Two weeks ago today, a college friend communicated some shocking news: our sorority sister and dear friend, Amy Friedlander, was dead. Amy was part of a murder-suicide in which her two young children, and husband, with whom she was days away from finalizing a divorce, were also found dead.
The media that morning described a Westchester home so bloody, that it was not possible to discern, who murdered who. Big mystery, right? Even if I hadn't known Amy, I could have made a very educated guessed. Women account for 85% of the victims of intimate partner violence. Roughly 1 in 3 women who are murdered are killed by a boyfriend or husband (as opposed to 3% of men). In 70-80% of intimate partner homicides, there is a prior incident, and so it was hardly surprising when media stories circulating that afternoon revealed that police had been summoned to the Friedlander Home as far back as 2006!
Cookie cutter domestic violence. A murder which should have been viewed under the lens of a public health issue, because violence against women, so pervasive that it impacts 1 in 4 women, is hardly a private matter. But not for our media, which immediately launched a campaign of victim blame -- Blaming Amy.
Starting the very first night, the media began its exploration of what Amy could have done to cause the gentle, unassuming, mellow Sam Friedlander to sedate his children, walk down the hall to the master bedroom and bludgeon Amy with a wooden instrument over her entire body with such force that an autopsy was needed to confirm her identity, walk back down the hall and shoot the children in their bedrooms, and then shoot himself.
The first perpetrator of victim blame was the local media, The Journal News (owned by Gannett). That first night, as the national and international news outlets were looking to local media for insights, here's the top search engine result: "Cross-River murder-suicide described: friends suggest wife's 'belittling' of husband played a role."
For this thoroughly unprofessional piece of 'journalism', The Journal News interviewed two of Sam's law school friends -- and none of the victim's friends -- for a story line exploring why Amy was responsible for her own death. Feminist website Jezebel, which captured the contents the article before it was pulled offline, described The Journal News piece as:
...an article that should go down in the annals of victim blaming.
That same evening, I received scores of emails from people around the country concerned about The Journal News article and victim blaming. The next morning, I called the local editor, Joe McDonald, to express my concern and to request that a statement be placed on their website to the effect that they did not intend to blame the victim. He refused (well, belligerently refused to be precise) and informed me that no reasonable person would view their piece as blaming the victim. A sentiment he echoed in his canned email responses to many of the initial 'unreasonable' citizens who emailed him (several of whom were kind enough to share his response with me):
"...in my view, no reasonable person could conclude from our reporting that the killings were justified."
Then, Mr. McDonald just stopped responding to complaints altogether.
By then, it was too late. The Journal News had given Sam's two law school friends, David Pine and Michael Borg, a springboard and the two would go on to be quoted in The New York Times, The New York Post and The NY Daily News, the latter of which wisely amend its story to remove this line by Borg (emphasis added):
He said if Friedlander had only killed his wife "I would have baked him a cake with a file in it" but he could not imagine why his "gentle" law-school buddy killed the kids.
Borg's atrocious quote would be memorialized on picket signs at a rally held by local domestic abuse shelters in White Plains, New York on Monday, October 24th: No 'files' in a cake for mass murderers; alongside: Stop Blaming Amy.
Public comments by Sam's second friend, David Pine, are even more troubling given his circumstances. Pine said of Sam: "He was showing all the classic signs of being emotionally abused..." (The Journal News) and "...was exhibiting signs of being emotionally abused." (The New York Post). David Pine also bragged: "I knew that an incident would happen in that household." (The New York Post) and observed of Sam: "He went into his own cocoon." (The New York Times).
David Pine's statements go from troubling to startling because of this: Mr. Pine is, of all things, a county prosecutor for the Passaic County Prosecutors Office -- an office charged with holding offenders in domestic violence cases accountable for breaking the law! We will never know what could have happened if Sam's so-called friends had sought mental health support for him instead of blaming Amy. New York does in fact have one of the most progressive court-order treatment laws in the country. (Please see The New Agenda's online petition to NJ Governor Chris Christie and NJ Attorney General Paula Dow regarding David Pine's media statements here.)
A full week would pass before the media would seek out the other side of the story and interview a friend of Amy Friedlander. A woman reporter, Tara Rosenblum of New12, interviewed me -- and for the first time in the New York media market, a voice was given to the victim.
Around the time Tara aired our interview, when Pine and Borg were done sucking up all the oxygen in the media, the facts also started to come out. Sam bought the gun he used to kill the children and himself back in April. Sam bludgeoned Amy to death with a wooden rolling pin, which The Journal News noted was: "initially mistaken by police for a broken-off furniture leg because it was covered in blood." Sam was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication. And so on.
Whatever happened, here's the bottom line: there is no excuse for violence against women. The media's fruitless search to find cause belies a belief that "if" certain circumstances occur, "then" violence against women is okay. The media is wrong. Violence against women is never okay. We teach our children in nursery school to 'use your words', and failing that, 'walk away and find a grown-up.' Advice that serves us well, still, as adults.
Until our media stops victim blaming women and girls who are murdered, raped or beaten up, we will never make progress in holding offenders accountable for their actions. In the end, here's the simple truth: the victim is never to blame, but the perpetrator is always to blame. The only battles my friend Amy waged on this earth -- despite being brilliant, beautiful, gentle, kind, generous and loyal to a fault -- was with her weight and self-esteem. Our media's attempt to Blame Amy is nothing short of shameful.