Wanted: a Better Response to Abuse

EARLY in Amy Tan's richly crafted new novel, "The Kitchen God's Wife," an elderly Chinese woman named Winnie tells her daughter about her efforts as a young bride to be "a proper wife." Describing the stoic behavior she learned from watching Chinese and American movies, Winnie says, "A woman always had to feel pain, suffer and cry, before she could feel love."But love never becomes part of the bargain in Winnie's first marriage, and she endures more than her share of pain and suffering. Her sadistic husband, Wen Fu, subjects her to constant verbal and sexual abuse, even raping her at gunpoint. For 10 years she tolerates his brutality, later justifying her passivity by saying, "This was China. A woman had no right to be angry." That is hardly the subservient attitude exemplified by two other fictional characters this summer, Thelma and Louise, the take-charge heroines of the controversial movie bearing their names. What begins as a weekend fishing trip for an Arkansas housewife and her waitress friend quickly turns criminal when Louise kills a drunken boor who tries to rape Thelma in a parking lot. As the two shoot and steal their way across several states to elude police, they find heady new freedom from what they view as male subjugation. These polar extremes - the dutiful Winnie symbolizing an Old Think approach to abuse and harassment, the defiant Thelma and Louise representing the latest frontiers of New Think - leave a reader and moviegoer wondering: What can abused women do to gain control of their lives in acceptable ways? Even in 1991, despite the proliferation of battered women's shelters and crisis hotlines offering refuge and help, Winnie's resigned, suffer-in-silence approach remains all too common in real life. As for the relatively few women who in desperation pull a gun on abusive men, adopting the Thelma and Louise approach, there is nothing liberating about a prison cell - a punishment Thelma and Louise conveniently avoid by driving off a cliff. Although domestic violence is the focus of endless news stories and TV docudramas, the seriousness of the subject often escapes even thinking people. A male reviewer for The New York Times dismisses Winnie's husband Wen Fu as "a man of such one-dimensional malevolence that one can only regard him as a caricature in part because "he rapes Winnie whenever she threatens to leave him." Wen Fu's "inexplicability," the reviewer continues, "shrinks Ms. Tan's story to the moral dimension of pop fiction." Yet Tan has repeatedly stated in interviews that the book is based on her mother's all-too-real first marriage in China before she emigrated to San Francisco. Similarly, a male columnist in the Boston Globe angrily complains that "Thelma & Louise" is "only the latest in a string of cultural strikes against manhood." Still, attitudes are changing, however slowly. In Massachusetts, a new law requires police to tell victims of domestic abuse of their right to immediate legal protection from their batterers. As a result, the number of emergency restraining orders issued on evenings and weekends has doubled in the past year. Elsewhere, tougher state laws are making prosecutors more willing to pursue rape charges when women are attacked by acquaintances. This willingness on the part of police and judges to take domestic violence and rape seriously, together with a new willingness on the part of women to go public about being raped and abused, is changing the rules of a game that has hitherto depended on suppression and silence. Toward the end of "Thelma & Louise," as the two women speed along a desert highway in their Thunderbird convertible, Thelma says happily, "I feel awake. I don't remember ever feeling this awake." To which Louise replies, "You've always been a little crazy. This is just the first chance you've had to express yourself." But at what price? Suicide - taking the battering into one's own hands - is no more a final solution to abuse than passive acceptance, after the fashion of Tam's mother. For now, both of these cautionary tales share the merit of forcing audiences and readers to imagine a third way not to play the victim, and to this extent both earn the right to a term like "awakening."

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