September 5, 2013
Guest Column:
There’s still much work to be done on domestic violence


The credits rolled as music played softly.  A woman stood to take her child to bed, looking around the table of women who had just watched a documentary about three women survivors of abusive, controlling, dangerous partners.  She smiled, hugged her child close, and tears filled her eyes when she spoke.

“I cannot see myself ever calling a crisis line.  I would never have been one of those women who need to stay in a shelter.”

 She continued explaining that she had been busy, very busy – busy trying to prevent her fiancÚ’s anger, busy doing everything and anything that would please him, busy deflecting his accusations and blaming, busy trying to compensate her child for her father’s angry behavior, and especially busy making certain that no one – not her former employer, her girlfriends, her co-workers, and especially not her family – ever found out. 

In fact, she said, she realized one of the good things about staying busy was that she didn’t have time to consider how damaging his behavior was or how she had changed because of it.  Being so busy all the time left her exhausted – too exhausted to trust her judgment when troublesome warning thoughts occurred to her and to overcome or even begin to think about the steps she could take to have the peaceful home life she craved for herself and their daughter.  

Then, during a family vacation, the unthinkable happened – him angry and accusing, her running to the car to escape his tirade, and the humiliation of his family witnessing how he treated her and the names he called her.  He was even more angry when she drove away leaving him screaming in the driveway and she wondered what to do next so far from home. 

Maybe he would calm down in a little while. She could drive around for an hour or so and then return to the vacation house.  Maybe she should just drive home. She had never driven on a long trip alone with the baby, but she considered calling her mother for gas money and ending the unhappy vacation early.  He could get a ride home with some of his family when it was time. 

She was thinking all this and more when she was suddenly surrounded by Nags Head Police and Dare County Sheriff’s cars—five in all.  He had called 911 saying she was crazy, had kidnapped the baby, stolen the car, and attempted to run him down. 

On a day when literally everything was going wrong for her, suddenly, thankfully, things started going right.  The officers recognized the trouble. 

Although she recalls being hysterical and not making sense – she heard one say, “We need to get you to the station.”  She did not know what that meant, but believed “the station” had to be a better, safer place than where she had been or was now, standing on the busy bypass shoulder in July. 

The detective talked with her at the station, called the Hotline office, and gave her a ride.  She told us she worried about where she was bringing her baby and admitted that she had a picture of “shelter” in her mind that included a gymnasium lined with cots, too many people and no privacy.

Now, two days later, she told the women at the table that she was headed home in the morning.  He had taken his car from the police station and Hotline was providing transportation to a safe place where her mother would meet her.  Nags Head Police had spoken with police in her hometown and someone was watching her place. They told her he had already been there and that her landlord had before and after photos of the damage he had caused.  She said she had talked with people who work in her hometown domestic violence shelter and she knew she was welcome there if he continued to threaten her.

As she turned to go, she repeated, “You know, I just would never have seen myself as somebody who asked for help or shelter.  But, now that I am here and I feel how good it feels to be safe, I really don’t want to leave – I don’t want to lose this feeling.  I cannot say ‘Thank you’ enough.”

For every woman who comes to shelter – most, because there is not one single, solitary other option open to them – how many more never come? How many more just cannot see themselves as needing to take this step to bring safety and peace and limit the impact of a partner’s controlling, abusive behavior?  How many more continue treading water, walking on egg shells, and rushing from one narrowly averted catastrophe to the next?  How many are so busy that they never have the chance to consider what impact his behavior is having on their children?  How many believe they are going to do something so right that he will never be angry again? 

How many are protecting their abuser’s reputation or preventing him from being held accountable in court while continuing to live in fear, in danger, and in disappointment?

This woman was an actual guest at the Hotline shelter on an evening when volunteers were here to train to answer the crisis line and were seeing a DVD about three women’s journey from victim to survivor.  She was bright, articulate, attractive, creative, educated and, by all appearances, a very attentive mother. 

With all those positive attributes, what had prevented her from recognizing his abusive, controlling behavior and finding local experts who could assess the risk, safety plan, and help her to separate herself from him?  What is it that we need to be doing differently that would result in more women (or male victims) coming to learn about the problem behaviors and to develop strategies for dealing safely with their abusive partners?

While this woman’s story is compelling, her determination that she had not been one of “those women” left a lasting impression and raised more questions.  What possibly motivated him to behave so violently toward his life partner and mother of his child?  If he did believe he just “lost” it in anger, how could he fail to seek counseling as a means of managing this behavior and, possibly most compelling of all, how could he not be aware of the damaging impact of his behavior on his child and take steps to protect her from that? 

So here’s the million-dollar question -- two of them, actually -- for people concerned about increasing abuser accountability and victim safety,  people who actually care about the way society views domestic violence and about changing that view. 

While we are wondering why women stay and cast about for ways to convince women to do the very thing (leave) their partners have warned them they will be sorry for doing, is it possible that we might devote at least equal time to developing ways the offender can accept responsibility or be held accountable?  While we help victims become survivors, aren’t we morally obligated to also help their abusive partners learn and practice relationship equality and mutual respect?

In July, 2012, an Ohio woman on a family vacation on Hatteras Island was murdered by her son’s father, and a community wept in despair.  In July, 2013, another woman on vacation briefly escaped the man who abused her and a tiny group of women celebrated her feeling safe.  Now what?  What will you do?

Outer Banks Hotline is the community’s resource for intervention services and prevention programming.  All calls are confidential.  If you want to make a difference or if you need help, call 252-473-3366, the 24-hour crisis line, or the business office weekdays, 252-473-5121.

There is a great deal of work to do.  

(Temple Heggie has lived on the Outer Banks since 1984 and she and her husband of 44 years currently reside in Kill Devil Hills. Initially, she worked as a medical office manager at a women’s center and joined Outer Banks Hotline in 1994 as an intern from Elizabeth City State University’s undergraduate social work program. She was then hired to work with battered women seeking shelter and domestic violence victims in need of court advocacy, risk assessment, and safety planning.  She earned a master’s degree in social work from East Carolina University in 2004 and continues working with survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, conducting intake and orientation appointments for men who must attend Batterer Intervention Group, offering professional training and awareness education to groups and classes, and facilitating a countywide monthly domestic violence prevention and response meeting.)

comments powered by Disqus