“Well she seemed all right by dawn’s early light, though she looked a little worried and weak;
She tried to pretend he wasn’t drinkin’ again, but [He] left the proof on her cheek…
Let freedom ring let the white dove sing; let the whole world know that today is a day of reckoning
Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong, roll the stone away, let the guilty pay–it’s Independence Day.”
There are few anthems that resonate so strongly with me as Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It is one of a few earworms (along with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”) that regularly burn in my thoughts compelling me to stand in strength, day after day, to support other sisters journeying from domestic violence to safety.
Not too long ago, I was visiting my Mom and Dad, preparing to celebrate a very special day—their 50th Wedding Anniversary. By anyone’s reckoning, a big day, indeed. My mom and I were sorting through photos to find just the right ones to assemble into a collage that illustrated their journey through married life. Mom had difficulty picking just a few; each photo album lugged to the table revealed long-lost gems of family togetherness and happy times, until…
“Oh, I forgot I had this picture.” Mom flipped the photo over to read “July 11, 1992,” while tears sprang to my eyes—in a breathtaking instant, I remembered the exact moment in my life that photo was taken. I am sitting on a fireplace hearth at my aunt’s house, Kendra in lap. I am smiling, eyes tired yet hopeful. Kendra’s look is more–ambiguous. Head tilted away, her eyes belie a sadness, confusion, maybe hopelessness that I associate with children who are exposed to family violence. I know now, because I’ve seen that look countless times.
Mom stumbled over herself to apologize, although I knew she couldn’t possibly understand my reaction. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, honey; I’m sorry. I’ll put it away. I’m so sorry.” I held out my hand to get a closer view of the photo. “It’s OK, Mom. You didn’t hurt me,” I choked out to suppress the coming sobs. “That’s Independence Day!” She was clearly confused—“It’s what?”
Independence Day. That day I made the decision to never, Never, NEVER go back. No matter what He did. No matter what He said. No matter how many times He cried, begged, threatened, cajoled. No matter how many blooming marriage counselors He promised to work with, no matter how many things He promised to buy me or my baby. No matter how many friends or family members He lined up to help him manipulate me back in with explanations of how bad He felt, how sorry He was, how much harder He was going to try, that our marriage was worth it (“I meant ‘forever’—didn’t you?”). No matter how much He would lean on my basic human decency and my indoctrinated childhood family values. No matter how much He played the trump “But I found Jesus” and “You’re supposed to be a Christian” cards. The day I knew I was done, even if it meant that I or someone else would die.
Because I already knew that was a possibility, even a probability. What you don’t see in this picture is the baby I never got to meet, the baby that he beat from my protective womb days before this picture was taken. You can barely see a few bruises: one just above my right elbow (where it connected with a nightstand as he ripped me out of bed by my ankles, waking me from a sound sleep), and two fingerprint bruises under Kendra’s left outer-eye, where he palmed her face much like a professional athlete might palm a basketball (he pressed his hand over her mouth and nose to stop her crying because she was awakened by my screams for help).
I don’t remember if He was drinking that night. Truth be told, it doesn’t really matter; alcohol only made him more dangerous—he always used force. Once we got married, the only times he treated me even half-way decently was when we were in front of his family (his mother came at him with a raised fist one time, asking him “Did you hit her?!”—he knew he had to draw the line there). His favorite line was, “Don’t you fight back, Miss. Just remember: if you hit me as hard as you can, I have the right to hit you back as hard as I can. And I’m a lot stronger than you.” Sometimes he would emphasize those words by twisting my fingers or arms until they ‘popped.’
But you won’t see that in this picture. I do. I still see the six-hour assault I endured, being dragged downstairs as I struggled to protect my head from banging on the stair treads. Being told my thrashing was dangerous ground, because there was a fine line between protecting myself and hitting him. Being thrown, shoved—repeatedly—into and over furniture. Being pushed back up the stairs, because He didn’t want to risk his parents stopping him (they lived next door, and had a line-of-sight into our downstairs). Being pinned to the floor with his knees in my lower back, my lower vertebrae crunching in protest. Him wrestling my arms up behind my back and pinning them, then putting me in a choke-hold. The encroaching numbness that displaced the strength and life fading out of me.
I still hear his bellows about what a “fucking cunt” and “shitbird” (a kick-back from his Navy days) and “lying bitch whore thief” I was. The menacing whisper that He was going to go kill my little girl. My begging, pleading, crying shrieks to somehow verbally draw him into sense and sanity—to stop this craziness—still ring in my ears. My disembodied realization that He would make Kendra and me disappear, and that no one would know, or care. Twenty years later, I can visualize the choreography and sing the lyrics of this sinister musical as if it just happened yesterday. I can paint the utter despair and degradation I felt in the most hopeless twenty-four hours of my life.
These truths are self-evident, I AM created equal, that I AM endowed by my Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…
But this picture—this picture!—also memorializes for all time the single most significant and victorious day of my entire life. It was this day—broken, battered—that, finally surrounded by family who cared, and steeped in love instead of hate, compassion rather than contempt, I swore my independence. Gave him the proverbial bird and declared my freedom; walked away without regret.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that unions long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly common experience has shown that people are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by demolishing the bonds to which they are accustomed…
Read the Declaration of Independence as if it had been written from a victim of abuse to her abuser about their intimate relationship, with violations of the Geneva Convention to replace the list of tyrannies of the King, and you can begin to understand the enormity of this decision for me. I do not claim perfection in my role as wife to this man, but one thing I do know: I did everything in my power—everything I could think of—to save that relationship. It was not a decision made lightly or without careful forethought.
But when enduring a long list of abuses and usurpations, pursuing the same union proves to reduce an individual under absolute oppression, it is one’s right, it is one’s duty, to throw off such union, and to provide new guards for her future security…
Truth be told, in the end, I did not leave to save my life; indeed, he had made it perfectly clear that I was less than the scrapings off of the bottom of his shoe and not worth saving. I left to save my daughter’s life. That precious waif that I held in my arms was the tenuous lifeline that led me back from the brink. I knew that if anything happened to me, she would be the next to go, and I feared standing before God, my Creator, with no answer to His query on how I had squandered her, His gift to me. If I did not do something to change our circumstances, she would never be safe—and I chose to go.
Today, we have our hallowed scripts that forever memorialize our young nation’s decision to break the bonds of a tyrannical despot. We have songs, and poetry, and parades, and a holiday that celebrates our choice to be free from the abuses of that king. It is an event to be etched in our collective conscience for as long as our nation endures.
I, too, have permanently chiseled into place a day to be forever honored, revered and celebrated —July 11, 1992. My Independence Day.
©2013 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r