The Kiss of Domestic Violence: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ and ‘Annie Get Your Gun’

One of the great missed opportunities in Pasadena was initiating a conversation about domestic violence when a high profile play was on stage where  domestic violence is part of the comedy. The Pasadena Playhouse’s lively production of “Kiss Me Kate” aptly illustrated the changing times–from Shakespeare’s time to the 1950s when the musical was originally performed to now.

“Kiss Me Kate” deals in parallel realities between a play and the players–a new version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” is being performed and the backstage love story between the divorced leads gives a contemporary twist. Here violence, actual and the threat of, are played for laughs. The lead male character, Fred Graham, has adapted Shakespeare’s comedy, and takes the lead (Petruchio) while also directing. He has chosen his ex-wife, Lilli Vanessi, to play Kate. One of Graham and Vanessi’s altercations leaves her unable to sit comfortably. Yet violence of the non-domestic sort also lurks back stage and spills in front of the curtains. Two thugs threaten to pummel Graham if he doesn’t pay off a debt incurred when someone forged his name.

During the run of “Kiss Me Kate,” Twitter has been a twitter with the topic #WhyIStayed. The hashtag conversation was a reaction to the summer release of a TMZ video of NFL player Ray Rice striking his then-fiancée in February. The Pasadena Weekly has touched on the topic . First with Patti Carmalt-Vener column on “Why Do Women Stay” (18 September 2014) about the three stages of domestic violence and then again with the guest opinion by Donald Schweitzer about “The High Price of Domestic Violence.” The subtitle for that article, “Victims owe it to themselves to make sure the perpetrator is brought to justice,”  might have rankled a few people.

Carmalt-Vener gives us the common profile of a battered woman as being someone who has low esteem and has observed patterns of control and violence in the family. She lists the three stages as 1) tension 2) explosion and 3) reconciliation (often called the honeymoon phase). The letter writer, Lauren, was specifically referring to a friend who is engaged to  a man who is physically and emotionally abusive.

After detailing how statistically domestic violence has a higher occurrence amongst people whose incomes fall below $25,000, Schweitzer writes about how rich or famous perpetrators often escape justice. Justice, in the case of domestic violence, is a problem.

Like Schweitzer, I believe that anger management is the most viable solution. Sometimes that means both partners should take the course because often a couple will become combatants, each justifying an escalation in violence as self-defense until it no longer matters who started it. That’s very different from the aggressor-victim scenario that Carmalt-Vener portrays.

Carmalt-Vener suggests “intense couple therapy” or “helping each one individually.” The first choice, in my opinion, doesn’t work well. What if the dominant partner gets angry after the session? Will the submissive partner then learn to quiet her concerns to maintain peace?

My ex-husband was arrested in our Pasadena home. He was released less than six hours later. He got a lawyer who wanted to be sure that I didn’t attend either court date. He was in therapy as required by the court, but not a court-certified anger management problem. When we went to divorce court, he made sure he didn’t see the same judge by transferring the case to downtown Los Angeles.

We had tried couple therapy. Yet the pattern was: He would lie and I would get upset. The session would be about my attitude. Under the court ordered couple therapy, I found we spent too much time talking about how our ethnicity defined our behavior as well.  The theme between some frenemies, my ex and my former in-laws was that I didn’t know how to act like a proper Japanese woman.

When we had finally separated, I choose an anger management male therapist and I wised up. When my soon-to-be ex-husband told a bold-faced lie, I didn’t challenge him. I simply listened and made no comment on what he said. Instead, he inexplicably got angry and left.

By then he was entangled in a sticky web of lies.  Our first mediator, a mutual friend, had been our go-between until my ex went against our agreements and then my ex requested that members of my religious group (not his) become involved. They were wise enough to invite the mutual friend and my ex was challenged about those broken our agreements. In time, once he had what he wanted, he broke our agreements and disappeared.

Eventually, instead of answering our intermediaries, he had me served.  It was only then that I knew where he was living. Otherwise, I could only try to serve him at his workplace which as a secure place (JPL/NASA). I filed a temporary restraining order and had a hard time finding someone to serve him.  A restraining order didn’t prevent someone from vandalizing my car within 24-hours of my ex’s visits to his lawyer. I’d walk out and see my car had been damaged and that day would get a call from my lawyer.

My lawyer wasn’t very supportive.  She discouraged me from reporting each incident to the police. She even urged me to provide my class schedule at USC where I was a grad student because as we tried to hammer out the final details in the hallway before our appointment in court, my ex claimed he was taking classes there. I refused to her disgust. She soon realized she had been duped, but it was too late; she didn’t set up any safeguards for me.

Is there justice? Probably not. After we were divorced the vandalism on my car didn’t stop for several years. I paid for all the repairs. I remember how my delight and dedication to keeping my blue mini van clean slowly dissolved into a despair of disrepair thousands of dollars later. Why let him know I cared for my car?

Sometimes the desire for justice can prevent people from moving forward because so often the abusive partner wants to reconnect.  From among the survivors of domestic violence in my support group, I realized I had left earlier than most. Some women wanted justice and were constantly looking for ways to get it–caught in a cycle of anger and fear. Some women had disastrously also resorted to violence and their words were bitter and vengeful.

There was one thoughtful woman affiliated with Caltech who I remember best. She had one-upped her domestic partner academically and that is when things began to happen. In the course of my relationship with my ex-husband, I became proficient in things he had originally tutored me in. Isn’t that the classic problem outlined in another musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”?

Often domestic violence is about control. and what if the control is in superior knowledge or prominence? What if a one partner shows a preference for a partner whose language or technical skills are  lower? What happens then when this language advantage/superiority changes?

What if, like Vanessi in “Kiss Me Kate,” the woman becomes more famous than the man and gets “uppity” and makes demands? Does the woman become a shrew  or bitch because her talent or intelligence causes disorder in the paternalistic world?

While some studies suggest that African American women suffer domestic violence at a higher rate than white women, there are also studies that suggest domestic violence is under reported amongst Asian ethnic groups. The silence is deafening and almost all the people who betrayed my trust were Asian American, including my lawyer.

Why did I stay so long? Because our relationship wasn’t bad when I was a wide-eyed small town girl in the big city and because my lawyer, our friends and even my relatives either didn’t believe me or if they did, they were too frightened or they might even have approved of a man handling his woman with a “firmer hand.Yet my father never hit my mother. I left because I knew my father, who passed away when I was young, would not have wanted me to be treated that way.

Leaving my ex required me to break with my family, some friends and my ethnic group.

We live in a society dominated by the idea that  if a woman is too smart, too accomplished or too skilled at something considered manly she needs to find a man who is her better, because most men aren’t brave enough aren’t comfortable to exist for even short periods in a woman’s shadow. That is how Annie got a husband because you can’t get a man with a gun. That is how the shrew is tamed, by giving at least the appearance that the man has the upper hand.









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