Not another one: The cycle of domestic violence
Editor’s Note: “Susan” is a pseudonym. We agreed not to use her real name out of concern for her safety, but felt she has a perspective that we needed to share in light of ongoing incidents of domestic violence.
By Lucia Suarez
She didn’t even know she was being abused.
It was subtle. On different occasions, he showed up at work, when she was grocery shopping or visiting a friend.
And then it escalated.
He got jealous and possessive. He got angry and yelled. He apologized and then, for a while, things got better. He humiliated her. He threw something in anger. He pushed her. He yelled at her. He raped her.
He controlled her.
This was Susan’s life for many years. The Vermonter was together with her former husband for 16 years. For many of those years, she was under his control and was terrified.
“I didn’t figure it out that it was an abusive relationship until towards the end,” she recently said about her abusive relationship. “For me, it was far more emotional (abuse).”
She survived; she found a way out. Other women are not so fortunate.
Over the past four weeks, there have been four homicides in Vermont related to domestic abuse and battery.
A woman was beaten to death by her boyfriend in Pittsford, police said. A man stabbed his ex-girlfriend in Danby, then he was killed by her boyfriend. A New Hampshire woman was allegedly killed by her husband and there was a murder-suicide in Peacham.
These are the headlines that have filled Vermont newspapers recently. Susan and other advocates against domestic abuse want it to stop.
Not another one. Not another victim. Not another crime scene.
Susan said it’s like a campfire, where people listen to ghoulish tales — the scarier and more gruesome, the better — and get that creeping feeling in their stomachs. The stories make people gasp with terror and break out in sheer panic and sweat.
But they can stand up and leave.
“The same sense of intense fear and terror exists with domestic violence,” Susan said. “However, it is not as easy to walk out of our homes as it is to walk out of a movie theater or away from the campfire.”
Jealously in a relationship could be seen as flattering, and the unexpected visits could be seen as though he cared. But they were something else. Susan never put two and two together.
“You don’t understand that this is about control — about possession,” she said. “I didn’t know it.”
One incident she remembers vividly. Susan got home from work and was met with two state police troopers and her husband in the cruiser. When she asked what happened, he said, “Nothing. Go into the house.”
“The look on his face was ice cold,” she said. “Anybody could have seen that.”
She learned that he had beaten someone up, and had brought a gun as well.
“He was a charmer,” Susan said. “He somehow convinced the police there was no clip in the gun when he had it.”
He was released on a citation. No one took her aside to ask whether she was OK, if she was safe. The officers simply drove away and left her alone.
“That has an incredible impact on us,” Susan said.
During the last couple of years on their marriage, Susan said it became more pushing, more shoving, more sexual.
“It was unusual for me to say ‘no,’” she said.
Susan started an escape/safety plan. She would take an article of clothing or a new toothbrush to a friend’s house — something that would not be missed. The plan kept her going, and was the first step in her saying “No more.”
“I had to do something,” she said. “I was caught (trying to leave) more than once.”
In retaliation, he killed her dog and tried to burn her house down — with her in it.
Then she found her lifeline.
She was talking to the town manager and he mentioned something about a local crisis network and got her information.
“I went flying to them,” he said. “They were wonderful and gave me information of domestic abuse.”
It was not until later that she eventually was able to cut ties with her ex-husband. He left town. He filed for divorce. She filed for a restraining order against him.
She had never felt so much relief.
“I was fortunate,” Susan said. “God knows what he could have done to me.”
Today, after more than a decade, Susan is a survivor and an advocate. She shares her story in hopes that it will help someone in the same situation and to even more specifically, to save someone’s life.
“People know about domestic violence,” she said. “They don’t know the mechanisms. They don’t understand the mechanisms ... We don’t want this to happen again.”
Domestic abuse is defined as coercive acts to keep power and control over an intimate partner. It’s not just physical, but it can be financial, emotional, physical or a combination.
“It could happen to anyone,” said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “... We know that one in four Americans report having experienced domestic abuse. We know of many who don’t.”
She said, like Susan’s experience, it begins slowly and gradually it escalates, becoming more violent, and could eventually turn fatal.
“It’s really about power and control,” she said.
A perpetrator can be anyone — most of the times they are contributing members of society, Tronsgard-Scott said. They usually are raised to believe they need to have control over their intimate partners and they have deep insecurities.
Some may have drug and alcohol abuse problems, and the majority were abusers in a previous relationship, she said.
“A batterer goes from abusive relationship to another,” Tronsgard-Scott said. “We only see the physical, but there are a whole other things going on.”
Susan said: “Batterers have this innate ability that they find the right person that they control.”
She said abuse happens among all genders, but most predominately from men to women.
The signs are everywhere.
Your partner puts you down, calls you names or criticizes you. He or she acts jealous or possessive, takes control of your finances; undermines your parenting; follows you, listens in on your phone calls or reads your email or texts.
He does not want you to work or attend school. Punishes you by withholding affection. Does not respect your opinions.
Threatens you, your children or pets with harm. Shoves, slaps, chokes or hits you. Denies abusing you or blames you for the abuse.
“All of these are a choice the batterer makes. He makes a choice to use power and control over their intimate partner,” Tronsgard-Scott said. “There is nothing that the victim is doing for the abuse.”
Susan reiterated that any action made by the victim did not warrant the abuse.
“Not only is it not the victim’s fault,” she said, “she should not be made to be embarrassed. It’s not the victim’s fault.”
The coercive and abusive acts by batterers eventually overflow outside, eventually affecting family relationships, friends and employment, Tronsgard-Scott said.
A victim will start calling out of work randomly — especially if the abuse is physical — to hide any bruising. They miss family events and stop meeting with friends.
These should be warning signs for anyone.
Susan said when people hear her story, they always ask, “Well, why didn’t you leave earlier?”
She said even with her escape/safety plan she was still terrified and did not know who could help her. A common thought by victims is that no one will believe them and that there are no choices.
“I was extremely fortunate,” Susan said. “I had a phenomenal attorney (Fred Glover of Ludlow) who kept me safe. I am sure I made him crazy. I was terrified.”
Tronsgard-Scott said what Susan felt is common among victims, and it is the mentality that crisis centers across the state are trying to break.
“We are seeing that domestic violent is no longer a secret,” she said.
Vermont State Police Major Edward Ledo, who was part of the investigation into the recent Pittsford homicide, said the majority of abusive relationships develop a similar pattern that starts with isolation and it gets locked into a cycle that is hard to break.
“It’s a pattern and a trend that we are not going to see go away,” he said. “... And we have to get the message out that we are not going to tolerate it as police officers and as a society.”
He said the cycle is breakable, though. It can start with a phone call from the victim or family asking for help.
“If we had the ability to know when it goes on, then we can work to prevent it,” Ledo said. “I would rather respond to a call and have it be nothing than not get a call and I have to stand by a crime scene.”
Tronsgard-Scott said people should not be afraid to approach a family member or friend they feel may be in an abusive relationship. It can be and, in some cases, will be the lifeline that person is looking for.
“The best thing we can say to someone is ‘I am worried about you’,” she said. “That we keep it confidential and that we are here to help. That message is really important and it can be a lifeline.”
For Susan, the lifeline came while acting out her safety plan. The lifeline came the help of a town official. The lifeline was the phone call she made to a hotline.
“You are not alone,” she said. “Even if it feels like it.”
She added: “(The safety plan) gives a victim, if even slowly, the opportunity to being to become proactive for their own health and self-confidence.”
Tronsgard-Scott said the people answering calls at the different hotlines across the state are well trained to offer counseling, peer support, and information on domestic abuse and battery without judgment. All calls are confidential.
Susan said when she left her ex-husband, a friend of hers told her that this was the start of a new adventure where she had choices and opportunities. One of those opportunities was to become an advocate.
“It was not so much because of what I went through personally, but because the system had so horribly failed me that I did not want anyone else to go through the process the way I had to — including the disappointments and frustrations,” she said.
She added: “We have come a long way, but there is still a lot of work that still needs to be done.
If you can save one life, you have done a good thing.
Not another one.
This article was produced in partnership with the Rutland Reader.