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The Catalyst
The newsletter of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on Women and the Law

December 2001, vol. 7, no. 2

Book review: But words can never harm me—A review of Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment Through Narrative by Elaine Lawless

A few lucky attorneys learned about interviewing in law school, and a few more learned by watching more senior attorneys on the job. Continuing legal education (CLE) courses update us on changing laws, but when did you last receive a mailing about a seminar on client interview skills? Most attorneys learn to interview clients the hard way--by doing it.

Elaine Lawless's book, Women Escaping Violence: Empowerment Through Narrative (Missouri Press 2001) can serve as a quick CLE on the challenges of interviewing survivors of domestic violence. Lawless asserts that the act of telling and retelling a story is an important way for the victim to claim her role as a survivor.

Lawless is a professor of English and Women's Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a student of folklore. She prepared this book by speaking with women in domestic violence shelters in Missouri. She taped the conversations, and four stories are reprinted verbatim at the end of the book. The bulk of the book is an assessment of the importance of these stories to the women's lives.

As an attorney who has represented victims of domestic violence and prosecuted batterers, I began reading the book with confidence that I had done a good job. I worked hard at establishing a rapport with victims, and I tried to understand the pressures they felt. In a field where success cannot be easily measured by orders obtained or conviction percentages, I felt that I had done well.

After reading this book, however, I would add an extra item to my case closing evaluation checklist: Did I let the victim tell me what was important to her? An interview with a victim has to have a focus, whether it is obtaining an order of protection or prosecuting an abuser. And in an emergency situation, there is time to do only the essentials. But often we do have the time to hear what the victim wants to say. Looking back, I have missed opportunities for victims to tell me the whole story. Knowing that the more powerful evidence will be about the physical contact, I have cut short discussions of what victims sometimes call "mental abuse." I have frequently told a victim, "I understand that the insults hurt you, but the judge will want to know more about the physical violence." It could be that some of the storytelling is significant enough to the client that it should be included in a direct exam, even if the impact would be slim.

If you practice in the area of domestic violence and have the luxury of time to read a book, consider Women Escaping Violence. The result may be interviews that are a bit longer, and clients that are a bit stronger.