Multiple Layers of Tragedy in the Story of Gabby Petito — and the five ways we can channel our outrage into action
By One Love CEO Katie Hood
I saw the first mention that Gabby Petito was missing on September 11th when her mom shared that she had not heard from her daughter, who had been traveling across the country with her boyfriend, since late August. Her boyfriend Brian Laundrie returned home without Gabby on September 1st, and he refused to share what happened to her.
Within a few days, friends were stepping forward to describe her boyfriend’s “manipulative” and “controlling” behavior. Bodycam footage was released of Gabby and her boyfriend being interviewed by police after a 911 call was made to report he had been hitting her outside a store near Moab in mid-August. As the police talked to her, Gabby was a wreck, emotional and shaking – blaming herself for their increased fighting. Meanwhile, Brian was calm and spoke of her mental health issues as the reason for the fight. Because of scratches on his face, the police talk of charging Gabby with domestic assault as the primary aggressor, asking her boyfriend what he would like to do.
Ultimately, at the time, no charges were made. Then just eight days later, Gabby’s remains were found at a campsite in Wyoming – her death determined a homicide. And while this remains an active investigation, authorities have designated Brian a person of interest who has refused to cooperate and has appeared to have fled.
Imagine if Gabby was your family member or your friend. No one deserves their lives to end as hers did. No one deserves to be abused and murdered, let alone at the hands of someone you think loves you. Gabby’s death is a tragedy beyond comprehension. The missed – or misunderstood – signs are a tragedy. But the most devastating, tragic reality is that outcomes like Gabby’s happen every day.
The truth is, as someone who works in the relationship violence space, as soon as I heard Gabby’s mom speak, I feared for the worst. Three women a day are killed by their partners in this country. More than 1 in 3 women, nearly 1 in 3 men, and 1 in 2 trans or nonbinary people will be in an abusive relationship in their lifetimes. Unhealthy relationships also occur among all races/ethnicities and socio-economic classes. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS), 51% of American Indian/Alaska Native women and 41.2% of black/African American Women have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.
These numbers make it crystal clear: relationship abuse affects us all and I believe it is a major public health crisis we cannot ignore.
Unfortunately, too many of us do ignore this issue. We are riveted when a story like Gabby’s makes the front page, but when the news fades, we go back to our lives. We often ignore or miss the early signs of unhealthy behaviors – possessiveness, isolation, and other methods of control – in the relationships of the people in our lives that lead to these tragedies. We gloss over belittling comments and make excuses for intense outbursts, thinking that it is not our place to insert ourselves into someone else’s relationship.
If everyone who is paying attention to Gabby’s story now decided to do something about it, shifting from shock and sickness to outrage and determination for change, I’m convinced we could lessen the prevalence of relationship abuse in our country today. In fact, I see five clear things each of us can do today to take action that honor Gabby’s life and the lives of all impacted by relationship violence.
- Stop “othering” this issue. This is not an issue that impacts someone else, somewhere else – it’s something that all of us have seen or experienced personally at some point in our lives. Once you understand the signs of unhealthy relationships that become patterns and abuse, this connection will be clear. We also must stop thinking of relationship abuse as a “women’s issue.” Solving this problem requires all of us to recognize our personal connection to the issue and our stake in solving it—everyone, including men, who can also be victims of abuse.
- Educate yourself and get involved. Start by understanding the signs of unhealthy behaviors and abuse – here are 10 signs of an unhealthy relationship. Then become a volunteer, support your local domestic violence shelter, do something to make a difference in your community.
- Use your voice to normalize relationship health. In the ways we invest in our physical health or mental health, we need to “treat” our relationship health. So many people are struggling in unhealthy and abusive relationships – those with a voice or platform need to help change the statistics around abuse. It’s critical that we normalize the topic of relationship health early and often so that we are more familiar with unhealthy behaviors and can catch them before a relationship becomes abusive.
- Demand the media tells the stories of everyone who is abused or disappears every day. It is unacceptable that by and large we only hear the stories of missing and murdered white women whose lives seemed perfect to everyone around them. Laci Peterson. Natalee Holloway. Hannah Graham. Yeardley Love. Yes, we should mourn them and rage furiously at the tragedies of their deaths, but we also must acknowledge that there are many, many more untold stories. We know that Black and Indigenous women are at higher risk for abuse, sexual assault, and murder and their disappearances and murders are just simply not covered. According to the National victim stats, 40% of black women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime and are 2.5 times more likely to be murdered by their partners than other women. Just this week, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s Task Force reported that 710 indigenous people went missing in Wyoming between 2011 and 2020, the same state where Gabby was killed. Failure to share the statistics and stories of these women is a different kind of tragedy, one that minimizes the worth and value of these women and one that impedes our ability to understand the true magnitude of the social problem we face.
- Advocate for relationship health education. In your school board, your district, your state government – with whoever decides what young people should learn in school. We have built a powerful curriculum about healthy and unhealthy relationships that millions of young people have used but millions more can benefit from. One Love’s free online Education Center means any person anywhere can learn the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships and have the tools they need to share this life-saving education with the young people they love. Understanding the signs of unhealthy relationships before they become abuse is critical to changing the statistics around relationship abuse over time.
My heart breaks for Gabby Petito and her family. We must honor all those who have lost their lives to relationship violence by shifting from sickness and shock to outrage and determination to put an end to relationship abuse.
Katie Hood is the CEO of The One Love Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventive education to help people avoid abusive relationships. For more on One Love’s work, visit JoinOneLove.org.