12/13/2010 10:59 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ignoring Signs of Domestic Homicide

Last Wednesday I followed my usual pre-work routine: I poured coffee and opened the Boston Globe. Then I flinched at the too familiar headline: Two dead, one on life support in shootings: Police say father wounds daughter, kills wife, then self.

I read every word -- respect must be given, attention must be paid. The murder took place a few miles from my home. According to a witness, William Spada (53) murdered his wife, Patricia (51), critically wounded his daughter, Deidre (27), and then killed himself.

"After the authorities left, just before noon, small droplets of blood remained on the walkway leading to the front door."

This year there have been 30 domestic violence homicide victims and 15 perpetrator suicides. Last year there were 23 domestic violence homicides and five perpetrator suicides.

And still, we wonder why. And still we're surprised when it is our neighbor. God forbid, our family.

In our surprise, we say words similar to those written in today's article:

"Billy would do things for me: he was great," she (neighbor) said. "He filled in a hole in my driveway. They seemed very happy as a family."

Patricia Spada worked for a ministry serving teens and young adults seeking a better life.

You'd think after writing a novel about domestic homicide, almost living it when my father tried to kill my mother, working with families haunted by it, you'd think I'd not be shocked -- but still, I grieve picturing Patricia, Deidre, and William.

My first order of work today was preparing a talk on Twist & Turns in Life & Death, part of a Falmouth Library panel. I'd planned a lighter look at my usual topic, readying to speak on why women are drawn to those bad boys -- then I saw the article and these words from Toni Troop (from Jane Doe ) about domestic homicide: "Research and experience proves that it's predictable, so there needs to be a better effort at helping victims identify when they are in high-risk situations."

Last month when I spoke for the Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, I read from my book, The Murderer's Daughters and spoke about violence. The tickets were expensive, the 200 plus crowd well dressed, food and drink plentiful. Couples came for a cause, but it was likely someone would go home to the potential of their own terror. Yet even with that awareness, I was shaken during my book-signing when a soft-spoken woman with her husband asked that I sign the book to their daughter.

"How old is she?" I asked, readying to write an appropriate note.

"She died three years ago. Killed by her boyfriend."

I blinked away sudden inappropriate tears -- they weren't there to console me. I leaned in to murmur my condolences. They spoke of what they wished they'd known, what they wished they'd done, what they could now do to help other daughters.

So often, we never know. Other times, we willfully turn away. When it comes to twists and turns in life and death, sometimes it is the poorly attached piano falling from the window that ends a family, but sometimes it's the signs we ignore. (Which of us are right now putting up walls against knowledge?) There's no protection against being a victim of the falling piano -- but for other things, we can choose awareness.

Writing fiction is that for me -- looking up, my attempt not to live with my hands cupped over my ears and eyes.

The warning signs of domestic violence are complicated and simple. It's difficult to read that perfect family where nothing seems out of place, but sometimes we turn away from the obvious, from our neighbor shouting, "I'm going to kill you."

Those working in the field would do well to read Why Do They Kill by David Adams.

For those in or aligned with rocky relationships, some signs mandate close attention. These risk factors are from Jocelyn Coupal, in a sheet titled, "Spotting The Signs -- Before Someone Dies:"

  • Leaving violent relationships without adequate safety planning is the most common risk factor present in a domestic homicide (81 percent).
  • Men who are severely verbally abusive are very likely to become physically violent (79 percent).
  • Violence often escalates after leaving an obsessive, controlling or coercive partner (62 percent).
  • Depression is the fourth most common risk factor (58 percent).
  • A victim's intuition of danger is present in 43 percent of homicides.
  • Alcohol and drugs are present in 42 percent of domestic homicides.
  • Threats or use of firearms or weapons are present in 40 percent of death review cases.
  • Employment instability is present in 39 percent of domestic homicides.

Still, Coupal includes a hopeful note: Abused women and their children who receive help from the larger community are more likely to safely leave an abusive relationship. The best hope for those in violent relationships lie in friends, family, and community programs.

If you see someone in danger, put out a hand. At worst, they won't accept it. At best, you'll save a life.