Where Anger and Fear Coexist

By Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the recent acquittal of Barbara Sheehan in the shooting death of her husband Raymond Sheehan.  Mrs. Sheehan admitted killing her husband but claimed that she did so in self-defense.  My column analyzes the traditional duty to retreat and its connection to the imminence requirement, the latter of which frequently serves to frustrate the defenses of battered women who kill their batterers.  In this post, I want to explore one possible account of why people are skeptical about the good faith of women who kill their batterers.

As I explain in my column, it can be challenging to persuade a jury that you acted in self-defense if the threat to your life to which you were responding was not an immediate one.  But I think there is more to the story than a jury's strict fidelity to doctrine and the imminence requirement.  When people hear about a long history of domestic abuse followed by a killing, particularly when the killing is very gruesome and seems like "overkill," a common feature of such cases, the emotion that appears to be animating the killer in the moment is rage.  Barbara Sheehan, for example, shot her husband eleven times with her revolver.

That a person who has been abused for an extended period of time would be angry is hardly surprising, of course, but it does seem to provide a motive for murder, a motive often corroborated by the timing and manner of the killing.  The misguided step people take, however, is to imagine that anger and fear are inconsistent emotions and that therefore, a person who kills in anger must not have truly feared for her life in that moment.  Studying "non-violent communication" (NVC) can help illuminate the role of anger in human interactions and clarify the possible feelings of a battered woman who kills her batterer.

In a book called Nonviolent Communication, clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg explains the process of NVC.  It is a process by which people experiencing a series of negative emotions triggered by other people can come to understand and then effectively communicate their feelings and needs to one another.  For simplicity, take a very simple example.

You are angry at your daughter, who just yelled "I hate you!"  If asked to articulate the trigger of your anger, you might say it was your daughter's statement.  Having focused on the trigger, you would then identify the various emotions, aside from anger, that you feel in the presence of that trigger.  For example, you might feel worry, sadness, and frustration.  Next, you would connect those feelings with your own needs that  the triggering event made it difficult for you to meet.  Here, you might say that you have a need for connection, love, and appreciation for the things you do for others, and that when your daughter says "I hate you!", you feel worried that you will not be connected to your child, sad that she doesn't love you (for the moment), and frustrated that she is not appreciating the things you have done for her.

Having uncovered the various emotions that underlie your anger, you may now be able to express them to your child without angrily labeling her "obnoxious," "spoiled," or "ungrateful," labels that, if spoken aloud to your child, are unlikely to bring you closer to the connection, love, and appreciation that you are seeking.  In NVC, anger, though very explosive, is viewed as a superficial emotion that generally obscures feelings of vulnerability.  By contrast to anger, moreover, vulnerability -- when acknowledged -- is not as likely to put off other people whose actions one hopes to affect.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with battered women who kill their spouses.  It suggests that the anger of a victim of domestic violence, if the anger is unpacked, can expose a seemingly very different feeling:  terror.  A person who is repeatedly abused, despite her pleas to the batterer to stop and attempts to avoid provoking him, begins to fear that some of her most basic needs -- for safety, for freedom from pain, for serenity and peace, and for autonomy -- cannot be met.  Blaming her batterer for this state of affairs naturally leads to anger, but the underlying needs remain the same.

As a result, the battered woman who kills in self-defense is likely to be filled with terror and rage at the same time, a combination that is not a contradiction at all.  The basic physiological "fight or flight" response is instructive here:  someone who fears for her life is flooded with chemicals that ready her to fight or to flee, depending on which option is available.  And in the case of a battered woman like Barbara Sheehan, her prior experience has conceivably taught her that flight is illusory.  Indeed, battered women find themselves more likely to be killed by a batterer when they leave than when they stay.  Knowing this, some battered women fight instead, a violent expression of fear.

But isn't NVC opposed to violence?  Is it not odd for me to invoke a non-violent approach to human relations in the service of people who have dealt with their problems through the ultimate act of violence?  I would say that it is not so odd.  The one context in which NVC finds a place for force is when force is necessary to protect oneself or another from harm.  In the case of a battered woman confronting ongoing violence and death threats from her partner, she may be able to meet her need for safety in only one way:  through deadly force.  We can thus understand her actions -- however angry -- as a reflection of a profound, overwhelming, and well-founded fear of violence, a fear that will ignite rage when it is not and cannot be otherwise addressed.