By Lynn Oldshue
Ronnie walked into the small interview room in a blue jumpsuit and placed his cuffed and chained hands on the table. He had been in Metro Jail for two weeks on charges of domestic violence: strangulation and suffocation, and domestic violence, second degree — felony charges indicating he intended to cause his victim serious harm. Unsure of when he would be released, he explained why he had been arrested.
Working nights in a bar and days at an asphalt company didn’t leave much time for sleep. Ice (crystal meth) kept him up and Xanax brought him back down. Awake for several days, he saw the calls at 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on the new phone he’d bought his wife. Under suspicion she’d been unfaithful, something snapped.
“Her body is my temple and she was giving it to someone else,” he said. “I went crazy. I didn’t mean to. I hit her in the jaw and took a box cutter and cut her finger and forehead. I put my hands around her throat, too. I didn’t think it was for that long. She kept saying she didn’t do it, and then she said she did. I just wanted her to tell me the truth.”
They married at 15 and had been together 30 years. She got pregnant; with barely enough money for food and diapers, the drugs began as an escape for him, but eventually took over his life. It got worse 10 years later when he saw his father commit suicide after his mother cheated on him. Ronnie said he beat his wife 14 years ago, but had not done it since.
He cried as he told of his dad beating him and of an uncle molesting him when he was a young boy. Jail had forced him off drugs for two weeks, the longest he’d been clean in 25 years, and he saw his life more clearly.
“I never dealt with any of this,” he said. “I didn’t tell anyone about my dad or my uncle because I didn’t want my wife to think I was weak. How is a man supposed to get help for problems like this?”
It is hard to find abusers who will tell their stories, but counselors say most have deep underlying issues, like Ronnie’s. They wear a mask to charm, disarm and build trust, rarely acknowledging their own need for help. Security and stability come from controlling a submissive partner, not from within. His woman is his property, his “temple,” there to serve and meet his needs. If control and power slip away, he takes action to re-establish his will. For him, total power is holding her life and death in his hands.
Domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries in women. Every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten in the U.S., according to the Partnership Against Domestic Violence. Each day, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends. The men they fall in love with are the biggest threats to their lives. Strangulation, one of Ronnie’s charges, was recently upgraded to a felony in Alabama because it indicates intent to kill. Every domestic violence injury, every death, is a choice made by an abuser.
“Domestic violence is a cycle and a learned behavior for the victim and the abuser, but a perpetrator could stop if he wanted to,” Joan Duncan, prevention education coordinator at Penelope House shelter for victims of domestic violence, said. “It’s not the devil in him, but a mix of insecurity, narcissism and being raised that men ‘wear the pants.’ He is self-centered and has a partner putting his needs first, doing everything his way. Why should he change?”
Duncan said the victim can get help and get out, but it is difficult to rehabilitate the abuser who doesn’t believe in a relationship of respect and equality. Having no empathy toward his partner or children, there is no reason to give up the entitlements his superior attitude thinks he deserves. If one victim gets away, he will find another woman and do it all over again.
“The perpetrators depend on these relationships for their power and they recognize the women who will let them have it,” Rhyon Ervin, executive director of The Lighthouse shelter in Robertsdale, said.
“The role of a man is defined as power and control, and you are going to defend your role,” she said. “We teach boys the only emotion they can have is anger — they can’t cry or be scared. This creates men who can’t deal with emotions beyond anger, and society accepts it with ‘that’s just what men do.’ We have to change the rules.”
Victims say abusers use stories of difficult childhoods to rationalize their actions, creating sympathy and drawing their partners closer. The traumatic stories explain where the behavior came from: he watched his dad knock out his mama’s teeth; he hates women because he hated his mother, who never gave him love and attention; his dad did three tours of duty in Vietnam and treated his sons like they were soldiers, waking them in the middle of the night to beat them.
“Physical, mental and economic abuse. Anger, manipulation and infidelity. Perpetrators use all of these to control their partner because it works,” Steve Searcy, law enforcement training coordinator for the Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said. “Alcohol and drugs can be triggers, but they are not the primary reason the offender wants to put his hand on his wife and hear her scream. Violence erupts from the cracks created by what he was exposed to and those cracks may only reveal themselves in intimate relationships. Violence is how some fractured men survive.”
Searcy says the act of violence is hitting the reset button in the cycle of buildup, assault and asking for forgiveness. “They try to be good, but violence overtakes them,” he said. “Everything becomes arguable or a flashpoint and it will get progressively worse. Peer pressure and society norms have little effect on fractured men.”
Searcy, a former domestic violence bureau commander with the Montgomery Police Department, interviewed hundreds of abusers over his 34-year career and says whatever their method of manipulation or violence, it all comes down to control.
“There is no referee, and if he got away with pushing and shoving to bring her back in line, then the next time he could push it a little farther,” he said. “He may push until he kills her.”
There have been 25 domestic violence homicides in Mobile over the last three years, including a 33 percent increase from 2016 to 2017. Of the 25 victims, 40 percent were black females, 32 percent were black males, 12 percent were white females and 12 percent were white males. (Advocates say some of these homicides against men are retaliatory offenses, when the victim takes the law in her own hands and fights back against her abuser.) In 2017, 24 percent of the 50 murders in Mobile were domestic violence homicides, according to statistics from the Mobile Police Department and the FBI.
On Dec. 1, 2017, an argument over putting away a gun left three boys without a mother in Prichard, and a neighborhood without the woman who cared for those who lived around her.
Jesse Darrington, 18, and two of his younger brothers were home the day their mother, Cindy Darrington, was shot and killed in their kitchen. Jesse said the boyfriend was a quiet man and he didn’t see much fighting during the five months they dated.
“We are used to gunshots in our neighborhood, but it sounded a little too close, like it was inside my house,” Jesse said. “I ran to the door. My brother ran into me from the kitchen and jumped into the farthest corner of my room and said mama was shot. I started down the hallway and the boyfriend hit the corner and pointed the gun our way. I slammed the door and put the dresser in front of it. After he was gone, I ran to her, but she was dead. It took the police six hours to get her off the floor. My brother said she was watching the news and told her boyfriend to stop playing with the gun and he shot her for no reason.
“I was the man of the house and protective of my mom, but I couldn’t protect her from him,” Jesse said.
Davona Tinsley said she couldn’t protect her daughter, Satori Richardson, from abusive men and is now raising her two grandchildren. On July 4, 2014, Richardson’s boyfriend, Jamal Jackson, stabbed her 32 times, strangled her, dropped her in the bathtub and set fire to the apartment they’d moved into three weeks before. Satori’s 4-year-old daughter saw it all and testified in court.
After surviving a murder attempt by another boyfriend the year before, Tinsley thought her daughter had found a good man who made her happy. A friend from Richardson’s work said Jackson drove her to the cemetery a few weeks before and told her that is where she was going to be if she didn’t act right.
“There is an epidemic of black men killing black women in Mobile,” said Tinsley, who survived her own abusive relationships. “Why do they think they can take our lives? I am giving Satori a voice and sharing her story to raise awareness and maybe help another woman stay alive.”
Violence against black women and stories like Jesse’s and Davona’s are why John C. Young, a sergeant with the Mobile Police Department, is speaking out for change during his off time. On April 4, 2018, Young walked along Government Street wearing a sign that read “Black Men, Please Put Down Your Guns,” with the numbers of black women killed in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“There have been 19 black women killed by black men in Mobile in the last three years and most of those were with guns,” Young said. “Where is the outrage? Where are the protests and demonstrations, or even a hashtag? These women aren’t statistics. They are mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. We have to admit this is a problem in our community so we can fix it.
“More police, jails and government programs can’t solve what is happening in our families,” he said. “Men have to be positive role models again. We have to raise our kids to be young men and young ladies who respect themselves. If we don’t, our problems of violence, drugs, killing and abuse are going to get worse.”
Counselors agree the best hope for change in abusers is early intervention during childhood and better examples in the home.
“By the time violence begins, it is difficult to stop the behavior,” Reed Bechtel, a behavior therapist in Fairhope, said. “Lack of meaningful attachments and insecurity can begin as early as three to six months. By the time he learns to be manipulative to get attention and his needs met, it may be too late.”
There are programs for victims and children, but counselors say help for perpetrators is ineffective because the rewards of abusing a partner outweigh the costs of change.
“Penelope House stopped offering intervention programs because the recidivism rate was so high,” Tonie Ann Torrans, executive director of the Penelope House, said. “It is difficult for perpetrators to admit the damage they cause because they minimize and distort their behavior. They don’t see abuse the same way.”
Clean and in touch with God and himself while in jail, Ronnie admitted to the damage to himself and his family. “I was on the highway to hell and I want to get off. I know I need rehab and have work to do.
“I realized my family means everything and I just want them back and to do good by them,” he said. “I wrote a letter to them from prison to apologize and tell them I love them. It is the first letter I have ever written to them and I should have been writing them letters like this the whole time. I have children and grandbabies. I don’t want to pass this down to them.”
Time will tell if Ronnie truly is repentant and eventually rehabilitated. Searcy says it takes a significant emotional event for a perpetrator to change direction, but a partner leaving or fear of more jail time may do it. The partner and the legal system can set the conditions; the rest is up to him.
“It will take a long time and a lot of work to change,” Searcy said. “He will have to show by actions, not through words, that he wants his family back. That trust will have to be earned.”
Trust, empathy and respect are the opposite of abuse, control and power and these opposing forces can’t exist together in a healthy relationship.
“Love doesn’t hurt, hit, belittle, manipulate, strangle or shoot,” Searcy said.
As awareness of domestic violence inceases and the legal and judicial systems offer more protection for victims and punishment for offenders, the perpetrator remains the unsolvable part of the equation. Entirely responsible for the abuse, he rarely feels the pain. Leaving behind a broken spirit, bruises, scars and blood, he remains unchanged. Holding the gun that will end her life and leave children without a mother, he pulls the trigger anyway.
“We can’t keep letting abusers get away with this and make excuses for them,” Ervin said. “Women have to speak up against this behavior, press charges and leave. Communities must hold these men accountable for what they do, even if it breaks societal rules.”
Ervin said victims can’t fix their abuser, become good enough to please him or love him through to a better place.
“Odds are, he’s not going to change.”
If you need counseling services, contact Lifelines Counseling Services at 251-602-0909. If you need domestic violence 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 a shelter in Baldwin County and its crisis line is 800-650-6522. You can also call 211 to find the help you need anywhere in Alabama.
As October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, this story is the second in a four-part series. Next week, “A System of Protection.”
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