20 LESSONS WE CAN LEARN FROM THE DEATH OF GABBY PETITO
COBRA’s mission is to inform, educate and empower the vulnerable. We choose to focus on actionable self defence techniques and real-life based prevention methods to help women and children avoid dangerous situations and escape unavoidable ones. So it hurts immensely to know Gabby Petito, a victim of partner violence, died brutally, all but definitively at the hands of someone who said he loved her.
For those not familiar with this tragic story, it started as the case of the missing young woman. Then the case of the running man, Brian Laundrie, suggesting foul play on his part. Then police bodycam footage surfaced, clips of which suggested it could have been foul play on the part of a hysterical woman. Some thought Petito disappeared due to an accident after her demure boyfriend couldn’t safely stave off her mentally unstable attacks, and that it was some mysterious incident gone wrong that caused him to plead the Fifth via his lawyer.
Now we know more. We know Petito is a victim of homicide and likely longsuffering abuse at the hands of Laundrie. Facts are surfacing that he was seen hitting Petito before the now-infamous police incident in Moab, Utah, the police report for which mentioned no wrongdoing on his part.
And now the world wonders, what went wrong? How could this tragedy have been avoided? One hopes in this time digesting a highly publicised story of abuse, we can look closer and learn more about the dangerous, ugly, and well-disguised realities of abuse in the lives of those around us, because it is humbling. It is humbling to acknowledge how something so terrible could happen to a capable and smart girl such as Gabrielle Petito. And it is humbling to acknowledge how someone as cunning as an abuser could fool many of us, as it apparently did for those who wrote the police report in Moab, and for countless others who read the initial news reports based on it.
We recognise that multiple families are grieving, and we have tremendous empathy for everyone involved. However, many survivors will resonate with at least some of the following insights, and we hope we can use this tragedy to shift the way our world approaches the complicated issue of domestic abuse. And so, here are 20 lessons we can learn from the death of Gabby Petito.
1. ABUSE AND VIOLENCE CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE
Intimate partner violence can be experienced by anyone, including Gabby Petito, a beautiful, educated, well-resourced, much-loved and insta-famous young white woman. She was a wander-lust beauty travelling the world with the love of her life and future husband, documenting her joyful journey across social media for all to see. She had family back home who she was in regular and constant contact with, supporting her every step of the way. On the surface, her life was idyllic and enviable. The reality was not. While power dynamics around class, race, sexual orientation and disability affect and even shape abuse, intimate partner violence occurs in all settings and among all socioeconomic, religious and cultural groups. No one is immune.
2. THINGS ARE NOT ALWAYS AS THEY SEEM
Followers on social media saw a smiling, happy couple, full of love and wanderlust, setting out for a cross-country adventure while documenting all the joys of young life. In many cases, targets become very good at smiling through the pain.
3. “IT TAKE TWO” IS A MYTH
When the public was shown body camera footage captured by Moab City Police officer Daniel obbins, (who pulled Laundrie and Petito over after the 911 call on August 12), some viewers assumed Petito was suffering from mental illness and Laundrie, while nervous, was the steadier of the two. Other viewers assumed both partners were equally at fault — the old “it takes two” myth that doesn’t really apply to most abusive situations. Some people even assumed Petito was the abuser and Laundrie was the victim.
These three assumptions probably crossed everyone’s mind as a possibility. Healthy-minded people tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, especially when someone is being accused of a negative act. Also, we can all understand that mental illness is a difficult situation and can tax even the kindest most gentle of souls (and the people who love them). Unfortunately, in many cases, this thought pattern leads us to assume the victim is mentally ill or that the victim is to blame for an altercation.
4. VICTIM BLAMING IS A THING
“Victim blaming” can happen even in the worst cases of abuse because we don’t see the longitudinal story unfolding. What we don’t see is that the target has managed to keep things together until she reached her threshold, at which time we may see her crying, yelling, or breaking down emotionally. By exhibiting those behaviours, many might assume the target is “crazy,” and it’s natural for us to feel as if the more stable person is more trustworthy. If we listen carefully to Laundrie’s conversation with the officers, he even laughs and says, “She’s crazy.” Then he dismisses it as a joke. Of course, he’s already put this claim in the officers’ minds (and by the nonchalant way he says it, many might assume it’s not the first time he’s said these words.)
So while viewers (and officers) start wondering if perhaps the target is “crazy,” the abuser plays the part of the poor, patient partner who has to deal with this irrational person. Laundrie even mentioned Petito’s anxiety and her OCD to police, painting her as an unstable partner. (Please note: we are not at all justifying any physical violence against either party. No one should intentionally harm any other person. Period.)
5. ABUSERS CAN BE DECEPTIVELY CHARMING
A typical abuser would be skilled at convincing people that he’s innocent, while in fact he’s been acting very differently behind closed doors, pushing his target to this point intentionally and feeding on her emotional break. Many abusers LOVE to see evidence that they’ve hurt their target. They LOVE to see their target in pain. For this reason, “breaking” the target is usually the goal from the start. In cases of abuse, it may take an abuser hours, weeks, months, or even years to break the target, but he won’t stop until he gets that reaction, and then he’ll point the finger and say, “See? She’s crazy. I’m just trying to keep her calm.” And then he’ll do it again. And again. And again.
As a result, some people will buy into that false narrative. Even the target can be brainwashed to doubt her own truth. Which may be one reason Petito ma made excuses for Laundrie’s behaviour and took the blame for everything when questioned by police.
In contrast, we see Laundrie blaming Petito, insisting he never hit her, and saying he was just trying to keep her calm. He’s charming. He comes across as a loving and loyal partner. He’s joking around with the officers and even gives one a fist bump in the end. All the while, his fiancée is at risk of being charged with domestic assault and possibly spending the night in jail.
6. VICTIMS GET CONDITIONED
In a now famous 911 recording, a man who witnessed Laundrie physically abuse Petito, called emergency and said “I’d like to report a domestic dispute.” The 49-second audio recording continues as the caller says, “The gentleman was slapping the girl.” When the dispatcher asks him to confirm that the man was slapping the girl, the caller responds, “Yes, and then we stopped, they ran up and down the sidewalk, he proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off.”
But long before the 911 call was made public, many survivors could already see through the spin playing out on the video footage. They easily recognised the “red flags” because these cycles become the norm for victims of long-standing abuse. Many targets eventually become conditioned to believe everything the abuser does is her fault. Covering for the abuser, accepting all the blame, trying harder to make the abuser happy—this warped reality becomes the only truth a target knows.
Also, it seems clear that Petito doesn’t want her fiancé to be in any trouble. She’d rather pay the price and protect the man she loves. And because she probably believes he only acted this way because of her mood/behaviours/anxiety/OCD/job, she doesn’t want him to be blamed. This is also the norm in abusive relationships.
7. ABUSE IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL WEB
It’s not a far stretch to assume Petito was caught in a system of abuse. And once a target is caught in that psychological web, it’s extremely difficult to see a way out. Reality becomes flipped.
It’s also worth noting that Petito and Laundrie had been involved in various levels of a relationship since their teens. This is also commonly observed partnerships. These immature relationships work beautifully when both partners grow together and mature emotionally. But when one wants to keep the other down, naïve, and under his control … and the other is growing, learning, and maturing … it doesn’t work.
8. ABUSERS ARE CONTROLLING
We heard Petito tell police that Laundrie didn’t think she could succeed with her travel blog. It seems clear that he didn’t believe in her and that he was trying to make her doubt herself. Throughout the conversation with police, Laundrie implies that he locked Petito out of the van because she wouldn’t calm down. But when we listen to the full video, it seems he was upset because they’d spent too much time at the coffee shop with her working on her website when he wanted to go hiking. This suggests that because she wasn’t in the van when he was ready to leave, he lost his temper.
In the moments that followed, the altercation became physical. Reportedly, Laundrie squeezed Petito’s face with his hand, cut her down verbally, and criticised her. Some would argue that this escalating abuse typically persists until the target reacts emotionally and/or physically. If this case follows the norm, Laundrie may have been trying to break her spirit, intentionally.
Why? Again, if this case follows the typical situation, it would likely be because Petito’s focus wasn’t 100% on Laundrie. She had found this new job she enjoyed. She was succeeding at it, and it was allowing her to connect with other people (she’d already left her job as a nutritionist to travel around the country with Laundrie.)
In a healthy relationship, the new job might be considered a positive opportunity for Petito. Especially considering Laundrie admits they have very little money (not even enough to afford a hotel room to prevent his fiancée from going to jail). But in an unhealthy relationship, the abuser wants the target all to himself. And when that doesn’t happen, he can become increasingly violent.
Petito now had this one little piece of her life that Laundrie couldn’t control, so if we’re looking at textbook patterns, perhaps her blog angered him. Perhaps he didn’t like all the attention she was getting on social media. Perhaps he punished her for it. And then a cycle developed. Even though she was doing nothing wrong by building a new career.
The next thing we know, we have a missing person, a recovered body, a young man on the run, and several families destroyed. Too much grief to measure. And the truth is, it will happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until we learn to recognise and respond to abusive situations in healthier ways.
9. THERE IS A SYSTEM OF ENABLERS
After Petito was reported missing, many people expressed shock in response to the Laundrie family’s refusal to cooperate early in the investigation. Petito reportedly lived with the Laundrie family for more than a year. Anyone can see that this family will do anything to protect their son, even at the cost of an innocent young woman who was a real part of their family and soon to be their daughter-in-law. While most of us can certainly understand parents wanting to protect their son, most would agree they crossed a moral line when his fiancée went missing.
But perhaps it goes deeper than that. Perhaps what we’re seeing is a system of enablers who not only allowed their son to abuse Petito (which may have been a factor in her reported anxiety) but also a system of gaslighters who may have always been shifting the truth to keep Petito confused and make her believe she was the problem.
10. THERE ARE ALWAYS RED FLAGS
Something I found interesting was the fact that Brian was always polite to Gabby’s family and they didn’t see any red flags in him. Yet, Gabby’s friends shared a moment in which Brian hid Gabby’s ID so she wouldn’t go out with a friend that he felt was a bad influence on her.
His Instagram page was much darker than Gabby’s. Perhaps there were moments when he couldn’t be as constricted as he wanted to be and his true self came to light.
11. IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO LEAVE ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIPS
Leaving an abusive relationship, no matter the race, class, or gender of the victim or the abuser, is a high-risk decision that usually elicits violent responses from the abuser. Domestic Shelters, an organisation that helps abuse victims find support, reports that leaving an abusive relationship is “the most dangerous time for a domestic violence survivor” because abusers lash out in an attempt to regain control over their partner. The most devastating consequence of the post-breakup period of an abusive relationship can be extreme violence and even homicide.
12. EMOTIONAL ABUSE CAN TURN PHYSICAL, AND OFTEN DOES
There is a pattern to relationship abuse. When things are good, when the relationship and life are relatively stable, the abuser is charming. He (usually but not always a he) demonstrates how much he adores his partner. He buys her things, helps out with the kids, maybe even does some housework. He is attentive and caring, and his partner is often lulled into a false sense of security. Perhaps the abuse hasn’t started yet. Perhaps they’ve ignored the warning signs.
But this honeymoon phase doesn’t last forever. Tensions build. Financial issues, stubborn kids, arguments over dinner, and whose turn it is to wash dishes. If we’re talking about exes, perhaps the victim begins dating someone new. Whatever the excuses the abuser requires for his behavior, the pressure builds until they explode. They lash out at their partner, their ex, or their children. Oftentimes that abuse is emotional and comes in the form of gaslighting, insults, intimidation, threats of physical violence or self-harm, isolation from friends and family, and financial restrictions. Other times it ends in violence. A smashed car or other possessions. Physical abuse of their partner or abuse of the children. If it’s a hostile ex, they may take out their resentments on their own current partner by striking them as well.
Regardless of the form of the abuse, it continues until the perpetrator has exhausted their current rage. They tell the victim it’s their own fault, that they drove the abuser to such extremes. Now, they are sorry. The honeymoon phase begins again. Flowers, gifts, pampering, apologies. And the cycle continues.
However you feel about the individuals involved in this truly tragic situation, the issues and dangers are clear and very real. We hope you can take heed of these lessons in terms of watching the drama unfold, but also in your daily life if/when you are ever faced with instances of manipulation, violence or abuse. Be it from someone you love, or towards someone you know, be empowered with the very basic knowledge that abuse is not acceptable, and never will be. Strengthen your own confidence with self defence awareness and techniques to escape any potential danger you may face, be it from a known or unknown foe. Help us protect those most vulnerable in our society, because one woman is too many.
13. ABUSERS DON’T ACCEPT BLAME
As anyone familiar with abuse knows, abusers don’t accept blame for wrongdoing; they might pretend to show remorse if they think it will be advantageous for them, but they ultimately blame their victims for their violence. They’ll paint a picture that either their victim can’t be trusted, or their victim deserved it—both perspectives that excuse abusers of any wrongdoing. What’s very sad about this entire story is that the police, perhaps unawares, went along with, and perpetuated this abusive narrative in their report. She was listed as the only suspect after the incident. It was all her fault.
14. VICTIMS COVER UP ABUSE
Covering up abuse is what many domestic violence victims do, and it appears evident this is exactly what Petito was doing for Laundrie. The police very clearly already wrote her off as mentally unstable, and they were confirming and agreeing with Brian’s statement of events without challenge, agreeing with what he said even though his justification of events didn’t sound credible.”
When police check out a scene, there’s a lot of information to consider—demonstrated evidence as well as people’s stated accounts. When it comes to cases of domestic violence, extra effort needs to be taken to ensure that people’s stated accounts match up to evidence, as well as to other witness accounts. When they don’t line up, one has to look deeper to see if they might be taking an untrustworthy account at face value. When it comes to domestic violence, the perpetrator is domestic—they’re in the "home," and they’re either literally family or like family. If a family member stole your property and the police asked you about it, and you covered it up, it’s not because they didn’t steal it; but it may be because you're trying to shield them from consequences out of some (likely misplaced) loyalty.
Petito told police that Laundrie didn’t hit her, according to the police report, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Petito also “made all range of excuses to cover up any wrongdoing on his part. She admitted to scratching his face. And they acted like there’s nothing else to look into. It is ridiculous to expect a domestic violence victim to tell the whole story completely honestly without looking critically at other evidence.
15. DV VICTIMS MAY NOT BE RELIABLE SOURCES
If there are signs of abuse, as there were in Petito’s 911 call transcripts, but the potential victims of abuse try to minimise or cover it up, authorities should be trained to see this as evidence of abuse-victim behaviour and investigate more closely, instead of taking such statements at face value. When it comes to potential victims of partner violence, authorities can approach the situation realising the victim is not always going to give you the correct information—not because he or she likes being abused, but because an accurate report is not their priority. Their priority is surviving. The police will leave the scene at some point, and their partner is still there, in their life. So they focus on surviving. And DV advocates know that is normal. From the perspective of a DV victim, it’s often more important to not anger the person you live with.
16. DV VICTIMS WILL MINIMISE
When speaking with potential DV victims, look for minimising language. Gabby accepted the blame for everything. She even admitted to things she wasn’t sure about, such as potentially hitting Laundrie when trying to tell him the police were trying to pull him over. She said she has OCD, was sorry, and so on—abusers would not say these things. There are cases of course where the woman is abusive—absolutely! But that is not how an abusive woman would behave. Abusers typically do not accept blame; they redirect it.
17. SEXIST BIASES EXIST
Sexist bias can cloud others’ ability to see signs of violence against women, even when it’s right in front of them.
Consider these facts. The 911 dispatch call that immediately preceded the police pulling over Petito and Laundrie in Moab was made by a bystander who stated he witnessed Laundrie “slap” and “hit” Petito multiple times. Also that Laundrie forcibly took her keys and tried to lock Petito out of her own car and drive away from her, which would leave her stranded states away from where she was coming or going. (She succeeded in getting in the car while he was trying to drive away.) Then Laundrie sped three times the speed limit, swerved the vehicle, and hit a curb before being pulled over by police. All of these facts would indicate that Laundrie was acting dangerously and erratically.
Despite all these facts, however, the police who interviewed both parties after this incident wrote up a police report that described Petito as the suspect and Laundrie as the victim. All because somewhere along the way, Petito slapped and scratched him. Never mind that it might have been in self-defence from his attacks. Meanwhile, Laundrie was recorded in the police report as having done nothing wrong, and anything he appeared to do wrong—grab her face, take her keys, attempt to drive away in her vehicle leaving her behind, speed and swerve the vehicle—all of it was spun as understandable reactions in the face of a hysterical woman. In other words, it was all her fault.
18. NEVER ASSUME
When we see someone at her emotional end during a domestic dispute, we shouldn’t assume she’s crazy. We shouldn’t buy into the false narrative given by the abuser. We shouldn’t believe the cover-up story by the target who has been conditioned to carry all the blame and shame. And we shouldn’t assume they’re going to be okay.
And we should stop assuming these situations will get better in time. Personally, I haven’t heard of one abusive relationship that became healthier. Not one. Not with therapy. Not with church. Not with prayer or forgiveness or complete surrender. When an abuser is determined to destroy his target, he will not stop until that target is erased from this world or stripped from her life. And in many cases, he’ll walk away without any consequences, often taking the target’s finances, home, vehicle, reputation, or even her children with him.
19. WE NEED TO LEARN
Instead, we should all learn the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. We should learn to recognize the warning signs of abuse. We should engage in respectful, fact-based conversations about trauma bonds, abusive cycles, and emotional intelligence.
We should be familiar with terms like gaslighting, hovering, love bombing, enabling, triangulating, and projecting. We should stop blaming targets and help them reclaim their truth. And we should stop repeating the age-old myths that keep targets trapped in these dangerous and all-too-often deadly cycles.
Finally, while I’ve used the most common scenario of male-on-female violence in this article, we should recognize that abuse crosses all barriers and can impact anyone regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation, age, or socio-economic level.
20. VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IS A HUGE PROBLEM
The Petito family feel the police could have done better. On this we can not comment, but the important part is asking police to take violence against women seriously. These police already were connected with a DV shelter, but they managed to use it to make this situation worse, concluding that Laundrie was the victim due to scratch marks. That doesn’t mean that Gabby would still be alive today if they had realized she was a victim. The worst-case scenario may have happened anyway; there’s no way to tell. Even after domestic violence is identified and the parties separated, a victim might still return to their abuser if they’ve been conditioned over time to attach their self-worth to a connection with that person.
But having police reinforce a narrative that protects the abuser can be very damaging for abuse victims. People say “oh if something bad happens to you, just call the police," but abuse victims don't always see things clearly, and police don't always notice the discrepancy between their account and the facts.
We can’t even imagine what kind of mental state Gabby was in. It is so devastating to have the police view abuse as your own fault. We can’t get anywhere if we don’t accept that violence against women is a huge problem that needs to be better understood.
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