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Domestic violence is a crime that police say is on the rise — right here in Greenwich
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Anyone who has watched television news knows about victims being doused with gasoline and lit aflame or poisoned or choked to death. Suzanne tells of one woman whose husband pulled over in their car on the George Washington Bridge and held her by her throat over the side of the span to make a point about being in control. “That’s an extreme example,” she says. “But it’s not extreme in that things like that happen all the time. We’ve got people who come in and say their husbands would drive really fast then hit the brakes so that they would go flying. There was another abuser who was on a boat with his family, and he dangled the child by the feet over the side while the boat was moving. That sends a real clear message. And that message is ‘I am in control here, and if you want to live, if you want your children to be safe, you’ll do what I want you to do.’ ”
For Barbara, her husband’s physical attack had contrasting psychological effects: It was both liberating and overwhelmingly debilitating. The incident happened one evening when her husband became upset because he felt she was walking away from a discussion they were having. He grabbed her and slammed her about the house like a rag doll, hurting her so badly that she had to go to the emergency room.
And though he was immediately weeping and apologizing, Barbara knew her marriage was finally over. “It sounds really stupid when I say it,” she says, “but it was like the heavens opened and the angels sang. The whole weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. ‘I said to myself, I can go now. I’m done.’ ”
Still, for Barbara, the painful process of coming to terms with the abuse and legally ending the marriage actually took several years. She lied to everyone about her injuries, saying she’d stumbled and fell down the stairs. And though her wounds got better, three months after the attack Barbara psychologically broke down. “Just as I physically healed,” she says, “I mentally fell apart.”
Like many victims or survivors, Barbara long blamed herself for the havoc that her husband wreaked on the family. She wrestled with questions about how she got into such a situation, what she had done to cause it, and how she could fix it. For months, she “zombied through life,” completely overwhelmed in confusion and grief for what her life had become. “I was a woman who could handle anything,” she says.
“I had played sports. I’m educated. I’m trained.
I can handle big jobs and big companies. I’m a model of efficiency. My house ran well. And then I found myself completely lost. Like I didn’t even know who I was anymore.”
Eventually, Barbara recovered her strength. Persuading her husband to move out proved relatively easy. But the divorce would be hellish. She found her way to the YWCA’s Domestic Abuse Services when she called for advice about helping him deal with the divorce. It was there that she began to see the situation more clearly, coming to understand that it was her husband’s behavior that was the problem, not anything she had done or failed to do.
What most victims of domestic abuse need first, says Louisa, is an empathetic listener, as opposed to someone insisting that she get out of the relationship or stay. For the victim, matters are more complicated than outsiders realize. Other issues, including religion, cultural background and personal beliefs, all come into play. And many victims say they still love their abuser. Or they worry about their children’s needs, where she and the kids will live, and how they will support themselves. Many don’t want to give up their lifestyle.
The YWCA’s staff provides a listening ear, along with safety planning, individual counseling and group sessions, among other services. “Gradually what we do is get her to get the focus off of him, which is a big step, and move it on to herself,” says Louisa. “We ask: Where is your power that you’ve let go? What power did you used to have? Did you used to work? How did you feel when you worked?
Did you used to have friends? And how can you slowly start to reclaim that part of your life in which you have things for yourself?”
In time, victims begin to rediscover their strength and spirit. Many take up exercising, eating properly and getting their sleep. As their self-esteem grows, the road ahead begins to seem clearer. How much counseling one receives depends on the individual. “Some people may come in just for crisis safety planning and things like that,” she says. “Other people are in a different stage, in which they’re ready to do a little bit more interior reflection and focus on themselves.”
If violence seems likely to occur, the YWCA will work with the victim to devise a safety plan for them. For example, the victim might be urged to stay out of rooms like the kitchen where knives and other potential weapons might be found, says Suzanne. Or, the victim might come up with a code word to use with their children, so that if violence seems likely to erupt they will know to go to their rooms or to leave for a neighbor’s house.
The YWCA also issues cell phones to women who need them, which can be used to call for help. The phones are not in the victim’s name, so the abuser cannot track the phone calls. Occasionally, Suzanne says, the YWCA will work with other agencies around the nation to help women relocate to another state, their identities and address held in confidentiality so their abuser cannot find them.
Some women are hesitant to seek help, not only because they fear their abuser but also because they worry about the reaction of people in the community and their social circles should it become known that they are in an abusive relationship. “We’ve got people who have a lot of means in the town of Greenwich where there would be a huge social stigma if people found out what was happening,” says Suzanne. Frequently, victims themselves will say they are calling for a friend, or, when they actually come in, give a false name. Although the YWCA works hard to protect a victim’s identity and information, counselors have been known to refer Greenwich residents to agencies in Stamford or Norwalk, as an extra buffer of anonymity. And, for the same reasons, victims from those areas periodically seek help in Greenwich.
Often it takes time for a victim to trust those who will help her. But when it finally comes, many victims begin to gain strength and insight. Barbara, for one, says that above all, the YWCA helped her understand that she was not alone.
These days, Barbara has her own small business and an active social life. She talks to her children regularly about healthy relationships and treating people respectfully. And when she goes on dates, she has little patience for men who show any of the demeaning tendencies of the man she left behind. “It’s almost like you’re still injured,” she says. “I can’t be around people who yell, or people who say mean things. I can’t tolerate it.”
The past is never completely gone, Barbara says, but things are definitely looking up. “I have a fabulous life,” she says. “It’s optimistic again. It’s full of potential. It’s anything I make it. It’s a huge freedom that I haven’t had in many years.”