Caveat: This is a long post. It’s actually a reprint of a feature article I wrote several years ago for a women’s publication. In honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wanted to share it in hopes that it might help someone out there or simply shatter some of the misconceptions about domestic violence. I know I had many before I interviewed this courageous domestic violence survivor who spoke so honestly about her experience.
I’m waiting in a local coffee shop to interview Mary*, a former victim of domestic abuse. While reviewing my questions, I keep an eye on the door. I’ve only talked to her several times on the phone, so when a woman with bright hazel eyes walks confidently through the door and firmly shakes my hand, I am caught off guard. Suddenly my questions seem foolish. I’ve scripted this interview all wrong. Mary is nothing like I imagined. I’m not sure what I was expecting – a mousy woman with darting eyes and the label “victim” stamped on her forehead? Certainly not this woman who exudes confidence and happiness.
We find a table in the corner of the café. We make small talk at first and then I say, “Tell me your story.”
I learn that it has been two years since Mary left her abuser – her own husband – but the memories are still vivid, and some of the emotional scars will never completely fade. Mary sips her coffee as she recounts the real-life horror she faced. As she talks, she knows she is not alone – domestic violence is a crime affecting as many as half of American women, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But I wonder: Who are these women in abusive relationships? I don’t think I know anyone who has ever been struck by a man. Not until now. As I listen to Mary, everything I brought to the interview – my preconceived notions, even my strategically planned questions – are lost in her words.
There wasn’t as much money in savings as he thought there should be, so he spent the next two or three hours torturing me. The end result of the argument was he dragged me across the kitchen. I was cooking dinner. I was going to fry fish. He tried to put my face in the hot grease, but he had thrown coffee at me earlier, thank goodness, and I slipped out of his hands on the coffee. Plus, my daughter was coming up behind him at the same time and said, “Daddy don’t.” When he lost his grip on me and I fell, he turned around like he was going to hit her. I got up really quick and said, “I’ll get out. I’ll just leave.” He let me leave the house. I didn’t have anything, but I’d hidden a key up beneath the car, so I left and went to a friend’s house. That happened two years before I actually left him.
Mary tells me she was married to her abuser for 20 years. I’m trying to understand why she stayed, why she ever married him, especially since she admits the abuse started before they ever even exchanged vows, so I ask point-blank, “Were you blinded by love?”
Maybe you like the bad boy. It was kind of the way it was with me. My ex-husband had a way of walking into the room and being the life of the party. He surrounded himself with people who would do what he wanted. He had a powerful personality, and I was drawn to that. I was flattered to be his girl. I quit college and eloped. I was 19.
He knocked out my tooth the first year of marriage. I started to leave then. I called my parents and said I wanted to come home. They were actually getting ready to leave and come get me when I called and told them I’d changed my mind and that I wanted to stay with my husband. I have to tell you, there were many times my mother regretted not just coming to get me and taking me home anyway, but they respected my decision.
This was long before her parents saw the cycle – the violence, the profuse and surprisingly sincere apologies followed by a honeymoon period of idyllic romantic love where everything seemed perfect. Then in an instant, it all shattered and the cycle started all over again.
But didn’t anyone notice her bruises, cuts and scrapes? Apparently, over the years Mary learned to keep her secret well-hidden.
This isn’t something you tell people. It’s shameful to tell someone that you’re married to a man who hurts you and you’re still staying with him.
And sometimes there’s no one to tell.
He never wanted me to work, which is typical of an abuser. They don’t want you to work, and they don’t want you to have friends because then you have the ability to get out and you have someone to help you and encourage you.
Even when family and friends are around, silence can be easier than admitting your life is anything but perfect.
One Sunday, we were supposed to go to my parents’ for lunch. I’m not exactly sure what the argument was about – it may have been because he didn’t want anything to do with my family. Well, he got so mad, he threw a hard plastic cup at me. He threw it so hard my head busted open. Of course he was sorry real quick because he knew we were going to see my parents. We cleaned it up the best we could and combed my hair over it. I went to my parents’, and I’m sitting there with my head busted open, eating lunch with my family with a smile on my face like nothing happened. That happened a lot. He’d push me down ladders. He’d push me down stairs. He made me stay up all night.
Mary and her two children, now 17 and 13, learned to recognize the signs that the cycle was beginning again.
We called it whacking out. Every time he lost control, we’d say, “Daddy’s whacking out again.” I could tell when it was coming. He was like a volcano that would start boiling up a little bit on the inside and then it would get worse, and I knew everything was going to blow up again. Every time he would apologize and say he’d never do it again, and you know, he never did exactly the same thing again. He’d hurt me some other way.
When I’ve thought of domestic abuse, I’ve never really considered the children. I always envisioned a drunken man wearing a stained undershirt raising his hand to strike a timid woman. Maybe there are children cowering in the corner, but they are not included in the circle of abuse. They are merely observers. But Mary’s story makes me think differently. It also makes me angry.
My kids grew up thinking abuse was okay. Just because I learned how to break the cycle doesn’t mean they’ll know how. When my son went to bed at night, he’d pray to God that he’d go to heaven or that his daddy would get better. I read that in a DFACS [Department of Family and Children Services] report.
One Saturday afternoon we were going to church and my little boy loves the color orange. He had this one favorite shirt that he wore all the time, and his dad told him he couldn’t wear the shirt to church anymore. We’re walking out the door and I look over, and he’s wearing that shirt. My ex-husband saw it at the same time and told me and my daughter to go on because she had altar service practice. So we left for church. Apparently what happened was he just ripped the shirt off my son. Of course, my little boy was just scared to death and then he kicked my son all over the house and threw the shirt away.
Pause. “Did your faith help you through this?” I finally ask.
Being Catholic and having a faith helped me for a long time.
I wonder if it helped the children. I try to picture a little boy bare-chested, running away in terror from his own father whose fists clench a flash of orange.
After I hear this story, I keep thinking she’s Catholic…like me. The more I talk to Mary, the more I realize that we have more in common than not. She tells me she comes from a good, close family. Her parents are still married like mine. Somehow it would be easier to understand if she came from a dysfunctional family or had suffered abuse as a child, but this isn’t the case. I realize I have lived in a bubble, but it has a slow leak and it’s drifting down, down…
One Sunday night he walked into my son’s bedroom and it was messy. He started hitting my son with a belt. I knew he was out of control and I told him to stop, but he was so out of control, he couldn’t stop. When he finally stopped, it was really strange. For just a moment, you could see that he knew what he had done. He knew he’d lost control. Well, then he’s got to continue to validate what he just did. So then he told my little boy – he was 10 at the time – that he had to pick up all his toys and put them in a trash bag and take them out to the street. If it wasn’t Sunday night [Monday was garbage day], I would have probably rescued the toys the next day because I know the next day my husband would be sorry for everything and would want to give the toys back. But you can’t get the toys back if the trash people already have picked them up. So I said, “No, you’re not going to do that.” My son was up on the bed in a fetal position and my ex-husband told him to get off the bed and get on the floor. I had no idea what was coming next, but my son got on the floor and he put the mattress on top of my son and said, “That’s where you’re going to sleep tonight.” I really had to muster courage because I knew how mad he was and I knew he’d come back on me, but I said, “No. He’s not going to do that either.” My son and I picked up the mattress and made the bed up. I put him to bed.
I’d been going to bed a lot of nights wishing I was dead. One of my arguments to myself for not just going ahead and getting out was to protect my children. I told myself if I just stayed there I could protect my kids. Because if I divorced him, that meant that he would have visitation and that he was going to be able to do anything to them and I wasn’t going to be there to protect them. But that night I realized that I couldn’t even protect them if I was in the house. That night I decided I was going to go to try to get out.
“Why did you stay for so long?” I ask. The answer isn’t easy. Mary is helping me understand that a victim’s reasons for staying are very complex.
A lot of women don’t know if they can do it on their own, especially if they marry young like me. I was 19 years old and had never been on my own. I didn’t want my marriage to fail. I didn’t want to be divorced.
When Mary says she was a perfectionist and that failure wasn’t an option, even if it meant years of abuse, I nod. Who of us doesn’t know firsthand how a need to be perfect can make us abandon our senses? Who of us doesn’t secretly want our own “happily ever afters”?
They always say they’re going to change, and you want to believe them. You love them. And when my husband wasn’t angry, he had a great sense of humor. We had a lot of good times. The calm before the storm sometimes lasts a long time.
Mary also felt sorry for her husband.
My ex-husband’s father died when he was 10, and his mother was basically insane. She completely lost her mind when he was a teenager. He was just kid on the streets. He made it on his own. I felt really sorry for him, and I honestly can say I loved him and I probably would have loved him for the rest of his life if he could have changed.
But he can’t.
But Mary could. And she did. She humbly credits her strong faith, family and therapy to her recovery, but I know she’s the one who saved herself. Mary says one of the best things she did was attending therapy for six months at a domestic violence intervention center.
Going to group meetings really helped me. I met a room full of women who all had the same issues I did, and I realized that every woman there was married to my husband.
Therapy also revealed something else about the victims of domestic violence: It’s owners of companies. It’s the lady at the checkout at the grocery store. It’s the woman who sits next to you in your college class. It’s someone in Junior League. It’s your sister, your daughter or your mom. It can be anybody.
Putting an end to the abuse ultimately lies in the victim’s hands. Mary’s parents struggled for years, trying to find a way to “save” their daughter, but there’s only one cure for this festering disease that affects both the abuser and the abused, and that’s getting out.
The moral of the story – and this is really hard to say and might offend someone – is that the women who stay are just as sick as the men who hurt them. It was my illness that made me stay. Abuse is a lot like alcoholism. You can’t force an alcoholic to stop drinking, and you can’t make a victim of abuse leave her husband. The best thing a victim of domestic abuse can do is figure out why she’s staying. Once you figure that out, there are people who can help you overcome these obstacles. There’s no problem that can’t be solved, but these women need to understand that if a man has done this enough times that it’s a vicious cycle, it’s very unlikely he’ll ever stop or get better.
“How are you now?” I have to ask.
I am the luckiest woman in the world. I have a wonderful church and family. I have a wonderful new husband. He treats me like a queen, and I love treating him like a king. I have so many friends who support me.
But even now, it’s easy to remember a time when happiness was more elusive.
I was so insecure. I felt worthless. But I’ve learned I don’t deserve to be treated the way I was treated. I’ve learned to respect myself and to not allow someone to treat me that way. I’ve learned I’m going to be okay. I’m going to make it. No one person should be your cross to bear in life. You don’t need to take it.
*Name has been changed.
These resources can help victims put an end to abuse:
National Domestic Violence Hotline (800) 799-SAFE (7233)
Multilingual advocates help callers find shelter, transportation and other resources. The 24-hour hotline is available 365 days a year.
If you suspect you are in danger, call 911. Health care professionals can also give you the resources you need to be safe.