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Book Review   |    
Maxine Harris
Psychiatric Services 2009; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.60.5.710
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A Deafening Silence: Hidden Violence Against Women and Children

by Patrizia Romito with Janet Eastwood (Trans.); Bristol, United Kingdom, Policy Press, 2008, 232 pages, $110 hardcover, $36.95 softcover

Violent Partners: A Breakthrough Plan for Ending the Cycle of Abuse

by Linda G. Mills, J.D., Ph.D.; New York, Basic Books, 2008, 288 pages, $26.95

Dr. Harris is chief executive officer for clinical affairs at Community Connections, Washington, D.C.

Patrizia Romito, Italian psychologist and international researcher on violence against women and children, and Linda G. Mills, attorney and social worker, both agree that intimate partner violence is a problem of epidemic proportions, demanding immediate individual and societal attention. That, however, is probably where their agreement ends. Both authors have written thoughtful, well-researched books on the problem of interpersonal violence, but they assume theoretical positions about the causes of violence and the possible remedies that could not be more divergent.

Romito, writing A Deafening Silence from a feminist perspective, asks the all-too-obvious question, "Given that we have been aware of the prevalence of violence against women and children for a number of years now, why has the societal response been so muted?" The answer, Romito suggests, is that male-dominated power structures in cultures around the world have a vested interest in keeping the scope and extent of the ongoing problem of violence against women and children hidden and minimized.

Romito leads the reader through a thoughtful discussion of the ways in which our sociopsychological explanations mask male violence. For example, the old truism "boys will be boys" tends to normalize violent behavior and suggest that women who find such behavior threatening are overreacting. Romito is especially critical of attempts to understand violence in terms of the personal characteristics of the perpetrator. Such efforts lead to counseling, mediation, and couples therapy as interventions for violent behavior—which she believes give only the illusion of doing something useful while failing to address the power differential between men and women that is ultimately at the root of much male violence.

Romito also cites society's use of reframing language as a factor contributing to the relative lack of action against violent male behavior around the world. As long as certain crimes are labeled as a defense of male honor, or the rights of fathers and husbands to control their families, or the natural needs of soldiers to relieve sexual tensions, societies will not take action against behaviors that may range from mutilation, rape, and abuse to murder.

Romito is foremost a social critic, and in that role she accomplishes her task admirably. But other than laying bare the problem of violence against women and alerting the reader to the all-too-difficult task of changing power dynamics that have persisted for centuries, she offers little to the clinician or individual advocate to chart a strategy for change.

Linda Mills, on the other hand, in her book Violent Partners, accepts the premise that interpersonal violence is widespread, but she attempts to offer an approach to solving the problem that grows out of her belief that violent relationships develop because the female partner plays as much a role in the violence as her male batterer does. The current conceptual-clinical paradigm, Mills asserts, not only ignores the existence of male victims but also assumes that the only resolution to intimate partner violence is to blame and punish the man and to deny the woman the opportunity to remain connected to her male partner.

Mills posits that abusers grow up in families where abuse occurred and that they are often either repeating what they learned at home or acting in response to shaming, humiliation, and psychological abuse that they experienced as children. Many will find her assertion that mothers are the primary perpetrators of this emotional abuse to be one more attempt to shift the blame for abuse away from violent men and onto mothers, who damaged their sons and their wives, and onto girlfriends, who now trigger rage in their partners by repeating the shame and humiliation of their partner's past. Mills, however, anticipates this criticism and claims that such political myopia has prevented us from answering the difficult questions surrounding why men and women repeatedly return to violent relationships. Her argument, although supported by limited research data, will leave most readers unconvinced.

After outlining a number of clinical interventions for dealing with intimate partner violence—from more traditional couples therapy or mediation approaches to the self-help spin-off group Violence Anonymous, where both men and women learn alternative ways to deal with frustration and anger—Mills turns to her most creative suggestions, namely the use of "healing circles" to address domestic violence in a more holistic and systemic way.

The healing circles program brings together multiple players in the violent drama that envelops a particular couple. The goal is to understand the origins of the violence, to give the perpetrator a chance to air his or her concerns, and ultimately to use the power of the community to alter individual and couples dynamics. Drawing on programs of restorative justice, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Mills' healing circles program offers families who want to stay together an opportunity to "come clean" with one another and to repair relationships rather than abandoning them. Even if one does not agree with Mills' theoretical focus, one can still find some intriguing clinical possibilities in her systemic approach to healing violent relationships.

The reviewer reports no competing interests.

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