Good Friday is a Time for Reflection
To her credit, when we walked into the deli to order soup, she told the storekeeper, who of course knows us both "It's a long story. My ex-boyfriend beat me up". The storekeeper was a lawyer until a few years back, and gave her lots of support, as well as saying to keep him away, as he would now be full of remorse and trying to apologise and woo her back. There is a very classic cycle of abusive behavior that has been well-documented by those working in the field of domestic violence. You can read some of the startling statistics here.
At the deli counter, the male half of the shopkeeping couple asked again what had happened, and this time B couldn't bring herself to say anything, just referred to his wife, "She can tell you", and while he dished up our bowls of french onion, she whispered to me "This is so embarrassing". My answer was that I understood, but to remember it wasn't her fault, and that people in the community just were concerned, as they always are for each other, and would do anything to help if they could. B told me that people had been so nice and so helpful, and that she felt so lucky. Lucky not to be hurt more seriously, in fact, since he pulled a gun on her, maybe even lucky to be alive, but not "lucky" to be loved and supported. This is a woman who has offered help and support to many others, cared for some of the disenfranchised elderly in the community, and provided valuable business services to everyone over the years. I reminded her that they were only giving back to her the love and respect she deserved, wanting to help her in a time of trouble in her own life.
It is significant that she can at least right now use the past tense, as many victims of domestic violence don't, and re-enter a vicious and escalating cycle of violence. We were having soup together to pass the time until she would need to appear in court at a restraining order hearing, and she was very fearful about seeing the man in the courtroom, even though she would be accompanied by one of our court system's Victim-Witness experts.
I offered repeatedly to stay through the hearing, and at first it seemed that she was embarrassed that more of the story would be out in public, but finally she admitted that she did not want her ex to see me there with her, and have him be angry with me as well. Now, not necessarily to my credit, I am pretty fearless around people, and my reply was "I don't care if he sees me, I just want you to feel safe". It will be hard for B to feel safe for a very long time, in fact she didn't even realize how scared she was until she tried to leave her house yesterday, only to find that she was panicking at the thought of crossing the threshold out into the world. DH and I had already offered to let her stay here, as he doesn't know where we live, and she suggested that she would leave the area for a few days to stay with other friends.
I am sharing this with you, my readers, because there is someone in your life who is presently in an abusive relationship. You may or may not already know this about them. You may have no idea what to look out for. I already knew that this man had a drinking problem; he had a DUI awhile back, and had also wrecked my friend's car last year. I also knew she was in counseling surrounding relationship issues. While I knew these facts and a few others about the man, I had no idea that he was capable of flying into a drunken rage and beating her.
She was aware that she didn't want to live with the problems of alcoholism, and thought that she had set limits to control this problem, but people cannot make other people stop drinking too much. Only the drinker can do that. It turned out that the limits B had set in her home hadn't worked; she was forced to move from her main rental house to another one in the region that she owns when her house received storm damage and discovered many hidden, empty bottles. People who can't live within societal or personal limits find ways around them.
Substance abuse is not the only cause of domestic violence. Catastrophes and natural disasters may be stressors, but they are not the "cause" either. There is no excuse for domestic violence, and that has become a mainstream cultural value in the United States in the past few decades. I know that alcoholism and "slapping around" your wife or your kids were far more accepted several decades ago; my own grandmother was such a victim and left my grandfather sometime during WWII, but never divorced. He died at age 56 of alcohol-related disease, when I was two months old, and then she finally remarried a decent, good man, who I always called "grandpa" growing up.
There are some signals that a partner is capable of violence. Check out this list from the California Alliance Against Domestic Violence. Some of the signs you might see in a friend are wariness to talk about home life, nervousness being away from their spouse, or excuses not to visit friends or go places without the partner, as well as bruises and other signs of physical abuse.
Emotional abuse is much harder to detect. I was not even aware that my first husband was emotionally abusive to me and our children until friends pointed it out; they saw the belittling remarks and attitudes on his part and the conciliatory, mollifying behaviors on mine, and intervened 18 years ago, allowing me to make my way forward towards a healing and happy life.
What can you do if you think a friend is being abused? Start by learning more about domestic violence. Find out if there is a local organization where you live. Ask trained people how to approach a friend in order to help. Be very careful not to intimidate their partner if they are still in the relationship, as the victim will bear the brunt of that person's fear and subsequent wrath, and often the violence escalates with each repeated beating.
Remember that even though this couple may seem very dysfunctional to you, they probably love each other and your friend will have to make the decision to seek help on her own. That does not mean that you have to turn a blind eye, either, though. If you witness an act of violence, call for help. In California the laws changed many years ago to allow the victim an out; if the police arrived on the scene, they could intervene and it didn't matter if the victim was afraid to file a complaint. The assailant could still be arrested and tried. B's ex was picked up in another California county over 100 miles from here. At a bail hearing this morning, he was determined to be a flight risk and a high amount of bail set. Is she safe? I wish there were a guarantee; I know I have lost some sleep worrying about this in the past few days.
This is not the first time violence has touched a friend's life. Back 25 years ago, one of my dearest friends, who I admired as one of the staunchest feminists I knoew then, appeared at my door with her baby, seeking refuge from her abusive mate. She stayed a few days, was wooed back home by apologies, but then fled across the country, with a ticket purchased over the telephone in great haste by her father, to get her away from further beatings. She didn't return to California, even for a visit, for over ten years, even though she owned land here. Another acquaintance had left her husband, who nobody suspected of being abusive, and was stabbed by him when she was retrieving some of her belongings, even while a sheriff deputy stood by downstairs. Her husband went to prison, and she went underground, changing her name and hiding her whereabouts from even her closest friends.
I wanted to take the time to share these stories with you, in the hopes that you will be able to help someone, somewhere, or take a more active involvement in domestic violence prevention in your local community. Silence and turning a blind eye is simply not an option.