The War at Home

We’re at war, you know. And I don’t mean the one in Iraq or Afghanistan. The casualties are huge—over 2,000 women, children and men killed every year, and millions more injured. What America fails to realize is that this “War on Terrorism” is happening in our own towns, our own streets, in our very homes.

I’m a soldier now in this War. It’s ironic that I had to become a casualty of this War before I could soldier in it. Twenty years ago or so I became a statistic in this War, with millions enrolled after me. Despite the numbers, there is still no outrage, no protests in our streets. America turns a blind eye to it; Justice gives its victims a patronizing pat on the head. Worse yet, after suffering through years of psychological and physical torture, the prisoners of this War are often left with little or no subsistence or protection, even after being declared “free.”

Go ahead and pick your preferred moniker; the War has many names: Coercive Control, Domestic Abuse, Intimate Partner Violence, Family Violence, Domestic Violence, Teen Dating Violence. This War has sometimes changed tactics to become battles of bigotry, racism, ageism, homophobia. But the War is always about the perceived weak, and whether or not we will be given a voice. Voice equals power—you must know this. Let me tell you how I found my voice.


HOW I BECAME A PRISONER OF THIS WAR

I sat, shoulders hunched over, chin in chest–looking the picture of utter defeat. Searing beads of pain falling over my cheeks. “Does your partner call you names?” Yes. “Has he ever threatened to hurt your little girl?” Yes. “Does he keep money from you?” Yes. The list went on–forty or more questions–with the goal of making me see what he really was. Of all those questions, I answered “yes” to all but two. They were questions about whether he possessed or ever threatened to use a weapon. His hands didn’t count. I thought they were weapon enough.

My head was aching so I could hardly see. How did I come to this? How could someone I loved for so many years have turned into this? Where did I go wrong? How could I have let things get this far? How was it that I changed? The forty questions didn’t even begin to sort through the years of uncertainty that led to frustration and pain. They weren’t even the tip of the iceberg.

The questions I had before me listed the obvious signs of abuse. But what about the warning signs along the way? Nobody asked me about those “little red flags” that I couldn’t explain, but made me feel that something was not quite right. All they saw were the evident bruises, scratches. They shook their heads in wonder at yet “another one” who could let this happen to her. As if I had “asked for it.” Or allowed it. Or worse yet, that I had welcomed it.

The truth was, I never saw it coming. I was from a middle-class Christian home. I had a 4.0 grade point average that I never really had to work hard for. I loved school, loved to study. Loved youth group, cheerleading, art, choir, reading, writing. If it was a fine art, and I put my hand to it, I could do it. Never touched alcohol or drugs.

I loved people. I loved to listen, mostly, and help people when I could. Friends fondly (sometimes jokingly) referred to me as “Ann Landers.” My mom and dad used to say I was their “Golden Girl”; if I walked into a crowded room, it would “light up.” If I had five minutes, I could make a new friend.

I did not know I was the kind of person that could end up broken and battered by a future boyfriend and husband. Nobody told me that after five years of knowing him, I would end up unrecognizable–inside and out. On the outside were bruises. Welts. Scrapes. I had cut my long hair short and dyed it, so that he would not recognize me if he tried to find me. On the inside, I was in worse shape, bleeding because a pregnancy had just been beaten out of me. (I was probably just telling him I was pregnant so that he would stop hurting me; and anyway, he didn’t want another bastard brat running around the house.) Muscles aching, head ready to explode. A psyche beaten down by years of A-B-C name-calling. He said he was the only one who would ever find reason to love me, and he thought I was less than dirt. So did I. When I told him the truth, I got smacked around. I quickly learned that if I didn’t want too much of a confrontation with him, I’d have to lie. It became a habit, and then a compulsive need in order to protect myself from his constant haranguing me. I hated myself, and thought the abuse I suffered at his hands was penance for the monster I had become.

The only reason I was here, in a battered women’s shelter, was because he had become increasingly abusive to my then 18-month old daughter. At first, it was “just” neglect. Once he had kept her in the same diaper for more than a day–I had gone back to my parents to get my remaining belongings. His laughing excuse was “I thought 18-24 pounds meant the amount of crap it could hold.” She suffered from a raging yeast infection for weeks, because he would not allow me to take her to the doctor for treatment. I was not allowed to take her for immunizations–she wasn’t worth the extra cost. Then one evening, he launched her across the room into her crib because she wouldn’t stop crying. At home, behind closed doors, he nick-named her “The Little Bastard.” The night I left for good, he told me he would kill her by wringing her neck. Then he would do the same to me and make us both disappear. I had just spent the better part of three hours in a chokehold. I had no doubt he would keep his word.

Our relationship didn’t begin this way; I hope you realize that. He was oh, so charming and attentive in the beginning—such an utter gentleman. Really, if he started beating me on the first date, I wouldn’t have gone for a second. It was all so insidious. He ignored or broke down my boundaries—one inch here, another one there. It took a long time to understand that my boundaries were the only ones that moved.

By the time I left him, there was nothing left of me. He had isolated me from all of my family and friends, had taken away all of my talents (they kept me from focusing on his needs), had prevented me from meeting my daughter’s basic needs. I wasn’t even permitted to go to church—he would boast, “I am your god.” Daily I was threatened, coerced, cajoled and manipulated, as were others around us who only saw what he wanted them to see. Basically, he had turned me into a prostitute whose sole purpose was to fill his every sexual desire; if I didn’t cooperate, he threatened to hurt my baby. Oh—and he “let” me work, confiscating every paycheck, because he didn’t want to rent for the rest of his life.

There were other horrors, really too many to list here. Suffice it to say I was no longer a mother, a wife, a co-worker, a sister, a friend, a human being. I was just “Miss.”

HOW THE PRISONER FOUND RELEASE

One year later, I was struggling to make the hardest decision of my life—whether or not to divorce him. He promised me, “Death before divorce!” The advocates that had helped me were furious. “Of course, you’re going to divorce him!” My mother was telling me “there is no divorce,” and thought I should remain separated. I knew that if I didn’t divorce him, I would end up going back to him. Going back meant I would die. A pastor told me, “It doesn’t matter what he did to you, you belong with him,” explaining that “God hates divorce.” To everyone else, it was black and white. It was all gray to me.

One day, I received a phone call from a dear family friend. After chatting for awhile, she said to me, “I sense you’re conflicted about something. I don’t know what it is, but I would encourage you—you have prayer, and you have your Bible. Now go find out what God wants for you.”

After a quick, “Oh Help, God!” prayer, I let my Bible fall open. And this was the verse I read: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live (Deuteronomy 30: 19).” I had already lost a precious little life to him. It was very clear, what I was to do.

It was not easy. He fought me every step of the way, and filed for sole custody of my daughter. It is a startling and evil thought that I am grateful to him for the miscarriage, for it took me a few years to gain our complete freedom, representing myself in a legal system designed to protect the interests of a man who was not my daughter’s father and only wanted her so I would go back. Do not kid yourself, there is no equality for women in America—become a battered woman filing for divorce or custody, and you will find that out soon enough.

HOW I AM RECRUITED INTO THIS WAR

God did not allow me to survive my imprisonment, only to sit back and do nothing. I was a reluctant recruit, at first. I was a nobody—no college education, no public speaking skills, no connections. All I had was my inner drummer beating, “It’s not your shame; it’s his…it’s not your shame; it’s his.” But I purposed in my heart, if I could, to help just one woman from feeling so alone, so desperate.

Hundreds of women and children later, I am still a private in this War. It is painful at times; the fatalities and casualties burden my soul. Quitting is not an option; God has called, and I must answer. Battered women and children are losing their voices—sometimes their very lives—and I am healed enough to jump back into the fray. Indeed, in many ways, fighting this War has allowed me to heal. I have found my voice.

THE WAR STILL RAGES

This war effort requires more privates, more resources. Battered women and their children cannot escape their prison guards on their own. For every ignorant utterance—Why doesn’t she just leave?—I shudder and sicken. We cannot “just leave.” It is not so simple. It is dangerous to go, because there is a prison guard (often armed) vested in us staying. It requires voices, outrage, change—in systems and institutions that keep battered women and children fettered to their prison by denying them resources and protection. Even when women are given permission to go, their children are often forced to go back. And children are very powerful weapons to use against abused women.

He’s had other victims. There are millions more like him. And just like the terrorists that Americans fight overseas, they all believe they are the real victims. Little is done to stop them, change them, hold them to account.

He never spent one day in jail for what he forced me to endure. Most abusers don’t. To every woman who sits in front of me, searing beads of pain sliding down her cheek, I say—You are facing a legal system. It is a system designed by middle- to upper-class white men to protect the interests of the accused, not the victim. You will not find the justice you are looking for in this system. You must decide to find justice elsewhere. I have found my justice in the privilege of serving other prisoners of this very private War, in the privilege of helping others escape and heal. I have found my justice.

I have a few regrets. Sometimes I wish I had been the “perfect” victim, who had chosen honor over survival. But then, maybe my daughter and I wouldn’t be here now. I mourn the many friendships I lost because of my relationship with him. I am saddened by the lost time with my family, and the pain my imprisonment still causes, even after my daughter and I have been safe many years.

I do know that I was not to blame, was not at fault. I have been blessed beyond my calling with a wonderful partner and two beautiful children. I am equal to my husband, and he joins me in this War, supporting me and renewing my resolve. Best of all, we have given our children a home free from violence and fear. I am still healing, and have become a healer. I am no longer a victim, but a victor in my very private war.

©2008 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r