Anatomy of Manipulation – The Jailhouse Tapes

When Women Became Victims

by Angela Marie MacDougall

Over the objection of prisoners’ groups and defense lawyers and already routine in some New York State and federal prisons, New York City changed policy in 2007 to permit the recording of prisoners telephone calls at the city jail. “Fly on the wall” accounts of emotional manipulation and threats by men cooling their heels for violence against women were documented in jail house recordings and reported in The New York Times February 2011.  Chilling in detail for the first time, the larger public got a glimpse of what women and their children deal with when surviving male violence in an intimate relationship.

Going one step further Meet Me on the Hill Where We Used to Park:  Interpersonal Process Associated with Victim Recantations  is a U.S. study which for the first time recorded jailhouse telephone conversations between men charged with, (what they call) felony domestic violence and their woman victims to reveal why sometimes women decide not to follow through on charges.

Researchers listened to telephone conversations between 17 accused men abusers in a Washington state detention facility and their women victims, all of whom decided to withdraw their accusations of abuse.   According to the study, the couples were aware they were being recorded through an automated message at the beginning of each call.  The analysis of the conversations confirmed what we have been seeing in our work at Battered Women’s Support Services that the men abusers are not necessarily threatening more violence rather are using a more nuanced and sophisticated appeals designed to:

  • minimize their actions,
  • deny the experience of the woman,
  • create doubt of her account and recollection of her experience,
  • blame her for his actions,
  • ultimately gain the sympathy of the woman thus
  • turning the focus away from any harm done to her to the sense of harm he feels is being done to him by being in jail/involved in the criminal legal system.

Adapted from the abstract, after analyzing the calls, the researchers identified a five-step process that went from the women victims vigorously defending themselves in the phone calls to agreeing to a plan to recant their testimony against the accused abuser:

Stage 1

Typically, in the first and second conversations there is a heated argument between the couple, revolving around the event leading to the abuse charge. In these early conversations, the woman is strong, and resists the accused perpetrator’s account of what happens.  The phone calls show how the woman starts out with a sense of determination and is eager to advocate for herself, but gradually that erodes as the phone calls continue.

Stage 2

The male abusers utilizes classic emotional power and control tactics minimizing the abuse, denies that it happened at all and if it did it wasn’t that serious and if it happened it was her fault.  In one couple, where the woman suffered strangulation and a severe bite to the face, the accused male perpetrator repeatedly reminded the woman that he was being charged with “felony assault,” while asking whether she thought he deserved the felony charge, eventually wearing her down where she agreed that he didn’t deserve a felony charge.

Within the second stage the male perpetrator appeals to her sympathy describes how he is suffering, depressed, and misses her and the children.  This is often effective where she begins to provide empathic responses attempting to comfort and soothe him.

In one case, the accused perpetrator threatened suicide and said in a phone call to the woman victim, “Nobody loves me though, right?”  At that point, the woman’s tone changed dramatically, and she sounded concerned that he might actually try to hurt himself and from then on, the woman promised to help him get out of jail.

Stage 3

In the third stage, after the accused abuser has gained the sympathy of the woman, the couple bonds over their love for each other and positions themselves against others who “don’t understand them.”

Stage 4

The fourth stage involves the perpetrator asking the woman to recant her accusations against him and the woman complying.

Stage 5

Finally, in the fifth stage, the couple constructs the recantation plan and develops their stories.

My daughter Leona, who represents the larger public, not necessarily privy to first-hand survivor accounts, read the abstract and had this perspective, “We all know they (abusive men) are manipulative, it is good that this research shows in great detail exactly how they do it.”

It appears that the study was not written for larger public, like Leona, and seems to have been written for criminal legal system personnel and victim advocates.  Though identified as a target audience for the recommendations, feminist and feminist ending violence activists consulted for this blog were underwhelmed by the study and irritated by it’s premise that women and women’s advocates don’t already know this.  The overwhelming sentiment from advocates consulted for this blog, identified the challenge of working with the system where over forty years of survivor based expert information is seemingly disregar
ded until an academic study “reveals” it.

“The fact that perpetrators use emotional manipulation, minimization, mothers’ guilt feelings re: children or the abuser’s welfare…this is exactly what we share with them(women). The article is disturbing, not because of some revelatory study, but because it suggests some women’s advocates and some academics ‘still don’t get’ the dynamics of woman abuse despite 40 years of experts – survivors themselves and feminist frontline workers – explaining it to them. This also implies that we ‘haven’t’ been telling (women) this, which is shocking and astounding to me.”  said “S” from Ontario

Alison Brewin, gender consultant and former executive director, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund shared these thoughts, “…but does this research surprise you at all? Anyone who understands women’s lives understands the complexities of loyalty, love and the profound pressure to keep a family together…our society is designed to support women keeping their men and fathers of their children in the nuclear family unit and it usually results in women doing a whole lot of ‘compromising’ including keeping an abusive and violent spouse in the home for the social and economic ‘benefits’ that entails.”

Curiously, the study characterizes the actions of the perpetrators as “witness tampering”, and the U.S. has witness tampering laws.   Canada doesn’t have “witness tampering” laws per se, however Section 139 of the Criminal Code is close.  Contemplating these manipulative actions of perpetrators as obstructing the legal proceedings could benefit from more legal analysis.  As a legal strategy for crown prosecutors, this may have benefit and a measure of balance for women who are forced to navigate a violent abusive partner and a criminal legal system that needs it’s witnesses.  I have never heard of a case where a perpetrator was further charged under this section for manipulating women victims to recant.  I have, however, seen and heard numerous instances where women victims are punished by the criminal legal system for failing to participate in the criminal legal proceedings as witnesses to their own assault.  At Battered Women’s Support Services, we have often heard criminal legal system personnel refer to women victims as “reluctant” witnesses and how problematic that is for them and for the criminal legal system.  Marjaneh Aghamohseni, Battered Women’s Support Services Victim Service Worker said, “Some abused women recant out of fears/terror/distress since they are afraid of further violence by him. Based on women’s experiences with the police, they know that the accused will be released on conditions after arrest. If there is a protection order in place, it gets complicated if he pretends that he wants to see his child. Police tend to be on his side. But we know that this is another tactic from the abuser to continue his abusive behaviours.”

When it comes to violence against women in intimate relationships, through our work at Battered Women’s Support Services we have identified at least three areas that the criminal legal system can’t navigate…well:

  1. Women who self-defend (here’s what we have written on women arrestsresources we have written for women and advocates and stay tuned, there is more to come)
  2. Women who “recant”
  3. Survivor-based and/or feminist anti violence activist knowledge and experience

“E” from Vancouver had these thoughts, “Really when you think about it, the recant issue is something that has been going on for a very long time.  Though women who have been charged with assault (in the numbers we are seeing these days) is comparatively new, in both of these situations the feminist anti violence activists knowledge isn’t acknowledged, foremost, in these discussions even though we would have seen these things long before the system.”

“S” from Ontario further added, “If this study provides ‘proof’ of what survivors, feminists, advocates and countless authors have been saying all along about male violence against women, well I can only ask why four decades of women’s voices wasn’t proof enough?”

Annie Zhang, Battered Women’s Support Services Legal Advocate shared this regarding the women who self-defend and the women who recant,  “The issues in both categories, in my opinion, demonstrate the shortcomings of the criminal justice system not only in providing protection toward battered women, but in achieving its own ends of convicting the guilty while protecting the innocent.”

When Women Became Victims Series:

Risk Assessment – E-Learnings

Social Justice VS Criminal Justice