerick, were found dead in an apparent murder-suicide. Mr. Canham was found lying near a firearm outside the couple’s home. Ms. Emerick was inside. A detective told me that it seemed that Mr. Canham had committed a crime of passion — a legal term that implies a lack of premeditation, an act supposedly born out of love or devotion.

I first met him when we were in our 20s. Though we were part of the same friend group, we weren’t especially close. Still, I knew him to be a loyal friend, gregarious and generous. He moved couches for friends and helped roast pigs for celebrations, where he, like most of us, often drank to excess. He also liked woodworking. I once hosted a get-together where he suggested I add crown molding to my apartment and offered to help me buy, cut and attach each piece.

We all largely fell out of touch in our late 30s, but the news resuscitated old bonds. Those who had been closer to Mr. Canham wondered what the distance of time had done to him and wished they had known about his recent struggles. Others shared photos of him at parties.

That he apparently killed Ms. Emerick — whom I never met — did not seem possible to me. But in the past few years, a detective told me, she called the police multiple times from the home they shared near Cape Cod Bay. No arrests were ever made.

In the aftermath, I noticed, my friends didn’t call it what it was. One noted tensions and resentment toward Mr. Canham among Ms. Emerick’s circle. There was a euphemistic reference to where he ended up. Largely absent from the conversation was language that accurately described the offense he evidently committed — “kill,” “shoot,” “domestic violence” or even “crime.” The words that were used hinted at a cloudy culpability.

Mr. Canham’s closer friends, some of whom are my good friends, too, might have wanted to keep warm memories of him unsullied. The horrific finality of what all signs point to his having done made it difficult to reconcile the man with his action.

Women killed by a single offender in the United States, according to a 2021 report by the Violence Policy Center, are far more likely to die at the hands of a current or former romantic partner than at the hands of a male stranger. A survey conducted by a domestic violence hotline found that 40 percent of intimate partner violence survivors who did not contact the police were not certain that what happened to them was a crime. Abusers often do the manipulative work of becoming essential, constructing vigorous good-guy facades through gallantry.

Word choice has a profound effect on what we think of ourselves and one another. Terms like “crime of passion” can imply that violence is a consequence of love, and talking around violence can make you doubt that it will happen or that it will happen again. Silence reinforces the old-fashioned implication that a victim is, at least in some part, to blame for her own abuse, that a mother should have seen her daughter’s murder coming.

“Why didn’t you leave?” Gayle King asked the musician FKA twigs about her abuse lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend Shia LaBeouf. She answered politely, “The question should really be to the abuser, ‘Why are you holding someone hostage?’”

“He just seemed like a nice guy,” Gabby Petito’s mother said of her daughter’s fiancé and killer.

A neighbor told reporters that Mr. Canham seemed so proud of his house and family

The person we knew all those years ago did not seem to be violent. Yet to talk around the violence that we now know of, and its consequences, wrests some final measure of control from Ms. Emerick and her family. A friend said that both deserved our grief. I wondered if the friend feared that looking straight at what transpired would complicate grief beyond recognition.

What happens inside a marriage is private, the implication goes. In truth, intimate partner violence is an epidemic that has far-reaching social consequences. It causes homelessness, is linked to higher suicide rates and hovers in the background of most mass shootings. It has substantial economic costs: A 2018 study estimated that intimate partner violence costs nearly $3.6 trillion over the lifetimes of 43 million American adults with victimization history. Much of that burden — medical costs, criminal justice work and more — is borne by government sources. The Covid pandemic has only made things worse.

And then there are the bigger, public failures that contributed to Ms. Emerick’s death — most notably a legal system that is ill equipped for the emotional complexities of domestic violence — and can’t be addressed with language that treats the issue as unspeakably private. Many victims are afraid to call the police, concerned that they’ll be doubted or blamed. Those who call often regret doing so.

In a tribute online, a friend of Ms. Emerick noted that in 2020 she expressed concern about her husband. Two days before she was killed, she called the police. He was drunk and trying to get into the house, she said. She didn’t pursue a restraining order, the detective told me — she was filing for divorce. No decorous words disguise the fact that her life was taken before she had the chance to leave.

If you or someone you know is being abused, support and help are available. Visit the hotline’s website or call 1-800-799-7233.

Julia Cooke is the author of “Come Fly the World: The Jet Age Story of the Women of Pan Am.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Back to top button