We looked so good on the outside, a minister and nurse with two little kids.
We met in the anti-war movement as pacifists and draft counselors, young white idealists. I was a hippie and he was a seminary student. We believed we were more enlightened than our parents and would bring about a better world. He was youthful, buoyant and magnetic, my good friend.
I followed him to a holler in West Virginia, to a back-to-the-land community that failed. I followed him to the Rockies where I hiked behind him on countless trails, learned to cross country ski by breaking trail in the back country. We dreamed a life together, built a life with children, work and wilderness.
His youthfulness was steadily eroded by sudden violent rages, cheap wine, and perceived slights or failures. I watched his moods, coddled his ego and cooked his favorite foods. He’ll be all right, I would think to myself, He just needs this, that or the other thing. I believed in him, but I lost track of myself, then lost my belief in him.
No one suspected, no one knew. No one who came to my daughter’s fifth birthday party: a room full of friends, and only two chairs. Jen was at kindergarten when he came home for lunch, saw that it wasn’t ready, and flew into a rage destroying an oak rocker, her child rocker, and a coffee table. His rage passed as quickly as it came. I looked at him and sighed as I said, “Her birthday party is in a few hours.” Then I picked up splintered wood with trembling hands. He helped carry pieces of furniture to the trash. I cleaned up and hosted a party as though nothing had happened. As though a family of three would have two chairs. Later I said to him, “That was about a $600 tuna sandwich.”
No one knew until Darleen. He met Darleen on a campus trip watching eagles in Glacier Park, came home saying, “You’ve got to meet this woman, you’ll really like her.” Something he said on that trip caused her to see him as a man hiding rage. She had been at that same birthday party: she had the eyes and ears of a formerly battered woman and worked as a therapist at the mental health center. Days after the birthday party, she called saying, “I know what you are living with, and I can help if you want.” I waited to accept her help. I was in denial that the situation was that bad, and we were close to adopting Sean, a beautiful African American toddler.
Do I remember exactly when events happened? No. Trauma scrambles memory, makes a mess of time.
I waited until the anger I suppressed began to burst out unexpectedly at my innocent children. I waited until Jen said about Sean, “Mama, you can’t yell at him like that. You’re scaring him. He’s new to our family and doesn’t know you yet.” I couldn’t live with the discrepancy between the mother I wanted to be and the mother I actually was.
The first time I saw Darleen I said, “I can deal with anything as long as it isn’t about him. I love him and we’re married for life.” She was wise and patient, teaching me to feel, express, and release the pain I’d been blocking until I could feel my body again. After maybe a year, she asked if I could say that I was a battered woman. I answered, “I can’t be a battered woman, I’m a feminist.” Long silence. Finally I said, “I’m a battered feminist.” She asked me to tell one other person so I told my friend, Mary Beth, a counselor at a halfway house for ex-cons. She listened respectfully, years later telling me she was shocked and only believed me because she trusted my honesty. I’d been hiding a lot from myself and everyone around me.
With Darleen’s support, l grew stronger. When I refused to buy wine for him, he jumped up and down like an enraged toddler, screaming, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” I never again bought wine for him. I started leaving the house when his rage was building, taking the kids as he yelled, “You leave now and I’ll be gone when you get back. You’ll never see me again.” I taught the kids to grab my keys and purse always kept by the front door, to hide in the car until I could get away. He’d be passed out when we got home.
He never hit me. The one time he put his hands around my neck, I looked at him in horror. Shocked, he dropped his hands. He bragged, “I’m not a batterer, I’ve never hit you.”
Before we moved to Madison for a perfect job for him, Dar coached me to connect with the battered women’s shelter. She told me that as I got stronger, the rages would increase, that he’d only stop if I exposed him in the church, or left. I started work in a Catholic hospital and connected with a chaplain, Sr. Maureen, who became the therapist who saw me through the hardest years. She taught me to stay connected with my body, to feel the grief, rage, power and also the stuckness. Oh my, I resented her for encouraging me to fully feel the stuckness. Sr. Maureen supported me through leaving, divorce, leaving the church, and ultimately claiming my sexuality as a lesbian.
After moving to Madison, I began to act on my very tentative plans to leave if need be. I took the GRE and began graduate school, because how would I work rotating shifts, weekends, and holidays as a single mother, with two little kids? How would I ever find child care? I was working half time as a nurse in a birthing center, in graduate school full time, seeing a therapist and calling the battered women’s hot line regularly. I was wound tight and tired. When I told an AODA counselor that I’d hit Sean with a wooden spoon, raising welts on his little legs, she reported me to Social Services. When I told my husband I had to appear at the Social Services office for child abuse, he said, “I’m the real abuser in the family but I’d never admit it.” I was terrified I’d lose the children, but the social worker believed my story, believed I was working to get out of that marriage.
The summer before I left, my friend, Susan urged me to sign up for student housing. All fall, I called weekly begging to get in, but unable to be moved up the wait list. Dar called me from Montana, “I’m not calling as your therapist, I’m calling as your friend. Get out. Get out today. You don’t know how much anger you are bottling up.” She’d been an expert witness for a woman who murdered her abuser. I’d been fantasizing about keeping a knife under my side of the mattress.
He got worse, pouring a couple of liters of Carlo Rossi down his throat day after day. Violence increased from once or twice a month to weekly episodes of howling rage that lasted several hours. He broke his fist twice, broke furniture, doors and hearts. He threatened abandonment regularly, saying he had divorce papers in his desk. “If you leave me, you’ll never see me again, you’ll never get a penny.” He threatened suicide, saying as he walked out the door, “Kids, I’m leaving to die in the mountains because your mother doesn’t love me.” Behind his back, the kids rolled their eyes, nudged each other. They’d heard this before and knew he’d be back in an hour.
I had to be ready. I found my way out slowly, hating the fear and indecision that caused me to linger while his rages increased to three or more times a week. When his rage was spent, he’d pass out. Shaking and freezing cold with dry heaves, I’d take a hot bath and finish my homework. I had to be ready to make it on my own. I cried so much my daughter said, “I don’t have a mother, I have someone who sits in the rocking chair crying.”
On a day with yet another suicide threat, I called our minister who came to the house right away. My husband was back within an hour—and still acting crazy. The minister witnessed the whole thing, and proved to be totally unhelpful but then my husband wanted marriage counseling, asked me to find a therapist. At the recommendation of the battered women’s shelter, I made an appointment with Darold Hanusa, the man who started the program for batterers, Alternatives to Aggression. At our first appointment, Darold said he wanted to see my husband privately, “You don’t have a marriage right now, she lives in fear of you.” A year of him evading, missing appointments, and denying followed.
The last semester I lived with him I got a 4.0. When my grades came, he yelled abuse for hours, jealous because he’d never gotten a 4.0. Many nights I tried using sex to keep him from raging and waking the kids, but after coming close to vomiting one night, I refused sex. I threw a mattress on the floor of a closet upstairs between the kid’s rooms, creating a nurturing space for myself. He never came up the stairs at night but I heard him pacing the house at night, hitting himself, doing pushups, cursing, chanting, “I’m a piece of shit”.
My plan to finish graduate school before leaving him didn’t work out any better than “Til death do us part.” The kids had been hiding in bed together, pillows over their heads, waiting for his drunken rages to stop. They wanted out. Jen said, “Mama, you can do it. We don’t have to have new clothes or toys. You can do it.” Sean said, “Mama, this is like living in a cage with a wild animal, you’re the grown-up, you have to get us out of here.” Damn I was scared.
One night I left for a movie, desperate for a moment alone. When I came home, he was awake, sober and wide-eyed. Jen had exploded, saying to him, “I have a stomach ache all the time, I can’t eat, your awful temper scares me and makes me want to throw up.” He loved her and heard her. He looked at me, “What are we going to do?” I told him we’d talk in the morning and climbed the stairs to my closet. The next day I made lunches, saw the kids off to first and fourth grades. I told him we needed to separate. I knew I’d never be back, but if he knew this was final, his rage would be dangerous. When I called campus housing, they said, “We were just going to call you. Your apartment will be ready in two weeks.”
He was away at a minister’s conference when nurse friends showed up like the shoemaker’s elves. They painted our student apartment and moved us out of the house in the middle of a February ice storm. I lingered for a moment when I walked out of that house for the last time. Kathy took my hand saying, “Don’t look back, you’re starting your new life now.” Gradually, I finished graduate school, started a new job, bought a house. Somewhat to my surprise, I built a really good life in a safe home full of friends, music and laughter. I hung in there through some difficult years when my children acted out from trauma as they found their way into adulthood. I stayed steady on my own healing path. I didn’t do any of this alone. I had the support of a therapist, battered women’s shelter, grad school advisor, friends, my parents, a feminist lawyer, and Alanon.
The church and male clergy turned away, maybe not believing me, maybe not wanting any scandal. Several years later, when I saw our old minister at a restaurant near the Boundary Waters Canoe area, he came to my table saying, “One of the great failures of my ministry was not being able to save your marriage.” I answered, “I saved myself and my children.” I felt betrayed, and they missed an opportunity to push him into treatment. I left the church.
I’m an old woman now, still sometimes stumbling over stones of remorse when I remember abandoning myself, abusing my children and failing to protect them from their father for so long before I left this marriage. I respect my courage and commitment to healing. I got out, worked thru the tangled roots of my own anger, created a safe home. I’m grateful for loving relationships with two fine adult children.
Sometimes when I say, “I was a battered woman,” I go on to explain, “But he never hit me.” Does that count as battered? I remember nine-year-old Jenni saying, “Daddy doesn’t have to hit you. He hits with words from across the room and it’s just as bad.” I tell my truth.
Sara Williams is stitching together stories from a life as a farm kid, nurse, hippie, activist, wilderness traveler, preacher’s wife, mother, grandmother, lesbian, Peace Corps activist, singer, cook, gardener, traveler and spiritual seeker. Her journal writing began in 1972, story writing began in 2011. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her dog, Mamita.