I have already written here about Jovan Belcher murdering his girlfriend and then taking his own life. Much has been reported in the media about trying to make sense of this tragedy; well, everything except calling it domestic violence and providing information about patterns of abuse. One thing that has repeatedly been offered is that Belcher may have been suffering from a brain injury from his time in the NFL. I am extremely hesitant to absolve all notions of wrong-doing based on a biological condition, especially given all we know about men's violence against women in intimate partner relationships. It's extremely unlikely that the murder was a random incident, taking place outside the context of any other issues of power and control within their relationship. However, it would be irresponsible of us to not consider the role that biological conditions may have played in leading up to this tragedy.
This week, another study was published adding weight to the theory that head injuries leads to permanent brain injury (See this NPR blog for an overview). One of the implications, is that people whose brains show the impact of severe or repeated hits to the head can experience mild symptoms like headaches and trouble with attention as well as more severe symptoms such as depression, dementia, and aggression. The study reports that they found evidence of these effects in athletes and military personnel.
While I certainly do not deny the scientific evidence regarding an association between brain injuries and behavior (that sounds common sense to me), I do wonder what it means in terms of implications for our understanding of domestic violence. Generally, domestic violence (DV) activists have explained DV in cultural terms: patriarchy, entitlement, power, exploitation. I've been right there in challenging biological explanations such as bipolar disease or "boys will be boys" to explain away men's responsibility in ending domestic violence (we don't see a lot of women with bipolar disease murdering their male partners in mass numbers).
That said, I do think the implications of this line of research can not be ignored. If we're serious about wanting to end intimate partner violence, and broadly men's violence against women, it's imperative to consider all potential explanations of violence when targeting interventions. If treatment of and more humanly, prevention of, traumatic brain injuries can decrease the amount of violence perpetrated by military personal and athletes, it is definitely not worth clinging to our standpoint of cultural explanations in responding to domestic violence.
And, taking on a slightly philosophical viewpoint momentarily, can we accept that it is both? Can we fully embrace biological and genetic theories in understanding domestic violence AND still attribute issues of patriarchy, power, control, and exploitation to the overwhelming trend of male violence against women? Rigid masculine culture and denigration of women is prominent in the military and professional athletic culture and most definitely needs to be addressed in order to decrease the frequency of intimate partner violence. Addressing biological causes such as traumatic brain injuries, depression, and post traumatic stress syndrome may also provide valuable pathways to mitigating violence. We of course run the risk of this complexity being boiled down to simple messaging and co-option of messaging that could be detrimental to actually addressing the problem (i.e. a return to "boys will be boys"). In the past, it was beneficial to reject biological causes because it seemingly undermined our ability to hold abusers accountable. Yet, I don't think these things have to necessarily be mutually exclusive. In fact, taking a nature and nurture approach to our understanding of the causes of DV, can provide more accountability- to individuals to seek help, to institutions (NFL, military, etc.), to communities, and to governments.
Amended: Reports are coming out documenting Belcher had a history of control issues in his relationships, long before the concussion that the media have speculated may have played a role is his killing of his girlfriend. This fits in line with what we know about domestic violence and what we are learning about their relationship towards the end contain many predictable warning signs of intimate partner violence. See this article for some more information.
Belcher aside, I think it is interesting to take a look at what additional information we could learn from brain injuries. Whether research shows it's simply another risk factor (like the abusive person losing a job, pregnancy, or leaving the relationship) or rather an association independent of the typical abusive relationship would be interesting.