Why Does She Stay?
An early version of this talk was given as part of a panel: Staying, Caring and Hoping at the 25th Anniversary Counterpoint Conference on October 6, 2018.
I like to think of myself as a brave person. I am rarely frightened in my vocation as a medical social worker or in my role as a faith transition and grief therapist. Companioning others, as they sit with distressing feelings, is routine to me. But I do get scared. And in this Halloween season, I share a scary story of true events that changed me.
Instead of a haunted house or forest woods, lovely dark and deep, the setting is West Los Angeles where I investigated child sexual abuse for the County Department of Children and Family Services.
One chilly-for-Los Angeles, balmy for Utah evening. I investigated allegations that a 13-year-old girl was molested by her stepfather. A social work intern accompanied me as we interviewed the girl at her school. I felt that additional responsibility of training a new professional and setting a good example. In my car after the interview, we reviewed the significance of the sparse but highly credible details we had both observed and heard from the alleged victim and made plans to interview the rest of the family at their home.
En route to the interview, I contacted the local police dispatch. They sent a car and we met the officers outside of the home, a junkyard looking property with a large run-down-home in front and a tiny one-room shack at the rear of a property. The large home was owned by the stepfather’s parents who directed us around back to the shack. The police entered first to assess the safety and remove any weapons.
As we entered the poorly lit home I immediately noted the bathroom with no door, just a flimsy fabric remnant curtain at the end of the shoebox room. This detail corroborated information about lack of privacy the girl had shared with us earlier in the day. She’d disclosed she was being molested when showering.
We began interviewing one family member at a time at the kitchen table located between the front door and the bunk bed where the whole family slept. Family members not being interviewed waited outside with the police.
During the mother’s interview, many statements raised red flags and my intern furiously documented everything on her yellow legal pad. The stepfather, her partner was a U.S. citizen but refused to apply for legal status for her. He was jealous and demanded a high degree of loyalty from her with constant loyalty tests. She was not yet worthy.
Worthiness would be determined by the father-in-law, a pastor at a storefront church. The mother was required to obey her father-in-law as well as her spouse but denied any domestic violence in the home. She admitted that her spouse threatened her with deportation when he was upset with her, she was not allowed access to money or finances and she was forbidden to use birth control. When she did attempt to use birth control her husband tampered with her pills or refused to pay medical bills.
This mother seemed so isolated and depressed. In this foreign country where she had made a new family who did she have to support her emotionally? She had extended family about 2 hours away in another city, but her husband did not like to visit them or have any contact with them. She was not allowed to see her family or contact them without his permission. Her only social contacts were related to her husband or the father-in-law’s church congregation. The congregants were not friendly with her as she and her daughter were frequently used as examples in sermons on wickedness.
Isolation, domination, lack of privacy, control, gas lighting, threats of expulsion from the country and separation from family. All of these were documented for the court report as problems that created a climate of emotional abuse for the children and domestic violence for the mother.
The mother exited the room and the stepfather entered to be interviewed. He was charming and mildly flirtatious painting a picture of himself as a devoted spouse and step-father struggling with the challenge of living with hysterical, dramatic, lying women with worldly desires and rebellious attitudes. They were not perfectly obedient to the wisdom of the worthy males in their life.
About midway through my scripted interview protocol, he stood up from his spot opposite me, picked up his chair and walked around the table placing his chair much nearer to me and blocking the only exit from the room with his body.
I broke out in gooseflesh and saw that the intern did too. It was at this time that I noticed a butter knife mostly concealed by the detritus of school papers on the table. The knife was closer to the stepfather than to me.
The air buzzed with the terrible anxious tension of a gathering lightning strike. I listened to my body. While inwardly panicking at the implied threats I assessed in the room, I remained outwardly calm drawing the interview to a premature close. I cheerfully informed the stepfather I had no further questions for him and would like a moment to confer with the officers.
His facial expression turned menacing and for a solid eternal 20 seconds he remained silent and staring. I called out, “Officers we are done can you come in?” and they quickly opened the door, forcing the father to scoot his chair over so they could enter. The stepfather reverted to charm and smiles as the lead officer entered. Aware that our protocol was violated by the positioning of the stepfather in the room, the officer made eye contact with me and asked me if I was OK with his eyes as he placed his body between the stepfather and myself.
The restoration of balance to the power dynamic in the room immediately reduced the pounding of my heart. I nodded to the officer that I was OK. I was not confident that I could fight off the stepfather if attacked, even with the help of my scrappy intern. But, the protective presence of the officer allowed me to resume slow regular breathing. It was the most frightened I’d ever be during my time as a child sexual abuse investigator.
A child welfare case was filed in dependency court. The family split and the mother chose her children over the stepfather. She collaborated with local law enforcement in pursuing charges for child sexual abuse and domestic violence with child endangerment. She moved in with her extended family and was granted a U-visa allowing her to obtain U.S. residency that put her on a path to citizenship. That is about as happy as endings get in a domestic violence with sexual abuse case like this.
In the week following, I spent several hours of clinical supervision processing the experience with the intern who wanted to know why this mother stayed in such a terrible situation for so long. We compared this case to other cases where mothers stayed with abusers after DCFS involvement and children were placed in foster homes. I asked some hard reflective questions: Where in your own life do you see these same dynamics? What systems are you a part of where you are abused, dominated or oppressed?
And then I received a truth drop, a puzzle piece falling into place. Was it possible? Could it be that I too was in an abusive relationship?
Like most women who stay with an abuser, I did not see the abuse.
Until I did see it.
And then it was difficult to stop seeing it. I was deeply in love with my partner and 100% committed. We were part of a wonderful family and community. Our unity was everything to me. I had sacrificed so much to prove my loyalty and worthiness. In that terrible moment of recognition I began a list of signs that my relationship was toxic:
1. I had no authority in our relationship. Every time my intuition or personal knowledge and expertise on a topic conflicted with my partner, we did what he wanted. He decided. If I voiced my differing views it led to questions about my loyalty and subtle threats of violence. Only my family members that proved their loyalty to him could attend our temple sealing.
2. I was rushed towards premature commitment in my relationship. The day I took out my endowments in the Oakland Temple my body flooded with panic for a moment and I wanted to escape. For a second I thought I was being initiated into a cult. I was only 21, how sure was I that this was right? But I looked around the room at kind faces of people who loved me and I stayed. It was what my partner wanted and I was in love.
3. My partner tried to control my body. I needed to dress modestly to stop my wicked body from tempting men and leading them to sin. In spite of frequent urinary tract infections, my partner pressured me to wear the underwear he chose. I was sexually assaulted as a child, a strange man exposed himself to me in college, these events were my fault. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A righteous woman would have died before allowing herself to be sexually soiled.
4. My partner isolated me from my mother and pitted me against my sisters. I was only allowed to speak to my father and brother. I was a disloyal apostate for trying to talk to my mother. If I wanted to thank her for something or ask a question I had to go through my partner or other trusted male relative.
5. I love to read and study. It feeds me. As an introvert, I feel safest in a book. But my reading for personal growth and attainment was also loyalty tested and censored to stories of men with an occasional story of a submissive woman. For 20 years I gathered weekly with other women under orders from my partner and we studied stories of our male ancestors, acrobatically applying their masculine experiences to our feminine lives.
6. I was not allowed to touch money or exert control over finances. My contributions to the family income had to be turned over to my partner. I did not get a say in how the money was spent. He spent my money on real estate investments while children in our family went hungry. Sometimes our money was used to pay the legal fees of child molesters. I felt equally disgusted and complicit.
7. My partner taught me that the melanin in my skin was a reflection of the idolatry and corruption of my ancestors. It was written into our family history. If I was righteous and obedient my skin would become whiter. I was taught that the sexual submission of brown bodies to white bodies was essential to life now and in the eternities. I believed him when he told me, “It is the purifying path to righteousness for people of color.”
8. My partner threatened to separate me from my family forever if I was not perfectly obedient. I would never be reunited with my mother. I was promised I could only hope to meet her again one day in the home of my older brother if my partner (who has many wives) remembered my name and called me to come over.
9. My partner controlled what I ate and drank. When I was most eating disordered (restricting and over-exercising) I was most praised as attractive, pleasing, and disciplined.
10. My partner gave male children authority over me and granted them privileges and power I had tried to be worthy of throughout our relationship.
That is 10. Ten indicators that I was not in a healthy relationship. There were many more I have not listed. You might be asking yourself the question we too often ask of domestic violence survivors: Why did she stay?
I stayed for seduction, charm and codependence I called love. When we were in a honeymoon phase he would put me on a pedestal and call me angel mother, virtuous, pure, spiritual. I would feel special, full of light, joy, and certain I could never feel that kind of happiness away from my partner. I knew he was the one for me and confidently stated hundreds of times, “I know.” He constantly reminded me there was no life or happiness without him and I believed him.
After I recognized the abuse in the relationship. I worked hard to stay and deny the truth. I was afraid I would die if I left. Women leaving a relationship of domestic violence are at the greatest risk of being murdered when they leave. When I started contemplating leaving and foolishly shared by doubts with him, he laughed and said, “Where will you go?”
I knew other wives of my partner were murdered for rebellion or disfellowshipped from the family. For simple acts: talking to their mother, writing about their mother, writing a true family history, reporting child sexual abuse, or advocating for women to have equal rights. I could be better, true, loyal. I would stay with him forever and live. One day he would reward me with a peaceful life of ease in a mansion filled with friends. I could endure.
There was no physical abuse. The emotional abuse did not seem that bad. I was perpetually in a self-esteem suppressing shame cycle. I stayed.
And I struggled. I did not want to lose my family. I knew leaving might mean permanent separation from all of my family. And I worried about the most vulnerable family members. Would they be safe if I left? Who would protect them?
I was repeatedly told I was responsible for my partner’s behavior and I believed it. I thought if I tried harder and was more perfectly righteous he would change and be the loving partner I knew he could sometimes be. If I just asked for what I needed in the right tone he would surely grant it?
In my culture, women don’t leave their partners. Commitment is forever. There was so much pressure to stay. Almost every friend and family member wanted me to stay. Who would I be if I left? He was my identity. I did not want to be judged, blamed, marginalized, pitied, looked down upon or to become a project.
But after that 2012 vision, as I reflected with the intern on domestic violence, I began to contemplate leaving. Soon it was all I could think about. I knew it would be difficult and dangerous. But I gathered my courage and tried it. I separated from my partner for a few months, before returning, humbled and submissive. He welcomed me and made some changes that gave me hope our relationship could work out. And after the brief honeymoon came more abuse. I cried, grieved and broke things in anger because I wanted to stay. I took my time. I spent tens of thousands of dollars on counseling. I wanted to be a more perfect partner. I wanted to fix us, but the abuse was relentless.
In November of 2015, I had the courage to leave again.
We remain separated. Although I do see him for special family occasions: mission homecomings, baptisms, performances. It is hard to stay away. I have to choose my safety and well being over and over again. And I pray that one day I’ll be ready to finalize the divorce. But, in moments of weakness, I still hope so hard that he’ll change and we can be together again.
Since my separation, I have tried to move on and dated other partners: Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Buddhist, Unitarian. They do not try to control my body, voice, mind, what I wear or who I love. They encourage my autonomy and listen to me. And it is not what I am used to experiencing. It feels foreign to be treated with kindness and respect.
My partner -The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints lied when he kept me apart from my mother and myself with false traditions, rituals, and doctrines of control and domination. He was wrong to separate me from my mother. Wrong to pit me against my own body, mind, and heart.
I hope I never go back. And I work at it every day. I remain engaged with my broad Mormon family. Because I survived. Because I escaped. Because I won’t let separation from my abuser separate me from my family. I talk to my mother and see her every day. She is divine. I hold her hands in the garden. Bathe in her womb when I swim. I read the words of her prophets: women like Brene Brown, Bell Hooks, Nayyirah Waheed, and Pema Chodron. I see her face when I look in a mirror. I hear her voice when I speak. She is everywhere in nature. And she is feeding me so strong. Healing everything broken inside of me.
I will never again be separated from my Heavenly Maiden-Mother-Crone. I am a healer too. I see her and I can be her. I have learned the Goddess is always with me. And I remain engaged in the rescue and healing of those ready to leave their abusers. I try to support those that want to stay with nurture and kindness. I remember when staying was all I wanted. I see my messy, broken, abusive family. I love them with strong boundaries that keep us all alive and safe.
And I remember. Once upon a time, all I wanted was to make my relationship to the Church work. I remember when I believed I was the broken one.