Why Outing the Domestic Violence Survivor — and Her Abuser — Might Just Save Lives

DV[TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of domestic violence]

I’m outing myself. It’s not an easy thing to do, out yourself. I’ve kept a lot of my story secret for many years, for many reasons. Reflecting on my life with my abuser, I now realize I minimized the conflicts, marginalized the incidents, telling myself I was making more out of it than it was. After all, how many times did he tell me that?

Only after I left my abuser did I gradually start to tell my story. Treading guardedly with family members, friends, even a few coworkers, I alluded to incidents that occurred during my relationship. Veiled in humor and off-handed comments, these revelations produced expressions of astonishment, as many thought we were a cute couple, a loving couple (and oftentimes we were). Some downplayed the details, uncomfortable with the conversation. Others looked at me askance as if to say “What’s wrong with you that you didn’t leave sooner?” and I would recoil, embarrassed and ashamed.

As a woman who was once abused, I recognized football player Ray Rice’s fiancée Janay’s attempts to sweep abuse under the rug, to “normalize” the situation. But once that horrific image of her being dragged unconscious out of an elevator was foisted on the public, it was no longer a private matter, it became a societal one. The victim and the perpetrator can no longer act like the abuse is “no big deal,” that it’s the victim’s fault or that it never happened. Because it’s there, on tape, in the public eye. They both have been outed.

And that’s a good thing.

Why? Because if they weren’t outed, the abuse may never have been brought to light. Janay could have endured years of physical violence—or worse, she could have been killed. When nobody is around to witness the abuse, it’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist. The victim rationalizes it because it is her only way to survive.

Of course the fear of retribution holds many of us back from telling family or friends about what happens behind closed doors, elevator or otherwise. It is no wonder Janay vehemently stood by her man. If she didn’t, the repercussions—financial, emotional and physical—could be catastrophic.

I remember a friend tried to help me once. She saw my attempts to pacify my perpetrator, to assuage his moods, mollify his anger; none of it went unnoticed. At the time she worked for a domestic violence hotline and recognized all the signs—the way he’d embarrass me with put-downs, the way he’d look at me that would quickly shut me up. She had emailed me the Domestic Violence Wheel, which showed the behaviors abusers use to get and keep control in their relationships. When I read about the cycles, I grew angry, denied there was anything wrong, downplayed my abuser’s actions. It was only after several more “episodes”—physical ones—that I realized I was in danger. The Violence Wheel was right: Abuse is never a one-time event. That’s when I sought help from a therapist who gently nudged me to attend a domestic violence counseling and support group.

I was surprised to find that I was the only white woman who came to the support group during those months; most of the women were Latina or black, many of them poor and uneducated. We had, I thought, nothing in common, and frankly I felt that I didn’t deserve to be there because I hadn’t suffered the level of abuse they had. Many of them had been beaten, tortured for years. But when they listened to my story, they were as compassionate and empathetic as they were to each other. They assured me that the abuse I experienced was just as serious, just as real as that of everyone else in that room. My emotions, which had been checked and numbed for years, could finally be articulated through this sisterhood, and I began to cry. A young Latina girl folded her arms around me, comforted me. They all comforted me. When it was their time to speak, I listened. The more I listened, the more commonality I found in our lives.

While the statistics behind domestic violence are startling, the numbers can’t tell the stories—our stories: the fear, the feeling of powerlessness, the loss of self-esteem and confidence, the anxiety and the depression many of us face. While the women who led the discussions at the domestic violence support group were kind and supportive, they remain faceless in my memory. It is only the survivors I met there whose faces stay with me to this day.

One in particular was a stunning black woman (I’ll call her Trinee) sitting at the far end of the room. She wore a red and white paisley bandana around her head and large gold hoop earrings. She sat there quietly with her arms clasped around her knees, tucked in, safe. When she lifted her face to the group I saw the suffering in her eyes, but I also saw the determination and strength. Trinee described the years of violence with her former boyfriend metaphorically, eloquently:

At first, the abuse started like a spark, a flicker, barely noticeable. But as the years passed, it intensified to a flame, burning hotter and hotter, and before I realized it, it was an inferno that engulfed me.

We were informed that there was only one refurbished cellphone available to the group, and we had to decide who needed it the most. We all agreed it should be given to Trinee. Her former boyfriend continued to stalk her at her job and apartment, making death threats despite the order of protection she had. We needed to make sure she always had a way to call 911, to get to a shelter. We needed to make sure she was safe.

She was not safe. The order of protection didn’t protect her. Trinee was murdered at the hands of her former lover, gunned down just outside her apartment when she came home from work.

After that, I couldn’t bear to return to the support group.

But I did leave my abuser.

I often think of Trinee, especially when I hear about acts of domestic violence like those committed by Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Brandon Marshall or James Harrison. Many of these football players are repeat offenders. Abuse is never a one-time event.

But I have hope. Knowing Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition against Domestic Violence, I am confident she, along with Lisa Friel, the former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office and NO MORE co-founder Jane Randel as advisers to the NFL, will help shape their policies going forward. Perhaps through their efforts the perception by owners and advertisers, players and coaches, spectators and eyewitnesses will change. For it is only through a social justice movement that we can bring voice to the thousands of women who have been injured or killed at the hands of their abusers and protect survivors in the years to come.

Ray Rice said that he and Janay were going to become advocates to help domestic violence groups “at the appropriate time.” Sounds like a good public relations strategy to me. The reality is that batterers rarely change.

My abuser never did. He attended one “anger management” class and announced he was not like the others, he was “not a criminal,” that he never was arrested (because I was too afraid to call the police). He said that he didn’t belong there and had no intention of going back. He could never admit that he had done anything wrong to me, that he could have killed me.

Outing myself has changed my life. I know now that the abuse was not my fault. And I know that by disclosing my past, I am no longer held captive by it.

Poster image from Flickr user USAG- Humphries under license from Creative Commons 2.0



Loretta Worters has worked with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence on the importance of financial planning that helps survivors prepare for a better life. She has also served on the Allstate Foundation board along with the National Network to End Domestic Violence Fund. Her memoir in progress, After the Storm, details her experiences with domestic violence after Hurricane Katrina.