Doris Day was a sunny actress and a domestic violence survivor; are there lessons?

Hollywood legend Doris Day died May 13, 2019 at age 97 at her home in Carmel Valley, California. The beautiful, blonde singer turned actress was viewed by many as America’s wholesome girl next door. In the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, Day was a guaranteed motion picture box-office and record-chart success, starring in romantic comedies with Rock Hudson and James Garner and dating Ronald Reagan.

But, underneath all of this stunning beauty and chipper personality, there lay secrets and pain. In her 1975 tell-all, “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” she revealed herself to be a survivor of spousal violence at the hands of her first husband, whom she alleged beat her even while she was pregnant with their first child. Day’s disclosure revealed to the world that even the sunniest woman in America couldn’t escape violence.

Interpersonal violence is a highly prevalent public health problem that affects millions of Americans. Nearly one in four adult women and about one in seven men report having experienced severe physical violence, including being kicked, beaten, choked, burned on purpose or having a weapon used against them, from an intimate partner at some point across their lifespan. As a clinical psychologist who has spent the past 20 years researching the pernicious effects of trauma and treating its survivors, I’d like to take the occasion of Day’s passing to remind us that we can help stop, prevent and heal those who have been exposed to violence.

What we know, and where we need to go

Empowering women to say ‘no’ to a range of issues could help thwart sexual violence, some studies suggest. Frame Studios/
In a seminal paper written in the late 1970s, psychologist Lenore Walker coined the phrase “battered women” and proposed that learned helplessness was the psychological rationale for why these women became targets. She explained that like animals in a cage who repeatedly endure painful electrical shock from which they are unable to escape or avoid, people who experience repetitive violence lose their power and control and understandably give up trying.

Drawing upon her clinical and forensic work with thousands of women in many countries, Dr. Walker proclaimed that “women do not remain in battering relationships because of their psychological need to be a victim; but, rather, because of overt or subtle encouragement by a sexist society.”

It didn’t take long for Walker and other clinicians and researchers working with interpersonal violence survivors to determine that there was a large, shared overlap between different forms of violence. In other words, when one form of violence was found in the family – be it domestic violence, child abuse or elder abuse – other forms were more likely to occur. Thus, many individuals who have had experiences with domestic violence in their lives also been sexually exploited, harassed and abused by other people inside and outside their homes. It makes perfect sense to us psychologists how this revictimization compounds the effects on victims, in part capitalizing on their shame.

There has been extensive scientific study on the causes of domestic violence. Contributing factors are complex and intersecting, for sure. If we’re talking about men who abuse women, those who wholeheartedly buy into rigid views of women’s place in the home, have a higher need for social recognition, are more impulsive and exhibit higher dominance traits are more likely to transgress.