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An Essay on Battered Woman Syndrome
Copyright 2001-2007

Joe Wheeler Dixon, PhD, JD

    Battered woman syndrome (BWS) was first proposed in the 1970's and was based solely upon the clinical observations of a single clinician, Dr. Lenore Walker. After she coined the term and published her hypotheses the concept quickly caught on.  BWS became a popular way to justify criminal conduct of women who were charged with the murder of their husband. However, while the idea initially enjoyed success in some clinical circles and several legal jurisdictions, BWS was never empirically validated through scientific research as a bona fide condition, and therefore it has not enjoyed widespread support by psychologists who practice clinical and forensic psychology.  For those women who are indeed chronically battered, they may more reliably and more correctly be diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

    To be sure women are battered in this country at what appears to be epidemic proportions; however, to date there is insufficient empirical evidence to show that BWS per se meets the rigorous diagnostic criteria of psychology or psychiatry for a mental disorder. For instance, there is no reliable means to differentiate those women who merely claim a history of battering from those who have actually been battered.  The psychological signs and symptoms associated with BWS are non-specific, that is, a wide variety of events can cause them, so there is no way for a psychologist or psychiatrist to be sure who to diagnose with BWS based solely upon self-report of the patient.  For instance, headache is a common presenting complaint, but there are a variety of conditions that can cause headache ranging from brain tumors to allergies.  Because the signs and symptoms are easy to fake, the condition can readily be malingered.

    This is not to imply that women who are battered cannot be clinically assessed for medical signs of physical trauma, such as contusions, broken bones, damaged organs, etc.  An accurate medical diagnosis can be completed when the medical examination is performed within a reasonable time of the battering; however, even these purely physical signs are non-definitive of BWS, that is, the physical signs could have been caused by a variety of circumstances or events.  Bear in mind that medical and psychological diagnosis is an art and not an exact science. It is important to realize that the history is imperative when identifying a woman who has been battered, and doctors are not usually the best persons to validate a history through third parties confirmation.  Doctors typically rely upon the patient's first party self-report when diagnosing clinical conditions.  In the case of BWS, when some women are seeking to avoid criminal responsibility, it is extremely unwise for a doctor to reach what amounts to a legal conclusion of battering based solely upon the presenting complaints and history of one person.  When considering spousal or child physical abuse, medical doctors look for a pattern of injuries over time before rendering a medical diagnosis of injuries secondary to physical beatings or battering.  Protocols have been developed for these specific circumstances. No such validated  protocols exist for BWS.

    In contrast to a medical doctor in an emergency room evaluating a physically battered woman, the diagnostic challenge is more difficult for the psychologist and psychiatrist who may evaluate the woman weeks or months after the alleged battering took place.  For instance, several months after murdering her husband, a woman could present to a psychologist for evaluation, perhaps in preparation for trial, and the woman could simply fake the history of battering and feign the symptoms of anxiety and depression while claiming to have been psychologically terrorized and traumatized. The psychologist cannot be certain the woman is not faking, and the doctor would have no way to be certain she was telling the truth absent a full police styled investigation complete with eye witness collaboration, prior diagnostic and treatment records, and other third party confirmations.

    Because the condition BWS is not able to be reliably (consistently and accurately) diagnosed, it fails to meet the rigorous legal requirements for admissibility as evidence into either a criminal or a civil trial. In 1993, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in a now famous case, Daubert, that scientific evidence must be reliable to be admitted into trial. Several guidelines were set out in the Daubert holdings that attorneys and judges use to gauge the reliability of proffered evidence. BWS does not meet these scientific guidelines.

    BWS appears to be the product of political advocacy, and not science. BWS seems to owe its very existence to the desire of women’s rights advocates to bring attention to the epidemic spousal abuse and battering that occurs in this county. Now, this is certainly commendable, but the ends do not justify the means in this case.  Given the lack of an established, empirical, scientific basis, BWS cannot be used to undo all the harm and suffering women have suffered through abuse, nor can it be used to prevent future abusive battering.  As epidemic as battering is in this country, BWS offered as a defense to crimes will not deter the battering. 

    BWS has been employed in criminal trials by women who claim to have been battered for a wide variety of purposes ranging from the justification theory of self-defense (killing the batterer was justified and I should therefore not be punished), grounds for temporary insanity (I was insane from the battering and could not appreciate the criminality of the act of killing), negating an important element of the criminal charge (I could not form criminal intent), diminished capacity (similar to insanity), to mitigating circumstances  to reduce the punishment if found guilty (the sentence should be less because I was battered).

     Interestingly, in a few cases, the prosecution has been pleased to have the idea of BWS introduced, because the prosecutors then were able to use the BWS evidence in a clever way against the interests of the woman charged with a crime. For example, once BWS is introduced at trial, the prosecution can then argue that the victim engaged in prior violent acts towards the woman, and this serves as a motive for revenge, which is not an excuse for a crime.  Also, this BWS evidence may be used to demonstrate that she has lied in the past when she denied her husband beat her to keep him out of jail (most battered women have done this at least once).  At trial, she claims a history of beatings, but in the past she denied he beat her.  So, whichever is true, she is a liar.  This can be used to impeach her credibility before the jury, who may then not believe anything she has to say. The prosecution may also use their own expert witness, a psychologist or psychiatrist, to testify that the woman does not meet all the diagnostic criteria for depression, or anxiety, or perhaps even PTSD, and she is likely malingering or faking her condition. If the jury believes the prosecution's expert, then the woman will likely be impeached.  So, if the woman is successful in introducing into evidence her claim she was suffering from BWS, it can backfire on her.

    From a clinical and scientific perspective, BWS offers broad interpretations of conduct for which there is no empirical support. As courts begin to apply Daubert styled tests of admissibility that query the scientific basis for BWS testimony, they will discover the serious lack of scientific support.

    There are numerous non-specific signs and symptoms that a clinician favorably biased towards BWS will "see" in the reports of a woman relating a history of battering. Such clinicians are quick to then label the clinical history as causing BWS, and then in turn, the BWS as explaining the woman's subsequent unlawful conduct. The clinical error, or trap, lies in the fact that these signs and symptoms are commonly seen in a variety of trauma producing conditions, and none are specifically tied to BWS. Further, the patient can simply lie about or exaggerate their abusive history with a host of non-specific signs. Psychological research demonstrates that there is a human tendency to readily accept "easy" explanations, and BWS offers just that. This human tendency leads to inaccurate diagnosis in clinical practice. Clinicians need to be alert to this trap.

     Astute and well trained clinicians know and understand that one of the principle tenants of science is that there must first be reliability (consistency) before there can be validity (accuracy). If clinicians cannot reliably diagnosis BWS, then there can be no validity or accuracy in any given case.  Can a doctor diagnosis BWS reliably and accurately? The simple answer is, no, we cannot.

    Advocates for battered women with a personal or social agenda should begin in the near future to doubt the legal value of BWS testimony. Although so elastic that BWS can ostensibly be shaped to fit nearly any legal defense, the syndrome per se has caused certain unintended consequences. In particular, BWS evidence is interpreted by many courts as an indication that battered women suffer from mental illness. Judges may therefore doubt the veracity or accuracy of a defendant who asserts the syndrome. For instance, courts are increasingly ordering women claiming the defense to first undergo psychological evaluations.

    Originally proposed as a theory entirely sympathetic to women who were battered and who killed in order to stop the battering, the syndrome now reinforces some of the most archaic and destructive stereotypes historically attached to women. BWS may ironically represent a step backwards for the women’s movement.

    Lawyers and judges are obliged to become better consumers of science. Too much is at stake for them to fail in this. BWS originally tapped into a reservoir of disenchantment, frustration, and sometimes outrage over epidemic domestic violence. Domestic violence in our country is very real, and according to some reports, it is on the increase despite widespread publicity. Women advocates in the past capitalized upon the battering epidemic and generated widespread favorable sentiments for women. Thereafter, BWS, disguised as good science, accomplished a small revolution in the way battered women cases were seen by courts and the public. Using the cloak of science to avoid the rules of evidence and judicial scrutiny of proffered evidence, advocates of BWS found initial success and favorable publicity. However, today many clinical researchers are speaking out and educating the judiciary and attorneys to the pitfalls and poor scientific foundation for BWS. This essay has this very purpose in mind.

    The sad thing is this: women are still battered in large numbers, BWS per se as a legal defense has not stemmed the tide, and in the process there may have been harm done to the women's movement and to the reputation of the science of psychology, because of the well intended, but poorly grounded, efforts of just a handful of clinicians.

    The BWS syndrome has become a self-styled diagnosis in which the woman's "illness," induced by a battering husband, has become the focus. The creation of a syndrome per se is of little help in stemming the tide of battering and domestic violence. The BWS defense now revolves around the woman's mental deficiency and, paradoxically, her purported helplessness. These outcomes are seen as deleterious to the plight of battered women everywhere.

    BWS advocates claim that battered women remain in the battering relationship because of a phenomenon observed in laboratory animals -- learned helplessness. In experimental conditions, laboratory animals have been arbitrarily punished (electric shock) in a no-escape situation until the animals literally give up all attempts to escape the punishment.  Ultimately, when presented with an opportunity to escape additional punishment, the poor animals lack the ability to initiate or effectuate their own escape. Unfortunately for BWS advocates, this condition of learned helplessness induced in animals, completely fails to explain why suddenly the battered woman, supposedly in a state of learned helplessness, suddenly rises up in rage, fear, and anger and initiates the ultimate effect upon her batterer, she murders him in a violent manner.  To me, this seems much more consistent with the age-old motive for murder -- revenge, and not some scientifically unfounded syndrome.  Additionally, scientists who conducted research in this area of animal behavior did not observe a sudden rousing of rage and aggression at any point in the course of their experiments (all such research is no longer conducted on animals).  Further, and more importantly, there has never been any experiment demonstrating the phenomenon of learned helplessness in human beings. So, the entire argument for learned helplessness in battered women is pure conjecture, without any empirical support, and that is certainly junk science!

    History reveals several examples of well meaning clinicians incorrectly applying scientific research to explaining the clinical suffering observed in their patients. BWS is of course one such example. As a point of comparison, another such syndrome is repressed memory syndrome (RMS). This syndrome alleges that young women who were sexually abused as children by their fathers repress the memory of these traumatic events, they later suffer depression and personality adjustment problems of serious proportions, and other psychological problems as well. Again, this is a very appealing hypothesis to explain why some young women suffer depression, low self-esteem, and are at times suicidal. The major problem with this false hypothesis is that the overwhelming scientific research disputes the basic premise of RMS. Empirical studies clearly demonstrate that traumatic events, such as being repeatedly raped by one’s father, cause such victims to highlight and magnify and dwell on the memories of the sexual abuse. These memories are not completely repressed into the subconscious to suddenly reappear years later, they are remembered and thought about daily, and it is that rumination that leads to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.

    As the syndromes of BWS and RMS clearly demonstrate, clinicians and attorneys must be ever vigilant for "easy" explanations that simply do not stand up to scientific scrutiny.

    As courts begin to realize that BWS lacks a scientific basis, and women advocates realize that their further advocacy of the syndrome is inimical to their cause, BWS as a legal defense should begin to fall into disuse in our courts.

    Finally, as BWS leaves the legal and clinical scene, advocates of battered women, and proponents of good science, should join efforts to discover solutions to the widespread domestic battering that occurs in our country. And, women who kill their husbands should be treated by the courts with the existing laws of evidence and accepted defense strategies that have served us well for so long.

Joe Wheeler Dixon, PhD, JD

    Dr. Dixon is both a psychologist and an attorney. He is currently in private practice in North Carolina, and in the past he has been a professor of psychology and taught law school. His wife, Dr. Kim E. Dixon, is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry on the faculty at the Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC. The doctors recently published a law review article  on Gender Specific Syndromes (including a discussion of BWS), and the admissibility of these gender syndromes under the  Federal Rules of Evidence.  To download, or read on-line, the PDF version of this law review article, click Gender Paper.

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