Why Would Someone Recant Abuse Allegations?

Yesterday, Andrew Puzder announced he's withdrawing his nomination to lead the Labor Department after allegations that he abused his ex-wife resurfaced, according to the New York Times. In 1990, Puzder's ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, went on The Oprah Winfrey Show in disguise and under an assumed name to talk about her experience with her physically abusive partner, according to Politico. Eight months after the Oprah appearance, she recanted her allegations, apparently to settle a child custody dispute, according to court documents obtained by Politico. Senators who were set to appear at Puzder's confirmation hearing were shown this video in private, the New York Times reports.

Without making any assumptions about Puzder and Fierstein's relationship, these events bring up an important and intricate question about domestic violence: Why would a domestic abuse survivor take back their allegations? Unfortunately, that question is as complex as asking why someone would be abusive in the first place.

Recanting allegations happens more often than you'd think, because, at its core, abuse is a tricky tango of power and control, says Bryan Pacheco, a spokesperson for Safe Horizon, a domestic abuse survivor assistance organization. "One of the reasons why people would recant is to regain control in the relationship," he says. Coming forward as a survivor unfortunately opens the door for people — in your immediate life and in the media — to offer up their opinions, good and bad, he says. "Recanting is a way to no longer invite people to comment; you're shutting people off from giving you their opinion, and taking back the perception of control," he says.

For people already in the public eye, there can be an even stronger desire to keep people out of it, Pacheco says. "If the abuser is loved or respected in the community, it can cause doubt and self-blame for the survivor," he says. Taking the abuser's power into consideration, a survivor might feel like nobody in their community will believe them.

Logistics are also a huge motivator for people to recant, especially if there are children involved who need to be protected, he says: "Even if the child didn't say something [about the abuse], there can be negative impacts, so people believe it's safer to say that something never happened."

The thought of taking back allegations of abuse might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but it's important to remember that it's up to the abuse survivor to decide which steps of action to take, Pacheco says. "Everyone has their own coping mechanism and it leads with safety, and figuring out what feels like a safe choice for you," he says. In the Oprah video, Fierstein mentions that her husband threatened her when she came forward initially about the abuse. Threats and intimidation are huge resources that allow abusers to take advantage of someone, and they're used to keep the person being abused from coming forward.

If it's someone you know, the best thing you can do is to let the person know that you're there for them, when and if they decide to speak out again, without pushing them to do anything. Everyone is different, and if someone decides to seek counseling, experts will help create a safety plan that's tailored to that person's needs and status. "We [Safe Horizon] don't persuade people to do anything," he says. "But we help understand their safety risks and options so they can make the best choice for themselves."

Regardless of your feelings about Puzder or Fierstein, we should approach cases in the public eye with the same sort of respect and neutral understanding that we would in our personal life. "You can't blame someone for not coming forward or recanting their claims," Pacheco says. "Survivors have to think about their immediate safety, and if that's to recant, we have to react with understanding and support, because we don't know their unique situation."
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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