Lessons Learned From Survivors
by Elaine Weiss
I presented this speech to over 500 business and community leaders in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 3, 2005. The event, hosted by the YWCA of Salt Lake City, was designed to raise community awareness and support for the YWCA’s programs for abused women and children.
Lessons Learned From Survivors
If you’re ever at a party, and you want to bring a conversation to a screeching halt, just casually mention that you teach and write about domestic abuse. After the dead silence, everyone will start talking again, very, very fast. Some people will change the subject. I get it: domestic abuse is hard to think about. Some people will make a silly joke. I get that, too. Domestic abuse makes people nervous.
But there will be other people who will ask questions. Good questions. I’m always glad for a little educational opportunity, so I answer their questions. But as I’m answering, I’m waiting for it. The one question that I know I’m going to hear. “Why don’t these women just leave?”
The fact is, abused women do leave. They leave all the time. Against all odds, often at enormous risk, they leave. The good stories are out there. We just have to listen.
Hundreds of women have trusted me with their stories of how they broke free of abuse. Perhaps this is because I listen without judgment. Perhaps it is also because they recognize in me a fellow survivor: someone who will understand. I have become the keeper of their stories.
This morning, I want to share three of these stories.
The first woman I want to tell you about let’s call Peg McBride. Peg and Ira met in college; they married when she was nineteen. He didn’t physically abuse her very often, but he was mighty good at psychological abuse.
Ira had what I like to call “bad empathy”: the ability to figure out Peg’s weak spots, and then use them against her. You might think that’s not so bad, considering the alternative, and in a way you’re right: certainly nobody wants a black eye or a broken jaw.
But because his physical attacks were few and far between, it was hard for Peg to get a handle on Ira’s behavior. So how did Peg accomplish it? How did she come to understand that Ira wasn’t just a difficult guy…that he was an abuser?
The way Peg described it to me was that she assembled the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. She said: “You know, one puzzle piece doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. In fact, maybe it says nothing. So although his abuse was progressive, what also was progressive inside of me was those puzzle pieces. Once I got enough of them to see his face for what it really was, I think maybe that’s when I could leave.”
As Peg collected the puzzle pieces, she began to see that Ira’s abuse was actually a strategy on his part — a strategy designed to keep her attention focused on her flaws and away from his.
She told me, “One day I was thinking about it and I thought, you know what? We have this thing going on where we talk about all these negative things about me, but I never get to critique him. I mean, it just never happens. We don’t talk about his mistakes. About how he’s a little bit overweight. Or that he maybe isn’t the smartest person in the world. We never get to that. So I started to do it silently. Every time I saw a new piece of the puzzle, I’d put it away in the drawer. I’d say to myself: ‘Okay, Ira, let’s take a look at you now.’ I did it quietly… I knew instinctively that was the only way.”
Peg decided she’d had enough the day Ira kicked her when she was eight months pregnant with their second child. Once she left, she never went back. But I don’t think it’s a simple cause and effect: kick, leave. I believe that the process of assembling those puzzle pieces, slowly over time, was what made Peg strong enough to break free when the time was right.
Now, let’s think about jigsaw puzzles. If your family is like mine, you get one of those 5,000-piece puzzles, and spread it out on a bridge table, and it looks just hopeless. But if everyone in the family works on the puzzle, then it comes together pretty quickly.
Peg was able to assemble her jigsaw puzzle alone. She deserves a lot of credit: that’s not so easy to do.
I don’t think anyone in Peg’s situation should have to do what Peg did. That’s why the YWCA has programs such as support groups, where women like Peg can share their experiences and help each other assemble their own jigsaw puzzles.
The next story is about a woman named Jesusa. Her story is different from Peg’s; her husband Hank was extremely violent. She had all kinds of physical injuries. So why didn’t she leave?
I’ll give you a hint: it’s not because she’s an idiot! Most women have very good reasons for staying.
Here’s a little background about Jesusa. She was from the Philippines, Hank was a U.S. Marine. He didn’t start abusing her until after they left her country to move back to the States…far away from Jesusa’s family, who would have protected her.
When Hank beat her, Jesusa was afraid to call the police. Because Hank had convinced her that she would be deported, and that he would get to keep their children, who had been born in the United States.
She couldn’t fight back, because Hank was twice her size. She couldn’t call the police, because she was afraid of losing her children.
So Jesusa did the smartest thing she could have done. She went to the local domestic violence shelter. Hurray!
And then she went back to her husband. And then to the shelter again. And then home to her husband again. Back and forth, back and forth, four times.
You’re wondering: why is Elaine telling us this? I thought we were going to hear good stories!
Trust me: this is a good story. You see, every time Jesusa left, she learned that she could leave. Every time Hank managed to talk her back home, she came home a little bit stronger and a little bit savvier.
She learned, for example, that in the shelter she was safe: Hank couldn’t get to her.
She met with an immigration lawyer and learned that Hank had been lying to her about being deported.
She learned that the shelter had a transitional housing program where she could live for low rent.
She discovered that there were volunteers who would work with her to improve her English.
She began to understand that even though Hank had never hit their sons, being exposed to domestic violence does serious harm to children.
Education is powerful stuff. Before her experiences at the shelter, Hank was always able to make Jesusa feel guilty about leaving him. The fourth time Jesusa left was different. She did not feel guilty — she felt angry. This is the way she put it: “I leave four times, I stay in the shelter four times, but the first three times I feel guilty and I go home. I always think he will change, he will choose to be good to me. But he don’t change. The last time I went home he is using God towards me. He says the demon is in you…we’re gonna go to the priest to take out the demon. Just barely did I believe him that I have the demon inside, but then I realize, no! He is the demon!”
What we can all learn from Jesusa’s story is the importance of outside resources, such as the resources at our own YWCA. Everything Jesusa learned at her local shelter gave her a new perspective on her marriage.
Yes, Hank managed to lure her back several times. But it was an increasingly confident woman who returned to him. Until finally, she was confident enough to leave for good.
I promised you three stories. The third story is my own.
When I was growing up, domestic violence was not something I remember anyone talking about. A man would have to be a large, hairy, semiliterate alcoholic to beat his wife, we all thought — assuming that we thought about it at all. I can’t remember that we ever did. After all, nobody would ever marry that kind of man!
In high school and college, I dated boys who wore glasses, played piano or chess, and wanted to save the world. My parents, being overprotective, probably worried that one of these boys would get me pregnant. They never worried that he would beat me up. Yet that was precisely what happened. Not when I was dating, but when I got married — to my college sweetheart, a pre-law student I met at Boston University.
We had dated for two years. Trust me: if he had punched me in the nose on our first date, there never would have been a second date. But he didn’t punch me. Far from it! He was warm, smart, funny, and loving. He wore glasses. He wanted to save the world.
There didn’t seem to be any reason not to get married. That’s what you did in those days. You married your first serious boyfriend. You taught school for a few years while he got an MBA, a law degree, or went to medical school. Then you had two children, three and a half years apart, and you did volunteer work.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that women who choose full-time motherhood over investment banking, neurosurgery, or corporate law will become victims of domestic abuse. It’s really very simple. Those women who marry abusers will. Those who don’t, won’t.
Unfortunately, I did.
The abuse started once we got married. For no reason that I could understand, this warm, smart, funny, loving man turned into someone who pushed, punched, kicked, bit, raped, sneered, insulted, and belittled.
I left, of course. Many women do leave abusive men. I left after eight years, seven months, and twenty-one days. I had many reasons for staying — for trying very hard to make this marriage work.
I stayed…because I thought it was my fault. My only experience of marriage was my parents’ marriage. They treated each other with mutual respect, kindness, and love. My marriage looked nothing like theirs, so I assumed that I must doing something wrong. Why did I assume it was my fault, instead of his? Because that’s what my husband kept telling me. It was my fault. The laundry. The dinner. The expression on my face. The tone in my voice.
I stayed…because I believed I could fix it. Remember: during the two years we dated, he had been tender and affectionate. Now, he was cold. And vicious. I knew he could be nice to me, because he had been. That’s why I married him. I wanted to have that man — the nice one — back again. Besides, he was nice to everyone else. Just not to me. So it was up to me to fix things. I thought that if I could just figure out how to get it right then he would go back to being the man that I had fallen in love with.
Finally, and most importantly, I stayed…because there was nowhere to go for support. There was no place I could tell my story and be told “It’s not you — it’s him. There’s no way you can ‘get it right’ because he needs you to get it wrong.”
What about a shelter? Why didn’t I do what Jesusa did? Because this was well over 30 years ago. There weren’t any shelters. Actually, that’s not true. There were animal shelters. If I had been a puppy, there would have been a place for me. But there were no shelters for battered women.
I stayed, and I stayed, and I stayed…and then one day I left.
Why? It sounds so trivial in retrospect, but such turning points often are. My husband and I had recently moved to Manhattan. He had graduated from law school and taken a job with a prestigious corporate law firm. After five years as an elementary school teacher, I had started graduate school at Columbia University.
One spring afternoon, we stood on a street corner at a downtown crosswalk. I looked up and saw a particularly lovely old pre-war building with a magnificent garden on its terraced roof. I pointed and said, “Isn’t that building beautiful?” “Which one,” sneered my husband, “you mean the one over there that looks exactly like every other building on the street?” A woman standing beside us wheeled abruptly and said, the way only a New Yorker could: “She’s right, you know. That building is beautiful — and you, my friend, are a horse’s ass!”
The light changed and she strode off. Such a tiny incident: she probably forgot it by the time she reached the other side of the street. Melvin and I eyed each other, but neither of us said a word; to all outward appearances, the woman might never have spoken. And yet, I felt something shift inside me. For the first time in eight years someone had confirmed the belief I had once held but long since relinquished: it wasn’t me. It was him. The following winter, I announced that I was leaving.
Yes, of course it took more than a single turning point. Breaking free of abuse is always a process. My professors at Columbia told me that I was a talented instructional designer and encouraged me to enter the doctoral program. Fellow students became close friends. Many of them had never met Melvin — I was more than half a couple. With professional and personal success, I stopped caring about, hardly noticed, my husband’s abuse. I told him the marriage was over on December 25, 1975: the day I turned twenty-seven. He cried and begged me to stay. He told me how much he needed me. He said he couldn’t imagine life without me. He swore he would change. I barely heard him.
And so I left. I am one of the lucky ones. My husband didn’t try to stop me. He didn’t threaten me. He didn’t stalk me. He didn’t murder me. Some men do.
I am indeed one of the lucky ones. I earned a doctoral degree, I built a consulting business, and I remarried. This time, the warm, smart, gentle, loving, man I married did not change into someone else. Some of you know my husband, Neal Whitman. On May 20th we will celebrate our wedding anniversary: 27 years.
The point of my story is not that I left. As I said at the beginning of this talk, many women do leave. The point of my story is that a passing comment from a total stranger changed my life. I’m glad she was there to make that comment. But it was a near thing, wasn’t it? What if that woman had crossed at another corner that day? What if she had taken a cab?
Blanche DuBois, in “a Streetcar Named Desire,” said she had to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.” But my work as an advocate for abused women and their children has taught me that it’s really better if people don’t need to rely upon the kindness of strangers.
Sometimes I think about that. What if there had been programs like the ones we have now at the YWCA of Salt Lake City when I was married to my first husband? Maybe I would have understood sooner that his abuse was not my fault. Maybe I would have spent a little less than 8 years, 7 months, and 21 days trying to “fix” something that was not within my control to fix.
Because when I put on the TV, I would have heard one of the YWCA public service announcements telling me that nobody deserves to be abused.
When I opened the newspaper, I would have read an article quoting someone like Anne or Jenny telling me that being from a good family, or being well educated, does not automatically protect you from being abused.
When I drove on 300 South, I would have seen the YWCA Campus, decorated with white flags in the month of October, showing that domestic abuse is something that people really care about.
And that would have make me realize that there was a safe place to go, if I needed it, where people would listen to my story without judging me and would give me the help I needed.
I am grateful that a total stranger on the streets of New York City had the colossal nerve to tell me exactly what my husband was. I am even more grateful that the people like you have the colossal nerve to believe that we can take action against domestic violence here in our community.
Because, you know what? I agree with you! When everyone joins together, it can be done. I am honored to add my voice to yours.
Dr. Elaine Weiss is the author of two books about domestic abuse: Surviving Domestic Abuse: Voices of Women Who Broke Free and Family & Friends’ Guide to Domestic Violence: How to Listen, Talk, and Take Action. She had spent the past ten years using the written and spoken word to raise awareness of violence against women, speaking to over 13,000 people across the U.S. and Canada.