Melissa Jeltsen, a Senior Reporter at the Huffington Post, spends her days focusing on one of the most pressing -- and often-overlooked -- issues in our society: domestic violence. Here's Nat. Brut's conversation with the fearless reporter about reporting on trauma, what needs to be done about domestic violence in the U.S., and what the media gets right -- and wrong -- about domestic violence.
Talia Lavin: How and when did you decide to focus on domestic violence in your reporting?
Melissa Jeltsen: I came to the topic almost by accident. In 2012, in the aftermath of the horrific Sandy Hook shooting, a group of us at The Huffington Post began tracking all the gun deaths across the country by combing through local news reports. We were trying to get a handle on the scope of the problem. We divided up a list of states, and each of us spent time every day noting down the deaths in our states, along with the age and gender of the victims, and any known details.
As I was going through my list of states each day, I noticed a pattern. When men died, they died for all sorts of reasons -- a fight, gang violence, suicide, accident. But for the most part, when I was writing down a woman’s name, she was killed by an intimate partner -- her husband, her ex, an estranged boyfriend. It was striking to me, though it really shouldn’t have been. What I found in my small sample is true across the country. On average, almost half of all female homicide victims each year are killed by a spouse or ex-partner.
I ended up writing a piece about what I’d discovered, focusing on the death of Laura Aceves, a young mother who was shot and killed by her abusive ex in front of her four-month-old baby. I had no idea, at that time, where the story would take me. A year later, I flew to Arkansas to write an in-depth feature on her life and death, and the missteps local authorities made in her case. That story resulted in legislative change in the state.
Since then, I’ve been investigating the questions around domestic violence that are most interesting to me: How can we actually reduce violence? How can we make it easier for women who want to leave abusive partners to do so? How is the criminal justice system helping and hurting women in abusive relationships? How does witnessing violence affect children? And how can we support those who may suffer physical, mental, emotional and financial consequences from living with abuse?
TL: What has it been like to work with sources who are dealing with trauma? Are there particular reporting practices you have adopted in order to write about traumatic events?
MJ: God, it’s tough. The last thing I want to do is to hurt someone who is already struggling with trauma. I typically start the conversation with a disclaimer that look, this stuff can be really hard to talk about, and can bring up all sorts of unexpected feelings and emotions. I make it clear they that they should only answer what they want to, and they aren’t required to tell me anything.
I also try to have difficult conversations with people at a time when they can actually be supported. Someone once gave me this advice, which I am careful to follow: Don’t bring up a bombshell and then have to leave 15 minutes later. Timing is critical. If you are going to talk to someone about loss, death, rape, etc, make sure you have built in enough time to process it with them and not just leave them hanging.
I’ve found that for a lot of survivors, it’s helpful to talk about what they’ve gone through. They want to have their pain and trauma acknowledged. It’s a way of processing their grief. Women in abusive relationships are often told by their partners that they are just crazy, or making stuff up (classic gaslighting). It’s important to feel heard.
After two or so years of covering domestic violence, I'm now connected to a huge network of survivors, and when I sit down to write, I write with them in mind. They are some of the most dedicated, courageous, and bright women I've ever met. Have I captured their truths? Did I get it right? I consider them my most important audience.
TL: One of your features for HuffPost, on the tragic death of Laura Aceves, directly inspired "Laura's Law" -- an anti-domestic-violence initiative in Arkansas -- earlier this year. What was it like to see such a concrete response to your work?
MJ: Before I wrote the piece, Laura’s death had not been acknowledged by anyone in power in Arkansas. Her mother was basically told that it was Laura’s fault, because she went back to him. At the time, there wasn’t even a domestic violence shelter in the county. So, seeing my piece trigger legislation, and witnessing Arkansas’ governor stand next to Laura’s mother and promise to do better was exhilarating. I’m hopeful that the new law -- which requires cops to assess domestic violence survivors with a lethality questionnaire to identify those at high risk of being killed -- will help women in the state. Of course, legislation matters only so far as it is enforced.
TL: Are there any truths or lessons that you'd like to convey to our readers from what you've learned from your work on domestic violence? What do you think American legislators should focus on when it comes to domestic violence?
MJ: I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned is that domestic violence survivors don’t always act like you’d expect them to, and that the best way you can support them is to simply listen to them. As one advocate told me, women are the experts on their own experience.
Some domestic violence survivors don’t want their abusers to go to prison. They may not even want to leave them. They just want the violence to stop. That is legitimate. How can we support those women too?
I think one of the easiest things legislators could focus on is increasing funding for domestic violence services. It's a no-brainer. On a single day in 2014, domestic violence programs had to turn down almost 11,000 requests for help because of a lack of funding. It's indefensible. Keeping guns away from abusive men who aren't allowed to own them in the first place would also be a good place to start.
TL: Over the course of your work, have you noticed any persistent mistakes or myths in the way domestic violence is portrayed in TV, the movies and other art? Are there any works that you particularly recommend that do a better job portraying the realities of domestic violence?
MJ: I’m constantly frustrated by how media reports on individual domestic homicides, because there is far too much attention on the “how” of the murder, and not nearly enough attention on the “why”. These crimes, unfortunately, often follow a distinct pattern. Responsible reporting on these murders would reveal the common warning signs and help educate the public.
Recommendations: Private Violence, streaming on HBO, is great. And I just wrote about “Jessica Jones”, which illustrates exactly how abusive men control and terrorize women-- using the plot device of a superpower.
Melissa Jeltsen is a reporter who lives in Brooklyn. She currently works at The Huffington Post, and has written for Jezebel, Talking Points Memo, The Rumpus, Cosmo and The Boston Globe, among others. She tweets, mostly about violence against women, here.