In her autobiography, What I Saw at the Fair, the novelist Ann Birstein waits more than 200 pages before informing us that her long marriage to the literary critic Alfred Kazin was also an abusive one. In his rages, Birstein says, Kazin ripped the sleeves from her bathrobe, left bloody marks from his fingernails on her arms, once broke a finger on the hand she raised to protect her face from being slapped, and tore her hair out. And to whom could she complain? “Shut up, little one, what do you know?” Hannah Arendt used to shush her, as if she didn’t belong in the adult company of those intellectuals who inhaled books, for whom big ideas were the normal respiration of intelligence. But this little one knew things the rest of us would rather not, which may be why What I Saw at the Fair, published in February, has so far received no reviews at all.
Imagine, then, how tough it is to be anonymous and abused in fearful isolation in Tampa, Florida, where Frederick Wiseman and his cameras spent two months filming an entire ecology of Domestic Violence, from the telephone call that summons the cops to the prison sentence for manslaughter. Imagine waiting around to be beaten up by your boozy spouse every time the rest of the world does him wrong; forbidden to leave the house to meet friends, shop, or even work at a job unless you come home immediately and turn over your paycheck; just hoping the TV set is turned up so loud the kids can’t hear what’s going on because if they get in the way they’ll get smacked, too.
A psychologist once told me that TV cuts down on child abuse, because the little kid in the dark corner watching his superheroes sell him sugar bombs is out of the way of the big fists and the big feet of the angry adults in the shameful house. Domestic Violence is a kind of epic poem of repair work, as if every social service from the beat cop to the battered-women shelter to the therapy group to the bail-bond hearing were a garage as well as a sanctuary, a place to patch up your broken mobility and your power to shift gears.
As usual, while we listen in on all the horror stories (sex, drugs, knives, guns); ask questions along with the telephone-hot-line operators, teachers, social workers, and therapists at the Spring shelter (1,650 refugees a year, more than half of them children); sit in on staff meetings, kindergarten classes, group discussions, and kitchen scuttlebutt (some of the children in the shelter abuse other children in the shelter, and their battered parents are incapable of supervising them); and look at the drawings the kids have made of the primal scenes in their domestic wastelands (hiding, fists, tears), nobody tells us what to think. Wiseman has never employed a wise-guy voice-over or a cue card. He counts on the intelligence and scruples of his audience. Of course, this means that we must actually pay attention.
Tuesday night stays mostly inside the Tampa shelter, where we hear about abusive college professors and marriages gone violently wrong after half a century and loved ones being beaten bloody with an extension cord, while the surrounding natural sound is the gurgling of a cola machine and a munching of microwaved popcorn. Or we become impatient with the diva behavior of one of the women in the group till suddenly she can’t talk anymore through her weeping and we realize that she’s propelled herself over a cliff on gusts of bravado. Or we hear another woman, incredulous at her own passivity, wondering why she ever thought she had to “clean his toenails with my teeth.” Wednesday night goes inside the court system for injunctions and arraignments and sentences and second, third, and fourth thoughts. If intimacy has gone so terribly wrong, what hope can there possibly be for global civility? Shut up, little onewhat do you know?