The Letter

I received my ex-husband’s court mandated letter of apology today.  Words can’t really do justice to how inadequate a letter—which he was forced to write—feels so I won’t even try. Thank you to everyone who has read my blog and offered support. That support makes moments like this sting a little less, so truly, thank you.

On the Purple Files

As I mentioned in a previous post, my ex-husband managed to get a dismissal agreement on his case with the condition that he write me a letter of apology. That was cold comfort for me. He stole my life, and all he had to do was write me a letter of apology.

And that is how it feels. It feels like he stole my life.

It’s a hard reckoning to see the way I’ve changed in the years since I married him. During my MFA, I wrote a book of essays that is titled DEMOLITION, after the demolition derby in my hometown. The title essay is an essay about being at a demolition derby with my husband. It parallels the destruction happening in the arena to the destruction happening in the interpersonal relationships around me. The essay ends on a hopeful note, but I wrote that essay in my first year in the program. As I wrote more essays during the three years in my MFA, they grew progressively darker. Each essay was sadder and more hurt than the last. The world view in them was so dark, and I realize that those essays were reflecting my own inner world. I was suffering so much in my personal life, but I was trying to delude myself about that suffering. I was trying to pretend that there would be an end to it.

My husband has a split personality. He is not always a monster. Some people who know him describe him as the nicest man they’ve ever known. In fact, most abusers are described in those terms. That is why they are able to successfully abuse their intimate partners because, to the outside world, they look like generous and loving people. And to the inside world, they often look like that too. He was so sweet to me so much of the time. He could be so generous with his time, so attentive, so loving. He was particularly sweet in the aftermath of abuse. I didn’t realize that was part of the pattern. It sounds so naïve, but I didn’t know. I told myself that the sweet person—the one who got up with our son so that I could sleep in, who surprised me with funny emails at work, who left me love notes and flowers—I told myself that person was real. And the person who hit me was not real.

But they were both real. He was both of those people.

In my thesis defense, one of my committee members called my collection of essays, “relentless.” He wanted to know why I didn’t include some lighter moments. I was genuinely confused. Life is relentless, I thought. Life is just a parade of miseries. I truly believed this. After my defense, I went home to my husband who surprised me with flowers and a homemade, special meal, who rubbed my shoulders, and hugged me, and told me how much he loved me. I went home to the person who did all of those things, and who also beat me, and I persisted in my belief that life was relentless because, if even the person who loved me the most was capable of doing such terrible things to me, then how could I still think that the world was a hopeful place?

Leaving him has had its own parade of miseries. I have learned that many people don’t care, or don’t believe me. I have learned that many people think that they should not take sides. I have learned that many people think he can change.

A woman who had been his friend, but who had also become a mutual friend, knew about the abuse. She has experienced a lot of trauma in her lifetime (although not domestic violence,) and she has gone on to live an inspiring life that is seemingly full of joy. Because of this, she understandably thinks she has things figured out. She sent me a message telling me that she hoped, in time, I would be able to identify my triggers. That was so upsetting to me. His abuse wasn’t about my triggers. It was about his. Months later, she told me that she knew some people were incapable of change, but that she thought he could and would change. I was stunned. If he could change, then why didn’t he? Did he not change for me because I was somehow unworthy of that change? My inner voice vacillated between thinking that she just didn’t understand the nature of abusers and that maybe I was the reason for the abuse. That maybe she was right, that maybe he would be able to change for a different woman, some woman who was more worthy of his change. And then I became angry at her. I became angry at her because she had instilled that doubt in me. And I was already so full of doubt. And then I became angry at myself for being angry at her because she really is a lovely person, and she has only been convinced by his theater in the same way that I had been.

I also became angry because, if this woman, who has some understanding of the effects of trauma seems to think that somehow I deserved the abuse, then what does that say about what other people might be thinking? It shouldn’t matter what people are thinking, but it does. I still loved him when I left him. I wasn’t one of those women who had already fallen out of love with her abuser. I left him because it wasn’t safe for me to be with him, but in addition to navigating the terrain of getting out of an abusive relationship, I also had to navigate the grief of losing the person who I thought would be my partner for life. That grief was the worst part, and I needed a lot of validation. I needed validation that what I was doing was right. I needed validation that I hadn’t deserved the abuse, that nothing I could have done could have justified that abuse. I needed validation that I wasn’t the reason for his behavior. I needed to not be told that he could change.

And that validation was what I was looking for in his prosecution. But I didn’t get it. The assistant prosecutor in Monongalia County who was responsible for his case never contacted me. In the 14 months that his case was pending, she didn’t speak to me once. I tried to contact her. I sent her emails. I forwarded emails to her where he admitted to the abuse. I requested that he take Batterer’s Intervention courses. I called her. I tried. I tried everything I could to get my voice heard. And she simply didn’t care. Her lack of consideration for me made me feel as worthless as the abuse had. At one point, when I spoke to a representative from the Victim’s Assistance Program, I told her “It just makes me feel hopeless about being a woman in West Virginia.” That representative told me that she understood. She also told me that Monongalia County is worse than other counties, and that it’s not just women. Many of their victims never get the justice they deserve, she said.

That was both validating and upsetting. I spoke with a friend of mine who is an attorney in California. I laid out the details of the case, and she couldn’t believe the assistant prosecutor hadn’t taken it to trial. She said the case would have been a “slam dunk.” After speaking with my friend who is a wonderful advocate and activist, I decided that I needed to pursue this, that I couldn’t be bogged down in powerlessness. I called the prosecutor in Monongalia County to air my concerns. She did not call me back. I called again. I requested a copy of the police report. I filed an official complaint with the police department about the officer’s handling of the arrest. Finally, I called the prosecutor’s office and left a message saying that, if she didn’t call me back, I was going to go to the newspapers.

She called me that day. She put me on a conference call with the assistant prosecutor, and I aired my concerns about how the case had been mishandled. The assistant prosecutor back-pedaled and justified. She was also unkind. She victim-blamed me. The woman who is responsible for all of the domestic violence prosecutions in Monongalia county victim-blamed me. I have so many wonderful friends in Monongalia County, but when I think of West Virginia, I get a little sick. West Virginia was the state where the assistant prosecutor who was responsible for prosecuting my abusive husband victim-blamed me.

After that conversation, I felt even worse. My lawyer friend suggested that I file a bar complaint in addition to taking other steps. She called the prosecutor’s office herself, and they treated her just as poorly as they had treated me. That, at least, made me feel that I wasn’t unique in my mistreatment, that it wasn’t a reflection of me as an individual. When the prosecutor’s office realized I was in contact with an attorney, the prosecutor called me back. She put me on a conference call again. I aired all of my concerns again. The assistant prosecutor, again, victim-blamed me. She also denied things, but as the conversation progressed, it became apparent that the assistant prosecutor hadn’t even read the file. She didn’t even know that I had called 911. It was too late to get a copy of the 911 call where had I told the 911 operator in panic that my husband was abusing me while he screamed at me that I was a “fucking bitch.” She had never even read the email I had forwarded to her after the arrest where he admitted that he had abused me, where he said that I hadn’t done anything to deserve it, and that he hoped he could come home the next day. She had an email with a confession, and she had never even opened it. The prosecutor’s tone grew increasingly more compassionate. The assistant prosecutor’s tone grew increasingly more defensive.

Then, the assistant prosecutor had to leave because she had to be in court. I spoke with the prosecutor for over an hour. She was able to see me as a person, rather than a complaint. She sounded dismayed by what had happened. She also sounded concerned and sincere. She asked about our son. She asked if my ex-husband was dating again. She asked about my well-being. She asked if I was getting therapy. She told me the domestic violence files are purple. They call them the “purple files.” She told me that she was glad I was able to recognize how destructive my situation was, that so many of their victims never get out. She told me that she was glad I was able to leave the city, glad that I’m educated, glad that I can now have a civil relationship with my ex. She told me how fortunate I am in that regard, that so many of their “purple files” never get resolved. And I told her that domestic violence is like being brainwashed. It’s like being in a cult and the abuser is the cult leader. It can happen to anyone. Even middle-class, educated women like me.

I don’t think her concern was an act. I think she really did care. She asked if I had received my letter of apology (I hadn’t). After our hour long conversation, she said that she would look into the case.

Today, on Thursday, she called me back. She had gotten the letter of apology from his lawyer and was putting it in the mail. She then shocked me completely. She said that she had looked back over the file, that she knew I thought they had messed up the case, and that, after looking at the file, she agreed. She thought I was right. She said that they try to do things differently, but sometimes mistakes get made, and it was clear that mistakes were made in this case. She then said that, on behalf of the state, she wanted to apologize. She said that she knew it didn’t change the outcome of the case, but that she wanted me to know I was right.

I was right. Oh my god, I was right.

In our discussion on Tuesday, the prosecutor also called him a “piece of shit,” which gave me some of the validation I needed. He wasn’t just a generally good guy who had lapsed and treated his wife poorly a few times. He was a piece of shit. And I was right.

On the Pain Scale

Since starting this blog, I have had a lot of women reach out to me with their own struggles, and I have noticed a troubling pattern in those correspondences. Many of these women have begun their letters with the line, “I know my situation is not as bad as yours.” I wasn’t really aware of this, until a friend who divorced recently, and who I have been corresponding with fairly regularly, wrote me a message that included that line. She then proceeded to describe a horrific pattern of emotional abuse from her partner that continues to this day, even after the divorce has been finalized.
I remember thinking that my situation wasn’t as bad as hers. Mine, at least, is over. I don’t live in the same town as my ex-husband, and my ex doesn’t want to go to jail, lose his job, or lose the amount of child custody that he has. That gives him a lot of incentive to leave me alone, which he generally does, although there are occasional flare-ups and threats.
But comparing my situation to my friend’s does no good. These comparisons, themselves, are destructive. On a pain scale of 1-10, if the pain is a 10, it’s a 10. It doesn’t matter if the pain is a 10 because of physical abuse, or emotional abuse, or a combination of the two. At some point, the pain reaches a critical mass.
When I left my husband, I had a friend who had been volunteering at a domestic violence shelter. We were talking about the abuse, and she pointed out to me that the emotional abuse was more damaging than the physical, but I didn’t really believe her. At this point, I was still very aware of the consequences of the physical abuse. It had been over a month since I had left my husband, and I hadn’t quite healed from my injury. I had vivid memories of the pain of abuse, and the physical abuse had made me aware of my body in uncomfortable ways. I was conscious of the way I carried myself. My body surrounded me—soft, vulnerable, and exposed. When he hit me, I felt that he was trying to get at something deeper, something that couldn’t be reached. He was trying to punch through to what someone in my blog’s comments referred to as my “soul’s pilot light.”
There was a moment in our marriage when, during an argument, he unscrewed one of the bed knobs from our iron bed and threw it at me. It hit the wall and broke through the plaster. I shook uncontrollably. I was just beginning to exhibit the symptoms of PTSD. A month earlier, he had thrown a heavy coffee mug at me. It hit my leg, and the pain almost made me black out. Then, he picked the mug back up and held it up to throw at me again. I begged him not to, but he paused for a moment, then smiled a mean, ugly smile and threw it at me again. It shattered against my elbow. My elbow swelled up like a black grapefruit, and a knot formed on my forearm. That knot has never fully gone away.
As he stood over me with that heavy bed knob, I remembered him with that mug in his hand. I realized that begging was useless. If he was going to hurt me, then he was going to hurt me. He smiled the same mean, ugly smile and threw the other bed knob. He missed, but I couldn’t stop shaking and crying. Then, he mocked me. He made fun of me for my shaking. He told me that I was acting like a baby. He pantomimed crying like a baby.
After I left him, when I moved back into the house we owned together, those holes were still in the wall. I had to go to bed alone underneath them. I tried not to look at them, but sometimes, I couldn’t stop myself. The shaking commenced again, and I was taken back to that moment. He hadn’t even touched me that time, but that is still one of my most traumatic memories, in part, because of the way he mocked me. I was ashamed. I had felt like a child because of my response. I had felt weak.
During my marriage, I spent a lot of time comparing myself to others, and for a long time, I convinced myself that I wasn’t really in an abusive marriage. Our situation wasn’t like the abusive marriages that I had seen on the Lifetime Movie Network. My ex-husband was usually very kind to me, and only had those explosions occasionally. We were middle-class. We were educated. We were not like thosepeople.
The day that I left him was not the day he was arrested. I stayed for two days after that. I thought the arrest might be the impetus for him to change, but his anger was worse, and I was very scared. My mom texted me in secret and made me promise that I would go to the Domestic Violence Shelter. I lied and told him that I was going to go grade papers, then I went to see a counselor at the Domestic Violence Shelter. She showed me the cycle of abuse—tension building, battering incident, reconciliation, calm. It was so familiar. She explained to me that, as the abuse escalated, we would spend less and less time in the calm stage, and more in the tension building stage. She explained to me that the inevitable end to the cycle was death. My death.
It was all so familiar, but I still downplayed my situation because I felt I didn’t have the right to be taking up her time. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You probably see women who are so much worse off. I realize that my situation isn’t as bad as those other women’s.”
She looked at me in surprise, then said “No, your situation is bad. It’s really bad.” 
And she was right.

My comparison between myself and some other woman who I thought had it worse than me meant that I had been willing to accept things that weren’t acceptable, and that’s what I see people doing all the time. Now that I’m well out of my relationship, I’m able to recognize that the emotional abuse truly is more damaging than the physical abuse. My memories of the pain of his fists are not as vivid, but I still hear his voice in my head. I still hear the horrible things he said to me. My husband emotionally abused me before he started physically abusing me, and maybe that’s why I stayed for so long after the abuse got physical, because by the time he started physically abusing me, I was already at a 10 on the pain scale. There was no higher for me to go. That’s why I’ll never look at another person and tell myself that they don’t have it as bad as I had it. It doesn’t work that way. Suffering is suffering. Comparisons are useless.

On Secrets

My ex-husband is a liar. That sounds harsh, but it’s true. When we married, I didn’t know him very well. He had many secrets that he had kept from me, and they trickled out over the years. Some of them I didn’t even find out until after we divorced. I’ll probably never really know the full truth about everything. When I first found out some of the secrets, I was understandably hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked.

“Because I knew you would leave me,” he said.

I was genuinely confused. “Why would you want to marry someone who would have left you?” I asked.

He never answered that question, but I think it was about control. If he could control the information that I had access to, then he could control me. And abuse, above all, is about control.

When I left my husband, he had a different story for everyone he spoke to about why we had split up. If he was talking to a man who was sympathetic to the “women are crazy” excuse, then his story was that I was crazy. If he was talking to someone who didn’t know me very well, then his story was that I abused him. If he was talking to someone who knew about the abuse but stayed in contact with him anyway, then he just didn’t say anything.

Last summer, he met up with some friends of his who had also become friends of mine over the years. After he saw them, he sent me an email telling me that he had told our friends how much we loved each other, and how much we had tried to make things work, but just couldn’t. These friends were, he said, all very sad for us and very supportive. At first, when I read that email, I felt touched, then it hit me that his story was completely untrue. We divorced because he was abusive. There were, of course, other reasons also, but the dominant one was because he hit me. He hit me frequently and violently. His email was self-serving, I realized. He wanted me to remain complicit in his lies, just as I had remained complicit for so many years.

Because I had been complicit. I had helped him. I had helped him abuse me.

I am not a comfortable liar. I am more known for being uncomfortably honest. But when my husband was abusing me, I was forced to lie. I lied to protect myself, but I mostly lied to protect him.

He didn’t abuse me frequently throughout our marriage. In the early years, there were some isolated incidents that I was able to excuse as outliers. His abuse didn’t become frequent until after we had moved across the country. I was isolated by then, which is part of the pattern. I had no family or friends nearby. I think that some people think that all abusers start abusing the minute the relationship starts, but it’s not always that way. Sometimes it’s a slow buildup. Sometimes the abuser waits until the bonds feel too strong to break.

I don’t remember the first time I had to lie to someone about the bruises, but a couple of times are rendered in my memory vividly. My friend Rebecca came over, and I had forgotten about the bruise on my arm. I had forgotten to wear long sleeves. She asked what had happened in horror. He was there–my husband–looking at me, waiting to see what I would say. I panicked. I told her that I had done it in my sleep, that I didn’t even remember it. I told her that I thought I was anemic. She couldn’t imagine how I could have possibly not remembered that happening because the bruise was so large, but she trusted me, and she trusted him, so she accepted my story.

Another time, we were babysitting our nephews while his brother and my sister-in-law went to a football game. He had attacked me the night before. It was very, very hot in our house, but I wore long sleeves in order to cover up the bruises on my arms (the visible bruises were usually on my arms because I raised my arms as a defensive measure.) As we spoke to my in-laws, I was sweating inside of my shirt. I wanted to push my sleeves up so badly, but I couldn’t. We had a friendly conversation. There was lots of laughing, but I was dying inside. I wanted to scream “This isn’t real. What you are seeing is not my life.”

The last time I remember lying, I had lunch with two friends, including the same friend who had asked about the large bruise on my arm. I had worn long sleeves to the lunch, but I couldn’t hide the fact that my hand was bruised and swollen. I told them I had shut it in the door. I felt that I was lying poorly. I felt that they would surely see through the lie, but they accepted it.

The truth was trapped in my throat. I wanted those words to fall out of my mouth like rocks. I wanted to let go of that pain. I wanted to say Help Me, but I didn’t.

After he was arrested, I told all of my best friends. I partly told them as an insurance policy. I knew that, if they knew, they would never let me go back to him, and I didn’t trust myself yet. I didn’t trust myself not to give him another chance.

I tell my son that no one can ever ask him to lie about anything. I tell him that he can always tell me the truth. I hope that he always does. I hope that he always trusts me enough to tell me the truth.

A friend today sent me a message on Facebook telling me that she appreciates my blog. “It takes a lot to stand up and tell your story,” she said. “People will scrutinize and judge. But, even more people will connect to something you write.”

I hope this is true. I am very aware that some people will judge me for my honesty. I am also aware that some people will react with disbelief. But secrets are shame. Secrets are wrong. When I became complicit in my husband’s secrets, I became complicit in my own abuse. I am no longer keeping his secrets. I don’t owe that to him, but I owe myself the truth.

Survivor Stories, Guest Post

One of the goals of my blog is to provide the opportunity to other survivors to share their stories. Most domestic violence stories have similarities, but they are also each unique to the couple and individual. After I created my blog, I was contacted on Facebook by an amazing woman who had found my blog through a friend. She could identify with my anger and said that her anger had provided her with motivation unlike any before. She started college 2.5 years ago with 3 children, a 10th grade education, and a GED. She will graduate next year Magna Cum Laude and continue on to law school. To say that I was impressed is an understatement. I wasn’t just impressed, I was inspired. She is a testament to what can be accomplished in the wake of deep, personal pain, and her story shows how anger can be purposeful instead of purposeless. I asked her if she would share her story here, and I am honored that she agreed.

Here is her story in her own words:

I was married for ten years. I was controlled, beaten, raped, and used. I was not allowed to drive, go to school, or work for most of my marriage. I was called crazy, stupid, incompetent, and worthless. I was cheated on, lied to, raped then laughed at, bruised and isolated, and I stayed.

The previous lines have been the only words I have typed about my marriage since I left almost 3 years ago. But today I feel like I can do more; I can give women that are in the middle of the storm a means to connect with someone that who can validate their feelings. So, let me start by saying this:

My ex-husband used extreme manipulation to convince me that my strengths were in fact my greatest weaknesses. The game of power and control has only one winner and that person will destroy everything in their path. I had to learn this reality after years of changing every little attribute about myself that he deemed flawed.  In the end nothing mattered, no change was enough, no effort proved my worth. The reality is that it was not due to anything that was lacking in me because the defect had always lived in him. He was broken and simply put, I could NOT fix him.

Many women leave and go back. On average it is seven times before a woman stops going back to her abuser. For me, I had left two times before the final escape. My going back was not because I was weak, but because I believed I loved him. I also believed that my children deserved my best effort. In the end, if there was a way of making it work, I believe I would have figured it out in ten years. When I left that last time, it was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made, mostly, I believe because I was not a quitter. I wanted the dream, the fairytale of ever-after, and it was so devastating when I had to admit that it was not obtainable with my husband.

The sadness that came with this realization was all consuming, and threatened to engulf my very being, if it had not been for a tiny glimmer of an idea which was, “You could be free.” I had forgotten what it was like to make my own decisions. For years, I worried constantly out of necessity about every little action I chose, from the type of hamburger I bought, to the way I mopped the floor. I yearned for his approval and feared his disappointment. But now… now I could be free. This was one of the most difficult concepts for me to wrap my head around freedom. It scared me to think about all the decisions that I would be solely responsible to make. After ten years, I had forgotten how to make a decision that was not completely consumed by his wants. But there was also a contained excitement.  

Over that first year, the possibilities that came with my rebirth and freedom became infinite. I was able to make some of the most challenging decisions of my life with an ever increasing ease that I never believed was possible. Now when I look back over the last thirteen years of my life, I am grateful for the journey that has brought me to this moment. I am now strong, independent, driven, intelligent, and the healthiest mom I can be. My life has truly just begun… I am Free…

Guest Blogger’s Bio: A mom of three young children that currently is a junior in college and is on track to graduate with honors. She is active in her community and has done several television and newspaper interviews on the legal and emotional effects of domestic and sexual assault. She will be attending law school after she completes her undergraduate degree.

A Celebrity Example

I spoke with my mother this morning, and she has some concerns about this blog. She doesn’t want me to make myself vulnerable to others, which is understandable–I am scared of that also–but at the same time, I don’t feel I can be silent any longer. My struggle for justice has not been the exception. It has been the rule. When I was speaking with a representative from the Victim’s Assistance Program, I said “It just makes me feel hopeless about being a woman in West Virginia.” 
She sighed, then said. “You’re right. And it’s not just the women in Mon County. It’s all of our victims. Many of them don’t get the justice they deserve.”
In an open letter for the New York Times, Dylan Farrow writes about a similar frustration. She also writes, “But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me – to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories – have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.”
Her letter came at just the right time for me–a time when I was questioning whether I should persist with this blog, but I’m inspired by Farrow. Yesterday, after I posted my blog, so many people reached out to me. It was difficult in ways. I hadn’t properly prepared myself to hear so many painful stories. I cried this morning for a long time, but reading this letter today reinforced to me the importance of not being silenced, and if at some point, I find that it’s too difficult for me to chronicle these journeys, then I’ll give myself a break.
But for now, I already have a guest post from an amazing woman who found my blog yesterday, and I will be posting it tomorrow. It shows the incredible resilience and power of a woman in the aftermath of domestic violence, and I am honored that she has chosen to share it here.
I’d also like to recommend Farrow’s letter, which shows that this injustice isn’t something unique to West Virginia. It’s everywhere. 
And an excerpt:

When I asked my mother if her dad did to her what Woody Allen did to me, I honestly did not know the answer. I also didn’t know the firestorm it would trigger. I didn’t know that my father would use his sexual relationship with my sister to cover up the abuse he inflicted on me. I didn’t know that he would accuse my mother of planting the abuse in my head and call her a liar for defending me. I didn’t know that I would be made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying as part of a legal battle I couldn’t possibly understand. At one point, my mother sat me down and told me that I wouldn’t be in trouble if I was lying – that I could take it all back. I couldn’t. It was all true. But sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily. There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.”