What George Zimmerman’s Story Can Teach Us About Domestic Abusers

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CREDIT: Seminole Sheriff’s Office

When George Zimmerman’s girlfriend called the police on Monday over a domestic dispute, it marked the second time in three months that Trayvon Martin’s killer has had law enforcement investigate him for potential charges of domestic violence.

“He knows how to do this,” said Zimmerman’s girlfriend, on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. “He knows how to play this game.”

George Zimmerman’s life story seems exceptional for its chapter on the killing of Trayvon Martin. But if you take away those pages, there’s an entirely different story to be told — one the public rarely gets to hear about — on the life of a man accused of serial abuse and the potential victims he leaves in his wake.

Although Zimmerman has not yet faced charges or conviction for his alleged abuse, his reported behavior mirrors patterns common in domestic abuse:

They abuse more than once.

Zimmerman’s ex-wife and his current girlfriend aren’t the only two people who have accused him of abuse or violence. During his trial over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, one of the witnesses, a female cousin of Zimmerman, said that he had molested her as a child. And Zimmerman’s ex-fiance petitioned for a restraining order against him after he allegedly slapped her — long before his name became nationally recognized. This is a classic pattern for domestic abusers, who will go find another victim if the previous one is no longer available to them. A 2000 study found that 41 percent of abusers re-abuse their victim within a 30-month follow-up period, and another study found that almost half of people who had been arrested for violating a restraining order had two or more victims within six years.

Their abuse isn’t always visible.

As with the last domestic disturbance call by Zimmerman’s ex-wife back in September, in this latest incident, Zimmerman’s girlfriend told 911 he was being erratic and violent. He reportedly smashed an iPad during the incident in September. This time, he broke a table, and pointed a shotgun in his girlfriend’s face, she told the 911 dispatcher. But (with the exception of reportedly punching his father-in-law in the nose), Zimmerman was not said to have caused any physical harm to either woman in either case. Such behavior — damage to property, threats of physical harm — falls into the category of psychological abuse. Ninety-five percent of men who physically abuse their partners also psychologically abuse.

They minimize or explain away their behavior.

One of the most fascinating aspect of Zimmerman’s latest incident was that he himself called the police to counter his girlfriend’s call, and offered another dispatcher a separate set of facts. He said that the girlfriend had “gone crazy” and had broken a table in the apartment. “I just want everyone to know the truth,” he tells the dispatcher. “She got mad that I told her I would be willing to leave.” There’s no telling what exactly happened before their respective calls to police. But, if Zimmerman’s girlfriend is telling the truth, then his effort to turn the tables and make his girlfriend sound guilty is again a classic case of something domestic violence prevention advocates call “minimization, denial and blaming,” which is when abusers make the victim feel as though they are responsible for the abuse, or crazy for thinking any abuse occurred at all.

They find new victims.

After the newest allegations came out about George Zimmerman, Twitter was full of people asking, “who would date this guy?” But one thing about domestic abusers is that they know how to find new victims. Domestic abuse often relies on a cycle of emotionally manipulative steps, where abusers identify people they are close to as potential victims or set up their victims to trust them, then maintain normal behavior to keep the relationship stable, and then eventually abuse, before beginning the cycle again. Abusers can use a variety of tactics, including dominance and isolation, to make the victim blame themselves for the abuse. We don’t know the details in this latest Zimmerman incident, but that could very well be the case here.

They don’t get charged.

Zimmerman’s (now) ex-wife decided not to press charges against him when he reportedly broke her iPad and punched her father in the nose in September. But if that seems unusual or amiss, think again: Domestic violence victims often drop charges, because they are pushed to do so by friends and family, because they are intimidated by the abuser himself, or because they fear retaliation. This is something anti-domestic violence advocates have grappled with, and something the law is still catching up with. In many states, a woman’s domestic abuse case will be thrown out if she doesn’t testify against her abuser. In some states, a woman can be incarcerated if she refuses to testify. And, in fact, victims often are the ones who face legal difficulty resulting from abuse, either when they act in self-defense and are seen as the perpetrator, or when they are coerced into illegal action.

If you or someone you know needs help, call
National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE
National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE