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.