It has the capacity to render its victims a life in a self-inflicted jail cell with no hope of escape. It will cause its victims to lie, cover up and make excuses for its very existence. Once encountered, its victims are forever changed; some of them will even die by its hand. It generally passes down from generation to generation almost like a family heirloom but with horrific outcomes. It can cause its victims to commit murder in the case of self-defense. It destroys lives, dreams, personalities, and is a form of slavery that has existed since the beginning of time. Some escape its clutches only to end up back inexplicably into the same pattern or lifestyle for a lifetime. It causes wasted resources in the workplace, county and state level and does not judge as to status, color, religion or age of life. Those who sacrifice their lives to the defense of its victims are often turned away in disillusionment and are worn out and exhausted from trying to fight the demon. IT IS DOMESTIC VIOLENCE.
The reason I titled this blog Silent Voices, is that I have witnessed firsthand as a survivor as well as having had up front seats to those who have suffered unmercifully in domestic violence situations. The perpetrator of domestic violence uses evil and convoluted blackmail to render their victims speechless. They threaten to kill them, or their families, ruin their reputation, or whatever they can think of that holds their victims spellbound and silenced by their victimizer. Their victims are broken down psychologically, physically, emotionally and spiritually into a state of hopelessness regarding their plight. They find themselves held hostage by the belief that they will suffer even more damage by speaking out or trying to disentangle themselves from their victimizer.
I wanted to get a glimpse into the mind and rationale of the victim. Why do they stay? This is the main question people judge them for, ridicule them and why they are misunderstood. Those of us, who claim we would never allow ourselves to end up cornered by such a situation, actually have no concept of what we would do if we have not ourselves lived through this experience. It is powerful and pathetic to standby and point a finger of judgment at those trapped in these lives of horror. There are those who try to help only to soon awaken to the futility of their efforts.
As always, I will use stories to draw the picture for you. My hope is for you to gain a better understanding of whatever situation I am writing about and stories do that. The people I interviewed wish to remain anonymous and they shall. The stories are true though and they are breathtaking and indescribable. Putting words on paper does not do justice to the pain and agony of these lives and their stories.
I myself suffered greatly as a child from domestic violence from both my mother and my father. It is hard to speak on this topic and do justice to the horror of it. I will try to just educate and advocate in such a way that you might allow yourself to empathize with the many who are currently caught in this trap.
Unlike mental illness, I believe we do have a lot of education and even advocacy in the arena of Domestic Violence. I would say in my lifetime that we have come leaps and bounds as a society in the ability to provide outlets or shelters for these victims, programs, funding, provision, and yet my opinion is that we remain locked in the same lack of empathy and understanding toward the victims.
As an adult, having survived domestic violence, I knew that I could not volunteer in a shelter for battered or abused women or men. The PTSD would be too great for me to handle. Therefore, I had the privilege and honor of an appointment to sit on the Board of Directors of our local County Domestic Violence Shelter for 4 years when we lived in Florida. It distanced me from the boots on the ground. I could add my voice and avocation do fundraisers and raise money for those who were suffering, yet stay out of the trenches. It gave me some comfort to know I was doing something for these victims. I saw first-hand what the shelters were up against in terms of funding issues, grants, lack of volunteers, much-needed repairs and refurbishment to the shelter buildings themselves, and accusations hurled by residents of the county meant to shut down and/or stop the efforts of the shelter and those trying to help its victims. I saw character attacks on the Executive Director of the shelter from disgruntled perpetrators of violence, things said out of misguided or misunderstood information about board members, lies and stories made up about the running of the shelter. I saw an Executive Director that took advantage of their position and absconded or used financing meant for the shelter to line their own pocket. I witnessed board members who wanted to sit on the Board of Directors for the title and acumen it would give them politically in the county. They never got their hands dirty or lent their support to core activities to raise money to help finance the shelter. They would waltz in at the end of an effort and show up at the party, making their presence known and seen, so it looked like they were contributors.
What I saw and witnessed firsthand on both sides of the coin was both frustrating and disgusting for the most part... but then there would be a ray of light in a genuine show of service or effort by a volunteer or Executive Director whose heart was truly in the right place. Those examples peppered through the maze of running a domestic violence shelter in a local County are what gave me hope, and the testimonies of victims who had spent time in the shelter and who gave credence to the shelter as saving their lives, and the lives of their children. Victims who gained courage back, self-esteem and the ability to live a different life.
I will now share the story of my friend Susie with you:
Susie was 16 years old and had met a cute boy two or three times to whom she found herself attracted. She didn't know much about him or his family, but the spark was there, so she went out on a few dates with him. It was on the third or fourth encounter in this young man's car, driven out in the wilderness, with another friend of his and his girlfriend that changed her life forever. She didn't know much about sex and back then, in the 1970's folks really didn’t discussed those things. It was okay to let a guy touch your boobs over your shirt, and of course kissing was included, but going any further than that would render you a bad girl, a whore or a slut in the eyes of the school you attended and your local community.
Her boyfriend gritted his teeth and hissed at Susie “don't you dare embarrass me in front of my friends”, “you will shut up and do what I want”, as his friends were having full on intercourse in the backseat of the car. Susie thought out her options. They were in a desolate area she did not know, there were no cell phones back then, she didn't know where she would escape to or what she would do if she got out of the car... so she allowed this boy to take her by force and steal her virginity that night. She truly did not realize all that was happening, except that she felt terrorized and the assault was not escapable. After it happened, the shame set in. The young man told her he would tell the nuns at the Catholic School what she had done with him. He would also share the information with her parents, friends, and make her the laughing stock of the school and shame her in her community. Therefore, she did not speak of the incident.
This young man became a fixture in her life. Everyone saw them as the young, cute, happy couple. Her friends and family were not aware of the fact that he followed and controlled her every move. Slowly her friends started to drift away. Susie became isolated except for this young man. She wanted to please him and not make him mad. Insidiously this behavior crept in and became a lifestyle for her. She crawled into the prison of dominance this young man had made and she carried through to marrying him. After all, she was “used goods”, no longer a virgin or considered a “good girl”. At least by getting married it would soften some of the shame and guilt she felt at having had intercourse with him at age 16.
They got married at the age of 20 and had two children, a girl and a boy. He became a police officer and private detective. This position gave him clout and power throughout the community. Instantly they initiated him into the good old boys network and covered his back by those in similar positions, as well as positions as high as judges and those in the courthouses. After all, the system was “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”.
Susie does not recall when the abuse started physically. It had always been there emotionally and psychologically, and he had her already so conditioned at that point, that it was a natural transition. He eventually became a raging alcoholic and the alcohol served to fuel his delivery of abuse. He would rape her by force, beat her black and blue, break her arm, blacken her eyes, rip clothes off of her, throw her against the wall, and hold a gun to her head on numerous occasions where she would dutifully apply her makeup to the bruises to protect him and keep quiet. She managed one night in desperation to call the police to come out to the house because her husband was abusing her. When the responding police officer met with her husband, her husband laughed and said his wife was exaggerating, over-emotional and there was nothing going on. “Nothing to worry about”, as he put it. He was friends with the guys on the force and they gladly gave their friend a pass. Slapping each other on the back and shaking hands, then the officer would return to his police car and drive off. Her husband would then give Susie double for her trouble.
As time progressed, the children were also beaten and abused. They witnessed much of the abuse their mother endured. Her son tried to stand up to his father with a baseball bat. Taking the bat from his young son’s hands, his father would then use it on his son.
In the 1990's, Susie called a Women's Shelter in desperation. The person she spoke to wanted to interview her husband, his boss and his coworkers first before they would allow her and her children into the shelter. Realizing it was a hopeless proposition; she gave up and retreated into her self-inflicted cell.
After her children had grown and left the home, her husband would bug her car and follow every move she made. She took to recording his attacks on her on a secret cassette recorder as evidence she hoped to use against him one day. She set about in documenting her abuse in loose-leaf binders. She labeled the binders and filled them with information of factual accounts of her husband's actions perpetrated against her. When the day came for her to file against him in a divorce proceeding, her husband knew the judge and was friendly with him. He had done a couple of favors for him. They tossed Susie's binders and cassette tapes into the garbage as useless drivel and the judge refused to sign the divorce papers or file them in the court record. It was a hopeless situation again for Susie to believe the court refused to advocate for her in a divorce situation against her husband because of his standing in the county.
Eventually her husband passed away. Susie made her way to the opposite side of the country to build a life for herself alone. She was not close with her children and none of them had much to offer each other in terms of support, love or shelter. Her self-esteem remained low. She has given me permission to share her story, even though anonymously, to try to help others.
Where I fought tooth-and-nail against my father and his abuse, trying to protect my mother, brother and shelter them from his beatings... Susie had taken a different position. I noticed over the years her inability to make a decision. She acquired an accumulation of collectibles and things that filled her house to the brim, almost to the point of hoarding. Much like my mother, Susie has more of an attachment to things and animals rather than people. I've asked her point-blank many times, why she didn't leave. She is incapable of answering that question to any satisfaction. It is a circular conversation, which is never rectified.
Susie has the biggest heart for others. She will give you the shirt off her back. She is gentle, kind and she has a soothing personality. Yet I, for one, am aware of her story and her suffering. Otherwise, she does not speak about it even today. She knows all too often her story will be misunderstood, misconstrued or judged and she stays quiet and lives a lonely life.
Stay with me just a while longer, I want to tell you a little more.
Mary is a woman who suffered through years of horrific domestic violence with her children's father and later with those who came after him in other romantic relationships. You can't imagine how many times she ended up in the emergency room and yet lied to cover for him. He's put a gun to her head and threatened to pull the trigger with her kids nearby, once actually firing into a wall just past her head. He has pimped her out sexually to his friends and so much more. From everything, she's told me, there are many other horrific things that occurred that she hasn't mentioned because it was so traumatic. As an attempt to maintain control over her, her husband always told her no one would want her and that if she left, she'd end up homeless because she had no means to care for herself. She had very little work experience because he wouldn't let her work much in order to maintain financial and emotional control over her. Like many abusers, limiting outside contact with friends, family, co-workers or anyone who could lend support to the victim had to be avoided. Eventually after many years, she finally acquired the courage to leave. When people asked her why she stayed, or why she lied for him all those years, the only explanation she could offer was that living in that environment, it was the devil she knew, versus the one she didn’t. People couldn’t understand how the unknown of striking out and facing a future where she had no way to understand or know what to expect could be overwhelming. For all she knew, she could be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. When you’ve never known a life without abuse, you have no way to measure things.
Just as a kidnap victim becomes attached to their captor (Stockholm Syndrome), domestic abuse holds much of the same traits and characteristics. With therapy, Mary has learned that this was not her fault, that abusers use words and tactics along with physical abuse as a means of conditioning. This entails tearing down the victim’s self-esteem while creating an atmosphere of fear and financial dependence on the abuser. Although after years of therapy, she can finally explain this clinically, she still struggles with recognizing it in relationships with new friends and dating relationships because the conditioning of abuse triggers without awareness causing a person to find themselves taken advantage of by many of the people they meet. Like Mary, they are empaths and givers and find themselves unable to recognize when they move from being helpful and friendly into conditioned abusive giving and someone taking advantage since most of the abuse suffered isn’t physical it’s emotional, being a part of the victim. This does little to lessen the fear of the unknown when trying to start over because the old life is always with them. Mary will still react instinctively to certain words, or flinch to sudden quick movements expecting a blow to come, or become hurled into a panic attack by any number of things because of her PSTD stemming from years of such abuse and conditioning.
They say that bruises and bones heal, but the words spoken to condition a person, last a lifetime. You'd be amazed how a single innocent word an abuser uses to condition a person can trigger an immediate compliance response. Add to that the law isn't always there to help. There have been advances over the years due to the number of women killed who had restraining orders against their abusers because the law didn’t enforce them. Even today however, some officers encountering a domestic situation will fail to get involved, especially if there is no restraining order in hand forcing them to act. The laws may have made some strides, but they still have a long way to go to protect victims. The victims and the abusers know this. Mary’s mother also lived through abuse in her first marriage, which helped Mary enter this silent world. It is hard to go anywhere and not find someone who has not suffered abuse.
A close friend Denise said that someone attempted that crap on her when she was 20, but as she was versed in the cycle, she was able to get out before things got started very far. She was also date raped at 16, but she’s since categorized it as a bad decision on her part for dating someone so much older than her. At the time however, it messed her up for a while because like my previous friend, at that time rape meant you were damaged goods. At 17, she dated a guy who was 21. He insinuated himself into her family and convinced them she was the problem in the relationship. He portrayed nice manners, and her mother knew his whole family. He played into the family’s needs in order to get them to like him, and side with him. Denise however knew this was an act and knew to get out and broke up with him against the wishes of her family. Instead of that being the end of it, he stalked her and threatened her for two years before she was able to get it to stop. Every day was a nightmare. Fortunately, she was strong and stood her ground against everyone, which is the only reason she survived the ordeal intact mentally.
In summary, abuse victims spend so many years conditioned by their abusers that they have to fight so much harder. In many cases, once a woman is able to get rid of her abuser, each new dating relationship becomes a problem because of the damaged self-thinking the woman has learned. This conditioning allows the woman to end up back in an abusive relationship even when her partner wasn’t an abuser to begin with because she still acts out the previous roles she’d learned to perform. It starts out slowly as excessive giving, or not voicing her opinion if different from her partners along with a host of seemingly minor things that grow and snowball until the avalanche of the cycle has returned full tilt. Even after years of counseling, this cycle can continue. It takes not just counseling, but a hyper awareness to be able to recognize the warning signs when they first begin. However, seeing the signs aren’t always enough to prevent the inevitable because the woman often due to her hyper awareness, believing the situation isn’t as she sees it believes she is creating scenarios that aren’t there because she’s looking for them. Thus begins the second guessing, or feeling she’s being too hard on a person or mean as her previous conditioning tries to take hold again. This is something that is an ongoing process of recovery. The truth is, even with therapy the wounds are hard to heal because the therapy itself feels like conditioning which it is in a way. It sometimes feels like conditioning that feels wrong and is contrary to what they've learned from their abusers. Since therapists don't physically harm their patients, the therapy takes longer to take hold.
Additionally, women aren’t the only ones abused today. Some women are seriously crazy abusers. I heard a story of a woman who beat her boyfriend so bad he spent months in the hospital. He looked as if he’d been in a serious car accident. People don’t often consider that a man can become a victim just as badly as a woman can. This man likely grew up in a household where abuse was prevalent. It’s a proven fact that children of abuse often grow up to become victim themselves or abusers and sometimes both. When abuse is all a child has ever known, they actually look for it and gravitate to it unconsciously because it’s all they recognize of what an adult relationship should be like.
I can't imagine how a person with severe mental illness copes with and survives abuse. A "normal" person going into this situation has to come out with mental illness of some sort, such as anxiety, PTSD, etc. Yet, what if they already had mental illness beforehand? We probably don't hear about those stories because they probably don't survive.
I have now shared with you stories from close friends victimized by domestic violence. I have also shared that I too am a victim, as is my brother and mother. I could fill this blog with countless stories of women, men, and children, who have suffered through domestic violence. Some of them are not here to share their story. They have paid the ultimate price in losing their life to their victimizer.
I wish to weave some hope and updated statistics and information with regard to this scourge on our society, so that you can feel somewhat encouraged or even perhaps prompted into lending your voice and hands into this arena. Below is a testimony, plus some statistics from one of my friends who runs a domestic violence shelter.
Shannon Sokolowski is the Executive Director of the Dawn Center of Hernando County, FL. As I mentioned earlier, I had the privilege to work with her on the Board of Directors for four years while I lived in Florida. I also volunteered on many fundraisers and projects with the Dawn Center and found it very gratifying to give back in an area where I found myself rendered hopeless for many years.
Shannon shared with me that the vast majority of the time, our community embraces the Dawn Center and the work that they do. They are very supportive of the victims of domestic violence and the community sees the Dawn Center as a place where these abuse victims can go to leave or, I should say flee their abusive situation. The Shelter provides these victims with everything they would need, as most of them are coming to the Shelter with just the clothing on their back. Most victims that come into Dawn Center maximize their time and then, within the 8-week period provided by the county, they are able to get their own housing and find employment.
Some victims unfortunately come into the shelter under less than perfect circumstances. They may come from a rough background, have little education and they may struggle with substance abuse or suffer from mental disorders. In these cases, it can be a hard thing to make so many dramatic life changes in the short period of time the county allows for them to stay at the shelter. Still, the Dawn Center is compelled to help these victims, regardless of their background. Thankfully, other resources exist within the county that can help these victims who are in dire circumstances.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, in the United States, 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner. Statistics also prove that one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime. Domestic violence can also turn lethal with 72% of all murder-suicides involving an intimate partner in which 94% of victims in these murder-suicides are female. The problem of Domestic violence has been with us for centuries and unfortunately, it seems as though it is here to stay. I want to thank those who have lent their voices to this topic in this blog and those who serve in positions such as Shannon Sokolowski, as the Executive Director of Dawn Center.
If you need help or know someone who does, please contact that National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. All calls are confidential and answered by a trained advocate or go to http://www.thehotline.org/
With you on the Journey, Alice