A Portrait of Domestic Violence: Can You Find the Truly Innocent Victim?

by W.F. Price on February 28, 2013

A photographer named Naomi Lewkowitz posted a montage of painful photos on TIME magazine depicting what life is often like with a single mother. In it, a young wife with two children has left her husband to shack up with an ex-con with very poor impulse control (who’d guess?).

Amazingly, the photographer apparently expected it to be a touching story about the difficulties faced by ex-cons, and how an oppressive society conspires against the poor, misunderstood thugs. It starts with Ms. Lewkowitz asking to take the man’s picture, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she found him to be somewhat alluring herself.

I had met Shane and Maggie two-and-a-half months before. Southeastern Ohio was still warm that time of year and brimming with small regional festivals. I had gone to the Millersport Sweet Corn Festival to shoot my first assignment for an editorial photography class. Almost immediately, I spotted a man covered in tattoos, including an enormous piece on his neck that read, “Maggie Mae.” He was holding a beautiful little girl with blonde curls. His gentle manner with her belied his intimidating ink, and I approached them to ask if I could take their portrait.

I ended up spending my entire time at the fair with Shane, 31, and his girlfriend Maggie, 19. Maggie’s two children, Kayden, four, and Memphis, nearly two, were not Shane’s, but from her then-estranged husband.

Shane and Maggie had started dating a month prior to meeting me, and Shane told me about his struggles with addiction and that he had spent much of his life in prison. Maggie shared her experience losing her mother to a drug overdose at the age of eight, and having the challenges of raising two small children alone while their father, who was in the Army, was stationed in Afghanistan. Before they drove home, I asked if I could continue to document them, and they agreed.

I intended to paint a portrait of the catch-22 of being a released ex-convict: even though they are physically free, the metaphorical prison of stigma doesn’t allow them to truly escape. That story changed dramatically one night, after a visit to a bar.

Unsurprisingly, Shane and Maggie’s relationship rapidly devolves into combat, and Lewkowitz manages to catch some of it on film. The photos were not easy for me to look at, but not for the reasons most people might assume when they hear the term “domestic violence.”

The automatic assumption is that the primary victim is the battered female, but when you take a look at the facts of the case that gives way to another perspective: not only did the woman knowingly place herself in a risky situation, she did the same to her children, who had no choice in the matter.

There’s one photo of the thug (I can hardly think of words that would describe my contempt for a piece of shit like him) pushing little four-year-old Kayden around. As a father, there is nothing worse than knowing you are helpless to protect your son from these kinds of animals when his mother decides she wants some hot badboy action. And just as bad is to think of the potential problems when your daughter starts to look like a woman some years down the road. To top it all off, the kids’ father is paying close to half of his take-home pay so that the criminal can enjoy a nice wide-screen TV (featured prominently in one photo) while he shoves his kids around.

Now, as for the mother’s partial responsibility for this mess, it’s pretty clear. She chose an ex-con, she apparently left her husband while he was deployed (very common — in both senses of the word), and she did it for kicks. Yes, that’s right: she was in it for the action, and she says as much herself.

“Shane was like a fast car. When you’re driving it, you think ‘I might get pulled over and get a ticket.’ You never think that you’re going to crash.”

It’s a surprisingly honest statement of guilt, although I doubt she feels any herself. However, she does at least provide us with an idea of the paternal equivalent of that level of stupidity and recklessness: what she did is akin to a father developing a habit of getting drunk and taking his kids for joy rides on mountain logging roads. Of all involved in the story, I have less sympathy for the mother than anyone but the ex-con she shacked up with. Certainly the kids would top my list, and then their father, who will have to live in constant fear for his children as long as their mother has custody of them. Even the photographer is a more sympathetic character; at least she was neutral and helped put the boyfriend away for a long time. If she hadn’t been involved, there’s a good chance it would have dragged on a lot longer.

As a mother, Maggie was negligent, but will that affect her custody of her children? Not a chance. She’s a higher level of victim than the toddlers she brought into the situation. The photographer indicates as much herself, and shows not a trace of concern about the fact that she’ll keep custody of the kids whether she stays with their father or not:

I have continued to follow Maggie since the abuse, and I’ve also begun working closely with photographer Donna Ferrato, who first began documenting domestic violence 30 years ago.

Since that November night, Maggie has moved to Alaska to be with the father of her two children, who is stationed in Anchorage. In March, I will travel to Alaska to document Maggie as she tries to put the pieces of her family and life back together. My goal is to examine the long-term effects of this incident on her current relationship, her children, and her own sense of self. Devoted to revealing these hidden stories of domestic abuse, Maggie asked me to move forward with this project and to tell her story, because she feels the photographs might be able to help someone else.

At least the kids will now be with their father. Thank God for that. But their mother will be perfectly free to put them through that hell once again if she chooses, and again nobody will be able to do a thing about it until the police show up to haul off her new beau.

Despite all this, all Lewkowitz and assorted other bleeding hearts can think of as a solution is VAWA, because they can’t imagine for a moment that a so-called “victim” is part of the problem.

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