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.
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.
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 I’m shocked to think it happened 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.
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.
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.
He didn’t hit me–why? I think because he’d gotten arrested for beating other women–after his first wife there were girlfriends, and incidents, and nights in jail. He learned not to use his fists. If you don’t leave marks, you won’t get arrested. He told me that he had once broken a woman’s jaw in three places, the message being that he could do that to me.
Why did I stay with him?
Check out the Cycle of Violence diagram. That part, when you decide to believe his explanations, is called the fantasy or honeymoon, and it happens over and over, and it’s unbelievably destructive. Each time I decided to stay, it chipped away a little more of myself.
I used to drive past a domestic violence center, but I never stopped–wasn’t that for women who were bruised and bleeding?
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. It was a nightmare seesaw, completely unpredictable.
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.
That day I got the strength 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.”
I went to that 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 recognize that emotional and psychological abuse leaves scars which, although you can’t see them, are just as terrible and deep.
I never thought this could happen to me. I’m strong and independent. I have 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 novel Summer’s Child and its sequel Summer of Roses, as well as Stone Heart, The Perfect Summer, and Little Night deal with domestic abuse. It has been very important to me to learn about abuse and to explore it in my writing. Although my work is fiction, I have felt many of the same emotions as my characters–all the way from pain and terror to sorrow and healing, along with the great comfort that comes from sharing my experiences with others.
There’s nothing more powerful than telling your story. Remember, the worst bruises can be on the inside. Just because there are no marks or external injuries doesn’t mean the abuse is okay, it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve help. Trust yourself. If this sounds familiar, please reach out–there are hotlines waiting for your call right this minute, including:
National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).
Hot Peach Pages: International Directory of Domestic Violence Agencies (including Canada.)
I am proud to be involved with the Domestic Violence Clinic at Georgetown University Law Center, headed by Deborah Epstein. Law professors and students advocate for victims of abuse in Washington, DC. They take their cases to court and fight 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.