BY LYNN OLDSHUE, Contributing Writer
These are the stories of survivors of domestic violence in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Each of these women could be dead today. Instead, they proved it is possible to escape an abusive relationship and rebuild self-esteem. They shared their secrets to show other victims there is hope for a better life on the other side.
Their stories began the same way: He was Prince Charming, the man she was hoping for; they were going to have the house with the white picket fence, or at least a better home than the one she left behind.
After a few weeks or months of love, happiness and talk of the future, the fairy tale ended and the mask ripped off, revealing a self-centered, manipulative man seizing the control he feels entitled to. The details of abuse differ by victim: beaten with a lead pipe, raped, kicked, peed on, stabbed, strangled; a gun shoved in her mouth; forced to write a suicide letter; a face bruised beyond recognition; bleach poured into private parts. Most stories also include forms of isolation.
The victims were regularly called worthless and stupid. A bitch. A whore. Repeatedly told their opinion doesn’t matter or they can’t do anything right. They believed the abuse was their fault and no one else would ever want them. They said the bruises, broken bones and burns healed, but the insults destroyed their self-confidence, making it hard to leave.
This abuse is a growing problem in Mobile with 401 domestic violence felony victims since 2016, according to statistics released by the Mobile Police Department. There were 187 victims in 2017, up 125 percent from 2016. The increase may be a result of new Alabama domestic violence laws that went into effect in 2016 to strengthen victim protection through law enforcement and judicial provisions. The numbers are on track to be about the same in 2018.
Since 2016, 62 percent of the victims were black women and 20 percent were white women. Twelve percent of the victims were black men and 4 percent were white men. Barely 1 percent were Asian women and no victims were Hispanic women, indicating both cultures have strong barriers against reporting domestic abuse and pressing charges.
A felony charge is an offense of serious physical or psychological damage that will affect the rest of the victim’s life. There have been more than 400 felony victims in Mobile in almost three years, but this number should be higher because only one-fourth of domestic violence cases are reported, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Speaking up and getting out are not easy, no matter how bad the pain.
“The drinking increased after we got married,” says Eleanor. A strong woman who always had a thing for bad boys, Eleanor thought she had found the one who was right for her, until after they said, “I do.”
“His mom died from cancer and he inherited a lot of money, but he also lost the person who spoiled him and thought he could do no wrong. It changed him and he started arguing with me, pushing me into walls to get past me and pulling me down the hall by my hair. He could be the sweetest person I knew — or drunk, violent and delusional. It became terrifying to go home.
“I discovered the secrets he was trying to hide and I knew he was going to kill me. I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t want them feeling sorry for me. I was committed to helping him and saving our marriage, but finally I realized it was choose him or me, and I chose me. My closest friends and family helped me to get out and into a new life. Women can’t hide this shit anymore. We have to live and trust again.”
* * *
Commitment. Pride. Fear. Shame. Trying to fix the man she loves. Can’t imagine a relationship without abuse. Can’t say no, hurt his feelings or have him dislike her. All of these are reasons a victim stays.
“Her reasons for staying in a dangerous situation may be unclear to outsiders, but ‘Why don’t you leave?’ is a difficult question for a woman who has been so manipulated and demeaned that she can’t think clearly about the man who is the center of her world,” Kathryn Coumanis, the founder of Penelope House, a shelter in Mobile for survivors of domestic violence, said.
“She is holding on to the man she thinks he can be and if she acts ‘good enough,’ maybe the man she fell in love with will reappear and treat her like a queen again,” Coumanis said. “There are times when Prince Charming returns and that feels like the reward for not walking away. She may also be financially dependent on him and unable to provide for the kids on her own. She wants her children to have a father, and as a parent, he may not be that bad. She is also ashamed of her life and doesn’t want anyone else to judge or to blame her.”
Leaving is also the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship because the perpetrator fights harder to keep her under his control. Seventy-five percent of domestic violence homicides occur after she leaves.
“If he can’t have her, no one else can,” Coumanis said. “He may also threaten to kill pets, her parents or himself, so she stays to protect the ones she loves. She needs to understand she can never fix or change him, no matter how hard she tries.”
Domestic abuse is often a learned behavior passed down from one generation to the next — for the victim and the abuser.
“Often, they both grew up with daddy beating mama,” Steve Searcy, law enforcement training coordinator for the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said. “Or they were molested, abused or went through a traumatic event as children. Home could have been hell for both the victim and the abuser, but that hell feels normal.”
“My father was an abusive alcoholic who started sexually abusing me when I was 2. I was just learning how to walk and him pulling me close by the diapers is one of my first memories,” says Juanita, who was abused for the first half of her life by her father, and then by her first husband. Her grandfather was a Baptist minister, an alcoholic who abused his wife and daughters, too.
“I married my husband because he didn’t drink and I wanted to get away from my father. The abuse started verbally and I was so beaten down I didn’t think I was worth the air I breathed. He bit me in places that other people couldn’t see. When I was six months pregnant with our second son, he beat me in the stomach and the baby died. The doctor asked what happened and I made up a story so I wouldn’t get my husband in trouble.
“I thought everything he did was my fault and I was a bad person. If he didn’t like what I fixed for dinner, he threw it against the wall. The food would slide down with the plate and I would be on my knees apologizing for what I cooked. One night I looked up and my boys were watching. I couldn’t bear that because I just wanted what was best for them. I filed for divorce. My second husband was much better to me, but he passed away almost two years ago. Much of my life was pain, sadness and a living hell, but I am almost 71 and finally free. My life is filled with hope.”
* * *
“Victims who now have hope are speaking out and giving a voice to the subject no one wants to talk about,” Rhyon Ervin, executive director of the Lighthouse Shelter in Robertsdale, said. “Domestic violence has been happening forever, but we are starting to have the awareness and the systems and laws in place to force us to do something about it.”
In Mobile, the systems include grandmotherly women working front desks in police precincts, who treat victims seeking help or arrest warrants with compassion, understanding and a little tough love. It includes police officers who put their lives on the line with every domestic violence call, and the Mobile County district attorney’s office trying to understand the psychology of the perpetrators so her department can do more to prevent domestic violence and protect victims.
The system includes judges, youth courts, the Department of Human Resources, shelters and schools, working together to get victims and their kids to a safer life. The systems are there even if it takes victims years and multiple attempts to use them.
“He beat me with a pipe, pushed me out of a car, and punched me in my sleep, but I couldn’t leave. He once told my daughter, ‘Get your sister because I am going to kill your mother.’”
In her living room surrounded by pictures of her daughters, Cassandra says that was the day she prayed, “God, if you get me out if this, I promise you, I will never put myself in another situation like this again.”
“He beat me that night and intended to kill me. I jumped down the steps, naked and bleeding, and ran for my life. Neighbors would not help and shut their doors. One lady called the police and that is the only way I survived. My mother didn’t recognize me when she saw me in the hospital.
“The police had a warrant for domestic violence, attempted murder and sexual assault and caught him a few days later when he was following me. He went to jail for about a month and I went to the Penelope House. They helped me get a job to support myself. I also learned I had been abused and what I went through wasn’t normal. Penelope House moved me to a safe location and I started over from there. I am safer because I have changed. If a guy touches me wrong or even remotely acts like he is controlling, that is the end of that.”
* * *
Coumanis opened Penelope House in 1979 — before the recognition of domestic violence — when a man’s home was his castle and beating a woman was considered chastisement. There were no laws requiring punishment or protection.
Penelope House was the first shelter of its kind in Alabama and one of the first in the U.S. Coumanis, and later the Penelope House board and staff, pushed for awareness of domestic violence, protections for victims and the establishment of laws addressing the crimes of domestic violence.
“We help women through the fear of the unknown,” Coumanis said. “If they have the right plan, getting out is easier than they think and we provide a safe place for them and their children. It takes courage to get out, but we know what happens when they don’t.”
Death is what could happen if they stay, but it is hard for victims to imagine the abuse getting worse than it is today.
“I am 43 and have been holding all of this inside for so long,” says Tiffany, whose abusive relationships began in the 10th grade.
“He would break into my house and hide in the closet until I came home. He was a short man and popped out like a jack in the box, then beat me and held me hostage by knifepoint. He broke all of the locks on my downstairs windows so he could break in and do terrible things to me. I was suicidal and tried to jump out of the second-story window, but he grabbed me by the back of my neck and said, ‘Do you think I would let you die? How do you think I am going to torture you for the rest of your life if you are dead?’
“My torture ended when he went to jail for killing a pregnant girl and her boyfriend during a robbery. One day that would have happened to me. The years of abuse have caused wear and tear on my body but I am alive and free. I have learned to love me.”
* * *
The systems of rescue, protection and redirection are in place in Mobile and Baldwin counties to help domestic violence victims be alive and free. The stories prove that for victims, happy endings can come from unhappy beginnings. They can become survivors as they move from a past in hell to a present and future of hope.
If you need help, Penelope House is a shelter in Mobile that provides safety and protections for victims of domestic violence and their children. Its 24-hour crisis hotline is 251-342-8994. The Lighthouse is the shelter in Baldwin County and its crisis line is 1-800-650-6522. You can also call 211 to find the help you need anywhere in Alabama.
Lynn Oldshue is a Fairhope-based writer who publishes “The Southern Rambler” and “Our Southern Souls.” As October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this article is the first in a four-part series. Names in this story have been changed to protect the survivors. Next week: “Why Should He Change?”
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