A Q&A with Abigail Wexner and Karen Days

What sparked your passion for this issue?

Abigail Wexner: I knew nothing about the subject, having come from a very fortunate world and a loving family. A friend at Limited Brands introduced me to the topic. Once I started hearing these stories and understanding them… it's impossible to let them go. I really felt compelled once I became aware.

You fully understand it's an issue that's long been uncomfortable, even taboo. What message do you hope you're sending to the community?

AW: It is not only your right but your moral obligation to do something about it.

What do you find most shocking?

AW: We used to say one in five women--now it's one in four women in this country will experience some type of abuse. But today what grabs me even more is the younger women. It could be something as early as a boyfriend who is controlling or negative or possessive, but those are the seeds.

Karen Days: They say they feel flattered. Their boyfriends only want them to talk to them; they don't want them to go to the mall with anybody else. I would just love to know what could be done to help them understand these are the signs, and the signs are not flattering.

One misconception is that domestic violence affects only a certain demographic. That's not true. Victims are sometimes successful businesswomen and suburban doctors' wives.

KD: You won't see those individuals on the six o'clock news, but they're there. They're there more than we realize.

And abuse is obviously not just physical.

AW: Abuse takes all kinds of forms. It can be physical, but it can also be absolutely controlling.

KD: Perpetrators will go out at night and check the odometers. They know exactly how many miles it takes (the woman) to get to work.

Do a lot of women who suffer mental or emotional abuse still not realize that's abuse?

KD: That's one reason we've stopped showing commercials with a black eye. It's provocative to show a black eye and to show a busted lip. But it gives them an out--"That's not me." And it gives the perpetrator an out as well. We had to learn early on not to use those pictures. Most women who are being emotionally abused only realize it when their child mimics it.

You have seen many instances in which children perceive violence as normal because they are used to it. One of your goals is to intervene before those children are accustomed and unfazed.

KD: Unless there's healthy, consistent intervention, they never know that's not normal. We need to be able to help the kids in the violent homes know that's not normal.

That's important not only for them, but for future generations. Sixty five percent of violent men in prison come from violent homes, right?

KD: That's staggering. We know that correlation is there. What can we do to stop it? It's amazing to me the number of men who say, "OK--you have to know what happened to me as a child."

What do you feel lawmakers can do to help solve the problem?

KD: The biggest thing is to hold batterers accountable.

If a woman suspects that a friend is being abused, you say the best question to ask is, "Do you feel safe at home?"

AW: Sometimes it just takes that one question to know there are people on the outside who care.

You note, though, that it's important not to assign blame. For example, one should never ask, "What do you think you did to make him do this?"

KD: If you sound as if you're blaming the person, most likely, they won't come forward again. There are ways to ask. But the biggest thing is not to blame.

Mrs. Wexner, you have children who are 17, 16, 15 and 13. Do you talk with them about domestic violence?

AW: I do. I know this happens everywhere. It's probably happening in the homes of some of their friends and they might not even know it.

What do you tell them?

AW: I think with the boys it's always in terms of, "Do you understand what's appropriate and how you speak to girls differently? Do you understand what's inappropriate?" (We tell them), "Treat girls with basic respect. If you're going to prom, you don't just meet the girl at the prom, you go to her home and pick her up." For the girls, (I tell them) "It's never OK for someone to not treat you with absolute respect." I give them hypotheticals--"If a boy says, 'I really like you, I want to go out with you, but I don't want you to see your friends anymore…' "

Many organizations make goals to solve problems within two or three years. You actually promise the opposite--that this will take generations to fix.

AW: The work's just not nearly far enough along. We're constantly thinking of how to do things better.

Making Progress

A snapshot of Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence achievements

The Center for Child & Family Advocacy

Created by The Coalition and Nationwide Children's Hospital, the center has helped more than 13,500 children and families

Project S.A.F.E.

More than 10,700 pregnant women have been screened for abuse, and more than 230 have been referred for assistance

Capital Family Advocacy Clinic

The Coalition funds two initiatives at Capital University Law School that have provided free or reduced-cost legal help for nearly 9,000 cases involving domestic violence or child custody matters

Violence Screening

More than 5,300 hospital emergency room staffers have been trained to screen for abuse

Violence Prevention in Schools

The Coalition and Columbus City Schools partnered to respond to the connection between violence at home and a child's inability to learn, prompting school staff to refer nearly 1,200 students to social workers for help