Shock and Shame: The Legacy of “My Rebellious Years”

Recently, I went to court with a young girl.  Beautiful girl—delicately-featured, flawless pale skin—until I looked a little closer.  A hint of a bruise was emerging from her carefully made-up forehead, and a glance at her arms betrayed tracks of purpled fingerprints and handprints from wrists to biceps.  In the process of filling out a restraining order, she had to tell me about the hours-long assault that she endured.

She was trying to go to sleep—separately on the sofa, because he was yelling and screaming at her.  He ripped her off the sofa by her hair, grasped her arms, and pulled her along the hallway until he lost his grip.  She tried to crawl back into the living room, but he yanked her back by her hair or her arms—whatever he could gets his hands on—again and again.  She knew he intended to “have sex” with her, and she did not want to go into the bedroom; she kicked and screamed for him to stop.  He shoved her down to the floor, and kneeled on her neck, until—gasping for breath—she agreed to let him have “his way.”  When he let her up and she went running for the front door, he grabbed her again.  “My head smashed some mirrors in the house,” and he pushed her onto the bed…

“Wait!  Can you back up a minute?  What did you say?!”

“What?”

“Do you mean that you ran your own head into mirrors in the house, or that he threw you head-first into mirrors in the house?  How many?”

She had a vacant look about her, as if I should know the answer.  I thought I did, but I had to be sure.  “He chucked me into the hall mirror, and then I grabbed the bathroom door handle…he yanked my hands off, and pushed me into the bathroom sink, and I fell forward and hit my head on that mirror and it shattered, too.  I started feeling dizzy, and queasy, and I just couldn’t stop him.  He somehow managed to push and lift and shove me into the bedroom, and I fell into that mirror, too.  The mirror at the head of the bed.  I was screaming and crying for him to stop—I didn’t feel well—and he picked up a pillow and pushed it down over my face.  I tried to kick him off me, but he was too strong.  He said he wouldn’t take it off my face until I stopped screaming.  I felt vomit coming up my throat.  I think I passed out.  The last thing I remember was hearing my baby crying.”

She was so matter-of-fact about all of this.  About the fact that he hadn’t taken her to the hospital, despite her symptoms of a concussion; about how he called his mother and asked for advice; about how he stood over her and made her call out of work for 24 hours, so that her injuries would have a chance to go away and he wouldn’t get “in trouble” if the police were called (in New Hampshire, the police can make an arrest without a warrant for domestic assault for up to 12 hours after the incident).  About how he took her car keys, her cell phone, then ripped the house phone from the wall so she couldn’t call for help.  The more this girl opened her mouth, the more nauseated I became.

Her mother couldn’t understand the choices she made to keep going back.  She was frustrated.  She “couldn’t deal with this anymore,” and this better be her last time.

This girl was about the same age as I was when I left “him,” under very similar circumstances.  My head didn’t break any mirrors that night, but the other similarities were too haunting.  And for the first time, I had a blinding flash of insight into my parent’s despair as they watched me, time and time again, go back into a relationship with a less-than-manly louse who repeatedly put my life on the line.  They must have been frightened out of their minds.

I called Mom to process this, and our conversation took us back to my sister’s wedding day, so many years ago, while I was still in high school.  My sister’s “thank-you” gift to her bridesmaids, including me, was a dainty string of pearls to wear with our gowns.  To any other woman, that gift would have been a welcome affirmation of a treasured friendship; to me, it represented danger.  “He” had given me a mizpah coin necklace for Valentine’s Day that year, with very strict instructions that if I ever took the necklace off, it would prove that I didn’t love him.  I was not to take it off.  Ever.

My sister, on the other hand, was quite insistent that I wear her pearl string.  It was her wedding day; she had every right to expect that I would—as her bridesmaid—do as she wished.  But if you look closely at the wedding photo, there I am with the only solution I could fathom—wearing both.  After an entire morning of being bullied by “him” (because he saw me without the coin) and cajoled by her, the stress of “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” was emblazoned on my face.  A Mona Lisa smile was the best I could muster.

20 Chris Wedding Day
Wedding Day

After causing the morning’s drama, “he” was ordered to stay away from the wedding reception—and still he managed to ruin that day.  He parked outside the reception site, and garnered other wedding guests to retrieve me so that I could cater to his continuing demands.  Was I really going to let him go hungry while he waited outside for me?  Was I really going to dance, when he was outside miserable because he couldn’t be with me?  Was I really going to choose my family over him?  He reminded me there would be consequences to that—serious consequences.  I did the best I could to maintain a celebratory face for my sister and family, but I was close to cracking.

With the wedding festivities over and my sister safely off on her honeymoon, somehow my parents conceded to letting “him” take me home.  The conversation in the car included his threats of killing my family, killing me, killing himself, because I chose them over him.  I cried so hard, retching, begging him to understand that it was my sister’s wedding day, and I had to be there for her.  He shoved a piece of paper into my hands and pushed me out of the car.  Utterly overwhelmed, I escaped from the pan into the fire; my parents were waiting inside to express their disgust at “his” behavior, my “rebelliousness,” the whole day’s events; and then they said the fateful words:

“We’re done, Kath.  It’s time to choose—it’s ****, or us.  It’s him, or your family.”

Stunned, emotionally eviscerated, I fled upstairs, stuffed what I could into whatever bag I could find, and trudged back down like a convict sentenced to death.  The note—unread—had dropped to my bedroom floor.  Grandma Grape stopped me at the bottom of the stairs.  “Ooh, but honey, where ya’ goin’?”  I choked out that I was staying with a friend, and, in her naiveté, she said, “Oh, fer neat!  See ya’ tomorrow!”  I hugged her tightly, and ran out the door, afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.  I left home, caught between a rock and a hard place, because my parents had forced me to make a choice, had given me an ultimatum.

Never give a victim an ultimatum.  Not because they will make the “opposite” choice, but because you may not fully understand the implications of the choices she has to make.  My mother still calls this “my rebellious years.”  What she doesn’t understand is that I made a choice to save her life.

I learned for the first time in our conversation this week what was in that note.  After I left our home on Orchard Street, never to return, my mother packed up the remainder of my belongings.  On the floor she found the note from “him,” a raging, ranting tirade about my selfishness and betrayal.  And a promise that if I didn’t shape up, someone was bound to die.  Maybe me, maybe him.  Or maybe my mom and dad.  But the only way to keep everyone safe was to choose him next time.

The contents of the note are not surprising; those words were “his” theme song, really.  But what is utterly shocking to me was my mom’s response to that note:  she described hiding it under my mattress.  She said didn’t know what else to do with it.  And a few days later, when a family friend came over to finish helping Mom pack up my things, her friend found the note.  Matter-of-factly, my mom said to me, “and thank God she did.  She burned it.  I wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to see it.  Thank God she did that, she knew what to do with it.”

I was stunned.  It was clear that my mom had not even given a single thought to bringing that note to the police.  How could she not have?  And even now, I don’t even know if she showed my father or told him about it.  Was she afraid of what Dad would do if he found out?  Is that why she didn’t tell?  Or was it something deeper, bigger than that?  My mother disclosed to me many years ago that she witnessed my grandfather assault Grandma Grape, and I am sure that the expected response at that time was to sweep it under the rug, keep it quiet, that it was just “a family matter.”  But what is more astonishing to me is that, even though she KNOWS the choice I was faced with that night, she still believes I was acting out of rebellion, not love.   I felt that, rather than being frightened, my mother felt shame.  Right now, I don’t know what to do with that.

But if you have a daughter whom you love, you NEED to know what to do.  The “symptoms” of a young girl experiencing dating violence are very similar to the symptoms of a teen who has chosen to use alcohol or drugs: 1) a change in personality, 2) becoming more secretive, 3) losing interest in friends or activities that used to be important, 4) slipping grades.  These signs are cries for help—DO NOT IGNORE THEM.  If you suspect that your child is in a relationship with a violent partner, tell her you love her, and are concerned about the changes you’re seeing.  Tell her if she does not feel safe, that you are here to help (and not judge or make decisions for her).  Give her the phone number for your local domestic violence or sexual assault crisis program so she has someone to talk to in confidence.  DO NOT GIVE HER AN ULTIMATUM.  Let her know you have every confidence in her ability to make good choices for herself, and you will be “there” for her when she is ready.  And then love her, unconditionally.

And if you find a @#$%^ note with specific threats to hurt her or someone she loves, take it to the police.  The years of pain you save may be hers—or your own.

©2012 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r