Vanderbilt Law Review


Martha Minow

First Page



Can words stem violence? More specifically, can anything anyone says halt the physical devastation inflicted daily behind the closed doors of family dwellings? Some people strike, beat, or burn their children. Some people assault their lovers, some their spouses; usually, men batter women.' Can words, uttered by anyone else, stop this violence?

Words of journalists expose family violence to public view. Words of legislatures and judges forbid and punish family abuse. Words of historians, novelists, television scriptwriters, social workers, feminist theorists, and songwriters depict and decry domestic violence against a backdrop of societal silence about it. But are there words to describe family violence that do not make it seem routine and familiar, that do not diminish violence by speaking about it? Are there words to render its ordinariness, its quotidian part of so many families' lives? Are there forms of expression that solicit humane responses and overcome restraints that hold people back from halting family violence? Finding languages to persuade judges, to empower victims, and to mobilize on-lookers presents linked yet distinct difficulties.

This Article is an inquiry into current uses of words in response to family violence. Because the subject itself often makes speech difficult,the words are sometimes halting; the narrative is broken, and some of the edges are sharp. As I try to read texts that are themselves efforts by people to read the world, I wonder whether any of these readings and writings can change what happens. I wonder whether words by lawyers and judges differ from words by journalists, and whether the more intimate and yet more widely accessible languages of literature and popular music lyrics may change minds and prompt actions.

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Family Law Commons