Local women tell stories of survival

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 8, 2001


LAPLACE – Abuse was a way of life for “Sarah.” Married for 13 years, she separated from her husband a year ago. Now the St. Charles Parish native lives apart from him with their four children, and he lives in a jailhouse. She left her husband after a night of abuse so severe he was arrested and she was left terrified of him eventually getting the chance to come back and kill her. It started when she arrived home from work. A friend had been giving her rides to and from her job, and she asked her unemployed husband why she could not use their car. He called it “his,” and said she would never use it. According to Sarah, what happened next is etched into her brain, a scar she believes will remain forever. Her husband slammed her into the refrigerator, drug her to the floor and into their bedroom. He raped her for hours, beat her body bloody and then cut her face with a knife. When he was finished, he tore the telephone from the wall and left their bedroom. The couple’s children had been at school, but when they returned Sarah could hear him telling them to let her sleep and not to bother her for the rest of the evening. “He told me that he would kill me, put me in the trunk of his car and bury me,” said Sarah. Sarah had already been seeing Liz Johnson of the River Parishes section of the Metropolitan Battered Women’s Program, which helps survivors of domestic violence in St. John, St. Charles and St. James parishes. She had thought about leaving, but that night helped her make the decision. “It was natural to be beaten for no reason, for saying the wrong thing,” said Sarah. “He had been gone all week, was in and out. When he left me in the room with no phone, I could hear my 13-year-old daughter outside the window, playing, and I tried to call to her for help, but he heard me.” Already lying on the bed in pain, Sarah was traumatized more when her husband returned. After he left for the second time, she remembered an old telephone that was stored in the top of her closet. She managed to pull it down, plug it in and call a friend. An hour later, police were outside their home, and Sarah said she could hear her son yelling for his father to come to the door. “I was in a lot of pain,” said Sarah. “My 9-year-old told my husband that there were a bunch of cops. I could hear my husband telling the police lady that I was sleeping, but she said she needed to see me.” When the woman came into Sarah’s bedroom, Sarah showed her the cuts and told her what her husband had done to her. The officers arrested her husband, and even now she can hear his words burning in her ears. According to Sarah, he kept screaming, “Do you see what you got these people doing to me? Arresting me in front of my kids.” “I remember the lady cop’s words: He’ll never touch you again,'” said Sarah. Sarah went to the hospital that night, was treated and given a rape kit. She later went to court, but her husband was acquitted and released from jail, though he is now in jail for raping another woman, said Sarah. “He used to phone me at work,” she said. “He told me, Maybe not today, but one day I’m going to kill you.’ I remembered what they told me to do, to document everything.” Currently Sarah and her children receive counseling through the Metropolitan Battered Women’s non-residential program, but she is especially worried about her son who is now becoming hostile and fighting a lot in school. “He’s doing things that just aren’t him,” she said. “But the program has helped them a lot. It has taught me to be very safety-conscious.” Sarah has a safety plan that she is to use if her husband is released from jail. “I have to use the cell phone that they provide if I need to call 911 or the shelter or the program. At nights when I come home, I have to honk the horn and let one of my kids come out and get me. I have a whistle that I have to blow if he gets around me,” she said. Sarah warns other women in similar situations to get out soon. Her abuse began four years into their marriage. She remembers the first time, when he slapped her across the face and she went flying across the room. “That first hit should have been my wake-up call,” she said. But like so many abusers, her husband returned later to beg her forgiveness and say he was sorry. “He controlled everything, all the money. He punished me. If I wasn’t a good wife, I didn’t get grocery money, and I needed that money to buy the kids food. It was like I had a time clock. I could go to work, go home, go to church, go home. He wanted me isolated, away from family,” she said. “Abuse is not love, that’s what I would tell another woman going through it. She deserves better. I won’t let myself be a victim again.” According to another domestic violence survivor who is receiving help from the River Parishes section of the battered women’s program, “Sally,” being in control and keeping the victim isolated are common with men who abuse. Her marriage lasted six years, but she said unlike Sarah’s case, her abuse was often more emotional than physical. Having met in college, the couple began a relationship that produced a baby. Sally married the father of her child, who she said began to blame her and their baby for him not finishing his studies. “While I was pregnant, he kept telling me that three other women could be pregnant with his children,” she said. “When I moved to Florida for a job, I could hear women in the background when I talked to him on the phone. That was something that hit me hard.” Eleven years younger than her husband, who had been married once before, Sally found the man to be a real charmer and she fell hard for him. “There were always other women, though,” she said. “He saw me as an investment, like a company that you invest funds into. He could fall back on me if he needed anything. He told me that. Most of the time anything that he received in life was from women.” The first time Sally was hit was when she was four months pregnant with their first child. Her husband had dropped out of school, moved from Louisiana to Florida to be with her. She was sitting in the bathtub. They were arguing, and she hit the water with her hands hard out of frustration. Some water splashed on him, and he backhanded her. “All I could think about was Don’t get up.’ I wanted to get back at him, hit him back, but I was pregnant. I didn’t know if he would hit me in the stomach. I just sat there and wept like a baby,” she said. Sally said her husband, who had been in the U.S. Navy, often bragged about what he could do to her, what the military had trained him to do, how he could hurt her. Sally said her husband would talk about how dumb she was, and he even asked another woman to marry him. She began to flinch anytime he tried to kiss her or get close to her. “I would lie, tell him I caught a chill, but I was scared. It was a reaction,” she said. Sally got calls from other women in her husband’s life who told her that they thought he was violent, encouraged her to leave. So she did leave. She got on a plane, flew home and told her family not to let her talk to him. If he called, she did not want to know. “But one morning he called, and I did pick up the phone. Now I realize through the program that it was the honeymoon stage.’ He apologized. I decided to go back to him,” said Sally. She and her husband had a total of three children together, and it was concern for the safety of her children that convinced her to leave him once and for all. One day during an argument over the cost of a baby cup, Sally said her husband raised his hand. She thought he was going to hit her, so she naturally raised her hand in defense. “He picked me up and threw me to the floor. I was wheezing. My whole body hurt. When I looked over, I saw that the baby had fallen to the floor and was crying,” she said. Sally went to the hospital because of severe pain in her leg from the incident, but before going she and her husband came up with a story. “He was worried about police, so we staged what we were going to say, that I fell off a ladder,” she said. Sally had a hairline fracture on her tailbone and had to see a chiropractor. She told him the same story about the ladder. When the abuse started to directly affect the children, Sally knew it was time to leave. One afternoon, while traveling, her daughter began crying. Her husband drove down a dirt road, took the child and her car seat out of the vehicle and put it outside of the car, driving away. “I was pregnant then, but I told him I would jump out of the car,” said Sally. “He finally drove back and got her.” Sally left Florida to return to Louisiana with her children, but was arrested for kidnapping the kids. She is now living in Louisiana, and her husband is in Florida. She has the children for the summer. She is fighting for custody. “I’ve become highly educated through this program,” said Sally. “We get to share and it makes it easier because we’ve all been through it. It’s hard to tell friends or co-workers.” Sally and Sarah both have spent time in shelters, though there is currently not one located in the River Parishes. Women are sent to New Orleans or Baton Rouge. “We’re closer now than we have ever been,” said Johnson of getting a shelter in this area. “We’re having discussions on it. But it might not be safe for women living in this area. What I believe would happen here, is that women from other areas would be sent here. If they brought women out here, that opens up beds in other shelters for other women.” The children of both Sarah and Sally are receiving counseling with Johnson, which they all say is very important. The two women are also being counseled. “Abuse is about power and control,” said Johnson. “When the woman makes that phone call, it is usually after she has picked up the phone numerous times. It’s hard to do. Everybody in this program is a survivor because they’re here.”