Among other things I have learned to live with, as a survivor of domestic violence, are the “flashbacks” of horrific memories that occur in seemingly innocuous, random moments. These flashes can be triggered by any of the five senses, and give me the instantaneous sensation of being “sucked back through time” to live forgotten events as if they occurred just yesterday. They are surreal, disturbing—and often induce panic, crying and severe anxiety.
These events have not lessened with distance and time; in fact, they have become more frequent. Some have suggested that now I have been safe for many years, my body and mind understand that it is time for me to heal, and reintroduce these long-squelched events so that I can process and deal with them safely, one at a time.
One such flash occurred for me this week, while presenting at UNH. A young man asked me a question about my experience in a battered women’s shelter. I can’t even tell you what the exact question was. I only remember being immediately “sucked back in time,” and swelling inside with an overwhelming feeling of despair. A small, pixie face, framed with gold ringlets and dominated by large, scared eyes coalesced in my mind’s eye, and the “camera” panned back to a sweet toddler clinging to her faceless mother’s hands. I tried desperately to suppress the sobs that escaped from my throat, the tears that sprang into my eyes—to hold it together long enough to finish the evening’s discussion.
My daughter came to my rescue, crossing the room with tissues in hand, to give me a steadying hug while the participants looked on in respectful silence. I can still see the compassionate young man with the confused question in his eyes: Was it something that I said? Well…yes, it was, but it certainly wasn’t your fault. Your question just happened to unlock a dreadful, lurking memory that I had carefully packed away for more than 15 years. It’s time for me to unpack it, air out the filth inside, and fill in the empty drawers of my traumatized heart and mind. Thank you.
The memory has been steadily crystallizing since then. The battered women’s shelter. A traditionally named Italian girl who had the longest, flossiest, dark-chocolate brown hair—mother of the pixie-faced child. She was my roommate my first week at the shelter.
“Francesca” (real names have not been used) was crammed with her daughter into a closet-sized phone booth, listening to a female voice berating her over the phone. Tears silently crept down her bruised face, while she made a few half-hearted attempts to defend herself to the raging bully on the other end. I whispered, “Are you OK,” she shook her head “no,” and I gently drew the phone from her hand and slammed it down on the receiver. She grasped me as if she was drowning, her child squirming for room between us, and we stumbled our way back to our room.
I got her some tissues, offered her some water and waited for her to tell me—if she wanted—what was going on. She struggled to take jagged, deep breaths to calm down. Her story was interspersed with bursts of tears as she told me it was her mother on the other end of the phone—her mother who was screaming at her, telling her she was “no good” as a wife, she had “failed” as a mother, she needed to “suck it up” and go back to her husband. Her mother who told her she deserved every slap, punch and kick she had endured because she was not performing her god-ordained wifely duties as a “good Catholic girl” should. Her mother who told her that she was a shame to her family, and if she did not go back to “him,” her mother would never speak to her again.
It took a long time for Francesca to calm down, finally becoming eerily resolved. “I have to go back. I don’t know if I can live without him, but I know I can’t live without my family, without my mother. I have to go back.” She kept uttering these words as a desperate prayer, packing a few things, while the pixie-faced baby looked on, saucer-eyed—I would swear in fear. I asked her not to go…give it a few days…take more time to think about this. She straightened up, looked at me full-faced with the peace of someone who was decided. “I’ll be back in a few days to get the rest of my things. See you soon.” She hugged me and left, “Pixie” in tow. In that moment, I briefly marveled in the irony that her daughter looked more like me, and that my baby—the same age, with dark-chocolate brown hair and eyes—looked just like Francesca. I waved “good-bye,” forcing an encouraging smile to my lips.
Less than 24-hours later, I was informed—Francesca and her baby were dead. Gone. Shot by her husband. Sacrificed by her mother on the Altar of Wivelihood.
Even now, words cannot fully describe the heart-stopping fear that washed over me. She was so sure that he would never “deliberately” hurt her; the bruises “only happened” when he was in “blinding rages,” usually enhanced by alcohol. She was going back to him; she would be OK. He was winning—she was going back. These were the very same mantras I had hypnotized myself with in the past: he didn’t mean it…he would never hurt me deliberately…it only happened when he drank…I would be OK if I would just ‘give in’ to him. In a moment of clarity, I knew—he, too, had the capacity to sacrifice my baby and me on the Altar of Wivelihood. Ultimately he might succeed, but I was not going to hog-tie us, anoint us with oil, and lay us down for the sacrifice.
I lived that resolution out. But Francesca and Pixie became buried in the baggage of my mind, to be awakened by an astute question that brought them back to life, tapping on my heart, asking me to remember their sacrifice.
I have spent a lot of time this week, ruminating on how I will honor their memory and the gift of clarity their sacrifice gave me. The more I relive this transformative event, the angrier I become. Angry at a man who would so callously cut down a woman and child as mere chattel. Angry at a woman who could so self-righteously lead her child and grandchild to slaughter. Angry that almost two decades later, the sacrifice still continues, and our most well-intentioned laws of our largely apathetic society are no closer to stopping it. This is something, as a survivor of domestic violence, with which I can never “learn to live.”
But anger does not equal honor, and I want their sacrifice to count for something. Right now, all I can do is share their story in the hopes that you, too, will become angry—and that anger will compel you to help make changes for victims of domestic violence and their children. I hope you will help me honor Francesca and her baby—and all victims of domestic violence—by helping to break down every barrier that prevents these victims from finding safety, by joining forces to confront others who would lead these victims to sacrifice.
Good-bye, Francesca and Pixie; I know you have finally found safety, and peace. Thank you for tapping on my conscience to let you in, and remember. I hope I have brought you honor today.
©2010 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r