Did Reality TV save Taylor Armstrong?

After Russell Armstrong, estranged husband of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, committed suicide this week, the internet was ablaze, pointing the finger at Reality TV, wanting to know: Did it kill Russell Armstrong?

Today on Salon.com TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz writes:

It’s time to get real about reality TV. As your parents may have warned you, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. People are getting hurt.

Armstrong, the estranged husband of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Taylor Armstrong, commited suicide on Monday. Friends have said the show changed him, that the pressure of having his marital strains examined on national TV and the financial stress of keeping up with much wealthier cast members all contributed to his emotional collapse.

Seitz calls Reality TV a blood sport and likens it to a modern day gladiator’s arena. His analogy is brilliant, and I’m no fan of the trainwreck that is reality TV. But I also find it disturbing that so much media commentary focuses on the aberration of Armstrong’s behavior becoming so public. What about his behavior? Is the tragedy here that Russell’s violent past, his “marital strains,” became known? Or is it that Russell couldn’t or wouldn’t get the help he needed to treat his sickness?

Violence against women is epidemic but far too invisible. Most survivors are so mired in shame, they don’t talk about the abuse to their friends, family, or the media. Until more survivors choose to speak up, as I wrote about for Salon in 2002, the public, including our legislators, will remain apathetic about taking any real steps to stop the violence. And of course, as long as survivors stay hidden, so do the perpetrators.

Here are some scary statistics about how common and how secret violence against women is (from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence):

One in four women (25%) has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime.

85% of domestic violence victims are women.

Women ages 20-24 are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.

Nearly three out of four (74%) of Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.

On average, more than three women are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.

Domestic violence is one of the most chronically under reported crimes.

Only approximately one-quarter of all physical assaults, one-fifth of all rapes, and one-half of all stalkings perpetuated against females by intimate partners are reported to the police.

Taylor Armstrong bucked the statistics. She said she was abused, she said so publicly, and she left her husband. Two weeks after she left Radar online reported Russell had two restraining orders against him and had pleaded guilt to battery in 1997.

Historically, the time when women are most vulnerable to more violence is when they leave their abusive partners. Did being on Reality TV– the exposure, money, fame, and power, that came with it– help to make Taylor one of the rare women to speak out? Because she was not invisible but exposed, was she, on some level, more protected against further violence than the millions of other women? As the stats above cite, three women are murdered by their intimate partners in this country every day.

Obviously, I have no idea what was going on in Russell Armstrong’s head or in Taylor’s. Obviously this is all sad on many levels, but Reality TV’s role in bringing public awareness to the ‘private’ issue of domestic violence is not the tragedy in this story.