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.

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.”

On Powerlessness

Certain events in my life have forced me to confront the issue of powerlessness. I have been fairly open about this in recent months, but I am a survivor of domestic violence. When I first started saying those words, I called myself a victim. I didn’t think I had survived. I didn’t have a lot of hope for the future. I was living my life, but mostly, as a matter of routine. On November 20, 2012, my husband was arrested for Domestic Battery. In the aftermath of that arrest, I moved out of the home we shared, opened up about my struggle to my friends and family, lived with my son at a friend’s house for a month, continued teaching full-time and working part-time in another capacity, filed for divorce, applied to PhD programs, was accepted to the top PhD program in the country for my field, drove across the country and worked in Idaho for the summer, drove back across the country, and with the assistance of my parents, packed up my house, went to my divorce hearing, and moved to Ohio in a matter of days.
After all of that, I think I can finally say I’m a survivor.
 But no one should have to survive what I survived. And that is why I struggle with feelings of powerlessness. Domestic violence victims feel powerless. It’s part of our pathology. Abuse isn’t always about anger. My husband didn’t struggle with anger. He wasn’t one of those people who would have outbursts at work, or engage in acts of road rage. My husband struggled with control. He, too, felt powerless. He felt powerless about many things, both inside and outside of our relationship. I know that about him, and when I made him feel powerless—generally by being upset with him or hurt about something he had done—then he regained that sense of power by battering me. Then he felt deep shame, and he would apologize and cry or make some kind of grand romantic gesture, and I would forgive him because I recognized those feelings of powerlessness in him, and the cycle would start over again. I thought that we were partners, and that my job was to support him and take care of him. But I wasn’t taking care of myself. And he wasn’t taking care of me either. And over time, I became more and more broken.
 I have struggled with anger since I left him. Honestly, I have probably struggled more with anger than he has. I have been angry with him, I have been angry with his family, I have been angry with his friends, but most of all, I have been angry with myself. It is a hard truth to acknowledge that I loved someone who abused me. This recent study found that psychopaths can recognize a victim just by the way they walk. Sometimes, as I’m walking, I’ll feel my shoulders slump forward, and I’ll think “Is this the gait that made me prey? Is this how he knew I wouldn’t leave him?” And that makes me feel more angry. More than anything, the anger comes from the feelings of powerlessness, from feeling as though I am “prey” instead of a person, from feeling as though my life has been stolen from me by someone who claimed to love me, and who did love me, but who didn’t love me more than his own sickness.
The reason I am thinking about powerlessness today is because this weekend, after a year and two months, his case was finally resolved, and my journey with the “justice” system has left me feeling more disillusioned and powerless than ever. When my husband was arrested, it was because I had called 911. I was terrified and panicked, and I called for help. At that point, he had been breaking my cell phones to keep me from calling for help, so I ran into the bedroom and dialed 911 before he could get to the phone. I didn’t want for him to be arrested. I just didn’t want him to hurt me anymore, but when the police came, they saw that I was injured, so they had to arrest him. When the police officer arrested him, the officer asked my husband “Did she hit you too?” My husband answered no. The police officer then said, “Because we can arrest her too.”
At that point, we had both told our stories to the police. Nowhere in those stories had either of us said anything about me hitting him, yet that police officer was offering to arrest me. Offering. And I know that, had my husband been savvier about the system—which he is now—he would have lied and had me arrested. I think about the next woman who will be battered by my husband, and my heart breaks for her because she will not be as lucky as me. He knows the system now. He will batter someone else, I’m sure, but he will never be arrested again.
After the arrest, I heard nothing. He hired the most expensive lawyer in town, and the prosecutor’s office never called me. I called them. I tried to find out what was happening. I emailed her. The domestic violence shelter called her on my behalf. Yet, there was no response. I didn’t even know his court date. Finally, I reached someone in the Victim’s Assistance Program who told me when the date of his first hearing would be. She asked me if I would be willing to let the prosecutor offer him a plea, or if I wanted to go to trial. I expressed at that time that a plea would be fine, that the only thing I cared about was that he be mandated to take Batterer’s Intervention courses.
 I’d like to think that maybe he’ll get better. It’s unlikely, but I want to have that hope at least, and I thought those classes might help. I didn’t want to go to trial. Trial was a lose-lose situation, and it wouldn’t have been good for me or our child, but I was willing to go to trial if that was what it took.
 On this past Friday, the day of his first hearing, the prosecutor’s office called just as I was heading into an important meeting at work. He was refusing to plea. He was calling my bluff. Even though there were photos, and witnesses, and he had written a statement where he admitted to battering me, he knew I wouldn’t want to go to trial. The prosecutor had two options—she could dismiss the charges or go to trial. As I was standing in the break room, filling a cup of coffee, with my 2nd grader in tow because he had a snow day, I had to decide. Which did I want? A dismissal? Or trial?
 I didn’t know what to say. I was flustered and late for my meeting at that point. I said again that the only thing I cared about was that he takes Batterers Intervention classes. The representative who I was speaking to said “Oh, he did that.” My response to her was that I was dismayed if that was the case because his mentality did not seem to have changed at all. I finally told her that the prosecutor could do whatever she thought was best.
 I then went into that meeting and fought not to lose it in front of all of the other people at the meeting, while my little boy, who was reading Harry Potter quietly, was completely oblivious to what was happening. Then, as I sat there, my heart started racing. I couldn’t stand the thought of a trial. If he lost at trial, he would end up in jail and lose his job. If he won at trial, I would be devastated. I got up and ran out of the meeting. I went back to the break room, called the representative who didn’t answer and left  her a message saying that they could dismiss the charges.
But, here’s the rub. He hadn’t taken Batterer’s Intervention classes. She was wrong. I did the math this morning and realized that it wasn’t possible. So I called and asked him, and he admitted that he hadn’t taken the classes. The prosecutor had 14 months to talk to me, and she didn’t call me until the morning of his hearing while I was at work, and even then, it wasn’t the prosecutor who I had spoken to.
 I was a mess for the rest of the day. I didn’t know if they had dismissed the charges or not.  Five-o-clock rolled around, and I realized that they weren’t going to call me. They weren’t even going to tell me what had happened.
 Again, I felt powerless. I was not in control of my own future. My husband had made me feel powerless for years, and after I finally regained my power from him, the legal system that was supposed to protect me had made me feel powerless again. As my best friend put it, it was both ironic and awful.
He called me Friday night and told me what had happened. The prosecutor had dismissed his charges, but she had told him that he has to write me a letter of apology, and it needs to be sincere. He has to submit it to her for approval. He told her that he had known I wanted an apology, but his lawyer had told him not to apologize to me. He told her that he would have apologized if he could have. Even in that moment, with a woman who clearly knew he was guilty, he was still trying to figure out how to make himself look decent. If he had been sorry, he would have apologized, lawyer or not. To his credit, he then told me that he knew I was the reason he wasn’t in jail, and that he was grateful for that, and I did appreciate his acknowledgment of that.
I have spent this weekend wrestling with these feelings of powerlessness and feeling like the system that was supposed to protect me failed me, and today, I realized that I do have a form of power. I have these words. I can’t go back and make him not hit me. I can’t make that police officer treat me the way I deserved to be treated. I can’t make that prosecutor less overwhelmed and better able to manage the demands of her job. I can’t make a system that is inherently unfair fair. But I can tell my story. I can use my words, and I can find power in them. Because I am a survivor now. I am no longer a victim.
And at the end of this journey, I am going to make a t-shirt that says:
I Went Through Hell, And All I Got Was This Lousy Letter of Apology.