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Journal of American Folklore 116.462 (2003) 497-498
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Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment Through Narrative. By Elaine J. Lawless. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Pp. xxi + 248, acknowledgments, prelude, prologue, introduction, four transcribed narratives, notes, bibliography, index.)
Scholars representing a variety of disciplines have published work about the tradition that has come to be termed "domestic violence" in American culture, and folklorists can finally be counted among them. With Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment Through Narrative, Elaine Lawless presents her work with women either living in or utilizing the services of a shelter for battered women and successfully supports her thesis that "[t]o tell our stories is to re-create our selves" (p. 160). This book is suitable for multiple audiences, offering important new perspectives to folklorists and scholars in related fields, as well as to members of the grassroots movement to end violence against women.
Lawless plants herself firmly within this work—including her disclosure that she has personal experience with this issue. As she points out, work that is so completely political and personal should be approached no other way. With painstaking detail, Lawless begins by describing what it is like to work in a shelter for battered women, what it is like to leave the shelter each day, and what it is like to feel that you never can leave. As a former shelter worker, I was jolted back to my own experiences when Lawless described her feelings in passages like this: "I want to scream and cry. Inside I am often crying, and as I drive away the tears release, spill down my face. But to work here you learn quickly that for every woman who leaves the shelter there are two more coming in who need your attention" (p. xx).
A battered woman's "words carry no weight whatsoever" (p. 38) when used to confront the perpetrator of violence, and in fact his power lies in his ability to keep her silent. As described by Lawless, however, she learns that through speech, through the telling of her story, she can move from a place of danger to a place of safety. A woman living with intimate-partner violence must tell her story to the police, to shelter staff, to a caseworker, to a judge, and on and on. Her life comes to depend on how she tells her story, and she learns to create a story that will help her begin a new and safe life.
Lawless describes how a survivor's narrative literally and figuratively becomes her key to empowerment and freedom from abuse, as it "can also serve as an act of transformation" (p. 117). By telling her story in a safe place among other women with similar stories, she begins a journey toward emotional safety while starting her life over in physical safety. As Lawless states, "the act of telling a story is a creative act, a kind of performance, that takes words and language beyond their mere rhetorical power and enables them to work for the narrator toward transformation and self-representation" (p. 106).
As Lawless interviewed more and more women, she identified what she terms a "gap" in their stories, a point where they "narrate around the violence" that they have experienced (p. 57). Utilizing the arguments of Maurice Blanchot in Writing the Disaster (University of Nebraska Press, 1995) and Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain (Oxford University Press, 1985), Lawless draws her own conclusions about these "gaps." She argues that they offer a glimpse of the personal disaster of the narrator, and that as a group they offer an understanding of the collective disaster that is violence against women. She asserts that without personal-experience narratives, we cannot understand the individual nature of collective disasters. In the gaps in the survivors's stories of violence, she sees "the transformed woman who refuses to recount the disaster and subjectivity of her abuser" (p. 71).
In Women Escaping Violence Lawless presents the stories of women who have known violence from childhood to adulthood, and who are attempting to rebuild...