THREE months ago, a young woman in San Francisco who had endured 10 years as a battered wife stood poised to begin a new life. Her divorce from an abusive husband - who once forced her at gunpoint to leave a battered women's shelter and return home - was nearly final. And her dream of owning a small restaurant was becoming a reality, through help from two local agencies.
I interviewed this fledgling entrepreneur in her restaurant in November, two weeks after it opened. Her eyes danced as she talked about her new business. Already she was looking forward to earning enough money to give her two small children a good education.
Two days after Christmas, that happiness was tragically interrupted. Defying a restraining order, her former husband burst into the restaurant and reportedly told her, "If I can't have you, no one is going to have you." Then he repeatedly stabbed the woman and her parents, who were working with her. The struggle ended when the police arrived after her seven-year-old son called for help. The three survived, but face more medical treatment.
Three thousand miles away, in Winchester, Mass., another restraining order proved equally useless this month. A man whose girlfriend had ended their relationship allegedly shot and killed her mother in the family's driveway, then abducted the young woman. He held her for five days before she escaped.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of American women seek restraining orders to prohibit abusive husbands and boyfriends from making contact with them. For some, like the two women in California and Massachusetts, these court documents prove to be inadequate protection. What they need is a bodyguard. But considering the number of restraining orders - 29,000 in Massachusetts alone last year - that solution seems unrealistic.
Unless you live in Sweden. There, women threatened by violent men, including former husbands, may soon receive protection from government-funded bodyguards. The justice minister maintains that citizens threatened with violence should have the same right to protection as public figures.
Canadian women, too, might eventually receive more help. The government has appointed a nine-member panel with an $8.7 million budget to develop a national plan for combatting wife-beating and other abuse of women.
Surgeon General Antonia Novello has estimated that every five years, domestic violence claims 58,000 lives in the United States - as many as were lost in the Vietnam War. One of every three women murdered in this country is killed by a husband or boyfriend. Only 4 percent of men who are murdered are killed by wives or girlfriends.
Some abused wives see no hints of violence before they marry. Others do. Studies by the American Psychological Association suggest that nearly 30 percent of dating relationships contain some physical, emotional, or sexual abuse against the woman.
A headline in Parade magazine earlier this month posed a startling question: "Do girls prefer boys who treat them badly?" The sobering answer is "yes," in some instances, judging from letters that "poured in" to the magazine.
"A lot of girls today do go for guys who treat them like dirt," one 18-year-old woman writes. A 20-year-old man agrees, saying, "In general, a lot of girls do prefer boys who treat them badly." And a 21-year-old woman who admits she once enjoyed getting attention from "bad" boys, says, "I would dream that I'd be the one who would tame him into a dedicated boyfriend. Hah!"
If taming modern cavemen is still seen as acceptable behavior by young women growing up in an age that promotes equality between the sexes, what hotlines, shelters, and restraining orders might await them in the future?
Laws and law enforcement can put some limits on violent acts. But what about the violence in the heart? What about a culture that all too often panders to blood lust? As long as leather and chains are the latest in chic, and Madonna wants to be spanked, while groups like Public Enemy rap about doing worse to women, and as long as "Terminators" of one sort or another constitute entertainment's epic figures, there can be little tenderness and no consoling peace between men and women.