Abuse in the Hellenic Community
A recent survey of 16,500 random persons in the US from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned up some very gruesome conclusions:
- More than 1 in 3 women have experienced sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
- Nearly 1 in 5 women has been raped at some time in her life.
- One in 4 women has been a victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime.
- On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States. Over the course of a year, that equals more than 12 million women and men. Those numbers only tell part of the story – more than 1 million women reported being raped in a year and over 6 million women and men were victims of stalking in a year, the report says. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
How many Greek-American women are represented in those statistics? For decades, the issue of abuse and domestic violence in the Greek community has been “hush hush,” a taboo no one talks about even the women most affected. But my hunch is that it is as widespread if not higher, as the figures of this study would indicate. For this month’s “You’ve Got Issues” we will explore abuse, sexual, physical, emotional, as it affects the Greek American community, what bearing culture has on its existence, and how it can be prevented.
The killing of Carol Katsopoulos is a classic case. After a 15 year career as a battered wife, Carol was shot by her husband in her kitchen while she was cooking. According to the medical examiner, her body had fresh bruises to the head, face, torso, arms, hands and lower back. Carol had a history of domestic disturbances with the police department. In one incident she appeared with a bump on her head and confessed that her husband had threated her with a gun. She never followed through with the charges. In fact, she even left one time to live in a battered women’s shelter out-of-state. But she would always return as she was threatened with the loss of her two young sons if she left.
The Kotsopoulos case describes the typical pattern of abuse-forgiveness-denial. The fact that they were an upper-middle-class couple from Manhasset attests to the reality that abuse transcends socio-economic levels.
What keeps successful and educated women such as Carol Kotsopoulos in such an abusive environment that they wind up shot in the kitchen of their suburban home at the hands of their “loving” husbands?
HOW CULTURE COLORS ABUSE
Culture has something to do with it. Paulette Geanacopoulos, a pivotal social worker from the National Philoptochos Society, maintains that while incidence of abuse in the Hellenic community averages about the same as in other ethnic groups, she recognizes the role that Greek culture plays in “coloring” the concept. As she pointed out in a training manual she composed for Orthodox clergy to deal with domestic violence in their pastoral work, because Greek culture is traditionally patriarchal, it tolerates and “waters down” abuse more so than someone from American culture. The Greek culture socializes women and men to believe that the husband is the head of the home and that a wife’s function is to keep the family intact. As a highly patriarchal culture, men are taught to believe they merit a position of power over women who believe it is their fate to live in violence. Due to these ingrained cultural ideas about marriage, family and sex roles, abuse tends to be overlooked, tolerated, and even condoned.
The attitudes that govern family roles and a woman’s place have a bearing on how domestic violence and abuse is tolerated and perpetuated. Some of these attitudes include:
- Disclosure is shameful for the entire family –“Ti tha pei o kosmos/What will people say?”
- Family pressures or guilt, “how will you raise your children by yourself?” “Nobody in our family has been divorced.”
- Family acceptance: “Your father used to hit me. I survived . . . “/ “He’s a good provider and so good looking”
(Domestic Violence: A Training Manual for the Greek Orthodox Community, 35)
Furthermore, as Greeks have strong religious identification as part of their culture, certain religious attitudes govern the way a woman is supposed to cope with the violence. Some of these include:
- Concept of forgiveness and patience : “Kane ipomoni paidi mou”/ “Be patient my child”, that she should forgive her husband as forgiveness and patience are Christian virtues highly regarded in the Orthodox faith
- Concept of fatalism: “Ola eine gramena”/”Everything is written.” You cannot change your fate.
- Praying and praying harder and longer for the abuse to end
- God is allowing the abuse to occur “for a higher purpose” as a way of refining her character, and by withstanding it she is to be crowned or rewarded in some way
- God is punishing the victim for some former sin or transgression
- God is great “O Theos eine megalos” and His divine Providence will change the situation
(Domestic Violence: A Training Manual for the Greek Orthodox Community, 35)
Geanacopoulos points out in the manual that another factor making it hard for abuse to be recognized in the Greek community involves their mistrust of the “out group.” “In Greek culture, the central social unit is the family, both nuclear and extended, which forms the core of each person’s ‘in-group’ . . . which [is] seen as supportive and trustworthy, while everyone else –the ‘out group’—is viewed with suspicion” (Manual 35). This makes it harder for victims to accept help from an agency outside the family or Church.
The Greek cultural value of “philotimo” also has a bearing on a victim’s decision not to seek out help. The sense of honor, pride, self-respect and generosity that is expected of each individual member in a family reinforces the attitude of putting their needs second to the needs of the group. Therefore, an individual will be expected to sacrifice his/her own individuality to protect the family collective and keep it intact. It is expected that women sacrifice themselves at their own cost to keep the family’s honor. Not to do so would betray the family and be seen as shameful, more shameful than the physical, emotional or psychological abuse that a husband inflicts on his wife.
Further, another great factor that influences tolerance of domestic violence is that famous Greek attribute—pride. Because Greeks believe, sometimes overtly sometimes discreetly, that they have a superior culture and that their family values are “more successful” than those of other ethnic groups, so they are likely to conclude that Greek people have fewer social problems. “The reality, though, is that we suffer the same problems and at the same rate of prevalence as other ethnic groups, including chronic mental illness, alcoholism and other substance abuse, gambling, poverty, homelessness, family dysfunction and violence and more. But, we tend not to talk about our problems (secrecy/betrayal) or, we believe that we must solve our problems ourselves (expectations that members of the in-group will help each other.)” (Paulette Geanacopoulos, Domestic Violence: A Training Manual for the Greek Orthodox Community, 36.)
But, with enough acculturation and assimilation into American society, the cultural concepts that permit abuse in the Greek mind are slowly being eclipsed by such “American” concepts as women’s liberation, self-individuation, and the attitude “I’m not gonna take it.”
Tina Accardi, a psychologist from Long Island who grew up in a British-Cypriot home in the UK, notes that second-generation women assimilate these values and wind up influencing their mothers to recognize and not put up with the abuse. She mentions several examples of personal friends, one Italian-American, another Japanese-American, where the daughters who had adopted American values of female equality coached their mothers into not accepting the violence. In both cases, the couple wound up divorcing. “Because culture changes with enough years in another country, so do the practices and the viewpoints that concern abuse,” she comments. She notes that there is a difference in the way second- and third-generation women regard the traditional values of staying loyal to the family, of sacrifice, and upholding the family honor as they are not willing to uphold them at the expense of their own individual freedom and happiness. The generational shift in dealing with abuse in the family to a large part reflects the assimilation of American values as they relate to woman’s equality.
One of the best remedies against relationship abuse is education. Knowing the signs of an abusive personality before a woman gets intimately connected with an abuser is the best form of prevention. Some of these include excessive jealousy, controlling behaviors, blaming the victim, rapid mood swings, and belief in rigid sex roles. A good site for more information about the warning signs of abuse is www.stopfamilyviolence.org/help/signs-of-an-abusive-personality.
Once someone is in a relationship perhaps the major breakthrough is to have the victim recognize that indeed she is in an abusive relationship. For many women, denial and acceptance are coping mechanisms. In some cases they are so isolated from “normal” standards of relationship they cannot recognize that what they are undergoing is abuse. They must call it for what it is. Understanding the pattern of abuse and the factors that can signal a fatal or life threatening injury are crucial to taking the next step. Counselors have uncovered a pattern in abusive relationships, a two-step tango that goes something like this:
Step 1: the tension building phase. Tension and anger build up in the abuser. You may find yourself doing everything you cannot to upset him/her.
Step 2: the battering incident When the abuser can no longer handle tension and again they explode. An incident takes place. It may include battering, sexual abuse or verbal abuse. It may even include all three of the forms of abuse.
Step 3: the honeymoon phase After an abusive incident, the abuser may feel guilty and maybe even ashamed. They may apologize and promise it will never happen again. The abuser may bring you or the children gifts and life may be all that you dreamed it could be, until the tension builds up again in the abuser and the cycle continues.
However, even more critical than establishing the pattern are the factors that signal a fatal or life threatening injury. These are the signs to look for in case you are in a relationship that is heading deadly.
- A previous severe or life threatening attack
- Any past attempts to strangle you
- Recent abuse by a partner. In a research study,half the women who were killed had experienced violence within 30 days of the homicide, some within 1 or 2 days.
- Increasingly frequent violent attacks increases the risk of a fatal attack.
- Abusers threaten with a weapon. One study has found that women who were threatened or assaulted with a gun or other weapon were 20 times more likely than other women to be murdered.
- Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs. In one study, research showed that more than two-thirds of the homicide and attempted homicide offenders used alcohol, drugs or both during the incident.
- For a minority of women, about 1 in 5, the life threatening incident will be the first physical violence they experience from their partner.(www.glendaleaz.com/advocacycenter/documents/4122DomesticViolencebrochure.pdf)
HELP AND USEFUL RESOURCES
With help from friends, family, community organizations, and the Church, there are ways to put a stop to domestic violence and abuse in the Greek community.
Wherever you reside, you can locate domestic violence programs serving your community by contacting National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 800 799 SAFE (7233).
SafeHorizon (www.safehorizon.org) is another organization that provides shelter, support groups, and legal advocacy for many women from a wide spectrum of ethnic identities.
NYC Domestic Violence Hotline, 1 800 621 4673(HOPE) is open 24/7 and has counselors who speak Greek to provide counseling, shelter, legal assistance and benefits for victims.
In NYC, the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence (212) 788 3156 www.nyc.gov/domesticviolence offers many educational programs to combat domestic violence and can put you in contact with other agencies and centers around the city such as the Bronx Family Justice Center recently opened to provide victim services.
New York State runs an Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence equivalent to the City’s which can be accessed at www.opdv.ny.gov. The State runs a 24 hour hotline (only in English) at 1-800 942 6908.
HopeLine is a program that connects survivors of domestic violence to vital resources, funds organizations nationwide and protects the environment. To date, they have collected over 10 million phones nationwide, while donating over $20 million dollars to domestic violence organizations. More info at www.verizonwireless.com/aboutus/hopeline/index.html
RESOURCES IN THE GREEK COMMUNITY
GREEK ORTHODOX LADIES PHILOPTOCHOS SOCIETY:
The local Philoptochos chapter of the Greek Orthodox Diocese can also provide financial help, arrange for pastoral counseling. The National Philoptochos Social Work office in NYC runs the DYNAMIS program funded by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services to address issues of domestic violence in the Greek community. (212) 744 4774.
HANAC CHILD AND FAMILY COUNSELING PROGRAM
HANAC is a general social service agency that assists persons of Greek descent with a variety of issues, including child and family counseling, senior citizen and youth services, housing, government entitlements, etc. It works in conjunctions with Philoptochos to provide legal advocacy and counseling to women who are victims of domestic violence.
A 48-minute award-winning domestic violence video in Greek with English subtitles. It can be purchased at a cost of $36 (US) from:
Greek Orthodox Family Services and Counseling—Wife Assault Program
3840 Finch Avenue, East Scarborough
Ontario, MIT 3T4 Canada