Understanding Emotional Abuse

Before she was a victim of homicide, Susan Keegan was a victim of emotional abuse.

When we think about domestic violence, we tend to think about physical harm, but a victim can also be the target of verbal aggression, manipulative behavior, and deliberate efforts to humiliate or belittle. Contempt is often part of that package, with the abuser mocking or insulting his partner, demeaning her appearance, demanding obedience, even becoming enraged when chores are not done as requested. Sex may become a weapon – for example, when an abuser insists that marriage itself entitles him to sex where, when, and how he wants it.

These are not behaviors of an ordinary bickering couple. These are tools of psychological abuse and often a warning of violence to follow.

The research on emotional abuse and its consequences is wide and deep, but some helpful definitions are offered here: Abuse in Intimate Relationships: Defining the Multiple Dimensions and Terms (author: Vera E. Mouradian, PhD, National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center).

The following quotes – mostly from emails and letters written by Susan, Dr. Keegan and numerous friends and family members – highlight the emotional abuse to which Susan was being subjected. Some of these statements were included in letters to Mendocino County law enforcement authorities from the many people who urged a rigorous investigation of Susan’s death:

Violating privacy

  • “He [Dr. Keegan] violated her privacy repeatedly, coming into her bedroom without knocking [they had separate bedrooms by then], reading her email without permission, mocking her behavior with contempt, reading her journals and taunting her with her most personal observations.” [as described by Susan to a friend, who reported it to authorities]

Sexual control

Dr. Keegan seemed increasingly manic, a state often accompanied by a heightened sex drive. Susan told friends he sometimes wanted sex more than once a day, and insisted on his right to it. After a vacation apart, Susan told her travel partner that she dreaded going home, because despite her exhaustion from the long journey, her husband would be certain to insist on sex.

Here is the language that Dr. Keegan used to talk about their sexual relations:

  • Dr. Keegan described a session with their marriage counselor as follows: “The therapist agrees Susan is my wife, she needs to fuck me. That’s part of the marriage contract. The therapist said, ‘Susan, you need to fuck Peter.’” [a friend’s conversation with Dr. Keegan, later reported in a letter to authorities.]  [Clarification:  This was the exact language used by Dr. Keegan; it seems unlikely, however, that he was quoting his therapist accurately]
  • Dr. Keegan claimed their marriage counselor said to Susan: “Intimacy is part of the marriage contract. If you don’t want to have sex with him then divorce him.” [email from Dr. Keegan to a friend]
  • “Peter did call me, and I took notes so I would be clearheaded… The big issue was that she didn’t want to have sex; a matter of high frustration for him; he stated that he was ‘entitled’ to sex…. He said that Susan said he had an anger problem and this was a reason for refusing sex.” [reported in a friend’s letter to authorities]

Demanding obedience

  • “He stressed at considerable length that she would not save the newspapers for him when he was gone to work a few days a week at an Indian reservation; that he wanted the papers folded and stacked for him on the table but found them in the recycle, under the couch.” [a friend’s conversation with Dr. Keegan, later reported in a letter to authorities.]

Berating and belittling

  • Referring to Dr. Keegan’s behavior, Susan wrote to one friend, “much poisonous venom has come my way.” [email from Susan, reported in a letter to authorities]
  • Susan told another friend, “he is doing everything he can to be mean to me and to hurt me. He unrealistically wants this divorce over by Christmas… He wants this to be over right now. He just can’t wait to be rid of me.’” [a friend’s conversation with Susan, later reported in a letter to authorities]
  • Dr. Keegan became increasingly angry about the financial ramifications of a divorce. Despite her legal rights to half the family assets, Susan began telling friends that perhaps she would settle for less – 40%, or even one-third – just to end the battle. [recollection of friends]

Laying blame

  • “I especially noted that he blamed Susan for ‘aggravating’ him so much that he could not work at his profession.” [reported in a friend’s letter to authorities]
  • “At one point in recent weeks [Dr. Keegan] accused Susan of ‘trying to make me have another coronary’ by putting stress on him.” [reported in a friend’s letter to authorities]

Safety fears

Susan’s friends recognized that emotional abuse could turn violent, and at least three of them urged her to leave the house and offered her a place to say. Susan refused, fearful that she might lose the house if she left it. “I am feeling like he is trying to push me out, so I am not going anywhere,” she wrote.

  • “I offered her a place to stay because he seemed out of control and aggressively angry and hateful…. [Susan] said that he had been relentless in his verbal abuse, but not physical.” [reported in a friend’s letter to authorities]
  • “It became clear from our discussion, that Peter was angry and being emotionally abusive to Susan.” [reported in a friend’s letter to authorities]

At one point, a Mendocino County law enforcement official said that Susan’s failure to recognize she was in danger made prosecution more difficult – it would have been useful evidence had she expressed fear or reported abuse. But she had seen this kind of behavior in her husband before and thought she could handle it. (“He has these brain stutters from time to time, and this feels very like the others,” she wrote to a friend. “They are not fun.”)

Certainly, her failure to recognize things were different this time was the biggest mistake of her life. But that error, in the midst of emotional turmoil, should not become an excuse to set this case aside.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Emotional Abuse

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