Book review: Unexpected Subjects: Intimate Partner Violence, Testimony, and the Law. By Alessandra Gribaldo, 2021. HAU Books.

This short book is an ethnographic essay on the constitution of the abused subject through testimony in the Italian judicial system. How do experiences of intimate violence get translated into legally intelligible language? How does the ambivalence and trauma of intimate partner violence complicate the articulation of experience in the court? What inadequate institutional structure renders a victim’s narration of violent experience necessary but impossible at the same time? Gribaldo refers to domestic violence as “Violence Degree Zero” in anthropological research (13) – one of those “dead zones of the imagination” (Graeber 2012) that simultaneously represents “an excess of relevance” and an area of “violent simplification” (15). Her book fills this gap with a theoretically sophisticated investigation of the encounter between women’s words and the legal system, paying keen attention to the friction between intimacy and violence in the production of subjectivity and modalities of truth-telling.

Gribaldo makes a compelling case for ethnographic knowledge in providing a privileged site to examine the complicated relationship between intimacy and violence, the conflicting demands of victimhood in legal institutions, and the potentials of ambivalence and hesitations in narrating experience of violence. Engaging with a wide range of feminist and anthropological scholarship on violence, subjectivity, and silences, Gribaldo’s analytical focus is on the different modalities of “speaking violence” (4). The domestic violence cases in the book revolves around women as victims and men as perpetrators in heterosexual relationships.

In Chapter 1 (Un)Familiar Violence, Gribaldo draws on anthropological and feminist scholarship to expound on the tensions between intimate relations and legal institutions, and the paradoxes in rendering women’s victimhood legible and legitimate. Drawing on Foucault while bearing in mind “the unresolved tension between the chance to rethink and free gender differences” (30), Gribaldo focuses our attention on the issue of experience and the possibility of conveying and verifying such knowledge. The evidentiary requirements of the court – coherent, clear, objective – is contradicted by the subjective, experience-based, and emotion-filled narratives that victims produce.

Chapter 2 Wavering Intentions illuminates the contradictions of women’s subjectivization as victims and as witness in court. Originally introduced to protect women from familial pressure to withdraw their cases, the Italian Criminal Code requires mandatory prosecution of domestic violence cases, in which the women’s testimonies are central to the trial. This juridical protection presumes women as passive subjects who could not make their own decisions but also expects them to be reliable speaking subjects. For a host of reasons, many women choose not to press charges or retract their statements during the trial. Those who do testify would be interrogated not only for the veracity of their claims, their understanding of violence, but also their own subjectivity. Their testimonies are further constrained by the modalities of judicial procedure that requires coherence and focus. For example, a woman was stopped by the judge when she lamented “I didn’t go to work because I had a black eye…love is not enough.” Domestic violence hearings do not produce a simple dichotomization of perpetrators and victims, but rather, “the proof of the crime [of domestic violence] is constituted by the intimate relationship, the experience of violence, and the consciousness of the abused victim (53).” The victim’s perception and statements crucially become such proof.

In Chapter 3, Gribaldo questions the focus on victim’s testimonial proof, and critiques the burden of confession on the victim who “must supply a meaningful framework that allows for recognition and certification, making the production of evidence possible” (86). The centrality of the victim’s testimony means that she is the main target of interrogation and questioning – “not only to verify the facts but also verify women’s capacities to understand and communicate the intimate violence experienced” (91). Furthermore, because the intention of the perpetrator could only be evidenced by the victim’s testimony, “[t]he victim is asked to speak for the perpetrator, to clarify the reasons behind the crime” (85). Any difficulty in remembering events, inconsistency in narration, or failure to comply with the judicial modality of questioning, comes to be interpreted by the defense and the judge as the woman’s unreliability as a witness. Feelings, contexts, and performance pertinent to the woman’s own communication of the experience of violence are considered excesses in the judicial proceedings.

Gribaldo’s ethnography in Chapter 4 The Gender of True-Lying helps readers see vividly how the authenticity of women’s narrated experience is always suspect. Speaking up as a victim-subject renders unreliable the woman’s intentionality in breaking the silence. It is the entirety of the victim’s act of testifying that is being assessed – down to “the appropriate emotional tone” in which she delivers her testimony, as one prosecutor said (99). Gribaldo must be credited for effectively bringing together court exchanges with the perspectives of prosecutors, judges, social service managers, demonstrating the contradictory expectations that the victim “must be subjugated, passive, and aware at the same time” (99). Reflecting on these impossible expectations in institutionalized political language, Gribaldo advocates for “the need to consider hesitations, and the unexpectedly oblique and mediating modes of testimony, action, subtraction, and resistance” (112).

Gribaldo demonstrates a dexterity with theory and ethnography when analyzing the unorthodox testimony performed by Giovanna. Her expressions departed from the expectation of coherence and clarity required by the court, and resembled the mode of self-expression called ‘la piazzata’ (open quarrelling in public). By describing how Giovanna’s declaration of love for her ex-husband allows the judge to verify the authenticity of her testimony, Gribaldo demonstrates the ways the gendered subaltern subject made herself recognizable. The significance of love captured here echoes with legal scholar Mark West’s (2006) analysis of love as a significant discourse in Japanese court decisions on love-suicide, murder, and stalking.  A brief discussion about how love is understood as an emotion both in popular culture and in legal institutions – something that West accomplished with ample room in his full-length book – would advance readers’ understanding of the role emotions play in mediating legal processes on intimate relations.

In condensing years of fieldwork into a short book that is both theoretically engaged and ethnographically illuminating, Gribaldo had to make some difficult choices. She states in the Introduction that she keeps the ethnography “suspended” (9) – not locating the juridical dynamics by setting them within the specific Italian context – in order to address specific theoretical issues. As such, the priority of Unexpected Subjects is theoretical elaboration over thick description. Therefore, readers may find ample room for reflection in Gribaldo’s eloquent exposition of concepts from Strathern, Ortner, Mahmood, Foucault, and Agamben, but may at times be left wondering how some of her ethnography fits in. For example, a woman at a shelter insisted on talking about the story of her intimate relationship, a narrative mode not accommodated by the Italian penal code. Gribaldo suggests that the resistance to speak about violence lies in the contradiction inherent in intimate violence – “[t]hese women have embodied a perception of intimacy with a liberal stress on self-responsibility and freedom. They are victims who see themselves as guilty for not knowing how to react to a context of power abuse considered to be obsolete in a society presumed egalitarian” (56). It is unclear to the readers how these ideas were articulated by her interviewees. Furthermore, readers who are not familiar with gender politics in Italy would appreciate an earlier discussion of the white woman-mother figure in the Italian imaginary (102, Chapter 4) that circulates in and behind these testimonies. For example, such contextualization may help readers understand how a woman, who was displeased with her children’s testimony exonerating her ex-partner, retracted her testimony and forgave the perpetrator when called upon by the judge (42, Chapter 2).

Unexpected Subjects should be applauded for being among the few ethnographic investigations into judicial proceedings on domestic violence. Its thoughtful engagement with a rich body of feminist and anthropological scholarship opens up a crucial space for theoretical reflections on violence, testimony, and the law. To accomplish all these in such a short book is an intellectual feat. The book should be read by researchers, postgraduate students, and upper-level undergraduate of all disciplines interested in gender, violence, and the law.


West, Mark. 2006. Law in Everyday Japan: Sex, Sumo, Suicide, and Statutes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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