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Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling

By Janice Haaken

New York, NY: Routledge, 2010. 196 pp.

ISBN 978-0-415-56342-0 $26.95

Reviewed by Paul T. P. Wong

The title Hard Knocks: Domestic Violence and the Psychology of Storytelling really grabs my attention. Surviving hard knocks has been a way of life and an area of expertise for me. Besides the fact that I am a justice fighter, my own research and practice have involved domestic violence and story telling. Thus, I wear three hats in reviewing this book: advocate, clinical psychologist, and positive psychology researcher.

Much of the book is devoted to resolving tensions within the antiviolence movement. The four areas of tension where “signs of battle fatigue have been most acute” (p. i) are (a) conflict between feminist advocacy and the state; (b) conflict between domestic violence issues and larger antiviolence political agenda; (c) the debate on gender, race, class, and other dimensions of power; and (d) the debate over various forms of female aggression.

The book is based on a large research project extending over a period of eight years. The author’s research primarily consisted of interviewing feminist advocates in different geographical regions, as well as reviewing novels, films, and domestic violence literature. She wants to show how cultural context shapes stories about domestic violence. She also attempts to rethink the role of psychology of storytelling. Haaken clearly states that “this book enlists a long tradition of psychoanalytic feminist thought to advance a set of political aims” (p. 2). In reading through this book, I found myself struggling with this question: Is there a danger in being too political as be a good research scientist and a caring clinician?

Gender Differences in Aggression

Domestic violence is an umbrella term used to encompass a wide range of female grievances as well as abuse of children. What is noteworthy is that this widely accepted definition excludes the possibility that domestic violence may be perpetrated by women against men. In a national study on physical violence in American families, Straus and Gelles (1990) concluded that women are as likely as men to initiate aggression, including the use of physical force, in domestic relationships. Most of these acts of aggression are not in the form of self-defense. Frieze (2000) pointed out that the high levels of female violence in marriage and dating are supported by meta-analysis.

Feminist researchers have also been wrestling with the problem of aggression in lesbian relationships. Considerable space of the book is devoted to reconciling this phenomenon with feminist ideology. It is interesting to note that some feminist scholars blame patriarchal society: “Violence in lesbian relationships is often rationalized as mimicking heterosexual domination” (p. 69).

Other feminist researchers attribute domestic violence within a lesbian relationship to (a) power dominance of the stronger partner and (b) the frustration due to disappointment in the fantasy of romantic fulfillment. Logically, such analysis should be applicable to violence in heterosexual relationships.

The amount of energy devoted to exonerating women for initiating violence suggests that uncritical embrace of feminist assumptions and principles can hinder researchers from recognizing the obvious—both men and women have their bright and dark sides.

Gender and Other Causes of Domestic Violence

Within the feminist movement, racial issues and poverty have been cited by ethnic minority groups as equally, if not more, important than gender issues. Haaken seems to have moved toward global/international feminism by recognizing the legitimacy of ethnicity and class as sources of power differentials and domestic violence, but she is less interested in the multiple truths that come from nonfeminist psychological research and theories.

Nicolson (2010) was more critical of radical feminism’s position that men are wholly to blame for domestic abuse, which is caused by gender–power relationships in a patriarchal society. She argued that “to neglect the emotions, experiences, and psychological explanations for domestic violence is to fail those who suffer and thwart attempts to prevent future abuse” (Publisher’s description). I would go even further to say that we need to pay more attention to the more current empirical research on abuse in intimate relationships as well as to the large issue of violence and aggression in society.

Feminist Advocacy vs. the State

Here is the irony: The most visible success of the feminist movement is its ability to enlist government interventions on behalf of women. Feminist advocates have gained considerable power and control with support from the state. However, the feminist movement shares varying degrees of ambivalence toward yielding control to government agencies of a patriarchal society. Advocates want government funding without compromising their own political power.

This tension within the feminist movement is resolved by forging feminist identity “around some of the simpler elements of early radical feminist positions, particularly the notion that women are uniformly the victims in situations of family violence” (p. 44). One wonders whether clinging to radical feminist positions may hinder concerted efforts from government agencies, research institutions, and clinical communities to resolve the problem of domestic violence.

Psychology of Storytelling in Domestic Violence

According to the product description, Hard Knocks “presents a radical rereading of the contribution of psychology to feminist intervention and activism.” But the book uses feminist psychoanalytical concepts to expand feminist theory. The new cultural–historical angle simply reinterprets woman battering as a form of identification with the aggression and violence committed by colonizers.

Haaken acknowledges that “any project of social change requires some understanding of psychology” (p. 6), but throughout the book, the role of psychology in the domestic violence field is questioned and criticized on the basis of ideological and political considerations rather than that of the reality of women’s lives or empirical studies.

She does tone down the antipsychology rhetoric of radical feminism, but she falls short of recognizing the important contributions of psychology. On the one hand, Haaken recognizes that science and feminism share the same common cause in searching for understanding and solution to the problem of human suffering. On the other hand, she shares feminist critics’ mistrust of traditional sources of authority and points out that “scientists are active protagonists in the stories they tell, shaping the very findings that they produce” (p. 53), thus negating the value of scientific research.

If we approach psychology purely through the feminist lens, then we can never discover any new findings beyond what is dictated by feminist theory. As a psychologist, I would like to see a more inclusive, broader approach to domestic violence. A proper understanding of the psychology of domestic violence needs to go beyond feminist theory to incorporate other theoretical positions and all the available research findings.

“What is a typical story of how domestic violence happens?” (p. 84). Haaken identifies three genres: stories of bondage, stories of deliverance, and stories of struggle and reparation. These stories are based on interviews with advocates and individual victims of abuse, as well as a review of selective films and fictions. I don’t see how her treatment of the stories contributes to the nonfeminist psychology of storytelling.

Postmodern feminism prefers local stories to metastories because the former empowers people whereas the latter imposes values and realities on individuals. From the perspective of a research psychologist, local stories use richer and more complex pictures of domestic violence. For example, Takano’s (2006) phenomenological research of Japanese women provides a much more complex picture of domestic violence than what is indicated by the three categories.

Although Haaken anticipates more variegated stories, still she adopts the top-down approach of looking at domestic violence from the grand theories of psychoanalysis and feminism. The three genres are based on feminist views of domestic violence, thus hindering the discovery of fully understanding the experiences of violence and of the contributing factors in different historical and cultural contexts.

One recurrent theme is the denegation of traditional marriage and the nuclear family while ignoring the abundant literature that shows that children do best when raised in an intact nuclear family (Parke, 2003) and that married couples enjoy greater happiness and less stress than unmarried people (Coombs, 1991). Haaken and other feminist researchers need to answer this question: If marriage and the nuclear family are the main source of oppression and violence against women and children, what would be the ideal family structure? What would be a better alternative to marriage in terms of promoting women’s well-being and reducing violence?

Haaken points out the absence of a developed feminist psychology and minimizes the importance of personal healing, overcoming trauma, and self-affirmation. Instead, she chooses to focus on “the aggressive currents in women’s lives and the broad range of experiences women have with violence” (p. 75). I find that the earlier feminist emphasis on moving on and personal triumph is more inspiring and helpful than is an obsession with negativity in the collective and personal histories of women.

Haaken needs to examine various therapeutic approaches to domestic violence beyond feminist psychoanalytical cultural theory. Attachment theory, cognitive behavioral theory, and family systems theories are all helpful. My own meaning-centered approach has also been applied to helping abuse victims (Wong & McDonald, 2002).

The Promise of a Positive Feminism

The positive psychology of focusing on what is right with both men and women and on scientific research may be more promising in the enhancement of equal rights and harmonious relationships between men and women. My vision of a positive feminism is to shift away from the dogmas of orthodox radical feminism of antimen, antistate, and antipatriarchy toward promoting equality, cooperation, justice, and compassion.

Haaken states that “feminism requires connecting with the humanity in men as well as resisting bad treatment” (p. 73). This seems to be a reasonable position. However, feminism has been short on connecting with men but long on resisting them. Haaken’s enlarged vision of feminist theory is still based on the dark side of the human condition—men as violent predators and women as suffering victims. Her analysis is incomplete because it doesn’t recognize the positive of the human condition, such as the human tendency toward empathy, compassion, and connectedness.


The book is a rich and authoritative resource about both the history and current status of the feminist antiviolence movement. It will be a good textbook in women’s studies programs. But Haaken fails to recognize the progress in the psychology of storytelling and the vital role of psychology in combating abuse. On the one hand, she is critical of radical feminists. On the other hand, she seems to agree with their antipsychology sentiments. As a result, her nuanced approach makes one wonder where she stands with regard to psychology.

“My aim here has been to capture some of the passion of the anti-violence movement and to deepen our collective past” (p. 172), Haaken reiterates. Although she anticipates more varied stories from new generations of feminists, she does not offer a more hopeful vision for women and humanity.

I propose that the positive feminist perspective will open up new avenues of understanding and more practical solutions of domestic violence through the collaborative efforts of men and women, researchers and clinicians, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. This positive vision will also redirect women’s energy toward pursuing their dreams and making life better for all.


  1. Coombs, R. H. (1991). Marital status and personal well-being: A literature review. Family Relations: Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 40, 97–102.
  2. Frieze, I. H. (2000). Violence in close relationships—Development of a research area: Comment on Archer (2000). Psychological Bulletin, 126, 681–684. http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1037/0033-2909.126.5.681
  3. Nicolson, P. (2010). Domestic violence and psychology: A critical perspective. New York, NY: Routledge.
  4. Parke, M. (2003). Are married parents really better for children? What research says about the effects of family structure on child well-being. CLASP. Retrieved from http://www.clasp.org/admin/site/publications_states/files/0086.pdf
  5. Straus, M. A., & Gelles, R. J. (Eds.). (1990). Physical violence in American families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
  6. Takano, Y. (2006). Coping with domestic violence by Japanese Canadian women. In P. T. P. Wong & L. C. J. Wong (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural perspectives on stress and coping (pp. 319–360). New York, NY: Springer.
  7. Wong, P. T. P., & McDonald, M. (2002). Tragic optimism and personal meaning in counselling victims of abuse. Pastoral Sciences, 20, 231–249.


Published as Wong, P. T. P. (2011). From the antiviolence movement to a positive feminism [Review of the book Hard Knocks]. PsycCRITIQUES, 56(4). doi:10.1037/a0022273