He’s her heart and soul. And, blind to warning signs, she does everything to make him happy. Then one day, after she’s fixed his favorite dinner, he takes two bites of macaroni, knocks dishes to the floor and screams that she didn’t add enough cheese. The cursing is still to come. And very soon, the tipoff word: “Bitch.” It’s just the beginning of her part in a national nightmare. For one woman every nine seconds, the start of beatings and batterings that can cripple her body. Drain her mind. And for 4,000 victims a year, end in death.
For two years, she never told her name. Instead Sarah would call the Salvation Army’s battered women’s shelter and identify herself only by age. Terror-stricken, she needed someone who would let her spill out her story.
She told of her husband, a war veteran, who had come home from service convinced of Sarah’s infidelity. Time after time, he would tie her legs to the sofa, shove a gun with one bullet into her vagina and pull the trigger until she “confessed.” It went on for 20 years.
Only by a miracle was she still alive.
Finally, Turning Point counselor Rita Mullins convinced Sarah to come to the shelter. But Sarah didn’t stay.
“She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t rest. She was tormented by fear,” Mullins remembers. “In three weeks she was gone.”
Sarah had returned to her own private house of horrors.
She is not unique.
Melinda was on the verge of breaking up with her boyfriend. When she told him, he reached across the car seat, bit off the end of her nose and spit it into her hand. Re-attached, it rotted. And reeked. Though Turning Point Director Darlene Young arranged pro-bono plastic surgery that restored her nose, Melinda never really healed.
Today she is an alcoholic.
HORROR AND HONEYMOON: The Violence Cycle
For Young and Mullins who have dealt with domestic abuse daily for a decade or more, there’s a predictable pattern.
“It starts with tension-building, and that may go on for a month or so,” says Young, head of the 60-bed shelter and an original staff member since the center’s opening in 1984. “This is when he might knock dinner on the floor. Push her against the wall. And begin to call her names. Watch out when he says the word ‘bitch.’”
It’s the countdown to crisis – the phase when the man goes totally out of control. And battering begins.
What follows next is a very real seduction: The Honeymoon Stage. He brings her candy and flowers. Tells her he’s sorry. And swears it will never happen again.
“He thinks it won’t and I don’t think he wants to do it,” says Mullins, a registered nurse with a background in abnormal psychology and mental health technology. “But it happens over and over again.”
Jennifer, a bright 41-year-old, stopped at her estranged husband’s apartment to pick up the kids. Forcing her into the bathroom, he struck her, and banging her head against the wall, she suffered a detached retina. Though her surgeon and medical team verified the abuse, no one offered to help. No one reported the incident. No one even asked how she was getting home.
AT THE BREAKING POINT, Cries for Help
For many battered women, there is a moment – perhaps when they are in terror for their lives – that they can no longer go on alone.
Like Allison, whose husband shoved a wine bottle into her vagina, where it stayed until an emergency room doctor surgically removed it, this is the time when she calls a friend. A Hot Line. An Ambulance. Or the Police.
If she chooses the police, she may have made the wisest decision of her life.
The secret is out. Now it’s a matter of record that can bring her the protection of the court, a safe haven during recovery and the counseling to build a new life.
But going public is a big step.
Especially in a society still crippled by long-held prejudice. Especially when the abuser is a respected leader, and she may not be believed.
“The problem is insidious because many people feel domestic violence is a private family matter,” says Philip Trompeter, senior Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge of the 23 rd Judicial District. An 11-year veteran of domestic violence cases who spends half his day dealing with such concerns, he adds, “It’s not private. And for five reasons.”
He points out that when couples fight, both parties can be hurt. Children may be in danger. Police are often at extreme risk. The situation can be a deadly combination of alcohol and firearms and finally, “It’s disgusting behavior…a blight on our streets and a blight on our valley.”
“Sadly, people who equate domestic violence as a private matter, view the court and service agencies as destroying the family,” he says. “We do anything but. We can’t wish things to get better. It takes real action to get real change.”
BABY STEPS FORWARD, Giant Steps Back
Even when she has gotten into a system that could save her, the battered woman is often her own worst enemy.
To protect her man, she will claim to have lied about abuse and beg the court to drop charges. Or she will start counseling, or go four or five times then stop. Or, run for shelter, stay awhile, return to the batterer, leave, go back, over and over.
“It took the first woman who came here 12 times to leave her husband for good,” recalls Turning Point’s Young, whose residents have been as young as 17, as old as 88, and whose partners have included blue-collar workers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, and high ranking executives.
Like all the professionals who agree that control and power are the batterer’s driving force, Young has witnessed the abuser’s manipulation firsthand as she goes to court with her charges to get temporary child custody and restraining orders.
“Even when I’m sitting between them, the man will reach around me and play with her hair. Or wink. And whisper, ‘I love you,’” she says. “Since they’re in love, the women want to believe that. The younger ones do believe it. And they’ll do anything if they think they’re in love.”
But more than love is involved.
“Over a period of time, battered women develop Learned Helplessness,” explains psychologist Andrea Scott, 23 rd District Probation Officer Senior and licensed professional counselor. “It’s a syndrome in which, during the woman’s interaction with the man, she becomes totally dependant.”
Akin to brainwashing, Learned Helplessness results from a barrage of negative messages and behaviors that the woman finally accepts. At some point, she begins to distrust herself.
“These women have heard the man’s voice in their heads so clearly, and so long, they believe it,” Scott adds, “even successful business women. They think that if they leave they can’t survive. And if they leave, there’s some possibility they’ll be killed. Scary as it is, if they stay, at least they’ll know what to expect.”
AT-RISK MOTHERHOOD: New Life, New Dangers
Of all the horrors of domestic violence, few are more appalling than the threat to expectant mothers and their unborn children, with the resulting birth defects that are a major reason The March of Dimes has become involved in violence prevention.
The grim news: If a woman has been battered before, she stands a 40 to 60 percent chance of being battered again. She may also be among the 29 percent who will experience an increase in severity and frequency of beatings. And she is at a high threat of murder.
“More beatings occur during pregnancy,” Young maintains, “because the man doesn’t want to share his partner. When there’s a child, he loses control.”
At the root of it, too, may be the batterer’s feelings about his own mother, a factor both Young and Mullins link to the common abuse denominator: anger.
According to experts, the man often comes from a home where he’s been the victim of violence and he’s angry that his mother allowed it. Or, whether by death or desertion, she may have abandoned him at a very early age. Since then, he’s formed a poor image of what a wife and mother should be. He also perceives women to be weak.
Paul Hegstrom goes even further.
A former batterer himself, and subject of the CBS movie, “Unforgivable,” his research has pinpointed five traumas that he believes, alone or in clusters, may stop a young boy’s emotional development and predispose him to battering later in life. In addition to abandonment and physical violence, he includes incest, sexual molestation and emotional abuse.
IN DADDY’S FOOTSTEPS: Learning to Hurt Mom
Two-year-old David looks like an angel. He also slaps his mother in the face.
At eight, Jeffery tripped his cast-bound mother, kicked her broken leg and stood on her stomach.
“If you could observe the children for an hour, you’d see the boys mimicking their fathers,” says Turning Point counselor Mullins. “Some are violent. Some use cuss words or threats.”
But while the boys may be more open, both sexes are hurting.
According to Trompeter, children of domestic violence are two and one-half times more likely to engage in delinquent behavior. The scales are also heavily weighted towards problems with school, alcohol and relationships.
Psychologist Scott agrees there are deep problems.
“Lots of times, the children get in the middle,” she notes, “and while 17-and 18-year-olds may want to make a life for themselves, they feel that they can’t leave, that they’re father will kill their mother. They have incredible amounts of buried anger.”
AN ARMY AT WORK: To Beat the Odds
While no one will ever know the total casualty list, the number of victims is alarming enough to prompt change.
One pivotal effort: the Domestic Violence Coalition, a valley union of three judges, magistrates, police and corrections officials, representatives of TAP, The Turning Point, and related community service agencies.
“A lot of the reason a victim is not served or a situation falls through the cracks has been that the left hand hasn’t known what the right hand is doing,” Trompeter explains, “That’s the purpose of the coalition…to establish a domestic violence protocol [that spells out] what we do and what you can expect from the court, the commonwealth’s attorney, the police and so on. To play out properly everyone has to do his job. Our goal is not to tear apart families. Our goal is to keep people safe.”
And while the focus is on help – for both the victim and the abuser – Trompeter is firm in placing the blame where it belongs.
“An important number of times, women say, ‘I was running my mouth. It’s my fault, my fault, my fault,’” he quotes. “But even if she’s been out with five men or if she screams like a banshee… the only person responsible for a guilty defendant’s violence is a guilty defendant.”