When I Was a Battered Wife, There Was No VAWA


Today is International Women’s Day. I already did a post highlighting a tiny portion of the information being shared around IWD, much of which has centered around issues of violence against women. While I had followed much of the debate around reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), and cheered when it passed, I didn’t realize that President Obama signed the reauthorization yesterday in connection with IWD activities.


President Obama Signs the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LoxL7JyCs34

I didn’t expect to cry so much while I watched the video of the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, but listening to the speeches brought back such memories. You see, I was a battered wife back in the 70s, long long before the original passing of VAWA in 1994. Things were different then.

The White House has made available a wonderful factsheet describing what changes or has changed with VAWA.

Factsheet: The Violence Against Women Act: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/vawa_factsheet.pdf

There are three main points they make.

1. VAWA improved the criminal justice response

2. Victims and their families have access to the services they need (this includes funding the National Domestic Violence Hotline 1−800−799−SAFE(7233) or TTY 1−800−787−3224)

3. VAWA created positive change.

I’d like to take just a moment and share some personal stories illustrating each of these. What was it like before VAWA, and what does VAWA really mean.

Criminal Justice Response

Just for the record, I was extremely lucky, in very many ways. A couple years afterward, I was on a panel of domestic violence survivors, and realized just how lucky. I wasn’t one of the women who ended up in the hospital, or required facial reconstruction surgery. I didn’t end up with broken bones. I didn’t have children. I was only married a little over a year, so this was a very brief experience. I was an undergrad student, and had access to campus resources that would not have been available to most women. And I got out.

But getting out wasn’t easy. The legislation at the time restricted what service providers were allowed to do in cases of domestic violence. Even if they wanted to do more, their hands were tied. I encountered this over and over.

My husband had been threatening to kill me for years, from the first time I tried to break up with him while we were dating, and throughout our betrothal and marriage. I was used to that. I had tried to get away many times before, but nothing ever worked. I had gotten to the point where threatening to kill me meant very little, because I didn’t care if I died. I actually had tried to kill myself once following an argument with him, because I felt I could not live like this any more. Completely spontaneously, I guzzled a fifth of hard liquor in seconds, and ran upstairs to get the sleeping pills. He realized what I was doing, chased me, and locked me out of the bathroom. I begged for the pills, but he wasn’t going to let me near them, and the moment was past.

My situation went to pieces not long after that, one evening in early Spring. I don’t remember what we were arguing about, but I remember the moment I realized everything had changed. He had shifted beyond threats to action. His whole body spasmed with anger, his face turned red. When he regained control of himself enough to move, he headed upstairs. To our bedroom. Where he kept his collection of knives. I realized he was going to kill me RIGHT THEN. I shouted something snarky up the stairs, hoping it would again immobilize him briefly with rage. While shouting, I quickly threw on my coat, grabbed my purse and backback, and quietly slipped out the front door.

I could head north or south. There was more initial cover to the north, but only for a little ways and then there was nothing but open fields for miles. To the south, it was open fields for about a ten minute walk, and then cover for miles, with campus and resources. I headed south, walking briskly, as fast as I could, hands in my pockets, head down. I had just passed the bridge over the river into the next group of buildings when I heard his bellow of rage. He had figured out I was gone. I shuddered, but kept moving. That night, I slept on a couch in a women’s restroom on campus.

Unfortunately, it all happened so fast, I didn’t even think of trying to grab anything else, and had left my class and work schedule taped to the fridge. The second night, at work, he phoned me.

Since threatening to kill me wasn’t working to control me anymore, he had to find some other threat that would accomplish the same ends. He explained this to me very carefully, and in great detail. He had weapons. He had knives. He had guns. He had ways to get more guns. He would not kill me, oh no. He would kill my family. And my friends. He listed them by name, in the order in which he would kill them, describing how he would kill them. He had a detailed plan, well worked out, credible, possible, doable. And after he killed all of them, he planned to kill himself, but leave me alive. If I didn’t want this to happen, he needed me to come back. That night. He graciously gave me some time to think it over.

First, I phoned my boss at home. I had a crisis on hand, and I could not do what I needed to do and take care of the library. My boss came as fast as she could, and I set to work while she helped patrons.

I phoned the local hotline for help. They could talk to me, and they could make a referral to a counselor to help me cope with my situation. That was all.

I phoned all the numbers they provided, but of course it was evening and no one answered.

I phoned both of our families and as many friends as I could reach, to warn them they might be in danger.

I phoned the police, and relayed his plan. They said there was nothing they could do. I actually remember part of the conversation.

Me (in utter disbelief): But he has GUNS!

Police: “Sorry, ma’am, there’s nothing we can do until he actually shoots someone.”

Me: You think he’ll MISS?!?!

I ended up calling him back, and agreeing to talk to him, but outdoors, not inside. He negotiated. No observers. No family. He knew their cars. Bad things would happen if he saw their cars. I agreed. I phoned my family. They lost it. Someone else HAD to be there! I couldn’t see him alone! My boss offered to be the watcher. He didn’t know her car. Heck, I didn’t know her car. It looked like a large refrigerator on wheels.

He and I talked for a little over an hour, on the street outside our house. It was cold, but not freezing. I shivered a little. The refrigerator on wheels went around the block, over and over and over again. He never noticed. He only looked at me. Eventually, I agreed, miserably, to go back in. I could tell he was past the fit of anger, and would not be violent for a while. I had a little space. I made a couple phone calls and called off the family crisis alert.

That night he held me very gently and very close while he slept. I lay awake for hours.

Access to Services

I was lucky here, too. A few months after I’d married, the stress was already getting to me, and was impacting my health. I was a music major, in composition, and my composition teacher, Gary White, could tell something was wrong, even if he didn’t know what. He insisted that I see a counselor on campus. At that time, I told my husband that my seeing a counselor was a condition of my being allowed to stay a music major. He grumbled, but as long as everything was confidential, he didn’t care what I told the counselor, as long as he didn’t have to go also. That saved my life, already seeing a counselor before the crisis started. And I had access to the counseling free through student services. Again, most women would not have had this. They wouldn’t have had access to counseling, wouldn’t have been able to afford it, wouldn’t have been able to find a way or time or travel to get to the services they needed. My counselor knew the situation. He knew I wasn’t the one who needed to be there, but we kept those weekly appointments just for my safety, as a way to track what was happening.

That cold Spring night was when I realized there was absolutely no way out. I could not protect my friends and family. I could not protect myself. I had asked for help, and exhausted all resources available to me, to no avail. I could not come up with any other ideas or ways to get help. No one I talked to could come up with any ideas I hadn’t already tried, or resources I hadn’t contacted. Someone was going to have to die.

I thought about trying to kill him, but I really didn’t think I could do it. He was freakishly strong, had a large capacity for drugs and alcohol, and slept lightly. I didn’t believe I could catch him off guard; I didn’t believe I had the physical strength to do it; I couldn’t think of a way that would work; and being compulsively honest, I didn’t think I could trick him into taking poison or anything along those lines.

Second choice. Me. If I died, he would have no one to bully. He’d have no reason to kill my family or friends, because he could no longer control me. He still usually allowed me to go to class and work, so there was some freedom of movement. I could pick up my previously aborted impulsive suicide attempt where it left off, but hiding in the woods under a tree somewhere, where it would take days or weeks for someone to find me. All I had to do was pick up the necessary ingredients after work some day and take a detour on the way home.

I explained this logic, and my plan to my counselor. He was unable to find a flaw in either. I told him that given his previous patterns, we probably had a couple weeks before my husband would explode again. Each time now was escalating. If I was going to defuse matters, I couldn’t wait too long. I didn’t want to die, but I was willing to. I did not expect to survive. I expected to die, one way or the other, within a month.

My counselor did all the right things. We knew that I would not be able to hide things from my husband, so whatever was happening needed to happen without my knowing about it. I was asked to sign a piece of paper that I carefully did not read beforehand. Afterward, my counselor contacted both families, and got my parents and my husband’s parents to sign the same paper. I received a phone call, telling me not to go home until a few hours late on one particular day, and to phone our families as soon as I arrived. When I did go home, there was a note on the kitchen table from my husband. The police had taken him away in a straightjacket, and he was on his way to a hospital for observation. It was over, mostly.

There were more services needed, though. I moved out as fast as possible, taking only what belonged clearly to me and had before the wedding, abandoning everything else, even the large things that were mine, like my grandfather’s player piano. His family took responsibility for fixing the townhouse we’d rented. Every wall, door, and window in the place was broken except for the two walls that adjoined the neighbors. It was going to be an enormous expense. I was then, and remain, deeply grateful that his family offered to take care of this. I felt awful later when I realized that doing so had put their family in an insurmountably bad financial situation. You see, it isn’t always just the DV survivor or the survivor’s family who need help. Help is needed for everyone connected with the situation. Both sides of the couple, their families, their friends, all suffer, all need support, all need resources to rebuild their lives.

Positive Change

It took me a while to realize I wasn’t going to die. The whole world was bright and sparkly for a while. I jumped at loud noises. Had nightmares. Shook when something reminded me of things that had happened. But less and less over time.

It might surprise you to hear that I didn’t even realize I was a battered wife until a couple years later when I was working on some added copies in the library. There were several copies being added of the Lenore Walker book, The Battered Woman. I checked one out, read it, and went into shock. When I started telling folk I was a battered wife, everyone looked at me quizzically, and said, “Of course. We knew that.”

I became an advocate, a supporter, someone who shared info about domestic violence with others, spoke on panels, called the police when I heard terrified screaming through the neighbor’s walls.

If I hadn’t survived that month, I wouldn’t be here now. I wouldn’t be helping others. My two kids would never have been born. I try to make it worthwhile for others that I survived. I try to make a difference, to make things matter. But the idea of dying doesn’t scare me as much.

Obama is right. It’s real. Changing the culture makes a HUGE difference.

When the police took my then husband away in a straightjacket, it made quite an impression on him. Frankly, he had never really understood there was anything wrong with what he was doing. The laws at the time supported that understanding. Being taken away made it crystal clear that this was not OK.

I didn’t stay in touch with either him or his family, although to this day, I still think of them often. From time to time I’d hear something about them. What I heard were things like this.

He lost all his friends.
He never hurt ANYONE ever again.
He made new friends, but very different people.
He worked hard and became a good, decent, law-abiding man.
He was very gentle, soft spoken, kind, but always retiring and unassuming.

At one point, someone asked me if I’d want him back, as the person he had become. I winced, shuddered, and said, sorry, no, I can’t get past what happened. But I wonder if VAWA had been around then, if the culture change had started a couple decades earlier, if my story, and his, might have been completely different, if he might have become the kind gentle person he evidently was somewhere inside before we got to the point of involving crisis services and law enforcement.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE STATISTICS

“One in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year.
85% of domestic violence victims are women.
Historically, females have been most often victimized by someone they knew.
Females who are 20-24 years of age are at the greatest risk of nonfatal intimate partner violence.
Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police.”

American Bar: Domestic Violence Statistics: Survey of Recent Statistics: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/domestic_violence/resources/statistics.html

Bureau of Justice Statistics: Intimate Partner Violence, 1993-2010: http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4536

Domestic Violence Statistics: http://domesticviolencestatistics.org/domestic-violence-statistics/

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: http://www.ncadv.org/files/DomesticViolenceFactSheet(National).pdf

Safe Horizon: Domestic Violence: Statistics & Facts: http://www.safehorizon.org/index/what-we-do-2/domestic-violence–abuse-53/domestic-violence-the-facts-195.html

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE RESOURCES

Domestic Violence, National Hotlines and Resources: http://www.feminist.org/911/crisis.html

Domestic Violence Resource Center: http://www.dvrc-or.org/

HelpGuide: Help for Abused and Battered Women: Protecting Yourself and Escaping from Domestic Violence: http://www.helpguide.org/mental/domestic_violence_abuse_help_treatment_prevention.htm

iSafeHouse: http://www.safehousecenter.org/

Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board http://www.michigan.gov/dhs/0,4562,7-124-7119_7261-15002–,00.html

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence: http://www.ncadv.org/

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: http://www.nrcdv.org/

VAWA Factsheet: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/vawa_factsheet.pdf

8 responses to “When I Was a Battered Wife, There Was No VAWA

  1. Thank you very much for sharing this with us!

    • Thank you for a kind comment. I don’t talk about this much, and have never talked about it so publicly before. It was a long time ago, and my life now has little in common with those times.

  2. I followed a twitter link to this post and I’m so grateful I did. Thank you for sharing this. It is a powerful story and one that needs to be heard (unfortunately). It is amazing to consider how drastically one’s life can change – either for the better or for the worse. It’s wonderful to know that your life has so greatly improved, in spite of all the challenges and barriers to that possibility.

    • I was so young when this all happened. But I find it so amazing that when I tell this story now, even to people my age, the reaction is more along the lines of, “You have to be KIDDING!” So in some ways the culture has changed. Or maybe it’s just the people I know now. I wish this wasn’t something that still happened. But change is slow. A few people at a time.

  3. This is an amazing story. Thank you for sharing!

  4. My friend left her ex husband in the missle of the night with nothing but her dog and her motorcycle. She is still anxious when people near her lose their temper and that was a long time ago

    • Mine was like that, a bit. Grabbed my coat and backpack, and ran while he was upstairs. People don’t tend to understand when you react out of proportion to something later. I’ve done that, too. I wish your friend the best!

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