When we think of violence perpetrated in intimate or familial relationships—we call it domestic violence—we generally think of husbands or boyfriends beating wives or girlfriends. That can make it hard, both for victims of violence and those of us witnessing or hearing about it, to recognize cases that don’t fit the stereotype.
That can also make it easy for thoughtless people (or lazy writers) to trivialize non-conforming violence.
Consider the Houston Chronicle front-page headline in a particularly brutal case of intimate partner violence:
But wait, you say. That headline says romance. Aren’t we talking about attempted murder?
The “romantic” gesture which got this story into the paper is an alleged poisoning:
The doctor liked his coffee black.
So when it was sweet, he asked his lady friend, also a cancer physician and researcher, for another cup. She urged him to drink up anyway.
The coffee tasted sweet because it was laced with a sweet-tasting toxic chemical used in antifreeze and medical research, ethylene glycol, according to a criminal complaint filed with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The complaint referred to the chemical as “a deadly weapon.”
Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo, a breast cancer oncologist at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, was charged last week with aggravated assault against Dr. George Blumenschein, a specialist in lung and head and neck cancers at the institution.
The pair were in “a casual sexual relationship,” according to the complaint filed May 29, when Gonzalez-Angulo gave Blumenschein not just one cup of poisoned coffee, but two.
Sixteen hours later, he was taken to an emergency center, where he was found to have central nervous system depression, cardiopulmonary complications and renal failure. He subsequently had to undergo dialysis.
Reporters don’t write their own headlines, so there are really two separate offenses here. The headline is ridiculous and asinine tabloid click-bait. Is it taking you to a feel-good story a la the Vows column in the New York Times wedding section? Interestingly, if you access the story via the Local menu tab, and once you click on the actual story, the headline you see reads M.D. Anderson doctor accused of poisoning lover.
The story starts off as flippantly as the front page headline. It opens with a line appropriate for a film noir treatment of the story, but not for serious reporting in a daily newspaper about a heinous crime.
Compare it to another recent article in the Chronicle about a man charged with assaulting his wife:
Police say a Burlington, Vt., man is charged with attempted murder for allegedly breaking into his estranged partner’s home, choking her with his shirt and threatening to kill her.
Police say the woman reported that Thomas Berard forced his way into her home on North Champlain Street on Thursday night and demanded money. Police say he then took off his shirt and wrapped it around her neck, choking her and then started choking her with his hands.
Police say he apparently stopped when a child came into the room. Berard left the residence and was arrested nearby.
Authorities say he is being held without bail at Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility.
It’s unclear if he’s being represented by a lawyer.
Thank you, Joe Friday.
This is a fairly typical AP blotter-style report that shows up on the Houston Chronicle site via a wire service feed, whereas the poisoned coffee story is local and involves a very highly regarded, though recently slightly tarnished, medical institution. Would the story get the same attention, though, if it were about one of the male M.D. Anderson valet parking attendants beating up his cafeteria-worker girlfriend? Professional and socio-economic status also come into play in how this story is being treated by the Houston Chronicle.
The affidavit of charges highlights the inadequacy of the language we have for crimes like this, so perhaps the headline writer and reporters cannot shoulder all of the blame. The felony charge is listed as “aggravated assault – family member,” when the two are not family members. For all of the progress we’ve made, the language of the law still hasn’t caught up.
Is there harm in this misleading headline and snarky story intro? To the extent that it contributes to a larger cultural trivialization of violence, yes. To the extent that it sensationalizes a story because it falls outside the dominant paradigm for domestic violence, yes. To the extent that it makes someone who is experience abuse that falls outside the dominant paradigm less likely to seek help, either because they don’t recognize they need or deserve it, or because they fear ending up the butt of a joke about how they take their coffee, yes.
I expect a story like this from a tabloid. I’m hoping the Houston Chronicle wants to differentiate itself from a tabloid, but headlines and stories like this make me wonder.