In his defensive half-apology yesterday, Tiger Woods went out of his way to turn his wife, Elin Nordegren, into the heroine of his latest adventure. The "rumors" that she scratched up his face and smashed the rear window of his Escalade were "malicious" and "false," he said. In fact, she "acted courageously when she saw I was hurt." Should we believe him?
News reports have mentioned the big, obvious reason why Woods would want to erase the image of his wife in a jealous rage wielding a golf club. His endorsement deals, reportedly worth billions, depend on his reputation as a "boring" guy, as he likes to call himself, a family man with a wife and two kids and no bouncy, boozy mistress or other tabloid bait in his life. But there is another less obvious reason for Woods to lie (if that's what he's doing): Because of Florida's domestic-violence laws, admitting to the police that Nordegren in any way harmed him would virtually guarantee that the glamorous Elin would be led out of their mansion in handcuffs, even if he protested it.
In 1991, Florida became one of many states to set up a pro-arrest policy in domestic-violence cases. For years, feminist advocates had complained that police treated domestic-violence cases as private family matters and assumed the abused spouse would never follow through and press charges. Beginning in the 1990s, laws began virtually to force the police to take action. The new statutes direct police to figure out who was the "primary aggressor" in a domestic dispute. They make a call based on a checklist (bruises, disparity of physical size), and then they make an arrest. Howls of protest from the abused spouse are to be ignored: "The decision to arrest and charge shall not require the consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties," the Florida law reads.
This all seemed very clear and firm, except that an unexpected problem arose. Police could not always tell who the primary aggressor was. Sometimes they just arrested both parties; sometimes they arrested one party based on minor evidence of violence. Liza Mundy's great Washington Post magazine story from 1997, on a comparable domestic-violence law in Virginia, opens with a scene of a cop called to the scene of a dispute between a husband and wife. The officer contemplates a tear in a man's breast pocket and decides it counts as "probable cause"—the new standard—for mandatory arrest of the wife. "Oh God. Oh God," the man says. "Can I go on record that I don't want to press charges right now?" But it's too late. His wife is in handcuffs, on her way to the back of the squad car. Now, women are arrested in about 20 percent of domestic-violence cases. As such scenarios played out across the country, the updated domestic-violence laws accidentally created a new mythical woman: the Female Abuser. Never mind that the sociological research does not really support her existence in any great numbers.
A close legal reading of Woods' statement suggests that he desperately does not want his wife to fall into this category. "He is going out of his way to protect her from any concern that she's committed a crime," says Kimberly Tatum, a professor and domestic-violence expert at the University of West Florida. In Woods' narrative, the car accident, not Nordegren, caused his injuries. She used the golf club to get him out of the car after he'd crashed. "She was the first person to help me," he said. "Any other assertion is absolutely false." (He also then says that "this situation is my fault" and that he won't do it again, although it's unclear what, exactly, he's taking the blame for in this version. It's his fault he crashed his car? His fault he didn't rescue himself?) So far, Woods has refused to talk to the police. (In some cases, police charge alleged victims with failure to cooperate, particularly in cases where the victim recants a statement. But this is very rare.)