I met him right after my mother died. We fell in love right away. In retrospect there were red flags, but I didn’t know how to read them.
He had a hard luck story, an awful childhood. Hearing about it filled me with compassion and a desire to help him. Now, looking back, I don’t know how much of it was real. Lying came with the package.
I saw the good at first. He was handsome, funny, friendly, interested in life. When I talked, he seemed to anticipate my next word, seemed to understand me better than I did myself. He listened to me talk about my mother’s long death, and he’d hold me and tell me she was up in heaven. He meant it literally: puffy white clouds and angels with harps. This was new for me, a person who spoke of death in such simple, childlike ways, but I latched on and accepted the comforting image.
He also said, from our first night together, that we were Made in Heaven. ”Heaven” came up frequently. I was a once madly devout child but had fallen away, and he was a serious Catholic, and I felt spellbound by the thought of my old faith, embodied by this man who said he loved me. We’d walk through the city and most walks included more than one stop in church. He’d light a candle and kneel, head bowed in deep prayer, and somehow that made my heart open a little more.
The beach; he did love the ocean–the Jersey Shore, the east end of Long Island. We could spend hours walking the tideline in any weather, swimming when we could, lying on the beach and staring at the sky. He told me he loved surfing. With his blond hair, blue eyes, and salt water tan, he did look like a surfer.
Our love story happened fast–a whirlwind romance–and lasted until we were married six weeks after meeting. Right after I said “I do” everything changed. He quit his job so I would support him, disappearing whenever he felt like it. He didn’t speak to me so much as growl at me.
I was strong, “myself,” at the beginning. But he wore me down. I was one way the day we married, and quite a different way by the time I finally left. My bones aren’t broken, he never gave me a black eye. Yet his need for control wore me down–to this day it flabbergasts me that I allowed it to happen at all.
He raged at me. Or he’d go silent for days, not saying one word but giving off hateful energy, brushing past me hard enough to knock me aside. After a while we’d make up and he’d beg me to understand HIS pain, and not to leave. He could be so charming, seeming to love me. People on the outside saw a handsome, friendly man. Sometimes I saw him that way, too.
When he yelled, his voice boomed like a manhole cover slamming the pavement. It reverberated through my bones. His blue eyes turned dead and black, like a shark’s. He had been previously married, and dated many women, but his hatred for women came out the longer we were together. His physical changes were so extreme and violent; I felt I was watching Dr. Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde. Once I asked if he’d ever been diagnosed as a psychopath and he said yes. As if it were no big deal.
Sometimes I would be so scared I would take the cats and leave him, checking into a hotel under another name. I was lucky to have the means. I was unlucky enough to not trust myself enough to stay away for good. He always won me back. Maybe part of me, at least at the beginning, wanted to be won back. The drama of dangerous love.
I had close women friends. I would confide in them. Some got sick of seeing me drain away; they must have felt frustrated to watch me be stuck in something so bad. They would say something real to me, and I’d agree, say that I had to leave. Then he’d be nice again, and I’d remember the harsh words my friend had spoken about him. I’d retrench and either she would drift away or I would.
My friends and I would have tea–out somewhere, away from the apartment. Some were so patient, just allowing me to talk–whether my stories dealt with “good” or “bad” details–they listened to all I had to say without telling me what to do. I’d drink Earl Grey, speak calmly, enjoy being with a friend who didn’t treat me as if I were crazy. But inside, even at those soothing times, I was churning, adrenaline pumping, in a constant state of fight or flight.
Once, on a book tour cross-Canada, after a very bad spell, I reached out to a woman I didn’t know well–but who the Al-Anon sponsor of a New York friend, to meet me for tea at the King Edward Hotel. She was living in Toronto, I was alone; he had stayed home. The woman met me, and we sat for an hour in the warm, turn-of-the-century lobby talking about detachment, powerlessness, and letting go. I thought she looked perplexed, and only after she left did I realized I’d felt too flayed and desperate to remember to order tea.
His first wife, the one before me, is a great woman. We respected each other from the beginning and have become close as we’ve gone along. She was one of the few people I could really open up to–because she got it. While pregnant with their child, she’d been hammered on the head by him, one night when he’d come home late from the grocery store where he worked. She still has skull pain and hearing loss from that beating. Once I mentioned his surfing to her. Although he always talked about it, I’d never seen him with a board. ”That’s because,” she told me, “he’s the surfer boy who never surfed.” Another lie, a relatively small one, but it went to the way he’d invented himself. What was true, what could I believe?
Why did I stay with him?
You may have seen the Cycle of Violence diagram. That part, when you decide to believe his explanations, is called the Fantasy or Honeymoon part of the cycle, and it’s unbelievably destructive. Each time I stayed, it chipped away a little more of myself.
He never beat me with his fists, but he attacked my spirit the best he could. He cut down my friends and family, telling me they looked down at him, failed to appreciate him, and if I loved him we wouldn’t have to see them anymore. He’d get furious at me, told me that he had once broken a woman’s jaw in three places, the message being that he could do that to me. It became easier to give in than to fight.
I used to pass a domestic violence center, but I never stopped–wasn’t that for women who were bruised and bleeding?
Holidays were especially hard. Friends and family invited us to join their celebrations. We went a couple of times, and his glowering silence in the car to and from, and at the table with loved ones, filled me with despair. At home he’d always find reasons to criticize the kindest, or even simply innocuous, gestures. One Christmas I was dressed and ready to go, and he said he was staying home. No talking about it, no explanation. I made one comment like, “can you tell me what’s wrong?” He grabbed the car keys, said, “Fine, I’m going,” and proceeded to drive so ragefully I thought we would die.
He had quit his job and his not-working had caused problems between us. The friend we were visiting had offered him a good position in a maritime company. When we got to the house, festive and glowing, he didn’t bother with his customary charm. He sat in a corner, sweating and glaring at everyone. He refused to eat or speak. Later when we left, and I asked why he’d acted that way, he’d told me I was a fool, those friends had offered him a job only to get his social security number so they could have him investigated. He said we weren’t going to see them ever again.
Some things were almost good. He liked to eat, so we tried lots of restaurants. Sometimes we’d have a good time. Others he’d get angry on the way to the place, and refuse to go in. Or we’d enter, not speaking, and sit through an agonizingly silent and hostile meal.
Holidays became a time to brood and suffer. He’d brood, I’d suffer. Eventually we shut everyone out. He liked to sit in a big armchair, right in front of the fire, staring at the flames. If I interrupted his fire-watching, he’d glare as if he wanted to roast me. I spent many many hours feeling dread and fear. Paradoxically, he was big on sending out Christmas cards–it was all about the show, giving the appearance of a marriage. He kept a detailed list of people who would receive our cards each year. He wrote them out and addressed the envelopes. He’d sign them, “May your New Year be blessed!” He spoke about God and religion frequently, had prayer cards and Rosary beads and miraculous medals and spiritual books. Meantime he wouldn’t be speaking to me.
Driving ragefully: it got worse toward the end. Once we were heading to Woods Hole, and I said or did the “wrong” thing, and he told me he was going to kill us both, drive us into a tree. He sped up, onto the shoulder–I felt and heard that buzzing friction of pavement designed to let drivers know they’re going off the road. I was terrified, but it wasn’t the first or last time.
Somehow I found the fire to leave him. When his ex-wife’s father heard, he called me and said, “He’s left a lot of wreckage in his wake.”
Doing preliminary research on a novel, I called an FBI agent. I gave him the basic story, which involved a woman learning her marriage had been a lie, that her husband wasn’t who he’d appeared to be. As I spoke I realized I was thinking of my own feelings about what had gone on. The FBI agent asked for details about my situation, and he profiled him on the spot. Did he quit his job, did you give him money, did you meet him at church?
“You’re married to a con man,” he said.
“But he can’t be! He’s funny, charming. He’s troubled, but…”
“Do you think con man wear name tags announcing themselves? The best ones never get caught. Their victims trust them completely, I sometimes can’t get them to testify against the guy in court. Yours isn’t so successful. He can’t keep himself from being cruel. Track down his exes. See if this is a pattern with him.”
I remembered one girlfriend’s name. I searched for her, calling New Jersey information, and found her. When I dialed her number my hands were shaking. I heard her voice say hello, and I spoke. ”Hello,” I said. ”My name is Luanne Rice, and I’m married to X…” A pause, then in a warm voice, “I’ve been waiting for your call.” It gave me chills.
She and he had been together at the time we married. He’d never bothered to break off with her, just moved on to the next thing. When she finally figured it out she did what I was doing: called the one before her. And heard the same story. On and on.
The divorce was as abusive as the marriage had been–he and his lawyer designed it to break me. They threatened to go after my computer to find proof that I was writing. During a hearing just before Christmas that year, they asked the judge to order me to write, preferably a bestseller, an act they regarded as money in the bank for them. I drove home, threw my computer into Long Island Sound, and jumped in after it–in late December.
I survived that desperate act. I felt my mother with me. I swear she saved me from the icy water; she buoyed me up, and I didn’t die. My loving, artistic, scholar mother would have despised what I was going through. She’d introduced my sisters and me to paintings of female strength and family love by Mary Cassatt. She’d read us so much Shakespeare when we were young, teaching us early life’s beauty and pain. Certain scenes had lodged deep in my psyche, among them, Prospero’s lines from The Tempest, 5.1:
I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
So I drowned my “book” and tried to do the same to myself. That night I was driven to McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA, a miracle place especially known for helping writers, helping people who’ve gone through trauma. McLean is where I finally saw the whole of what I’d been through, who he really was and what he’d done to me. The staff built me back up, let me regain my strength, and head back out to resume the trial and my life.
The first thing I found, when I returned home, was a subpoena for my computer, stuck in my door. The next court date they asked me where it was and I told them where they could dive for it. I wrote my next novel, The Perfect Summer, entirely on yellow legal pads. That habit has stuck with me.
As the divorce progressed, I finally went to the domestic violence center I’d passed so many times, and found loving support. The women there really helped me realize emotional battering is as bad as any other kind. I wish the courts and our society would recognized that emotional and psychological abuse leaves scars which, although you can’t see them, are just as terrible and deep.
As others have said, I never thought I was the “type” to be abused. I’m strong, independent, with wonderful friends and family, and a life and career I love. Domestic violence can happen to anyone. To learn more about that, and to get help, I recommend reading Patricia Evans’s powerful book The Verbally Abusive Relationship, and to visit websites such as The National Coalition for Domestic Violence and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
My own linked novels, Summer’s Child and Summer of Roses, as well as Stone Heart and Little Night deal with domestic abuse. The Perfect Summer tells of marriage to a liar and the damage done. I am proud to be involved with the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center where law professors and students advocate for victims of abuse in Washington, DC, taking their cases to court and fighting for them. Their work is extraordinary.
Good luck to anyone reading this–with love and support to you.
(This painting is A Goodnight Hug by Mary Cassatt. The one at the top of the page is Tea, also by Mary Cassatt.)
My novel LITTLE NIGHT deals with domestic violence and its devastation on the women in one family… Thank you to all the readers who’ve written me with their own stories. I am honored and grateful.