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  • Soldiers, Jocks, and Victims of Domestic Violence: Brain Damage Comes to Our Attention

    A few days ago a Scientific American blog post directed our attention to yet more information about the kind of debilitating brain trauma /brain damage that a single blast from a bomb can inflict upon our soldiers in active duty.…

    It links this condition to the brain damage that occurs to players in tackle football in the news recently. I hope we are all paying attention, and that we begin some process whereby we can outlaw such a dangerous “game” –and that we also figure out a way to end our proclivities to send young people into danger. In addition, we have to include renewed concern about what happens to victims of domestic violence who suffer from the same kind of brain damage we’re noting in soldiers and jocks.


    The damage that occurs to women as the result of domestic violence, “battered women,” as they are popularly titled, have been well described and recently documented. Yet still, more than a few mental healthprofessionals describe women who’ve been beaten at home as difficult to deal with, disorganized, and probably personality disordered. Implicitly, they’re suggesting battered women suffer from a life-long personality disorder, a pre-existing disorder that explains their symptoms, and likely contributed to their condition during and after they managed to escape their abuser.


    In the 1990s several of our students posed an intriguing question: Is it possible that the symptoms so common in battered women who have left their marriages –that is the tendency to be disorganized, the seemingly chaotic way of conducting their lives, their forgetfulness, depression, and anxiety—might these women have suffered brain trauma (even minor) as the result of being battered? Victims of domestic violence often report being slammed against a wall, or shaken repeatedly, being directly knocked in the head, sometimes falling unconscious for a few seconds (or longer). These are exactly the kinds of blows to the head that damage our tackle football players, and our active soldiers in today’s guerilla-type warfare.

    One of our students conducted neuropsychological tests on a small sample of victims of domestic violence, finding that indeed, they showed significant evidence of brain trauma and damage. Another student in a study of emotions in victims of domestic violence asked a question about the natureof the abuse and moments in which they lost consciousness. She used the same questions used in emergency rooms when physicians are trying to assess for brain trauma. Supporting the finding from neuropsychological testing, she found that a significant number of women in shelters around the east coast likely experienced brain trauma.

    More recent studies, conducted in many labs, confirm these findings. Now we know that victims of domestic violence are, not infrequently, dealing with the results of brain trauma, similar to the football players and to the soldiers exposed to one or more bomb blasts, while in active service. The “personality” problems so common in the victims of domestic violence populations are not something from childhood experience, nor something from genetic inheritance; they are most often the direct effect of brain damage, thanks to the violence committed against them in the privacy of their homes. Living with domestic violence is something like living in a prison camp, with erratic, inexplicable eruptions of violence from men who are supposed to be friends and lovers.


    So how do we explain the Republican’s move in multiple states and in Congress to water down domestic violence laws, so they no longer apply to same-sex couples, “undocumented immigrants,” or Native Americans? What next? Are we returning to the era in which violence against women and sexual assault were quietly tolerated, and even snickered at by male officers sent out to their homes, often by neighbors who heard cries for help. Are we really ready to say that if you happen to be a lesbian or gay couple, or if you happen to be an undocumented immigrant, or a Native American, beating your spouse is no longer a punishable crime? It seems incredulous to think this has passed into law in some states, and is being considered on a national level, just as we as a nation are trying to figure out how to deal with the permanent damage afflicting our football players, and our veterans of recent and present wars. How can anyone justify inflicting this kind of damage on anyone, whether it is on a football field, in a region of active warfare, or in the privacy of one’s living room, bedroom, or kitchen?

    This sure seems like some kind of war on women.


    A few references:

    Brain injury in battered women.

    Valera, Eve M.; Berenbaum, Howard

    Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 71(4), Aug 2003, 797-804. doi:10.1037/0022-006X.71.4.797


    Traumatic brain injury: A hidden consequence for battered women.

    Jackson, Helene; Philp, Elizabeth; Nuttall, Ronald L.; Diller, Leonard

    Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 33(1), Feb 2002, 39-45. doi: 10.1037/0735-7028.33.1.39

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