Survivor portrait by Bravery Project.
What does a domestic violence victim look like?
A poor, weak, down-trodden soul?
Someone raggedy and not very clean?
A person who’s not bright, who cowers in the corner?
Domestic abuse victims are doctors and lawyers and movie actors. They may be beautiful and have wonderful educations. They have only a few things in common – their fear and shame and their futile hope for change. You know them. They are your neighbors. They are the people you see on your walk. They may be you. They may be your child.
One of them was my child.
Lisa died September 1, 2001. Yes, its more than nine years ago, but I can touch that pain as though my heart were a hot stove that still burns.
She was 28 years old, lovely, accomplished and caring, funny and giving and graceful.
She had been abused by the man who was supposed to love her for nine years prior to her death.
Why did she stay? Was she stupid? People always wonder. Why do those women STAY? They don’t realize that months and years of abuse force the belief that a woman is worthless deep inside her, until she believes it herself. She forgets that love is not supposed to hurt. She believes every day it will get better if SHE can be better, if SHE can do more. Abusers like it that way. It gives them power. Hundreds of thousands of woman are like my Lisa. The humiliation, degradation and pain that results from emotional, verbal and physical changes them. They can’t believe that the woman in the mirror is the proud, confident, happy woman they once were. They only want to hide, from relatives, from friends – from the very people who could help them. They don’t want those people to be ashamed of them. It’s a cycle that suits the abuser very, very well. Not only can the abuser strike out, he can do so in secret.
Lisa graduated from college in 1992 and came home to Florida to begin fulfilling her life goals. She hoped to secure a good job, spend time with family and friends, date – maybe find a worthy mate and have a family. She was brimming with dreams. But all of them crashed when she met and began dating her abuser.
In Lisa’s case, as in most instances, the abuse didn’t start with a hit, a push or a shove: It began when he isolated her, subtly and slowly at first, from her family and friends. Someone who truly loves you wants to know your family and hopes your friends will accept and care for him. Abusers want just the opposite. So they start with guilt. After all, if Lisa loved him, she would spend all her time with him, caring for him, loving him alone, meeting his needs As their relationship progressed, he became more and more controlling and manipulative. If she protested even a little, she was punished.
Things changed overnight. The name calling and accusations escalated to a pinch that wasn’t playful. Next came a push or a shove, then a punch – and then suddenly, a black eye and broken ribs. How could she admit to me what she was enduring? I had to see for myself. I will never forget one morning when I went by her apartment. Lisa opened the door and stood there with a black eye and tears streaming down her cheeks. She confided the truth and I begged her to do what was essential. Eventually, Lisa filed for and obtained a protective order. But her abuser was clever.
Soon, Lisa took steps to drop the charges: He told her how sorry he was and that it would never happen again. Why? How? She wanted to believe that she was loveable; and if she was loveable, of course, he would love her. Her affidavit on the protective order read, this way: “He sat on me for an hour and threatened to tie me up with duct tape if I tried to leave. He banged my head on the floor. He blackened my eye and broke my finger. He told me if I try to leave he will kill me and burn my parent’s home and I know he will do what he has threatened to do.”
As a mother, I wish I had had the knowledge then that I do now. I would have realized that my Lisa was under a power stronger than her own. I would have done some things differently. I cannot be sure that the outcome would not be the same, but at least I would have had the tools to intercede in a more appropriate way. Let me give you the most important ones.
Over the past nine years I have come to understand and empathize with women who are caught up in this cycle of violence. Through this understanding and education and awareness we can be better prepared to first stop and then fix the hurt.
First and foremost, LISTEN, LISTEN, LISTEN to your sisters, friends, relatives, and co-workers. Do NOT tell them it will BE OKAY, because it won’t, not without help. This doesn’t “get better with time.”
Each time I speak to a group, I am approached by five, six or ten people who want to talk to me about someone they know is a victim. Maybe they are talking about themselves. Maybe they are talking about their children.
Talking is the first step toward breaking the cycle. There are many other steps and many resources. In our Fix the Hurt website, you will find a section labeled “What You Can Do To Help.” Be supportive, educate yourself and listen, listen, listen. And no matter how charming the abuser may seem, when you listen, believe.