By Barbara Sandler
July 02, 2001 12:00 PM

Hard at work on her Ph.D. in clinical social work at Chicago’s Loyola University in the 1990s, Susan Weitzman considered herself a gifted diagnostician—until one patient made her wonder. Weitzman had been counseling a woman she calls Julia, the well-off, highly educated wife of a prominent sociologist. Months into therapy that was concentrating on depression and marital communication, Julia suddenly confessed that she was a battered woman. “I was horrified that I’d never bothered to ask this particular patient if domestic abuse was going on in her life,” says Weitzman, 43, who has her own practice in downtown Chicago. “The bias was in me—and the culture as a whole—that domestic violence doesn’t happen to middle-and upper-middle-class women.”

To help end that stereotype, Weitzman, who has treated hundreds of battered women, has written Not to People Like Us, which documents some of those cases. The author, who divides her time between a Chicago condominium and a Connecticut home with psychologist husband Richard Gold-wasser, 56, and their miniature poodle Shelby, spoke with correspondent Barbara Sandler about what she calls “upscale violence.

What is upscale violence?

It’s abuse that occurs against women, many of whom are successful in their own right, hold at least a bachelor’s degree and live in households in which the combined income is $100,000 or more.

Is it widespread?

There’s a need for more research, but if my practice and research reflect anything, it’s that upscale abuse is out there in huge numbers. In my practice, more than 60 percent of the women I see have suffered or are now suffering upscale spousal abuse.

How do these women differ from their poorer counterparts?

They’ve never been exposed to abuse, so they’re left bewildered. They think the husband—whom they idealize because they’re impressed by his charisma and socioeconomic standing—just has a bad temper. And there are reputations at stake, both hers and his. Besides, everyone tells her what a great life she has, so she thinks the problem is with her. These women are used to being successful—they’re achievers—so when there’s a problem, they redouble their efforts to fix it.

What are the major characteristics of the upscale abuser?

In lower-income abusive situations, the causes are often unemployment, alcohol and drugs. With upscale abuse, the men tend to have a sense of entitlement and believe they are above the law. When their insatiable and outrageous demands aren’t met, rage erupts.

Does the upscale abuse victim report her husband to the police?

Rarely. There’s a belief that contacting the police is something only the lower classes do.

What happens when they do?

Oftentimes, the women are not believed. Many of these men are pillars of society, admired and loved. They have the power and leverage to make good on their threats of loss of custody, income and lifestyle—they create legal dream teams and wage endless and frivolous lawsuits.

Is the case of Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, who in July stands trial for allegedly throwing a cardboard tea canister at his wife, Maria, an example of abuse or just an ugly fight?

I’m not saying being aggressive constitutes abuse, but to throw an object at another person crosses the line. Obviously, because it was a cardboard object, the impact on her body was less, but if the violence becomes a pattern, it constitutes abuse.

If a woman has the financial means, why doesn’t she just leave?

Because her self-esteem is being eroded. Even women with Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s and their own money often negate the power of what they can do on their own. They’re embarrassed to go to a shelter because they feel they have so much more by comparison and won’t fit in.

Is there one thing that ultimately gives them the courage to walk away?

It can be many things—extreme threats to the woman’s well-being; a violent incident that requires medical attention; if the children are in any way threatened. The upscale wife will usually get out before the children are abused.

So what do you tell these women?

I explain that staying in an abusive marriage has grave costs—all of a woman’s material possessions could never make up for the danger and degradation. There are women who lived in mansions and now live in one-bedroom apartments, but they got their lives back. Living without fear more than makes up for [loss of] a glamorous life.