It has not been my habit to talk about myself in my column, but because of the ongoing conversation about domestic violence in our culture I am inspired to share my story of how I survived domestic abuse even before it was considered a crime. This is a story about why I stayed and how I left.
It is only recently that domestic violence has been considered a violation of the law. Although men have battered, abused and mistreated their wives or intimate partners for a long time, historically, wife or partner abuse has been viewed as a “normal” part of marriage or intimate relationships. Only toward the end of the 20th century, in the 1970s, has domestic violence been defined as a crime, justifying intervention by the criminal justice system.
I married for the first time in 1967. My husband turned out to be a verbally, emotionally and physically abusive man, and I was the object of his abuse. His violent rages seemed to come out of nowhere. I had grown to fear him and was as careful as I knew how to be not to trigger him — walking on eggshells all of the time. In 1967 no-fault divorce was not an option and blame the victim was the name of the game, so I stayed and tried to make the best of a bad situation. To set the stage, we were a young interracial couple, married the same year the Supreme Court ruled miscegenation laws illegal. I was 21 he was 26.
We shared a car. Both of us worked. It was my habit to pick him up from work in the evening. One afternoon I made a decision to remain at work to complete an interview I was conducting. I had no way to reach him to let him know that I would be about 15 minutes late (there were no cell phones then). When I arrived to pick him up, he was not there. My heart sank. Instead of waiting for me, he had taken the bus home in a driving rainstorm.
I knew he would be furious by the time I arrived home, and sure enough, there he was waiting for me inside the foyer of our apartment with a leather belt in his hand. When I walked through the door, he began screaming obscenities at me and beating me with the belt. As usual, I was totally unprepared for the assault. Afraid to defend myself, I felt victimized and helpless as usual.
Aside from the extremity of the attack, there was something different this time. I am not really certain how long the attack continued, but at some point during it, something inside of me literally clicked. Time slowed down, almost coming to a standstill, and I remember hearing a voice inside me say as clearly as if there had been someone in the room talking to me, “You know he’s crazy, but you must be crazy too for putting up with this.” In that moment of realizing my own insanity, I was transformed from the victim of an abusive husband to a woman who had choices, and I knew, even though I was not yet ready emotionally or financially, that I would leave the relationship.
I never said a word to him or lifted a finger to defend myself, but the most amazing thing happened. Immediately following, or maybe simultaneous to my thought and decision to leave, he stopped hitting me and screaming at me, dropped the belt and walked away. We never spoke of the incident, and he never raised his voice to me or lifted a finger to harm me in any way after that. It was as if he somehow sensed that he would never be able to treat me that way again.
In a moment of profound awareness, I had taken personal responsibility for my own sense of well-being. In that instant I had changed on a deep, fundamental level. The shift in me completely changed the way I regarded myself and profoundly changed the way he interacted with me forever. I was no longer a victim. I had choices. Within months I had enrolled in graduate school, moved out of our apartment and filed for divorce.
This incident happened over 40 years ago. Until I shared the story sixteen years ago with my students at the University of Michigan in a course I was co-teaching with Professor Robert Quinn called “Change the World.” I had never told anyone — not my parents, my brother, my current husband, or any of my closest friends. I had buried the memory of that chapter of my life, and along with it the feelings of humiliation and shame I felt.
The premise of the course we were teaching was that through individual personal transformation you can effect positive change. The question that prompted me to tell the story came from a student who asked, “Can you change an abusive relationship organizationally or personally through individual personal transformation?” I told my story.
Before I could feel regret or embarrassment about what I had shared in a very public forum, Professor Quinn said the most amazing thing: “That is an incredibly powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.”
Shazaam! An incredibly powerful story? Not the story of a pathetic victim of abuse who had put up with it for years? Not a shameful story that should have remained a lifelong secret? I had made myself vulnerable by sharing a story that I had always regarded as a sign of my own weakness. In the telling, I watched the story transform into a story of courage and strength. In telling the story, which was in itself an act of courage, my perspective shifted.
The fundamental change in me, by telling that story, was my willingness to lovingly and wholeheartedly embrace those parts of me that I had for years regarded as flawed. This shift in perspective forever changed how I see and relate to the world. Clearly my clients have benefited from this shift, as I am much better able to help them embrace their weaknesses and flaws, which paradoxically transforms them into strengths. My family and friends also benefit, as I am much less guarded and defensive, more willing to be open and vulnerable, and have a greater sense of self-esteem, all of which allows for greater intimacy and closeness.
So the upshot of what occurred for me by finally telling this story was that a pathway opened to transforming what I had internalized as a shameful experience, to be kept secret, into a story of courage and strength that I can now use to instruct others and to be a more compassionate, open and loving person. It also released me from a long-held but deeply buried belief that I am not “good enough” which has opened many internal doors that were formerly locked away, freeing me to be more authentic, genuine, and efficacious in all that I do.
I hope telling my story helps you find the courage to tell your story, whatever it may be, and to experience the loving embrace of all those with whom you share it. Secrecy enables the continuation of abuse. Don’t get it twisted. There is no shame in being abused. The shame belongs to the abuser; to all those who blame the victims of abuse; and to those individuals and institutions who would have you cover it up, hide it behind closed doors and keep abuse a secret.
Unless you are a powerless child, being victimized by an abuser does not define you as a victim. No matter what you may think, you always have choices. There is a way out. I know. Find your strength. Find your voice. Tell your story. Stand tall. Stand proud. Change the world.