As a threat advisor by profession, Spencer Coursen’s job is to assess the level of danger individuals are in when it appears someone is out to get them. He’s helped protect myriad celebrities—their stalkers often strangers who think they’ve formed some connection with this famous person. Coursen says one stalker was under the impression he was receiving secret messages from a celebrity through the star’s TV appearances. Another was a limo driver who felt he shared more than just a ride home with his famous passenger. These otherwise ordinary-people-turned-would-be-assailants might sound like loose cannons, but in Coursen’s opinion, another group is a far greater threat—abusers.
“In intimate partner violence, the victim and abuser know each other. With that level of intimacy, the abuser knows the pressure points, the ways to manipulate [the victim] emotionally, and the triggers that set them off.” And, adds Coursen, in most cases, the abuser has already expressed and displayed violence, and is ready to escalate it. And the most common time to do so is when the survivor decides to leave.
When a public figure is attacked, it most often occurs at the end of an event, says Coursen, citing the assassination attempt of President Reagan as he was headed to his car after a Washington, D.C., speaking engagement in 1981 as one example.
“Attackers have this ideation that they can do something, then actually breach all these security measures and their window of opportunity gets smaller and smaller. At the end is almost when they have to attack because of the time constraints. They’re losing control. That’s an interesting parallel to abusers,” says Coursen.
“The abuser needs to escalate to such a higher level to reclaim the control, and that’s where you see the greatest levels of homicide.”
Beyond helping to protect public figures and other celebrities, Coursen lends his time to Becky’s Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based domestic violence advocacy and prevention organization, as a security consultant. He advises on strategies that survivors who contact the group can use when they’re ready to leave their abuser. The only condition, says Coursen, is that they must be ready to leave permanently.
“If I get brought in, losing is not an option.” In other words, says Coursen, the survivor can’t be leaving to try and get the abuser’s attention, in hopes that he or she might be apologetic and end their behavior. “We are putting this relationship in the past,” he explains, which he also knows is often easier said than done.
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Becky’s Fund executive director Becky Lee agrees. “The abuse will be so much worse if she has to go back.” She explains, “Once someone leaves, they need to think about leaving permanently because typically the abuser will be more manipulative [and will] try to make things more unbearable for the victim.”
A significant barrier to these survivors leaving is the avoidance of change, says Coursen. “So many of these victims have been restricted from financial and social independence. We tell them their future is brighter than their present darkness. They deserve better.”
Before You Go
Survivors should always consider a safety plan before leaving their abuser. Read more tips on customizing your safety plan to fit your unique situation here. Safety planning is important for all survivors, regardless of what type of abuse is occurring.
In addition to those tips, Coursen and Becky’s Fund executive director Becky Lee add that the following four points are instrumental in helping to prevent a lethal outcome before a survivor walks out the door:
- Only you, the survivor know when the best time is to leave. “A lot of the struggle [of survivors] comes from this public perception that everyone else knows best,” says Lee. While others in a survivor’s support circle may pointedly ask, “Why don’t you leave now?” a survivor should always trust his or her gut instinct when it comes to timing.
- Find an advocate you can trust. Both Lee and Coursen agree that survivors should not attempt to leave on their own. Call a domestic violence hotline or a shelter in your area and talk options. Even if you’re not ready to go, says Lee, you can begin making a plan for someday.
- Plan for a permanent change. When you’re safety planning, you want to make sure you covertly assemble all the essential items you’ll need in order to never have to return to your abuser again, lowering your risk of being harmed or killed. This can include everything from important paperwork to necessary medications. A complete list can be found here. If you’re afraid packing all of these items at once will arouse suspicion in your abuser, Coursen recommends taking one or two items with you at a time to work or to a trusted friend or family member’s house. You could hide them in your purse, a diaper bag or your lunch.
- Create emergency words or signals. This could be a secret code word or message that you send to friends or family members when you’re in danger and need help, but don’t want to cause your abuser to notice. A signal could be something like leaving the curtain up in the front window of your house, which signals to a neighbor in the know to call police.
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