It hurts my heart to know Gabby Petito, as any victim of partner violence, died brutally, all but definitively at the hands of someone who said he loved her. Many victims are not YouTube sensations like Petito and get far less media attention, as do many missing women of color. But in this case, the news coverage has intrigued many to solve the unfolding story, while confounding many others.
It started as the case of the missing young woman. Then the case of the running man, Brian Laundrie, suggesting foul play on his part. Then police bodycam footage surfaced, clips of which suggested it could have been foul play on the part of a hysterical woman. Perhaps in the days following she disappeared due to an accident after her demure boyfriend couldn’t safely stave off her mentally unstable attacks—in some mysterious incident gone wrong that caused him to plead the Fifth via his lawyer.
Now we know more. We know Petito is a victim of homicide and likely longsuffering abuse at the hands of Laundrie. Facts are surfacing that he was seen hitting Petito before the now-infamous police incident in Moab, Utah, the police report for which mentioned no wrongdoing on his part.
And now the world wonders, what went wrong? How could this tragedy have been avoided? One hopes in this time digesting a highly publicized story of abuse, we as a culture can look closer and learn more about the dangerous, ugly, and well-disguised realities of abuse in the lives of those around us, because it is humbling. It is humbling to acknowledge how something so terrible could happen to a capable and smart girl such as Gabrielle Petito. And it is humbling to acknowledge how someone as cunning as an abuser could fool many of us, as it apparently did for those who wrote the police report in Moab, and for countless others who read the initial news reports based on it.
Abuse survivors can see through lies in the Moab police report
Not long after Petito’s death was ruled a homicide, I spoke with a survivor of domestic violence and occasional writer at Verily, who experienced violence in her twenties by her then-husband, including an incident followed by a police visit that was written up in a police report. She shared with me her take on the Moab report, as well as concerns about sexist biases that can cloud others’ ability to see signs of violence against women, even when it’s right in front of them.
Consider these facts. The 911 dispatch call that immediately preceded the police pulling over Petito and Laundrie in Moab was made by a bystander who stated he witnessed Laundrie “slap” and “hit” Petito multiple times. Also that Laundrie forcibly took her keys and tried to lock Petito out of her own car and drive away from her, which would leave her stranded states away from where she was coming or going. (She succeeded in getting in the car while he was trying to drive away.) Then Laundrie sped three times the speed limit, swerved the vehicle, and hit a curb before being pulled over by police. All of these facts would indicate that Laundrie was acting dangerously and erratically.
Despite all these facts, however, the police who interviewed both parties after this incident wrote up a police report that described Petito as the suspect and Laundrie as the victim. All because somewhere along the way, Petito slapped and scratched him. Never mind that it might have been in self-defense from his attacks. Meanwhile, Laundrie was recorded in the police report as having done nothing wrong, and anything he appeared to do wrong—grab her face, take her keys, attempt to drive away in her vehicle leaving her behind, speed and swerve the vehicle—all of it was spun as understandable reactions in the face of a hysterical woman. In other words, it was all her fault.
As anyone familiar with abuse knows, abusers don’t accept blame for wrongdoing; they might pretend to show remorse if they think it will be advantageous for them, but they ultimately blame their victims for their violence. They’ll paint a picture that either their victim can’t be trusted, or their victim deserved it—both perspectives that excuse abusers of any wrongdoing. What’s very sad about this entire story is that the police, perhaps unawares, went along with, and perpetuated this abusive narrative in their report. She was listed as the only suspect after the incident. It was all her fault.
Covering up abuse is what many domestic violence victims do
As the abuse survivor I spoke with, who goes by Julia Hawthorne (not her real name), explained to me by phone, “It’s very upsetting. [The police] very clearly already wrote her off as mentally unstable, and they were confirming and agreeing with his statement of events without challenge, agreeing with what he said even though his justification of events didn’t sound credible.”
When police check out a scene, there’s a lot of information to consider—demonstrated evidence as well as people’s stated accounts. When it comes to cases of domestic violence (DV), Hawthorne says, extra effort needs to be taken to ensure that people’s stated accounts match up to evidence, as well as to other witness accounts. When they don’t line up, one has to look deeper to see if they might be taking an untrustworthy account at face value. When it comes to domestic violence, the perpetrator is domestic—they’re in the "home," and they’re either literally family or like family. If a family member stole your property and the police asked you about it, and you covered it up, it’s not because they didn’t steal it; but it may be because you're trying to shield them from consequences out of some (likely misplaced) loyalty.
Petito told police that Laundrie didn’t hit her, according to the police report, but, Hawthorne says, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Petito also “made all range of excuses to cover up any wrongdoing on his part. She admitted to scratching his face. And they acted like there’s nothing else to look into. It is ridiculous to expect a domestic violence victim to tell the whole story completely honestly without looking critically at other evidence.”
When DV victims aren’t as reliable as other sources
Hawthorne says this is familiar to her because she too had a violent incident misreported in a police report:
[My abuser] called 911 because I was unconscious and said he pushed me down the stairs. I have the 911 dispatch transcription. During the police interview, the EMCs recorded that it was a DV assault on their report. Even in the police interview, [my abuser] told the police that, yes, he pushed me down the stairs. But that’s not the final wording in the police report. What the police put on the report is that I fell down the stairs. Do you know why they put that? Because I said he didn’t push me.
Now years later, divorced, separated from the abuser, and seeing things more clearly, Hawthorne says she thinks “it is an incredibly horrifying manipulation of the letter of the law that [the police] ignored all the other evidence. My abuser admitted it twice. The EMCs noted it. But [in the final police report] they took my severely concussed, traumatized, and victimized word that he didn’t do it and put that on record.”
If there are signs of abuse, as there were in Hawthorne’s and Petito’s 911 call transcripts, but the potential victims of abuse try to minimize or cover it up, authorities should be trained to see this as evidence of abuse-victim behavior and investigate more closely, instead of taking such statements at face value. When it comes to potential victims of partner violence, Hawthorne says, authorities can approach the situation realizing the victim is not always going to give you the correct information—not because he or she likes being abused, but because an accurate report is not their priority. "Their priority is surviving," she says. "The police will leave the scene at some point, and their partner is still there, in their life. So they focus on surviving. And DV advocates know that is normal. [From the perspective of a DV victim,] it’s more important to not anger the person you live with."
When speaking with potential DV victims, Hawthorne says,
Look for minimizing language. Gabby accepted the blame for everything. She even admitted to things she wasn’t sure about, such as potentially hitting [Laundrie] when trying to tell him the police were trying to pull him over. She said she has OCD, was sorry, and so on—abusers would not say these things. There are cases of course where the woman is abusive—absolutely! But that is not how an abusive woman would behave.
Abusers typically do not accept blame; they redirect it.
Could the Moab police have done any better?
“One of my friends asked me what the police could have done better,” Hawthorne told me. “And I don’t know the answer to that because I don’t know how one develops police protocol. The important part is asking police to take violence against women seriously. These police already were connected with a DV shelter, but they managed to use it to make her experience worse,” concluding that Laundrie was the victim due to scratch marks. "That doesn’t mean that Gabby would still be alive today," if they had realized Petito was a victim. "The worst-case scenario may have happened anyway; there’s no way to tell," she says. Even after domestic violence is identified and the parties separated, a victim might still return to their abuser if they’ve been conditioned over time to attach their self-worth to a connection with that person.
But having police reinforce a narrative that protects the abuser can be very damaging for abuse victims. "I can’t begin to tell you how depressed I was after my incident and police visit," Hawthorne says. "I felt so helpless. People say ‘oh if something bad happens to you, just call the police," but, Hawthorne says, abuse victims don't always see things clearly, and police don't always notice the discrepancy between their account and the facts.
As for Gabby, Hawthorne says, "I can’t even imagine what kind of mental state Gabby was in. It is so devastating to have the police view [abuse] as your own fault. We can’t get anywhere if we don’t accept that violence against women is a huge problem that needs to be better understood.”
An opportunity to learn from
New York Times bestselling novelist Julie Perkins Cantrell, posted on her Facebook page a now highly-shared list of lessons to learn from Gabby and Brian. Many of them are insightful points, such as that "A typical abuser would be skilled at convincing people that he’s innocent, while in fact he’s been acting very differently behind closed doors, pushing his target to this point intentionally and feeding on her emotional break." And that, "as a result, some people will buy into that false narrative. Even the target can be brainwashed to doubt her own truth. Which may be one reason we see Petito making many excuses for Laundrie’s behavior and taking the blame for everything." But Cantrell also spends time praising the police for doing the best they could.
For Hawthorne, statements of praise toward the police is missing an opportunity to scrutinize what we can learn from this. As she later wrote to me:
Stop saying the police did they best they could in that situation. There is a clear split opinion of the police interviews among the people I know. The average person sees the police being polite, friendly, calming, interviewing them separately and concludes they did as well as anyone could do in that situation. For myself and other abuse survivors, it is a field littered with red flags. We see recognizable profiles in Gabby, Brian, and even certain officers. And this is retriggering for survivors to watch a very young woman humiliated, at the end of emotional limit driven there by her partner. A woman is dead, and offering police a trophy of participation while saying ’I bet they feel bad’ is not the right focus.
Instead, this is a rare opportunity to say ’How can we analyze the footage of the interview techniques and the dispatch exchanges to make sure this is less likely to happen again in the future?’ Move past the impulse to make noises of support for the police’s behavior and insist they did the best they possibly could. Because that declares to victims everywhere there is no room for improvement for enforcement agencies handling volatile assaults in process, even in worst-case scenarios. Victims already tend not to involve police, and this is a window explaining to the community why that is. Having an officer tell you it’s your fault is NOT an exceptional circumstance. Saying uncritically that they did a great job slams closed doors of inquiry that desperately need to remain open. Because there are countless women like Gabby in similar circumstances. This is not an exception. It is endemic and the enforcement agencies are failing to hold abusers accountable.
I see her anguished face and feel my own long past emotional turmoil with a sharpness. Her humiliation at being pushed to the edge of her emotional limit by someone she loved. Her taking all the blame and holding herself fully accountable for her actions as well as all of his. And then her fiancé making jokes about her being crazy and the officer uncritically accepting his judgment. An officer definitively saying she was the only abuser in the relationship. And I remember how it felt when it was somehow less painful to imagine I was responsible for the abuse and the assaults than that my partner chose to do this. We are Gabby.
Reading and listening to Hawthorne’s perspective as an abuse survivor this week was incredibly insightful to me in processing the story of Gabby Petito. We have a lot to learn from it, and a long way to go. But a big part of it that keeps hitting me about Gabby is the sad thought that for a whole week I and countless other newsreaders took on face value the police report's portrayal of her as a hysterical woman and didn't look further. How easy it is to be fooled by a skilled manipulator. Gabby Petito was, some police officers were, and numerous online readers were as well. Everyone likes to think they're immune to being fooled, but we're only human. And, Hawthorne's words echo in my head, we are Gabby.