NBC’s Today Show recently aired the story of Jenni-Lyn Watson, a 20 year old college student and aspiring ballerina, whose body was found in a Syracuse park shortly after Thanksgiving. Her ex-boyfriend, Steven Pieper, has been arrested and charged with the murder. Though still awaiting tissue samples to determine the cause of death, police are under the impression that Pieper killed Watson at her home before dumping her body behind a shed in the park. Reporters say that the two had an unsteady relationship which Jenni-Lyn finally ended in October. Friends of Jenni-Lyn believe that Pieper cared for Watson but also hint at underlying jealousy in the relationship. We are reminded by this case, of Yeardley Love, the UVA Lacrosse player who was murdered in early May by her former boyfriend, George Huguely, another UVA Lacrosse player. Huguely is still awaiting trial for the murder charges but admitted to slamming Yeardley’s head into a wall the night of her death.
In abusive relationships, it is common to see the on again/off again nature that Watson and Pieper’s relationship seems to have had. In fact, it is often referred to as the cycle of violence. There are three main stages in the cycle of violence. The “honeymoon phase” is that time in the relationship when everything seems perfect. This is the time during which an abuser is attempting to win the trust of their partner. If abuse has already occurred, the abuser will apologize and attempt to convince their partner that they have changed for the better. We often see a shortened version of this stage as the relationship continues. Following the honeymoon phase, is the “walking on eggshells” phase, throughout which tension is building as the victim tries not to upset their abuser despite their abuser showing increased anger and argumentativeness. This stage continues until an incident finally occurs. This can be an outburst of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or any combination of the three. It is important for domestic violence victims to be aware of the cycle of violence so they can use it as a tool to better understand their abusers’ patterns and to make judgments about their personal safety. In the cases of both Watson and Love, there was evidence of this cycle. Neither filed an official Domestic Violence Protection Order but there were reports of UNC lacrosse players intervening in an assault on Love by Huguely as well as friends’ testimonies of frequent breakups between Watson and Pieper.
Many who see men/women caught in this cycle ask, “Ok, but why doesn’t he/she just leave?” It seems like a simple enough question but the fact is the time in which a victim chooses to leave her/his abuser is the most dangerous time for that person. We need to remember that abuse is not about the victim’s actions but rather it’s about the abuser’s need for control. When a victim chooses to leave, they are choosing to take an abuser’s power away from them and this can be seen as a direct threat to the abuser. As a result, violence often increases and has the potential to become fatal, as may have been the case with Jenni-Lyn Watson and Steven Pieper. Love had also broken up with Huguely following an assault shortly before Love’s death.
FVPC works with victims who are ready to leave their abusers as well as those who are not. Our hotline advocates available for crisis support counseling and resource referrals twenty-four hours a day. While unfortunately Orange County does not have a domestic violence shelter, FVPC volunteers can help explore other emergency shelter options with clients looking for a safe transition. Our thoughts are with Jenni-Lyn Watson’s family during this difficult time. We can only hope that continuing public discussion of tragic events such as these will fuel a greater awareness of domestic violence as a widespread societal problem and will enable further prevention.