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Power Of Narrative:


Jana Cunningham and Aubrey Fochs


Jennifer Andrus, professor of writing and rhetoric studies, refers to herself as a problem identifier. Though her research doesn’t explicitly identify solutions, she believes that without truly understanding a problem, a proposed solution will never work. In Andrus’ case, she uses the power of language—how discourse works and how discourse influences us—to identify serious social problems.

The problem she’s working to understand is the complicated nuances facing victim/survivors of domestic violence.

“Language and the way we communicate influences us from the moment we are able to start using it,” said Andrus. “As such, it is important to be able to understand the ways in which language impacts us.”

Power and language often intertwine as themes in Andrus’ research. She has predominately focused her research on law, law enforcement, and domestic violence. More specifically, she wrote her first book on how the law of evidence is issued in ways to facilitate popular notions about domestic violence in ways that victim blame or focus on the actions of the victim-survivor rather than ways the abuser was wrong. Her second book focused on law enforcement and their interactions with victim-survivors who were at the time living in shelters. She acknowledges that law enforcement and victim-survivors do not have a shared vocabulary about domestic violence, and that this dysfluency can negatively impact their relationship.



“Police officers and victim survivors talk right past each other. They have completely different needs in the situation, and they form identities in relationship to each other that don’t comport with the way that they see themselves and others see them.”

According to Andrus, victim-survivors are faced with the cultural pressure of staying in a relationship to “make it work.” In her research, many participants have talked about the ways they are trying to keep their family together in order to fit the societal norms surrounding relationship expectations. This runs up against another common notion that is often shared with police: victim-survivors of domestic violence should simply leave the relationship to end the abuse. As Andrus notes, however, a huge number of trips to the ER occur after the victim-survivor has left the relationship. Indeed, as she says, leaving is the most dangerous moment in a victim-survivor’s life. Based on research interviewing victim-survivors and police officers, Andrus shows the consequences of when their narratives are at odds.

In her current project, Andrus is conducting research about victim-survivors living in or having recently left abusive relationships. She is interviewing victim-survivors, paying special attention to the role age plays for individuals at the onset of abuse. Females ages 18 to 23 are the most common demographic for domestic violence in the U.S., currently. Andrus collects and analyzes narratives and in doing so, she aims to tell the stories of individuals involved in violent relationships and give them the ability to do so safely and in their own words. In particular, she is collecting what she calls “staying-leaving stories.” “Most people need to leave seven times before they stay away. Why did they leave? Why did they come back? Why did they stay? I want to understand those pivotal moments.” 


"We constantly construct narratives about ourselves based on our past and present experiences. These stories shape how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others."

As a victim-survivor of domestic violence herself, Andrus understands the complexities of being in an abusive relationship and why leaving isn’t as simple as many may believe. She wants to understand the kinds of circumstances faced by other people, shedding light on their experiences and empowering their voices. She wants to hear and understand the stories they tell about themselves.

“I study narratives, so I ask people for stories about themselves. I think identity emerges in how people talk about themselves.”

Her work doesn’t use big surveys to collect quantitative data, Andrus does qualitative, discourse analysis. She isn’t focused on numbers; she’s focused on listening and telling people’s stories and taking care of their stories. Andrus works diligently to listen and understand the narratives of victim-survivors of domestic violence.

“The reason I say I’m not a solution finder is I think the solution is massive. So instead, I am a storyteller. If there is a way to make that massive change, then it has to start by us paying attention to it. Paying attention to the actual stories of actual people.”

Andrus says that when domestic violence becomes a news story, it’s treated as if it’s a rare occurrence, when in fact, it happens all the time. People just aren’t paying attention. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence one in four women experience severe physical violence by an intimate partner. In Utah, that number goes up to one in three. Andrus tells the stories of victim-survivors to bring awareness and decrease the shame associated with abuse.

“The way that I tell stories is to make it so that we recognize that domestic violence happens around us all the time. We can’t fight it if we don’t see it as a common problem. The more people hear about it, the less shame it carries, the easier it is to leave. Hopefully, more people will come forward and realize there is no shame and it’s not their fault their partner abuses them.”

The work is difficult and can often bring up her own personal trauma, but Andrus wants victim-survivors’ voices to be heard, cared for, and properly represented.

“At the end of my last book, more than one person said to me, ‘You don’t have to keep working on domestic violence. It’s too hard. Stop.’ And my response was, ‘Not enough people do this work. I have no choice’”

Jennifer Andrus headshot

Jennifer Andrus

Assistant Professor, Department of Writing & Rhetoric

Motivated by the power of language, Andrus continues her work gathering, examining, and sharing the narratives—both personal and socially constructed—of those impacted by domestic violence to not only gain valuable insight into their unique situations but to bring awareness to those who don’t understand it.

“We constantly construct narratives about ourselves based on our past and present experiences. These stories shape how we understand ourselves and how we relate to others. My hope is to create empowerment through these narratives and give a voice to marginalized experiences.”

Last Updated: 10/30/23