For a very long time I did not think of myself as someone whose life had been touched by domestic violence, which is weird since my family and I lived in a shelter for battered women when I was nine years old. The disconnect between my thinking and my reality was, I believe, the product of two factors. First, for me, the term “domestic violence” evoked scenes from The Burning Bed, or Sleeping with the Enemy.* I associated it with routine brutality and obvious injury, and since that’s not precisely what occurred in my house, it was easy to mentally downgrade my family’s experience. Second, simply put, I didn’t want to be a family touched by domestic violence. That kind of thing happened to others, not us. So I rationalized: it wasn’t that bad, my step-father (“Joe”) never hit me or my siblings, I never saw him hit my mom. I told myself that calling our situation domestic violence was hyperbolic and overly dramatic. And onward from there I stoically marched through a parade of misfortunes that struck my family one after the other. It was as though Joe had been the first domino to fall, launching a cascade that would tumble on for years.
In reality, however, that first domino fell long before Joe came into our lives. It fell when my mom – a smart, curious woman who would have been ambitious if given the chance – was told that, unlike her brother, she was not allowed to go to college, and that careers were for men. Instead, she was expected to marry and have children, to be a good housewife and mother; that was her role, there were no other options. After finishing high school, my mom worked as a secretary in a factory until she met my father, a line worker. I suspect she married him because it was expected of her, and because she felt suffocated by her mother and wanted to escape. Right on cue she became a wife. She had four kids. She kept a nice home. And she still felt suffocated. So she escaped once again, this time in dramatic fashion. She did the unthinkable and divorced my father.** A little over a year later, she abruptly moved us 2000 miles away and married Joe. He was her knight in shining armor who would make her feel fulfilled and take care of us all.
Except that knights in shining armor are fantasies – ones that are especially likely to materialize when a woman has few options outside of waiting to be rescued. And the men who masquerade as knights are usually anything but.
In fact, my mom’s rescuer turned out to be her biggest oppressor. Joe had effectively isolated her from friends and family by convincing her to move so far away, and then he insidiously isolated me and my siblings from her. He was incredibly controlling. For example, there were strict rules about what, and how much we could or had to eat. I recall my sister sitting miserably for more than an hour at the dinner table after the rest of us had finished, vomiting as she tried to swallow a few hated vegetables, only to be forced to continue to sit there until she could choke down the specified amount. Our weekday routine never varied: school, free time, homework, dinner, chores, a half hour of TV (always the same PBS nature show), one graham cracker and some warm milk for snack, and off to bed by 8:30 p.m. During the nature program, it was understood that only Joe could sit with my mom on the couch. Talking after bedtime (my sister and I shared a room as did my brothers) would earn you a punishment.
Punishment was a common theme in Joe’s house, and the rules were strictly enforced. Being a few minutes late meant a month of being grounded. Shorter groundings, extra chores, and revoked privileges were doled out for the smallest things. At one point, my sister had racked up so many cumulative groundings and weeks of extra chores that Joe benevolently allowed her to “exchange them” for one week of banishment to the tiny laundry room (she was allowed to sleep in her bed, but otherwise had to be in the laundry room at all times). Joe also invented excuses to punish us, like the time a small automotive battery cap in the garage went “missing” and he made us spend the entire weekend searching for it while he monopolized my mom. We never found it, but my mom later did – in one of Joe’s shirt pockets.
Joe also pitted us kids against each other. At the end of every month he’d pick just one of us to reward with an ice cream. Joe thought eating sugar caused diabetes so ice cream was a much desired delicacy in a house devoid of such treats, especially for kids like us who were accustomed to sweets. It’s sad how hard we tried to one-up each other for the honor of that stupid ice cream. But it wasn’t really about that, I think. It was more about earning some sort of positive affirmation in a house where we felt like we could rarely do anything right, where we felt unwanted, where we tiptoed on eggshells, where we were scared.
At least I was scared. So much so that when I accidentally got a miniscule speck of nail polish on the arm of Joe’s couch, I had a full-blown panic attack. I remember frantically trying to scrub it off, the rising desperation and panic as I realized the faint discoloration wasn’t going anywhere, and lying in bed with my heart racing and fighting back tears as I waited to be exposed and punished after Joe got home. I had turned from a confident, relatively fearless kid into a meek and skittish mouse who scurried about life trying to go unnoticed.
I wonder sometimes why I was so fearful. After all, Joe never hit me or my siblings. Then I remember how cold and menacing he could be, and his skillful deployment of shame. And how, when something was stolen from our garage, he chased down our beloved dog, grabbed him by his rear legs and punched him hard in the stomach for failing to bark and alert us to the intruder. I remember our dog yelping in fright and pain, and cowering under the desk. I felt sick and powerless. When it came to my mom, there were little things, like the time he crawled on top of her and started squeezing a bump on her forehead. Even though she told him he was hurting her and tried to twist away, he kept her pinned to the ground and continued. It made me uncomfortable. I wanted to say “stop” but just looked away and concentrated hard on something else. Bigger things happened, too, although I wouldn’t know that until well after Joe was gone, and I’d finally worked up the courage to ask my mom why she’d let him put my sister in the laundry room. She told me it killed her, but she was too scared to protest. She reminded me of the time she’d insisted that he was playing his guitar off key. Later, in private, he’d grabbed her around her neck and choked her; how dare she humiliate him like that. She was instructed to never contradict or disagree with him again.
I didn’t want to hear any more.
Eventually, something happened that scared my mom so much that she could no longer stay silent. I don’t know the details. I only know it happened after my siblings and I fell asleep, and a gun was involved. The next morning after Joe had left for work and we’d left for school still blissfully ignorant, she called the police. They came and temporarily confiscated Joe’s guns, and told her in no uncertain terms that she had to take her kids and get out or something awful was going to happen. And they kept telling her that until she agreed to go to a shelter. I can’t say what was going through my mom’s mind at that time, but I can guess. She was more or less alone. If she had to crawl the 2000 miles back to her family, weary and in need, she’d have to endure the strings of shame and judgment that would no doubt attach to any help they’d offer. She had a vindictive ex-husband. She had only a high school diploma, and had been out of the work force for far longer than she’d ever been in it. She had four young children to support and care for. Leaving would confirm the horror of the situation and whip her churning guilt into a frenzy. I can understand how desperation and denial might kick in hard: I overreacted, it’s not so bad, I can stay. If I could thank the officers who helped subvert that mental trap and convinced her to leave, I would.
For me, the beginning of the end of life with Joe started with being pulled from class and sent to the principal’s office. My mom was there with my sister and one of my brothers. She talked to the principal out of earshot, and then we went to pick up my oldest brother from his school. The back of our old car was haphazardly loaded with garbage bags full of our clothes and personal belongings. It looked as confused and chaotic as the pit of my stomach felt. My mom told us that Joe had done something very bad and we needed to go somewhere safe to be away from him until he got help. Our first stop was the police station. I can tell you nothing about actual sights and sounds. Instead, I have only a visceral memory of how I felt – dazed and disconnected, like I was seeing and hearing things from behind a very thick wall of glass. I was too warm. I was painfully aware of time, which had slowed to a drag; I imagined it sounded like a series of sluggish, protracted, echoing ticks and tocs. I willed it to go faster to no avail. I fidgeted.
After what seemed like an eternity, we got in the car and drove. For the safety of the women already in the shelter, we weren’t given its specific location. Instead, we met a shelter worker at another place who got in our car and directed us along a purposefully complex and winding route designed to try to throw off any abuser secretly attempting to follow his victim to the safe house. Upon arrival, my siblings and I were deposited in the living room while my mom went to check in. Genius of Love by the Tom Tom Club was playing on the radio, and late afternoon sunlight flooded the room. I was vaguely surprised by how much the place looked like a normal house.
Our time at the shelter exists in my mind as a series of disjointed memory fragments. I remember random things, like learning for the first time that such a thing as instant mashed potatoes existed, and weighing the pros and cons of keeping a Mount Saint Helen’s postcard I found in a nightstand drawer because I coveted the little packet of “authentic” volcanic ash attached to it. We slept in a large, communal, second floor room that was lined end-to-end on each side with beds, and I remember lying awake in one of them, surreptitiously watching a new resident who’d been admitted in the dead of night settle in. I saw her remove her wig and felt ashamed of myself, like I’d invaded her privacy by witnessing that. The next morning I met her. She was a gentle, tiny woman in her 60s, and I couldn’t understand how she’d wound up in a place like that. I wondered how long she’d been suffering.
“Linda,” another resident, and her five children had been in shelters before. Her husband had told her that if she tried to leave him again he’d hunt her down and kill her. She had no backup plan, and didn’t know where she was going to go once her current stay expired. A few days after they left, we found her three youngest kids listlessly hanging out in a park near the shelter. They told my mom they were so hungry they felt sick. I’ll never forget how my mom, despite our own precarious circumstances, walked straight to the grocery store and bought them food. I’ll also never forget that the overarching emotion my siblings and I felt during this time was happiness. I hesitate to say that because I don’t want to create the impression that being in a domestic violence shelter is like a fun holiday; it’s not. The fact that we could feel joy there just underscores how miserable we were with Joe, and how ecstatic we were to have our mom back. Once we were in a place where the shroud of anxiety that had blanketed our lives was finally lifting, we were able to realize its full weight, and reveled in relief.
We reveled in partial relief anyways, because Joe wasn’t completely out of our lives yet. My mom had agreed to go home if he got counseling, but first he had to provide our neighbor with proof of such so that my mom could confirm his attendance. Each day she used the pay phone outside of the nearby 7-11 to make two calls; the first was always to our neighbor. I pretended to busy myself with drawing shapes in the gravel with my foot, but my apparent nonchalance was just a ruse to get as close to my mom as possible in an attempt to hear her end of the conversation and discern our fate. I would hold my breath and pray fervently to god, please, please, please make it so that Joe didn’t get counseling so that we wouldn’t have to go back. I felt bad, like I was betraying my mom with my thoughts, but I couldn’t stop them. Then she’d call Joe.
As far as I can remember, she never directly told us the outcome of the phone calls, and we never asked. We just waited nervously to see what we’d do next. I figured if we didn’t go and pack up for home, we were safe, at least until the next day. Day after day, we didn’t go home. A few times we went into the 7-11 and bought fixings for sandwiches, soda, and chips, and had a picnic in the park. It was just cheap Oscar Meyer ham and yellow mustard on Wonder Bread, and the same chips and soda we’d had a hundred times before, but on those days it was heaven. And we all took turns sitting by our mom.
Every day that Joe let my mom down I’m sure her stress increased, while I was able to exhale and breathe a little easier. He never got counseling. Instead, he decided to do his own leaving. He promised to clear out of the house by a certain date, and after we got confirmation that he appeared to be gone, we left the shelter. The fear, however, took some time to dissipate. When a friend reported a possible sighting of Joe’s distinctive car, my mom made us stay with neighbors for a few nights, and we worried about her because she stayed at home. Thankfully nothing came of that, and we tried to get on with life. My mom defiantly refused to go back to our home state. We used, I believe, some public assistance for a short time to help us get by while she looked for a job. She signed up with a temp agency and got work as a secretary, a gig that turned into a full-time, permanent job. We had to find a new place to live and what we could afford was a tiny rental that was literally falling apart in places. My mom did the best she could to spruce it up, and promised it would only be for a year or two until we got back on our feet. (We were still in that house when I left for college.) She told me recently that she used to cry on the way to work every morning because she was so overwhelmed and scared.
It soon became clear that my mom’s day job, and the ridiculously small amount of child support my father paid was not enough to cover the bills so my mom got a second job as an evening gas station attendant. Around Christmas and back-to-school time she would often take on additional odd jobs so that she could afford presents, school supplies, and some new school clothes for us. We weren’t impoverished, although we lived hand-to-mouth, and were “poor” by our community’s standards.
I can’t say with any certainty how much our experiences with Joe contributed to what followed in the coming years. My sister, who suffered so much under Joe’s controlling ways, slowly crumbled and had a major schizophrenic break at the age of 12. Her doctors opined that the trauma of that time could have been the environmental “trigger” that unleashed the genetic wrath of her illness. One of my brothers descended into drugs and alcohol. The other just sort of withdrew from life. I continued to do what I learned to do so well in Joe’s house – fly as far as possible under the radar. This was a stifling way to live in its own right, a strategy based primarily on the fear that even one slip-up would doom me to relive my mother’s experiences. But it served a purpose. I stayed out of trouble and did well in school because I’d been taught that education was the key to a better life. In fact, my mom drummed college so deep into my consciousness that it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go. And after that she encouraged me to get a graduate degree, to build a career, to travel, and to be independent. She, unlike her own mother, insisted that her daughter have options.*** I can’t say I’ve always made the best of them, and I’ve fought, and continue to fight my share of personal demons. But I am in a far better place than my mom ever had the chance to be. And that is a testament to her strength, determination, and wisdom, as well as my own.
*I don’t mean to ignore domestic violence that occurs in low income, and/or non-white households. At the time my family was dealing with this issue, we were middle class, and we are white. Thus, when I thought about what domestic violence was “supposed” to look like in a home that was at least somewhat like mine, these were the examples that came to mind.
**To be clear, my mom didn’t just flee because she was bored. My dad was a piece of work who I ultimately cut out of my life for the sake of my own emotional well-being.
***My brother made us all proud by getting clean and going to college. He started and runs his own successful small business. My mom tried to help my other brother through college but that proved impossible. He dropped out and continues to struggle with depression. My sister was in and out of psychiatric hospitals throughout her adolescence. Nevertheless, my mom fought relentlessly with the local school system to get her a good education despite her problems. She’s been stable for many years now, and lives a simple but happy life in an assisted living environment.