No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

After hearing an interview on NPR with author Rachel Louise Snyder during which she discussed her new work of journalism titled No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, I added the title to my reading list immediately. Feeling angry and helpless as I listened, I wanted Snyder’s book like a drowning person wants a life raft — my desire to understand the reasons one human thinks he has control over another is deep and frightening. Violence in the home affects almost everyone. Verbal, physical, sexual, and psychological violence creep into our lives thanks to a culture that supports violence against women with religious doctrine, hitting children as a measure of discipline despite all the studies showing the damage done, and the persistent belief that what happens in the home is a matter for the family within that home — that domestic violence is “none of our business” because it’s a private matter.

Snyder’s work focuses on violence against women, though she acknowledges that men can be the victims of domestic violence and that LGBTQ relationships frequently suffer from domestic violence. Broken into three sections, No Visible Bruises covers stories of victims and their families, stories from batterers, and stories from the people trying to change the system (including police officers, organizations that study domestic violence laws and policies, and shelter workers). As a journalist, Snyder know she must allow everyone to voice their side of the story, so while the sections coming from batterers feels dark and a bit evil, it’s necessary for the book to have fairness and integrity.

I could rattle off the statistics Snyder shares (all of them have citations, too). I could horrify you with what I read, like when I learned that most states consider strangulation to be a misdemeanor offense, and that state laws about domestic violence didn’t exist until my lifetime. I could run through the domestic violence timeline I learned about, which helps experts chart the way a situation increases in volatility and tips into homicide (or even familicide and suicide). I could talk about how the presence of a gun changes everything. But Snyder carefully lays out all of her facts in a way that makes sense and progresses, so me simply repeating them would hurt her carefully written chapters and instead turn No Visible Bruises into a book of shock value. It’s not that. 

Instead, Snyder’s work is educational, teaching readers to look for signs of domestic violence in their lives and those around them, while also heightening awareness of the costs of domestic violence in lost wages, missed education opportunities for women and their children, and taxes that pay for police and social services. Domestic violence never starts big, and people often minimize it using words like “just,” “only,” and “but.”*** Thus, our willingness to see domestic as normal or minor is challenged. Without inserting her opinions — another sign of a good journalist — Snyder’s facts begin to add up undeniably.

No Visible Bruises was one of those books that I finished quickly and felt deeply affected by. I caught myself referencing it when I was at a party, pulled by a desire to share what I had learned. I thought I knew enough about domestic violence: Bad people are punished. No one should ever hit anyone. Women are in a tough place, especially if they have children, and often don’t leave. I was surprised repeatedly by what I didn’t know: Batterers are often assigned anger management classes, though domestic violence is the product of narcissism, not anger. That asking victims to live in a shelter means they cut off all connections with the world, which is a punishment to them instead of their abuser. That children become acclimated to violence, no longer fearing explosive scenes as they happen and instead retreat mentally — and that batterers often grew up in homes with violence. That police feel annoyed by “domestics” calls because they’re messy, often ending with no one pressing charges, and yet police are asked to return to the same house repeatedly.

Highest recommendation, a necessary read in an America that is increasingly pushing “traditional” family values.

***When I read Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor back in February of 2019, I was perplexed as to how this man, who was incarcerated for murder, could write in his memoir that he was no longer a threat to society after he pays a fellow inmate to beat another prisoner to near death because someone on the outside asked Senghor to do it. His writing suggests didn’t “really” act violently because he “only” paid someone to be violent and wasn’t the aggressor himself.

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33 comments

    • I wonder what the differences are in domestic violence if the United States and Scotland are compared. To be honest, reading Irvine Welsh books doesn’t really make Scotland look good, but as I’ve been reminded 100 times by Scottish blogger Fiction Fan, he doesn’t write what Scotland is actually like.

      • I have no idea how the countries compare in terms of stats, but it’s certainly still a problem the world over. The law was changed in Scotland last year to make psychological abuse and controlling behaviour prosecutable at the same level as physical abuse, which was a big step in the right direction at least!

        I don’t read Welsh myself, but I don’t think any one author could (or would try to) accurately reflect an entire nation. A lot of Nordic people laugh at the ironic success of the Scandi-noir genre, for example, given it’s the part of the world consistently named the safest, and where serious crime is actually incredibly rare.

  1. I can see how reading this book would be deeply emotional. The title is excellent isn’t it – people who are victims become well practised in hiding the scars because somehow they think that it’s their fault they were hurt.

    • Yes! I remember reading The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle and being amazed by how no one could seem to SEE this clearly battered woman. That’s part of why I’m definitely reading Paula, the sequel, as soon as I’m done with my summer bingo challenge. Also, the title refers to how it’s difficult to know if a woman has been strangled unless she has bruises or a raspy voice because in many cases she won’t show symptoms or may even forget she was strangled due to brain injury after the fact.

  2. This book sounds horrifying, but so relevant and important to read. It sounds like the author did a tremendous amount of research for this. I also like that she included perspectives of police officers, organizations that study domestic violence laws and policies, and shelter workers because they have such a insider view to domestic violence.

    • It was surprising to me how those offices don’t talk to each other. I mean, I guess I don’t know how/why they would, now that I think of the logistics. I was doubly surprised that most medical professionals don’t know how to look for non-obvious signs of strangulation. Some hospitals bring in a forensic nurse, they were called, who know what to look for.

  3. Domestic violence is a major issue in Australia as it is everywhere, and ways of combatting it are receiving lots of attention, both in the media and from state governments. If we can stop men taking out their rage and frustration on women and children physically that will be a start, but what we do about the psychological damage done by men with ‘forceful’ personalities, I’m not sure.

    • I’m not sure. The author seemed to come to the conclusion that normalized violence is what allows it to go on. Someone does it, their children see, those children grow up, they do it, their children see, etc. Most people who commit acts of violence in the home grew up in violent homes, but when asked, they felt their fathers were “overall, good guys” — that sort of thing. It’s like they can’t even see it.

  4. Sounds like one that needs to be read by everyone. It’s scary to think of all the episodes of domestic violence we don’t hear about. How many of those batterers never get arrested? It can be complicated when domestic violence is more psychological or emotional abuse. How do you prove that?

    • Many don’t get arrested because they can get out on bail right away. If the woman says, “Yes, arrest him” and then he gets out of jail right away, chances are he’s coming home to do damage. Thus, when they are being beaten, women call the police, the guys stops, then she tells the police she’s fine to protect herself and her children (if she has them) from a much worse incident in the future. Police weren’t understanding this and just felt mad that they would do all this paperwork without a clean-cut result to the situation — and be called out repeatedly.

  5. Interesting that narcissism is a trigger for domestic violence-and no doubt having a gun in the house changes everything! Why can’t people see that? Why insist on a right to own a gun when it’s killing so many people? I’ll get caught up on that tangent if I’m not careful. Being in Canada I don’t meet many people who agree with the US gun laws, but I know they’re out there-I wish they could/would read this book!

      • I know some Canadians own guns for hunting, but I don’t think there’s alot of us-probably more rural populations too? I’ve never seen the stats myself, but I only know one person who owns a gun, and it’s for hunting…

        • Holy crap, you’re right; it’s not many! “In the previous literature review, the author indicated that about 25 percent of Canadian households own some sort of firearm (Gabor, 1994: 9). A recent Department of Justice Canada report indicated that, based on the combined findings of several studies, 26 percent may be the most reliable figure (See Block, 1998:3). In total, it is estimated that about 3 million civilians in Canada own firearms.” from the Canada government website https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/jsp-sjp/wd98_4-dt98_4/p2.html

            • Because you can buy a gun in a grocery store or at a trade fair, etc., there aren’t really accurate stats on how many Americans in guns. Researchers have to rely on individual polling, but Americans are reluctant to admit they have guns because they think “gun control” means the government is going to force them to give up their weapons.

  6. This sounds like a hard but important book. I’ll admit, domestic violence is something I’m privileged not to think about but a year or so ago there was an ongoing issue with a family in our neighbourhood. This man still lives nearby and still seems as friendly and normal as he ever did but it’s so weird to me that we’re all expected to pretend like it didn’t happen. But it’s clear that there is not enough support or protection for victims in these situations.

    • It IS always weird when something is obviously happening in the neighborhood. The proximity to your house makes you want to look out the window and see what’s going down, but there is also a feeling of shame, like, I’m watching someone have their worst moment publicly, so why can’t I afford them privacy.

      • Yeah, that’s absolutely it. And now that they’re still together I find myself wondering, Why in the heck did you stay??? but I also know it’s so much harder and more complicated than that.

        • Indeed, and that’s what Snyder covers in her book. It’s hard to throw down the gauntlet and get rid of a loved one who abuses an individual once. But once can become more than once, and where do women draw the line? It can’t be easy, and I won’t pretend that I know what I would know what to do if I were in a similar situation. If you’re friends with your neighbor, you could check on her or make sure she has your phone number and that your line is open.

  7. This sounds incredible. I can see why it would be so emotionally affecting, I think that’s why I didn’t rush to read it immediately when it came out. I’m glad to hear it’s so well done.

    • My husband worries that when I read about scary things that I will be scared, but I am the kind of person who feels more in control when I have information, so the book made me feel calmer, like there’s hope. And Snyder doesn’t make the entire thing hopeless, especially when she talks about what can be done and what is being done.

      • I can understand that, knowledge is reassuring. And I think it never helps to ignore important topics like this, even when they’re disturbing or potentially scary. Someone is living through this and someone else is doing this shitty stuff and it helps nothing to pretend it doesn’t happen. It sounds like the author does a good job of showing where things are hopeful and can change instead of just piling on misery. I’m adding it to my list!

  8. This sounds extremely important. One of the biggest regrets in my life is that I wasn’t able to finish my dissertation research at library school – I was looking at the best place to put information for women experiencing domestic violence so that they could access information and help but alas, I ran out of job and money and had to move away and leave the research. However, you do see information on forced marriage and dv on the back of toilet doors in women’s loos and storylines in soap operas, which all help. The coercive control laws in the UK seem to be having some effect now (there have been some big cases of overturning women’s convictions for killing their coercive husbands) but I fear attitudes are taking longer to change.

    You might like to look out for Helen Lewis’ new book when it comes out – Difficult Women or some such should be the title but I will be reviewing it when it’s out. It has a lot on he amazing women who have fought for legal changes and support for women experiencing dv and looks to be great (caveat: I worked on the transcriptions of the interviews).

      • We might have legal protections but I don’t want to make it look like it’s perfect. For example funding was nearly taken away from refuges, and the current PM has tried to push through legislation protect them (fair play to her) but who knows if that is going to happen.

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