by Kathleen J. Ferraro. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2006. 344pp. Cloth. $65.00. ISBN: 155553662X. Paper. $26.00. ISBN: 1555536638.

Reviewed by Anna King, Keele University, Centre for Criminological Research. Email: aking [at]


As Kathleen Ferraro’s title asserts, the lives of women who have participated in both crimes against a male intimate partner and who have simultaneously been victimized by that partner, cannot be understood in simple ‘black and white’ terms, images or social research codes. Utilizing a series of in-depth interviews and official reports Ferraro leads her reader through the complicated social, emotional and cultural contexts of the lives of 45 women. Approximately half of them, all from various walks of life, have killed an intimate partner. Ferraro’s main thesis is that macro-level social conditions that do little to discourage violence in the home are more important in the maintenance of ‘cycles of violence’ than are individual deficits, dispositional flaws or generational dysfunction. As a sociologist, Ferraro keeps her reader’s eye firmly on the power of historical and structural forces to shape both the opportunities available to these women and their subjective interpretations of the events of their lives. She succeeds in her aim of providing a nuanced understanding of intimate partner violence that hopefully could be used to direct policy making away from individualistic and control-based approaches to the larger socio-political context.

The book is organized into six chapters, each designed to explore the links between victimization and offending from a social constructionist perspective. In Chapter One, the reader is introduced to problems that the women themselves have in remembering, organizing and giving shape to experiences that do not always fit into predefined categories of what domestic violence is supposed to look like. For example, can you be a ‘battered’ woman if you have fought back or if you have an outgoing personality (as one woman was accused of during her trial)? As the reader struggles with these criteria, so too do those women who have lived inside the raw experience. Without clear meaning, often their lives seem as surreal and detached from their own sense of self as they might to an outside observer. In the second chapter, Ferraro considers how the legal system similarly and inadequately tries to define these experiences. Here Ferraro argues that the language of ‘mutual combat’ fails to capture accurately the women’s particular position in these cases. In Chapter Three, Ferraro uses the term ‘intimate terrorism’ to describe the ways in which women lose their own sense of reality under conditions of ‘psychic terror,’ which often involve extreme cruelty and physical violence. Chapter Four argues against the idea of parental abuse and neglect as the main explanatory factor behind women’s choices and behaviors in their adult lives. The following chapter focuses on [*414] the women who have killed intimate partners and expands upon the dynamics of power used to ‘own’ these women once their sense of reality has been destroyed. The final chapter discusses cases in which women were charged with failing to stop a crime committed by their abuser, usually against some third party and unfortunately often their own children. Throughout her analysis, Ferraro is careful to try and maintain an evenhanded treatment of her subject, always reminding herself and her reader that understanding actions does not excuse them.

The analysis is well situated within social and critical thought with discussions of major criminological perspectives, such as control theory, and also references seminal works on obedience and authority, including Milgram, Weber, and Foucault. Sennett and Cobb’s (1973) work on the concept of the ‘hidden injuries of class,’ for instance, is introduced to explore the idea that a ‘class society’ not only produces self-doubt, but that this feeling of powerlessness is combated by those most likely to experience it – traditionally men – by usurping dominance where it can most easily be established – in the home. It is not hard to link the ‘violence that men inflict on their partners’ to ‘the shame and anger men feel when women provide income’ (p.121). Even though a large portion of the sample here (40%) do not have jobs (p.128), simply considering this type of macro-level social force in regards to a social problem that is typically over-individualized and de-contextualized provides an important perspective often missing from analysis.

Writing in spirit with researchers such as Mead and Vygotsky, Ferraro begins with the assumption that even the private and intimately personal are a product of social interactions and context. Thus, while she argues that social factors such as the persistence of traditional gender roles (that establish women as both domestic servants and sex objects (p.156)), the lack of affordable childcare and better paying jobs for women (p.250) and ineffective criminal justice sentencing (that reinforces an individualistic model of human behavior) maintain intimate violence, Ferraro does not make the mistake of ignoring the psychological lives of her subjects. In fact, her discussions of the boredom, confusion and personal histories of these women provide some of the most compelling parts of her analysis. As she notes, in discussing the causal factors underlying women’s individual actions ‘boredom knows no class, race and gender limits’ (p.128).

The consequences of parentification (Chapter Four), for instance, have left most of the women with a deep familiarity with the process of caring for loved ones who neglect and/or abuse them. In addition, through this process women develop strategies for surviving that lead them to focus only on the positive and to minimize the negative aspects of relationships. Thus, they find themselves in the difficult position of having been programmed to view themselves as protectors of people who hurt them. Ferraro also covers the causal factors that might contribute to an underdeveloped sense of self often apparent in the women’s narratives. She argues that many women never learned [*415] how to make themselves distinct as individuals because ‘as children they were always trying to hide and slip between the cracks so that someone wouldn’t sneak into their bedrooms, or take out anger and frustration on them in others ways – or simply because they were treated as part of the furniture.’ Likewise, there are several examples of women who were ‘daddy’s girl’ until they ‘opened their mouths’ or had an opinion. All of these more psychological explanatory factors are grounded in the larger reality of the women’s history and circumstance. This produces a more complete picture of intimate partner violence, helping to shed light on not only the private or the public, but also on how the two are so deeply interconnected.

Thus, if you want a good analysis and discussion of the contextual, structural and social forces that underlie domestic violence, then this book is an important one to read. Ferraro persuasively argues that a continued ignorance of these forces keeps the collective consciousness in America numb, standing in the way of addressing root causes. Hearing these women describe their personal situations within contexts that Ferraro illuminates makes it difficult to ignore the myriad of forces outside the control of individual’s control that ultimately play such a large contributory role in domestic violence. Still, while ubiquitous causal factors such as lacking a ‘sense of communal responsibility for children’ (p.157) and living in a class society that produces a certain percentage of resentful men who cannot live up to its expectations and who compensate by dominating domestically, may be powerful influences, realistically this perspective seems to offer little hope to those suffering their consequences now. While Ferraro should be commended for her unique and political approach to the analysis of domestic violence, her conclusions might leave those interested in changing policy for women in the immediate future with little direction.

Sennett, Richard, and Jonathan Cobb. 1973. THE HIDDEN INJURIES OF CLASS. New York: Vintage.

©Copyright 2007 by the author, Anna King.