Survivors’ stories: Three abused women find way out, discover their worth
Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)/November 14, 2004
By Matt Cooper
Three women from different places, different jobs, different backgrounds.
They have two things in common: They were beaten, and despite the danger of leaving a violent partner, they got out.
The women don’t know each other, but when they talk about domestic violence, they speak with the same voice.
All three said they were “brainwashed,” that the physical and emotional abuse left them believing that they deserved it, that they were the ones at fault, not the abuser.
All three lost their identity and their independence – so completely, in some instances, that they couldn’t order for themselves in a restaurant or figure out how to spend a Saturday.
All three came to accept that they can’t change someone else, that they can only change themselves.
The women also echoed one another in recalling what it took to get out.
First you have to find yourself, they said. Then you have to back your words up with action. You have to believe that you deserve better.
The women share one more thing: Today, all three are happy and healthy.
JeriAnn learned to endure the hitting, the kicking, the choking, the verbal and emotional abuse.
But the reddish-blue bruises across her little girl’s thigh – the size and shape of a man’s handprint – pushed her over the top.
I have to get myself out of this, she said to herself. I have to get my children out of this.
It was 1987, in a small town near Portland.
JeriAnn had been married for seven years. She was the mother of two curly-haired girls, 5 and 3 years old; a boy would come later.
Her husband wasn’t abusive at first, just controlling. But over the years, the control turned into black eyes and split lips – weekly attacks that she accepted, because she thought she had done something wrong to provoke them.
A vicious fight one night ended with JeriAnn at a friend’s. When she returned home in the morning, she checked on her 5-year-old, who had stayed in the house with her husband.
The girl pulled back her plaid skirt and showed the bruises; she had been struck for asking her father why he couldn’t stop drinking.
“I just started crying,” JeriAnn said. “I realized this wasn’t just affecting me. This was affecting my kids. I decided at that time, I’m out.”
Through a Christian support group, JeriAnn devoured material on codependency, coming to realize that the abuse had replaced her identity – her sense of self – with blind obedience to her husband.
She confronted her pain in excruciating counseling sessions – “like peeling your skin off from the inside out,” she said – and a new woman eventually emerged.
“I decided I didn’t have to have a man in my life,” JeriAnn said. “Being a single mom felt pretty darn good.”
For the first time, she started backing up her words with action.
She called her county’s victims’ assistance program and learned what the law could do to protect her. She received a restraining order and began the divorce process; when he violated the order she called the police. She got a guard dog and a handgun.
She wanted answers to her questions about divorce, domestic violence, personal safety. The more she shared, the more people offered to help.
He fought her for two years, stalking her while he also delayed or missed court dates; he sent her notes that read, “I love you.” But as the divorce played out in 1990, he started another relationship and moved on.
JeriAnn, of west Eugene, is 45 now. She’s an elementary school secretary who relishes working with kids and parents, especially the troubled ones. She is strong but affectionate, with a calm, confident gaze to match her propensity for giving hugs.
In December, she’ll celebrate 13 years of marriage to a man who treats her like a queen. He’s her best friend; he writes poems and hides them for her to find later.
Her younger daughter is a college student studying to become a nurse. The son is a student and athlete at Willamette High School.
And the 5-year-old? She’s 22 now, recently married to a good man, JeriAnn said.
Sometimes she has to pinch herself.
“My normal life to me is a pretty good dream,” she said. “It was gut-scratching hell to climb out of the hole. I’m lucky I made it out. It’s so good now, sometimes I forget the past.”
Desiree found salvation at a New Age bookstore in a small California town.
At 17, she had been an independent thinker, a strong student who challenged the deferential roles relegated to women in her branch of the Baptist faith. She peppered her Sunday school teachers with questions that made them squirm.
Marriage changed her. She married at 23, to a man she’d dated in high school – the first man she’d ever dated, the first she’d ever kissed.
There were ominous signs, but she missed them: He burned with anger if she so much as talked to another man, but she mistook it for love.
“When he got really jealous and upset, I thought to myself that he must really love me if he can’t stand for another man to look at me or talk to me,” Desiree said.
During 10 years of marriage, the abuse escalated. He was careful not to blacken her eyes or knock out her teeth – unmistakable clues for the world to see – instead throwing her against a wall or smothering her with a pillow until she started to black out.
He was a real estate broker, a wealthy man respected in their community. She was just his appendage. The independent thinker had been systematically beaten down, replaced by a woman who thought that if she just remained quiet, everything would be OK.
But the bookstore shouted at Desiree to speak up.
She walked in one day in the early 1990s, and quickly found that she was in her element among the incense and crystals.
Desiree eventually left her cashier’s job to work at the bookstore. She read feminist writers Gloria Steinem and Mary Anne Williamson, Ginny Nicarthy’s “Getting Free,” and books on Wicca, a religion that promotes, in part, male-female balance.
She realized that she had done nothing to provoke the abuse, but it was up to her to stop it.
She stopped hovering over her husband, stopped asking permission. She took to a quiet corner of the house and read to herself. She developed her own friends, ones who valued her for who she was.
“It reaffirmed that I actually had a self to share with people – that I was a living, thinking person with something to offer,” Desiree said.
He stranded her at a friend’s one night in 1993 and that was it: She moved out the next day and divorced him within nine months.
Today Desiree, 42, wears a pentacle – a five-pointed star – around her neck. It’s a Wiccan symbol, one that represents natural and spiritual harmony, and her second husband respects it just as he respects her.
They have a 6-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son, and they live in a cozy, forested McKenzie Bridge home with more dogs, cats and chickens than can be easily counted.
When not running her child care business, Desiree draws, paints and reads.
The bitter memories, a decade old now, still make her eyes well up. But nothing more.
“My life is infinitely better,” Desiree said. “Everybody has challenges and struggles, but there’s no comparison between now and then. I only wish that I had known what the future held for me – how much better it would get.”
When he tucked the rifle under her chin and told her that she was going to die, calmness washed over Debbie.
“I had accepted it,” she said. “The fear actually dissipates.”
Instead, her husband jerked the barrel up, throwing her head back as he discharged a round over her face.
She had married him at 19, and they lived in Nevada around 1985. He was a mountain man, strong and deep, and she had loved his passion. He said he needed her for his very existence.
But it wasn’t healthy, Debbie said. His drinking was an embarrassment for her, and when the physical abuse started, she thought she was the only woman in the world experiencing it.
She used to watch cars motor down the road – she saw the happy couples inside, and she thought to herself how lucky the women were not to have to worry about being beaten tonight.
She had left before, but his threats to harm her mother and sister always brought her back.
Either I’m going to die or he’s going to die, Debbie thought to herself, and she contemplated killing him.
The rifle blast ended it. Debbie was gone in two days, her resolve galvanized by a rediscovered spirituality.
She planned it all out. She needed a 30-minute head start before he would realize she was gone, lest he tear up and down the highways in search of her.
She warned her friends and family to say nothing, then took off, ultimately arriving at an old friend’s in Junction City, a friend that he didn’t know. She left no note, no phone number, no way whatsoever to find her.
Debbie was 25, and she owned the world. She started doing the things she wanted to do: She made her own friends, she chatted up her neighbors, and she bought a house, fixing it up and renting out a room, all on a waitress’ salary.
And she learned a lesson.
“If I dated a guy who seemed in any way controlling – in any way – I would just get rid of him so fast it would make your head spin,” said Debbie, who did just that on one occasion.
Today, at 44 and living in Eugene, Debbie works for the Eugene School District. She’s an active parent and an engaged political volunteer. She feels a deep responsibility to help others.
Debbie has been married for 16 years, and she has a 15-year-old son by her second husband. Both, she believes, are rewards for the change she made.
Her husband respects their political differences and her occasional long hours as a volunteer and a helper in their son’s school. He honored her need to design – and redesign – the two-story farmhouse that they built together.
Most important, perhaps, he respects her need to be alone. Debbie likes to go to the coast, where she sits on the beach with her dog, Jack, and writes about her feelings.
“You have to have some self-worth in order to be able to leave,” Debbie said. “You need to say, `Hey, I’m worth something, I deserve better.’ When I think about my life before, it seems like a different lifetime. It really makes me appreciate what I have.
“Now I feel like I’m one of those people that I looked at in the car and wished I was.”
The state can’t say exactly how many women in Oregon have been abused by a partner, because not all women report it.
But in a telephone survey taken in 2001-02, one in 10 women between the ages of 20 and 55 said they’d been physically or sexually assaulted in the preceding five years – 85,000 women, according to the Department of Human Services.
Thirteen percent of those women were knocked unconscious or suffered broken bones, chipped teeth or other serious injuries.