By Suzanne C. Dubus – I was twenty-two years old when I made a series of decisions that would forever change my life. I had dropped out of college and decided to work until I figured out what I wanted to study.
I first met him on a busy Friday night while I was tending bar. He was tall with golden hair and freckles and hard to miss in the crowd. He had an easy laugh, touched my hand when I delivered his change, and night after night, left me a good tip. Soon, he began to stick around at the end of my shift to walk me to the car. To make sure I was safe.
He was a commercial fisherman who lived in California but came home to New Hampshire for an extended visit with his family. On our first real date, he treated me to lobster and wine and I felt grown up and that my life had just taken a turn for the better. That lunch date led to meeting each other’s families, spending our days together, and eventually deciding to move to Florida together so he could get back to fishing. My plans for college were still on hold and I figured I could bartend or waitress anywhere. We moved into a little bungalow right on the beach in a small fishing community. He got work on a boat that brought tourists out for the day and I cleaned hotel rooms at a hotel within walking distance. We had no phone, no friends or family, and very little money, often buying bags of grapefruits for a couple of dollars and ramen. But that didn’t bother us at all. We had each other.
We had been together for about six months when he reached over and pinched my leg hard and said that my shorts were too short, that he didn’t want any other man “to get ideas,” and that I shouldn’t wear them anymore. He smiled and I felt lucky that I had someone who wanted me all to himself. But it was confusing because there were other times he would complain that I never wore shorts or anything that would show skin, and then he’d accuse me of gaining weight and tell me I should stop eating. He often joked that he would kill me if I was with anyone else. He began to go out with the guys from the boat and grab a couple of beers after a day in the sun. Some nights he came home and other times I wouldn’t see him for a day or two. I sat in the little bungalow simply waiting for his return, imagining he had driven into a ditch or that he was with some girl in a bar.
He was punishing if I asked him where he had been. There was the time he jabbed his fingers into my chest over and over until my back was pressed into the stucco wall and he held my jaw tight, hissing that I was lucky he came back, that I didn’t deserve him, that he was supporting us and to back the fuck off. And the time he backhanded me, causing something to rip or pop deep inside my ear. I had to be careful not to get water in it for weeks. I trembled for hours after the first time he assaulted me. Everything hurt and I wondered what I had done wrong. These swift and violent episodes happened more and more.
I had gotten a second job waitressing at a restaurant down the road, one I could walk to. On my first day, my boss told me all the girls had to wear their shortest shorts and handed me a tee shirt.
The woman who managed the laundry saw the bruises on my arms and legs but never said anything; I could see her eyes drift from one spot on my body to another. I would smile and silently pray that she would ask me about them, but she didn’t.
I spent my mornings at the motel cleaning the rooms and stripping the beds. The woman who managed the laundry saw the bruises on my arms and legs but never said anything; I could see her eyes drift from one spot on my body to another. I would smile and silently pray that she would ask me about them, but she didn’t. I would get home just about the time he was waking up. He was usually okay then, often wondering out loud how the night had ended or how “his baby girl” was doing. I would end the days waiting on tables filled with guys drinking beer, pinching me, teasing me with bigger tips if I would just sit on their lap, or have a drink, or come by their house for a little party. When I complained to the manager, he told me guys didn’t come there for the food, they came for the “cold beer and the hot pussy.”
My job at the restaurant ended on a rainy afternoon, after the fishing boat had to turn around because of rough seas. I was standing at a table trying to take an order from a group of old men, one of them with his hand on my back telling me I was too pretty to know how to spell, and grilling me about how to spell cholesterol while others joked that I probably didn’t even know what it was. I was laughing as if none of this bothered me when I suddenly felt him there behind me. He ignored the men at the table peering up at him, the tables of families, the other staff, and my manager who stood in the kitchen door watching. He slapped the order pad from my hands, grabbed me by the ponytail and pushed me toward the door. I screamed and he told me to shut up. My arms flailed as I tried to keep my balance. The manager rushed over and told him to “take it outside.” What he meant was take ME outside, do whatever he was going to do, but do it outside. No one came after me and I never went back for my last check.
Just a short year and a half had gone by. I couldn’t tell you the day that I went from feeling like an adventurer in love with a kindred spirit, with nothing but promise and good things on the horizon, to a scared, lonely girl who was utterly lost and afraid to go home. I had lost touch with everything that meant something to me—my friends and my family. I wanted to call home but I couldn’t do that in front of him–and he was always with me. I couldn’t trust that my voice wouldn’t crack or that I wouldn’t start sobbing into the pay phone, begging someone to come get me. He would hear me and that wouldn’t go well. I hadn’t read a book or seen a movie in over a year. I hadn’t eaten a real meal in a very long time and I never had money of my own. College was a distant memory and an even dimmer hope for the future. I was in survival mode getting through each day and wondering what I could do to get him to love me again, to quit being so angry with me, to stop hurting me. It took me another three years to finally leave.
When I think back to that time I am reminded of all the ways I was made to feel that this was just how it was—from the indifference of the people around me who never lifted the phone when they heard the beatings, to the police who eventually did come but only to cart me away until “he calmed down,” to the boss who thought it was okay to use my body to attract paying customers. Those dark days were compounded by shame and isolation, not knowing about any resources or options, the lack of money, and the diminishing hope that he would love me again.
I was in survival mode getting through each day and wondering what I could do to get him to love me again, to quit being so angry with me, to stop hurting me. It took me another three years to finally leave.
Years later, I became an outreach worker for the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center (formerly the Women’s Crisis Center of Greater Newburyport, MA). My job was to work in the schools and teach young people about teen dating violence, sexual assault, and domestic violence. As part of my job, I attended a 28-hour training and was immediately triggered during the sessions. I couldn’t sleep, had heart palpitations, was distracted, and was deeply sad. I was, for the first time in my life, putting what I had experienced in context. Strange as it may sound, I had never considered myself a victim—or a survivor—of domestic violence. I thought it was about his drinking and him having watched his father abuse his mother. It was in those early days of my career that I came to understand how difficult it is to name what is happening, to rise up when everything else is pulling you down, and to make positive change in your life when everything is hard.
I am now the CEO of the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center. Survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault—particularly women of color, poor women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants—understand that domestic violence is rooted in sexism, racism, a culture of toxic masculinity, and the abuse of power. Survivors risk their own safety to seek help and then aren’t believed. They face obstacles like poverty, a lack of transportation, and retribution from family members, which makes leaving feel impossible. They face inconsistent policies and practices in the systems that are in place to protect victims. For example, some survivors call the police and are met with indifference or are arrested themselves.
I have been thinking a lot about the connections between our work with survivors of domestic violence and the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. These social media movements have great power in that they collect the hundreds of thousands or millions of stories that women have about being harassed, assaulted and abused. They allow survivors to tell their stories with as little detail or as much as they want to share. They give those watching a sense of the enormity and depth of this problem and inspire many men to question their own behaviors and explore their responsibility to be part of the solution. They amplify the voices of survivors and have the potential to create sweeping change in our response to survivors, in our beliefs and behaviors, and in our policies and practices.
I challenge us to talk about domestic violence homicide prevention in the same way. Every day in this country, three women are killed by their intimate partners and we know that is a very conservative estimate. That doesn’t include the family members, the innocent bystanders, or the first responders who are killed. During these days, let us not forget the research that shows that domestic violence homicides follow a predictable pattern. We believe that if something is predictable, it is preventable. One way to help victims at the highest risk of homicide is to engage and train law enforcement to complete a field instrument that informs the court of all risk factors. Abusers are held accountable for their crimes, while survivors can get the services they need.
Please help us #endDVhomicide by supporting our crowdfunding campaign.* Any pledge, no matter how small, will help save lives.
*Editor’s Note: The Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center successfully reached and exceeded their crowdfunding campaign goal on March 9, 2018. However, the organization is always in need of funds and support to do their important and life-saving work. Donate here.
About The Author
Suzanne C. Dubus joined the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center in 1995 and has served as its chief executive since 1998. She is credited with developing and administering domestic violence prevention programs that are effective, innovative and community-based. Her evolutionary vision has driven her work at the Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center and her success in revolutionizing the paradigm of domestic violence work on a national scale. Recognized as an expert in the field, Suzanne was named a Champion of Change by the White House in October 2011; is a member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Council on Sexual and Domestic Violence, the Massachusetts Council on Family Serving Agencies, and the board chair of Jane Doe, Inc., the statewide coalition of domestic violence and sexual assault programs.