IT COULDN'T HAPPEN TO ME
I met him right after my mother died. We fell in love right away. In retrospect there were red flags, but I didn't know how to read them.
He had a hard luck story, an awful childhood. Hearing about it filled me with compassion and a desire to help him. Now, looking back, I don't know how much of it was real. Lying came with the package.
I saw the good at first. He was friendly, funny, interested in life. When I talked, he seemed to anticipate my next word, seemed to understand me better than I did myself. He listened to me talk about my mother's long death, and he'd hold me and tell me she was up in heaven. He meant it literally: puffy white clouds and angels with harps. This was new for me, a person who spoke of death in such simple, childlike ways, but I latched on and accepted the comforting image.
He also said, from our first night together, that we were Made in Heaven. "Heaven" came up frequently. I was a once madly devout child but had fallen away, and he was a serious Catholic, and I felt spellbound by the thought of my old faith, embodied by this man who said he loved me. We'd walk through the city and many walks included a stop in church. He'd light a candle and kneel, head bowed in deep prayer, and somehow that made my heart open a little more.
The beach; he did love the ocean, and so did I. We could spend hours walking the tideline in any weather, swimming when we could, lying on the beach and staring at the sky. He told me he loved surfing.
The courtship happened fast--a whirlwind romance--and lasted until we were married six weeks after meeting. (Not my first marriage.) Right after I said "I do" everything changed. He quit his job so I would support him, disappearing whenever he felt like it. He didn't speak to me so much as growl.
I was strong, "myself," at the beginning. But he wore me down. I was one way the day we married, and quite a different way by the time I finally left. My bones aren't broken, he never gave me a black eye. Yet his need for control depleted me terribly--to this day I'm shocked to think it happened at all.
When he yelled, his voice boomed so loud it reverberated through my bones. His eyes scared me. He raged at me. Or he'd go silent for days, not saying one word but giving off hateful energy, brushing past me hard enough to knock me aside. His physical changes were extreme and violent, frequently instantaneous; I felt I was watching Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde.
After a while we'd make up and he'd beg me to understand HIS pain, and not to leave. He could be so charming, seeming to love me. People on the outside saw a handsome, friendly man. Sometimes I saw him that way, too.
I had close women friends. I would confide in them. Some got sick of seeing me drain away; they must have felt frustrated to watch me be stuck in such a bad, destructive relationship. They would say something real to me, and I would agree, say that I had to leave. Then he'd be nice again, and I'd remember the harsh words my friend had spoken about him. Eventually my friends drifted away. Or I did.
Seeing the relationship was like looking through a prism: now it looks this way, now it's completely different. What is real?
His first wife is a great woman. We respected each other from the beginning and became good friends as we went along. She was one of the few people I could really open up to--because she got it. While pregnant with their child, she'd been hammered on the head by him, one night when he'd come home late from the grocery store where he worked. She still has skull pain and hearing loss from that beating.
He had gotten arrested for beating other women--after his first wife there were girlfriends, and incidents, and nights in jail. He learned not to use his fists. If you don't leave marks, you won't get arrested. He told me that he had once broken a woman's jaw in three places, the message being that he could do that to me.
Why did I stay with him?
Check out the Cycle of Violence diagram. That part when you decide to believe his explanations, is called the fantasy or honeymoon, and it happens over and over, and it's unbelievably destructive. Each time I decided to stay, it chipped away a little more of myself.
I used to drive past a domestic violence center in a nearby town, but I never entered--wasn't that for women who were bruised and bleeding?
Holidays became a time to brood and suffer. He'd brood, I'd suffer. Eventually we shut everyone out. He liked to sit in a big armchair, right in front of the fire, staring at the flames. If I interrupted his fire-watching, he'd glare as if he wanted to roast me. I spent many many hours feeling dread and fear. Paradoxically, he was big on sending out Christmas cards--it was all about the show, giving the appearance of a marriage. He kept a detailed list of people who would receive our cards each year. He wrote them out and addressed the envelopes. He'd sign them, "May your New Year be blessed!" He spoke about God and religion frequently, had prayer cards and rosary beads and miraculous medals and spiritual books. Meantime he wouldn't be speaking to me.
Driving ragefully: it got worse toward the end. Once we were heading to Woods Hole, and I said or did the "wrong" thing, and he told me he was going to kill us both, drive us into a tree. He sped up, onto the shoulder--I felt and heard that buzzing friction of pavement designed to let drivers know they're going off the road. I was terrified.
Sometimes there is an actual incident that tells you you've had enough. There is also a cumulation of everything that has happened all along. That day of road rage was the end for me--I told him I wanted a divorce, and this time I meant it. When his ex-wife's father heard, he called me and said, "He's left a lot of wreckage in his wake."
I went to that domestic violence center I'd passed so many times, and found loving support. The women there really helped me realize emotional battering is as bad as any other kind. I wish the courts and our society would recognize that emotional and psychological abuse leaves scars which, although you can't see them, are just as terrible and deep.
At one point I began writing a novel (writing has always saved me) about a woman who was married to a man with secrets. The husband was a white collar criminal, a banker who had committed fraud. Researching the character, I spoke to an FBI agent in the Oklahoma City field office. I told him the scenario, then told him about my own marriage. He told me I should try to talk to women he was involved in with before me, to see if he had treated him the same way.
I remembered one woman's name. I tracked S down and called.
"I've been waiting for your call," she said, when I identified myself.
She knew he wouldn't change. That is a pattern with abusers--the behavior continues on and on. She described his patterns--so familiar to me, his abuse, the way he had made her feel it was all her fault even while taking every single thing she had, sucking the life out of her. I loved her then, and I love her to this day, and am forever grateful to her for sharing with me. She came to court, to support me in the divorce. He went after everything I had, hired a lawyer who made sure the divorce would go on a long time--trying to wear me down--an abusive divorce to follow an abusive marriage. I will never forget the look on his face when he saw his old girlfriend, my new friend, walk into the courtroom.
Here's what I know: I'm strong and independent. I have wonderful friends and family, including his ex, and a life and career I love. Domestic violence can happen to anyone. To learn more about that, and to get help, I recommend reading Patricia Evans's powerful book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, and to visit websites such as The National Coalition for Domestic Violence and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
My own linked novels, Summer's Child and Summer of Roses, as well as Stone Heart, The Perfect Summer, and Little Night deal with domestic abuse. I am proud to be involved with the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center, headed up by Deborah Epstein. Law professors and students advocate for victims of abuse in Washington, DC. They take their cases to court and fight for them. Their work is extraordinary.
Good luck to anyone reading this--with love and support to you.
(The painting at the top of the page is Tea by Mary Cassatt.)
My novel LITTLE NIGHT deals with domestic violence and its devastation on the women in one family... Thank you to all the readers who've written me with their own stories. I am honored and grateful.