Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Why doesn’t she just leave? A view from inside the trenches.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was late at night. The room was dark and I was lying in bed. I had just fed our two-week old son and my husband was changing his diaper at the end of the bed. We were both bone tired.

He removed the diaper and was reaching for a clean one when our son did what little boys all over the world do when you take off their diapers. He peed. We were usually prepared for this and had perfected a technique of covering him up with a cloth until a new diaper was secured in place. However, in his half-asleep state, my husband had forgotten to do this.

His reaction was swift and fierce. He slammed his fist down on the bed, inches from our son’s head. He accused our infant son of deliberately peeing on him. He was livid.

For a moment, I sat frozen. Then I reached down and grabbed my son, who was now wailing, and held him close to my chest. My heart was racing. My mind was racing. I wanted to scream back at him and tell him that he was crazy. That this was a biological reflex and who the hell assigns hostile motives to a two-week old infant? But I didn’t do that. My instinct told me to remain quiet. My instinct told me to lie there and hold my son, to quiet his cries and remain still until my husband fell asleep.

* * *

Yesterday, there was an emotional confrontation in the Australian media over some proposed legislation that would impose a harsh sentence on mothers with violent partners if they failed to report child sexual abuse. I have a lot of friends in Australia and the story has filled my news feed. Kerri Sackville wrote a beautiful post about it, if you’d like more information.

The story naturally caught my attention. I was the wife of an abusive man and he was convicted of sexual crimes against children. I reported him and cooperated with police. Doing so made my situation even more unsafe.

The exchange in question was between Joe Hildebrand, a Sydney columnist, and Rosie Batty, the mother of a young boy who was recently murdered by his father. Mr. Hildebrand said that fear for one’s own safety should never be an excuse for a mother not reporting child abuse. He said women need to leave abusive relationships, full stop. Ms. Batty (who, by the way, showed remarkable poise and clarity of thought for someone who has recently lost a child) said he was misguided and that the law should punish the abuser and not victims of abuse.

Mr. Hildebrand’s comments reflect a very common view of domestic violence: It’s wrong. It’s bad. Women should just leave. They are fools for staying.

It’s an understandable view, but it shows a real lack of comprehension of what abuse really is. It’s not simply violence. Abuse, at its core, is about power and control. I wonder how the conversation would change if we stopped talking about violence and started talking about control.

If you are a man in a bar and you get into a fight with some random stranger and he threatens you, then yes, leaving will probably put an end to the threat. He doesn’t want to control you. He’s just pissed off.

If you are a woman in an abusive relationship, leaving will absolutely not put an end to the threat. It will, in fact, increase it. Women are 75% more likely to be killed when they leave an abusive relationship than when they stay.

The thing is, both Mr. Hildebrand and Ms. Batty have valid points. Child sexual abuse should be reported. But women should not be held accountable for their partner’s crimes. A woman who reports abuse may have a lot to fear. Often, reporting child (or any) abuse will set off a dangerous chain of events that may further threaten the safety of both the mother and her children.

While there are laws in place to hold perpetrators accountable, the enactment of those laws is often inadequate and painfully slow. Laws alone will not keep a woman safe from an ex-partner intent on hurting her.

In my case, it took three years from the opening of the investigation of my ex-husband’s case until he was convicted and imprisoned. Three years. That’s a long time to feel unsafe.

I was lucky. I had the means to front a legal battle to protect my children. I had savings and a retirement fund I could deplete to pay the mortgage and utilities on my home while I couldn’t live there, while I was hidden away in a safehome because I was afraid if he found us, he would kill us. And when he did find us, I had a friend who slept downstairs with a gun, and other friends who made sure the kids and I found another safe place to go. I had a network of supportive people who loved me and believed me.

For those reasons, I am able to sit here today and write this post.

But most women don’t have that. I am the exception to the rule.

When my ex-husband slammed his fist down on the bed, I did not have those means. I was not working and had no income. I had a newborn and a toddler. I had a cancer diagnosis. Both my parents were deceased. Shortly after the incident, I told him I would leave him if he ever touched one of the children. I had no idea how I would do it, but a line was drawn in the sand. I was lucky that it would be years before he crossed that line. And by then, I was prepared.

There it is again. I was lucky.

That moment after he slammed his fist down on the bed, I say I was frozen, but that’s not entirely accurate. It wasn’t that I was incapable of action. I was simply doing what women in abusive marriages all over the planet do every day. I was assessing the situation, trying to simultaneously read a hundred silent clues and predict the safest next step. It wasn’t a deliberate or even a conscious process. It was primal and intuitive. It was a survival instinct.

If you have never felt that kind of fear, if you have never had to protect your child from someone who exerted financial, emotional and physical control over you, you have no right to tell a mother what she should or should not do. Because, honestly, you don’t even know what you yourself would do.








30 comments:

  1. Very well written - if you haven't been in a situation it's very hard to comment realistically about what is right or wrong.
    Have a wonderful day Strong Lady !
    Me

    ReplyDelete
  2. Chills reading this. Thank you for expressing it so powerfully. Vix x

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for this! You captured the essence of it so perfectly!
    That is what we all do! We keep us and our children safe by not rocking the boat!
    I did it for years until I also finally had the means to get out of there. I was also "lucky" that I had family and friends to help me stay safe during the unsafe period after I had left!

    ReplyDelete
  4. While I agree that Mr. Hildebrand is making some valid points his biggest fault is not listening. People like him, if they want to help - and I'm sure they genuinely do - need to listen to the victims of abuse and get a true view borne of experience and empathy not just choose which statistics to use to back up their already established misconceptions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve, I too believe that he does genuinely want to help. But he also gives the impression, as you said, that his mind is made up on the matter and he has all the information he needs. For those of us who have walked this path, that feels so condescending.

      It would be like me walking up to a black man who can't find a job and saying, "Hey, I know discrimination and oppression are hard, but you just have to forge your way forward! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!"

      I don't think his offense is intentional. But I think the backlash is coming from that whole "I've got this one figured out" attitude. I don't think he realizes the sheer number of women who have walked that path and know it intimately.

      Delete
  5. It's easy and offers deceptive comfort to split the world into black and white. The ease with which we tend to dismiss other people's experiences because we think we would have acted differently - because it would have been that simple, we believe - stands in the way of meaningful conversations and a true change for the better. I wish we would learn to truly listen with an open mind. And I pray there are not too many Hildebrands out there willing to light into a recently bereft mother, assigning blame and judging harshly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I often think that if there were someone out there who might just change the world for the better singlehandedly, it would be you. xo

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, hon. My cape and sword of justice are on back order. Still waiting... x

      Delete
  6. Thank you. This is powerfully expressed - it would be great if Joe Hildebrand read it.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I'm so sorry this was your reality xx

    ReplyDelete
  8. I used to get really angry about this topic but I'm at the point now where I'm just exhausted by it. I have seen some pretty disgusting abuse in my time. I've been punched around the head repeatedly, I've had a knife held to my throat and my chest. And I've had my son abducted and abused by an ex partner.

    What exasperated me the most about the comments made on that program was the constant use of the sentence "anything is better than..." No. Anything is not better. You cannot protect your child from an abuser when they have been kidnapped. You cannot protect your child from an abuser when you are unconscious and bleeding out. You cannot protect your child from an abuser when you are tied up with a knife to your throat.

    Dead is not better. And all too often, dead is the only other alternative to staying.

    I remember clear as day the night my abuser tried to kill me hearing him and a police officer standing outside on my front porch and laughing and the police officer saying the words "well you know what these women are like"... If anyone else had done to me what he had that night they would have been carted off in handcuffs, he was not. The next time I was beaten I didn't even bother calling them.

    Sometimes you don't get to "just leave", sometimes (most times) there is no protection. All the money and resources in the world won't save you from someone who wants you dead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, Cate, I had no idea. I understand both your anger and your exhaustion. We (society) have this romanticized conception that the justice system is this safety net that will catch the most vulnerable among us. I used to think that, too. But there are so many holes in that net that many have lost faith in its effectiveness.

      I so admire what you have done with your life. You have endured so much and now you have given your life over to helping others who are alone and vulnerable. That is beautiful and so admirable. Strength to you.

      Delete
  9. Thank you for an articulate considered and intelligent piece on this topic. Many of us, every day feel entitled to comment on issues that we have not personally experienced but think we understand. Often we do not. The attack on Jo Hildebrand yesterday was extreme and I believe unproductive. He could have handled it better but the vitriolic rise, particularly from female journalists was offensive. It is a shame the likes of Juanita Phillips and Kerri Sackville don't have the dignity of Rosie Batty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anon, thanks for reading and commenting. I wasn't privy to all that went on after the show (the attacks you reference). However, I will say that what I personally found offensive was not necessarily his remarks, but the authoritative and cavalier way in which they were expressed. He seemed more intent on interrupting other commenters and getting his point across than on listening.

      The comment which really stuck in my craw was something to this effect: "When women report, there are all these resources that come into play to help them." That's a paraphrase, but that was the gist of his comment. That is so utterly false. What are those protections, pray tell? A restraining order? That will not stop a man intent on lethal revenge. Maybe, eventually, when the case winds it's way through the justice system, he will be jailed. Maybe. But in between the time she reports and the time that happens, there are not protections. Believe me, I tried hard to find them. They do not exist. THAT is what are system needs. Laws to protect reporters. Not laws to punish them.

      Anyway, my point is that I think what so many women were responding to was not simply the words he spoke, but the delivery of those words and the attitude he displayed. As you mentioned, we should not feel entitled to speak with such confidence on issues we only think we understand, and which we are not interested in researching properly. I used to like Joe and thought he was funny (if at times harsh in his humor). This whole incident has soured me on him.

      Delete
  10. As usual an excellently written article. If you have not been in this situation I cannot see how a person could even comment and tell someone else what they should do. Can't add much more than what you have written and your thought provoking comments section have said as well.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Uh. now that anecdote hits me SO CLOSE home that I feel shaky to even comment.
    woah. i have been exactly there. found the force to leave because exactly that.
    am STILL in a state of lingering fear MANY years later. People have NO idea.
    xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That fear is primal and visceral. It is not something one simply forgets. You went to amazing lengths to keep yourself and your child safe, and you have built a wonderful new life for yourself. You reached out to me and offered moral support in the early days of my ordeal. I remember and appreciate that.

      Delete
  12. You are a brave woman Kristen. I'm so very sorry you and your children endured this hurt - I'm very glad you survived. Thank you for articulating something that many would never understand

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have chills reading this, but am so glad I have. Thank you for your strength in expressing and sharing this xx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by and reading, Elisa.

      Delete
  14. So brilliantly written and expressed, and great comments. Unless you've lived in that situation, you don't know what it's like. And the so-called resources are often difficult or impossible to access. Sometimes the abuser is so compelling the authorities choose to believe the abuser over the victim. Sometimes the victim can't even get out of the house or to the phone to ask for help, so closely they are monitored. As someone else pointed out, if you fear for your child/ren's life, you are better off alive than dead (and abusers often threaten their victims' parents or other loved ones too so the victim stays to keep them safe). Sometimes a refuge has no room, or only room for one night and then there is nowhere else. Sometimes there is no way to make charges stick. Or you know to take out an order will enrage the abuser even more, endangering all your lives. And sometimes, you've been so beaten down, you have no self-esteem and believe what you are told; that you are worthless and that you all deserve this. There are so many variables, and so much cruelty and damage that it is impossible to judge anyone unless you have been in those shoes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You did an amazing job of summarizing the many barriers to leaving. It's so much more complex that people realize. x

      Delete
  15. This is a very tough subject. I have been on the outside looking in and so frustrated I could scream. I just lost a friend who was in an abusive relationship (she said the kids were safe but how could they be?) but we had to watch as she just perished. Sick and tired she wore out. Her health suffered. She tried to leave. He brought her back with the thread of ending her health coverage she badly needed after cancer treatment and serious health conditions. Friends living close in proximity did what they could but convinced her to go back. She was threatened. She was put on heavy medication for pain and although we don't know what happened I'm convinced that her body just could not take it anymore. Now her children are motherless (tweens and young teens). Once she died we were all very upset... we found out when we read the obituary her adult child sent out to us (those of us not living close to her home). It polarized the group of women she was surrounded by. A few defended that she was stronger than all that and would never have let herself die that way... others felt it was the mix of everything going on that finally just took that strength and washed it away... a few ended their abusive marriages in the wake of it all (although they were nothing like this situation mentioned here... they did not fear for their safety just their sanity). It left me feeling very helpless once again. How do we help from the outside when you see that a woman's life is in jeopardy. Legislation like you mention is not the answer.... but how.... I know you have posted ways to help before but it all feels so daunting when we see a woman and children in such danger for their lives.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anon,

      I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your friend. How frustrating it must have been for you to watch this happen and feel helpless to intervene. That kind of long-term abuse can be absolutely exhausting and can indeed affect one's health (Interestingly, recent studies have shown a high correlation between domestic violence and chronic health problems - http://thinkprogress.org/health/2013/11/05/2891821/domestic-violence-long-term-health-problems/. It's not surprising, given that victims of abuse live with chronic high-level stress.)

      You ask what you can do to help someone who is in an abusive relationship. Probably the best thing you can do is to express your concern to your friend. Tell her you're worried for her safety. Offer your support. You will know best how to talk with a friend, but I know for me, those who expressed their concern in a very direct yet gentle way were the ones who most influenced me. Being in an abusive relationship can be very confusing. In most cases, there has been long-term psychological abuse. So express your concern, but allow your friend to make her own decisions, even if you don't necessarily agree with them.

      I spoke with a friend recently who told me that, during the worst part of my ordeal, whenever he spoke with me about my situation, it was all he could do to keep from jumping up and down and screaming at me to get away, so great was his concern. While he didn't do that, what he did do was tell me very directly, without parsing words, just how worried he was, and he listed out the reasons why. Because he was someone who worked in the justice system and had experience in this area, I listened to him (and thank goodness I did).

      So, express concern, listen, be supportive, perhaps offer to help her do some safety planning, or connect her with someone else who can (such as a DV hotline). Leaving is scary and emotional, but on top of that it can be logistically overwhelming. If someone is contemplating leaving, it helps to have someone else help them think through all the various aspects of what they will need and where they will go. This article offers some additional information. http://www.nationaldomesticviolencehelpline.org.uk/support-a-friend-or-family-member-experiencing-domestic-violence.aspx

      I hope this is helpful to you. Again, I am so sorry for your loss and the profound affect that has had on your community of friends. I wish you peace and healing.

      Delete
  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete
  17. It is easy to assume the system is in place and there to help, if you haven't had to reach out to the system. It is easy to assume that to leave is easy, unless you have been the one making that choice. It is easy to comment, but only those who have truly been there have that right. Your words are as usual spot on, because you and your children have been there and luckily survived to tell the tale. Much love to you and those to beautiful children xxx

    ReplyDelete
  18. I'm not sure if it has been made clear, but Rosie Batty did leave. She took her child out of the abusive situation and her child died. Joe Hildebrand was not only not listening and showing a complete lack of understanding and empathy, he was talking to a woman who did leave and who had reported the abuse to the authorities. I believe the police had been warned that the father was a potential danger to his family.

    It is very easy to sit back and judge, but is much harder to really listen and then give meaningful support.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Drea, thanks for your comment. My post was in response to Joe's comment about DV (specifically, that women simply need to leave), and not necessarily Rosie's situation. But you are right, hers is the perfect illustration that leaving does not solve the problem and often exacerbates it. She did everything right and it wasn't enough to keep her or her son safe.

      Delete
  19. Another sad example in Australia today of how much risk a woman takes when she leaves a relationship. It is not clear from the early media whether there was a history of violence or abuse, but she was seeking an intervention order just hours before she was shot by her ex. It's hard to believe some people still think it is easy to leave.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Forgot the link: http://www.news.com.au/national/mother-killed-in-front-of-teenage-son-on-busy-shopping-street-in-sunshine/story-fncynjr2-1226887272604.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow, that is horrifying. She had four children. How incredibly sad.

      Delete

Mmmm, comments - nom, nom, nom, nom!

LinkWithin

Related Posts with Thumbnails