"He's lucky his wife didn't grab a weapon"

A Chicago Sun-Times columnist defends a woman charged with beating her husband.

Published March 19, 2009 1:24PM (EDT)

When I saw the headline "If she hit him, he probably deserved it," I assumed I had stumbled upon yet another Rihanna-Chris Brown piece. What I found, instead, was a surprising Chicago Sun-Times column defending Eni Skoien, a woman slapped with a 21-day restraining order and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery after allegedly walking in on her husband with two working girls in their children's playroom. According to the police report, Eni punched former Cook County GOP chair Gary Skoien and hit him with a toy guitar.

As the article's headline makes clear, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell sides with Eni, lamenting the restraining order and charges against her. Despite insisting that she doesn't condone violence, Mitchell writes, "I can certainly understand why Eni Skoien couldn't slink away. Everybody knows that you don't ever bring another woman into your wife's home." Later, she goes so far as to say, "He's lucky his wife didn't grab a weapon."

Mitchell also assumes that, had Eni and Gary's roles been reversed, she would have suffered a far worse fate:

Had this 55-year-old man walked in and caught his 36-year-old wife with two strapping young men . . . in the children's playroom . . . at 1 in the morning, it would have gotten ugly...

If she didn't move fast enough, he would have likely dragged her through the house and kicked her out of the front door.

Eni Skoien, who is 5 feet 4 inches and 110 pounds, couldn't possibly drag the beefy Skoien out of the house.

All she could do was pummel him with fists and the closest object at hand, according to the charges.

Eni Skoien, who wasn't accused of attacking the hookers, allegedly drew her husband's blood.

"I called police because I thought I was going to be killed," Gary Skoien told police.

Now, no one's going to nominate Gary Skoien for a Husband of the Year award. Clearly, he is a sleazeball. And while it's true that short, skinny Eni Skoien would be at a serious disadvantage in a fair fight with her much larger husband, we shouldn't underestimate the power of adrenaline and rage. Considering that Eni drew blood, she couldn't have been that helpless. And if the genders in Mitchell's piece were reversed, I would have been outraged.

But all particulars aside, the Skoien case raises some difficult questions that apply to the Chris Brown-Rihanna incident and the way we think about domestic violence in general. For one thing, is it ever acceptable to hit or threaten your spouse or significant other except in self-defense? Here's a thought from Jezebel's Sadie Stein, in a post in which she admits to having hit boyfriends in anger:

I remember the look of shock on my shrink's face when I told him I'd struck my boyfriend; it was then that it really hit home (no pun intended.) There was no justifying it or explaining it away; it had been violence, pure and simple, and the accident of being small didn't change that fact. Mitchell says, "in a situation like this, a few whacks might be the only way a woman can hold onto her dignity." Well, take it from me: it doesn't make you feel dignified. And thank goodness for that.

So is physical violence an acceptable means of defending yourself from the "mental abuse" of which Mitchell accuses Gary Skoien? And, as in the case of Chris Brown and Rihanna, what matters more -- who hit first, or who did the most damage? And should psychological damage also count?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately, but I'm not nearly firm in my opinions as Mitchell. Obviously, there is no justification for unprovoked violence. But at the same time, it would be deeply unfair if Rihanna -- who was seriously injured -- was subject to the same criminal proceedings as the not-visibly-damaged Chris Brown. And while I don't necessarily need to see Eni Skoien in jail, it may at the very least be a good idea for authorities to look into whether she and Gary (apart or together) are fit parents.

Ambivalent as I am, I invite Broadsheet readers to suggest their own answers to these big questions. How do you define domestic violence?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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