The O.J. Simpson case forced domestic violence into the spotlight, boosting a movement


PHILADELPHIA — Thirty years ago, as women’s rights advocates worked to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, domestic violence was still something of a hushed topic.

Then Nicole Brown Simpson’s death forced it into the spotlight. Americans riveted by the murder investigation of superstar ex-husband O.J. Simpson, who died Wednesday at 76, heard startling and painful details of the abuse she said she suffered at his hands.

“We must have had 20 media trucks lined up on Hollywood Boulevard to talk to us,” said Patti Giggans, executive director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Peace Over Violence, who said interest in the issue exploded overnight.

“Because it was O.J. — he’s famous, an athlete, handsome, everybody loved O.J. — we started to have conversations about what goes on in the mind of a batterer,” Giggans said. “We were able to maintain that conversation throughout that two-year period (of the case). I think it changed the movement.”

Given that victims — then and now — often hide their abuse, many people assumed it happened only to poor or marginalized women. But then they saw that neither Nicole Simpson’s privilege nor her earlier calls to police had insulated her.

“She was beautiful, she was white, she was famous, she was wealthy. So, there was this sense that if it could happen to her, it could happen to anybody,” said Rachel Louise Snyder, an American University professor who explored the issue in her 2019 book, “No Visible Bruises.”

In an undated letter that surfaced after her death, Nicole Simpson revealed that her NFL star-turned-celebrity husband gave her “disgusted” looks when she gained weight in her first pregnancy in 1988 and “beat the holy hell” out of her the following year, although the couple told an X-ray lab she had fallen off a bike.

In October 1993, a year after they divorced, she called 911 when Simpson showed up at her home “ranting and raving.”

“He’s in a white Bronco, but first of all he broke the back door down to get in,” she said. “He’s O.J. Simpson. I think you know his record.”

Eight months later, she and friend Ron Goldman — who had stopped by to return eyeglasses left at a restaurant that night — were fatally stabbed outside her Brentwood home. Her two young children with Simpson were inside. She was 35, Goldman just 25.

“This was absolutely a watershed case,” said Snyder, who said their June 12, 1994, deaths helped galvanize support for the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress passed that fall. “It spurred a national conversation, a national reckoning.”

Simpson was acquitted of the double-murder at the sensational trial the next year, but a different jury found him liable for their deaths in a 1997 civil trial. Simpson was ordered to pay $33.5 million to the two families, money they tried mostly in vain to collect.

In the years since, the Violence Against Women Act has funded more than $9 billion in grants to combat domestic violence, from police training to social services to the 1996 launch of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The hotline received 75,000 calls that first year. Last year, it handled more than 400,000 calls, texts and chat messages.

Hotline officials, in a statement in response to Simpson’s death, said the numbers reflect “the skyrocketing need among survivors for compassionate and non-judgmental advocacy as well as the pervasiveness of domestic violence in the U.S.”

Over time, advocates have focused on the warning signs that someone’s life could be in danger. Victims are most vulnerable when they try to get help or end the relationship, and in the year or so afterward. (The Simpson divorce was finalized in late 1992.) Any attempt at strangling the victim, or putting hands on their neck, may be a final escalation before the situation turns deadly. And the presence of a gun greatly increases the risk of being killed.

Yet understanding the cycle of violence isn’t always enough to thwart it. As news of Simpson’s death broke Thursday, advocates near Philadelphia were reeling from the fatal stabbing of a 57-year-old woman. She had pursued charges and gotten a restraining order last month after her estranged husband allegedly assaulted her and tried to strangle her. Police believe he kicked in a window air conditioner to break into her home early Wednesday.

“This case for advocates is excruciating,” said Stacy Dougherty, deputy director of the local nonprofit Laurel House, which provides housing and victim services in Montgomery County.

“When you have someone who does everything that she’s supposed to do — she calls the police, she gets the protection order, she changes her locks, she reaches out for help, she does all of those things. And this still happens.”

The housing crisis, she said, has made it even more difficult for victims to leave abusers, as does navigating the decision if they have children and fear sharing custody.

“There’s so many barriers that victims of domestic violence encounter when trying to leave,” Dougherty said.

And yet, Giggans said, the Simpson case “gave us opportunities to teach about the cycle of violence, the dynamics of unhealthy relationships, what does power and control mean.”

“And what do women deserve,” she added.

She worries that cuts on the horizon if federal funding wanes could hamper her group’s work, which includes not only direct services for victims and abusers, but school programs on healthy relationships.

“That came out in a big way around the O.J. time, because college students, high school students — everybody looked up to O.J., right?

“It was a stunning revelation that he was involved in this,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t want to believe he did it, to this day.”


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