Paternalism and The Sheriff’s Wife

As a psychotherapist who works with many survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence (sometimes one and the same), I always default to believing a survivor’s story. Always.

In many cases, she’s already been devalued, disbelieved, belittled, judged, scrutinized, and even blamed and held accountable for her perpetrators lack of impulse control and criminal behavior. The wound that’s created by her disbelieving partner, family, friends, the media (if it’s in the news), and even some therapists, is profound. It’s impact on one’s sense of self and ability to trust can be as impactful as the initial trauma. I do everything in my power not to add to it. I’m anything but naïve, and my instincts and statistics have shown I have good reason to believe survivors, good reason to believe women (and men, though as it happens it has mostly been women) when they tell me their partner struck them or a neighbor sexually assaulted them.

I’m far from alone in this stance. There are countless empathic folks from all walks of life, within and outside the helping professions, who respect a survivor’s story. We advocate for it fiercely and determinedly. And beyond survivorship, we tend to be allies to those who are generally oppressed, marginalized, ignored, or devalued whether it’s because of gender, sexual orientation, skin color, or [fill in the blank] because we know dominant forces can obscure non-dominant realities. It’s part of our ethos, part of who we are and how we operate. Until it’s not.

Enter Eliana Lopez.

Lopez is the wife of San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. The nutshell: Lopez and Mirkarimi (and to a lesser degree their young son, Theo) have been in the eye of a media shit storm since a 31 December incident in which Mirkarimi grabbed his wife’s arm during an argument, causing a bruise. Lopez went tearfully to a neighbor who videoed it and then contacted the police without Lopez’s permission. The Mayor weighed in and labeled Mirkarimi a “wife beater,” calling for his dismissal based on official misconduct charges. Domestic violence (DV) advocates were up in arms. Women’s groups were up in arms. “Friends of Ross,” a group supporting Mirkarimi and decrying political railroading, were equally up in arms. People outside of San Francisco, voicing all sides of the issue, were up in arms. People who had no clue of the facts were up in arms. Arms have been flailing everywhere. It’s been one hell of a hullabaloo.

Mirkarimi finally plead guilty to a misdemeanor false imprisonment charge. More hullabaloo.

Recently, after a lengthy hearing, Mirkarimi was reinstated as Sheriff after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors didn’t have the nine votes necessary to remove him from office.

Serious hullabaloo. Anger. Happiness. Disappointment. Sadness. Praise. Relief. Consternation. Accusations. Almost all of it has been regarding Mirkarimi and his supporters and detractors. But, what about Lopez?

What. About. Lopez?

We’ve heard so little about her outside of the sensationalism. She says the entire experience has been a nightmare, and that even those who purport to be “for” her have all-but ignored her and her side of the story. She says in her OpEd to SFGate:

“On Aug. 28, the Commission on the Status of Women, a body whose members are appointed by Mayor Ed Lee, decided it was its turn to call for the ouster of my husband, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, on grounds of domestic violence. In weighing the case against Ross, one would think that the commission would have done its best to carefully weigh all of the facts. Yet, I wasn’t even invited to the meeting.”

…Without knowing me, much less consulting me, they [the domestic violence community] have determined that I am incapable of knowing my own husband and that my defense of him is the result of delusional thinking. That is the height of condescending paternalism – and a tremendous disservice to the very important issue of domestic violence.”

How dare Mayor Lee try to capitalize on my family’s misfortune, berate my husband, but not have the decency to ever call me to ask my opinion about his prosecution of my husband?

Lopez wasn’t consulted? How did that happen? Not the folks from the Commission on the Status of Women who called for Mirkarimi’s ouster? Not some of the people in the domestic violence community who have been so vocal in this case? Not the mayor who has been so hands-on? That none of these folks sat down and listened to an alleged survivor and her story, the woman who they were all up in arms to “protect,” is as astonishing as it is ironic. And more than a little telling.

I feel the same frustration I do when I hear people ignoring a sexual assault survivor’s story that makes it to the news. Folks stop seeing the actual person involved, displacing all kinds of things onto her, including reducing her to nauseating stereotypes. A sexual assault survivor “asked for it,” or she’s a “whore.” Or, conversely, she’s an angelic martyr who has never done a bad thing in her entire existence. The domestic violence survivor is “a poor, battered woman.” She’s been so brain washed, a person so deluded, to use Lopez’s word, or beaten down by “battered women’s syndrome” she is unable to speak her own truth. Barf.

Battered women’s syndrome, an odious name if there ever was one, is real. I do not in any way want to minimize it. I have seen women who go back to their abusive partners. It’s heart wrenching. In therapy, I’ve heard things like, “He says he’s sorry and he’ll never do it again.” Or, “I have to give it another try for the kids.” “But, he’s being so sweet right now.” “I’m afraid he’ll kill me if I leave.” In those instances, I let her know what, in my opinion, I see happening. Safety is always first, so I work immediately and diligently to develop concrete, actionable safety plans, we have emergency code words, we might meet more often or have in-between appointment phone check-ins. I’m poised to help her in a crisis, and if there is imminent danger, I become atypically directive, including helping her get out of the situation and call the police. But, let’s be clear that these emergency, life-threatening situations are not what we’re talking about in the Lopez case. She’s let us know this, as you’ll read below. And there is no evidence to the contrary.

If a woman were to say to me about an incident like Lopez’s: “I do not condone my husband’s behavior…, but I have forgiven him. And I have forgiven him not out of blind devotion, fear or intimidation but by a careful examination of the facts,” as Lopez did in her Op/Ed, and has stated countless times, and then she confronted me on, say, my savior complex, then I’d get over myself and really hear her and the facts she’s examined. To not is to act as the omniscient expert about her. I hold expertise, to be sure, and it’s my job to provide my observations and skills and to help remove obstacles. And her job is to take it or leave it. She’s her own expert, after all. And she’s ultimately responsible for herself. I’ll work my tail off for her, and I’m responsible TO her and to our work in therapy, and all the legal and ethical obligations that entails, but I’m not responsible FOR her. That’s a hard one for many to wrap their heads around, whether in the helping professions, the activist world, or otherwise. In addition, that sense of hyper-responsibility is ultimately disempowering, infantilizing, and it encourages long-term dependency. As it pertains to therapy, it’s often borne out of a therapist’s anxiety or the need to be needed.

Lopez further states, “When Ross put his hand around my arm during an argument, he had no intention of causing a bruise. His grip on my arm lasted less than a second, and he instantly released it when I told him to.” She further states about Mirkarimi’s false imprisonment charge, “They [Mirkarimi’s detractors] are quick to point out that the misdemeanor was for what sounds like the troubling crime of ‘false imprisonment.’ They fail to mention that it amounted to nothing more than Ross turning around our minivan on our way for pizza and heading home because we were having an argument that was inappropriate for a public setting.” She also says, …”It was “a plea I never wanted him to take.”

This is her truth, folks. If you’re about to launch into a “yes, but” here, you’ve jumped Lopez’s ship. She’s very clear and direct about how dismissed she’s felt, and about her experience of the incident. She’s not out of touch with reality (psychotic), and she’s not a dependent adult with cognitive issues, nor does she give signs of being “brain washed.” Even if she were or did, I’d still argue that we believe her. Many of us, without blinking an eye, take a sex worker’s story, a homeless person’s story, a person struggling with a mental illness’ story, an incarcerated person’s story, or other stereotyped people at face value. Duh. It’s a matter of course. If further evidence presents itself, we’ll shift accordingly, regardless what that equals. We’re interested in truth and justice. Yet many of the same folks, who rightly take people at face value where others, tragically, do not, somehow don’t when Lopez speaks her truth. We claim it’s the “battered woman talking” and her story is suspect. We in effect ignore her. We look beside, below, and around her, but never directly at her. Some of us have blown right past her. We take away her voice and insert our own, which says we’re doing what we think we should do for “her own good.” What hypocrisy and what irony, and again, how infantilizing and disempowering.

We talk a lot about accountability in the helping professions. Where is that fierce advocacy and client empowerment we pride ourselves in? Where is our accountability? Do we, as advocates and allies or in the community at large, only back someone’s story when it fits our personal and political agendas?

Were I Lopez, I’d be as frustrated as she reports she has been. I’d be thinking, “Not only are people discounting what is true for me, but they are clucking their tongues and shaking their heads ‘knowingly’ and ‘sympathetically’ while condescendingly saying, ‘We need to get the family the help they need.’ They’re totally disregarding the fact that I’ve been shouting from the rooftops that I know things need to shift in my relationship, but that does not remotely mean I/we need the kind of help you’re talking about.” I’d also be thinking, “Screw you and your self-important paternalism. Maybe YOU need some serious help to work through your unresolved shit. But me and my admittedly imperfect family can navigate our world without you.”

The self-righteousness of advocates, allies, and supporters is completely understandable, and in many instances very much needed. For so long, domestic violence survivors were under the radar, made invisible by an old boy patriarchy that said what a man does in his own home is his business. And so women continued to have the crap beat out of them in the privacy and prison of their own homes. Awareness has advanced, and along with it laws and law enforcement are now more savvy and responsive to domestic violence, but we’re far from out of the boys-will-be-boys woods yet. We want to make sure we don’t go backwards. I’m for this more than 110%, and I will advocate for this forever.

But sometimes we can overcompensate, which in this instance can mean our zeal can turn into “good” paternalism and that we use to fight “bad” paternalism or institutionalized patriarchy* and prejudice. Gah!

It’s useful to remember that we’re talking about violence here, perceived or real or both. Whichever it is, some of us are going to be triggered as hell. That’s not weak or “bad;” it’s just how our bodies work. Violence can be expressed and sometimes “stuck” in our muscles and organs – everywhere, actually – including the wiring of our brains. This can happen whether we’ve directly experienced violence as a survivor, or vicariously experienced it as an advocate or as an ally or a bystander. It’s crucial wiring that’s in place to increase the chances of survival. If a saber tooth tiger tries to attack us and we escape and the next time we see it we yawn and do nothing, we’ll probably be saber tooth tiger lunch. Not terribly adaptive. So we have survival instincts that kick in to perpetuate not only our individual life, but that of the species. There’s not an instinct more intense than our survival instinct.

So, when something comes along that has that same violent feel, a piece of that old violence wiring in our brain fires. We are “triggered” because of the old situation, which now has a wired connection to this new situation. So the old and new meld together and can then start to fire together with all the bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts that come along with it. The feeling is as real to us as if an actual here-and-now threat were happening. It’s easy for every single one of us to then conflate things, even if we don’t recognize it as such. (Teasing this stuff out is part of what I do in therapy with trauma survivors. Happily, that very wiring mechanism can help us work through old triggers if we know how to do it. And, nope, the above is not so much psychobabble as good ole’ neuroscience babble.)

We don’t need even need “obvious” violence to be triggered. Oppression, in all its forms, is violence, be it physical or not. This includes institutionalized patriarchy. For many, this case could made to mean that another male power figure has gotten off “scott free,” and not held accountable for his actions. Huge trigger. I get it.

I imagine another biggie for a lot of folks, a real biggie, conscious or not, is that if we let Mirkarimi “off the hook,” then we’re somehow letting domestic violence accountability in general off the hook, or we’ve become “soft” on domestic violence. This generalizing might cause some people to hold on tooth and nail to this case, when what they’re probably really holding onto is the need to not let the seriousness of domestic violence be diminished. That’s an important need I have, as well.

I’m reminded of those who were “disappointed” in the singer, Rihanna, for having renewed contact with Chris Brown, the man who abused her. It could be really bad for her, or it could be the most healing choice she could make. I don’t know and you don’t know. Regardless, if she “forgives” him, it doesn’t diminish the gravity of domestic violence, nor does it condone it. I think this one stops folks in their tracks. If one chooses to forgive, it’s meant to heal the survivor, not the perpetrator. Regardless, it should be her choice to see him, to forgive him, to never lay eyes on him again, or to despise every cell of his being, because it’s her healing journey.

And while she’s told us she’s not healing from the things we’ve projected and displaced onto her, this has been devastating for Lopez, and she’s going to have to heal, too. Is it theoretically possible she’s not telling the truth and Mirkarimi is really abusing her? Sure. And, it’s also theoretically possible that someone might come into my office and make up a story about getting abused when she’s not. Not likely.

But, why in the world would we make that assumption, blatantly abandoning Lopez and her story, if we weren’t either towing the patriachy’s line, practicing paternalism, or pushing our own agenda? (And if we’re okay with those things, so be it, but then let’s just put it right out there.)

Let’s appreciate Lopez for being who she is, like we do all the other deserving people we support. Let’s honor her ability and her right to fathom her own life, without condescending to her in words and action, even if it stirs up our own shit. Let’s work like hell to be the advocates, allies, and supportive people we know ourselves to be.

Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, long-time political organizer and activist, freelance writer and staunch advocate for survivors of all kinds.

If you are a survivor of domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7333) or TTY 1.800.787.3224, or on a computer that is not being monitored by your abuser, go to: (This writer is not affiliated with the NDVH in any way.)

*A telling vestige of that patriarchy is the fact that I’m legally mandated to report suspected child, elder, and dependent adult abuse in very short order, and while I have ethical responsibilities to help a victim of suspected spousal/partner abuse, I have no legal mandate to report it.

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Carol Norris is a psychotherapist, freelance writer, and longtime political activist.