One woman’s story, one new beginning
Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 1, 2008
By JIM MUSTIAN
JEFFERSON – Having slept in four different beds in the last three months, Marcus is understandably disoriented. A few days ago, the two-year-old tried to leave his latest residence, the domestic violence shelter in Jefferson, imploring his mother, Elise, to “just go home so I can change my clothes.”
But there is no home to return to right now for Marcus and his siblings; at least not one Elise would deem a safe haven by any means.
John, Elise’s husband of eight years, would likely find them – anywhere.
After years of enduring a verbally – and increasingly physically – abusive marriage to the only man she’s ever dated, Elise a few months ago finally took the advice of concerned family members and friends, who for years have witnessed her relationship deteriorate.
At their behest, she left the man whom she entrusted everything and with whom she began her own business. She left the man who had become so controlling that he monitored her car’s odometer on a daily basis, as to check it against her purported whereabouts. She left the man who threatened to “douse her in gasoline” if she ever tried to leave him.
(See, STORY, page 6A)
For Elise, the Metropolitan Center for Women and Children, or Metro, which offers everything from shelter to free legal counsel to survivors of domestic and sexual abuse in Greater New Orleans and the River Parishes, is something of a last resort. But after just a few days of staying here, it seems a perfect fit.
And it may have saved her life.
Elise is completely out of money, unemployed and unwilling to subject her children any longer to the increasingly precarious circumstances of living with John, who of late has even hit Elise in front of her children.
At the secret shelter in Jefferson, Elise and her children have all they need and more until they can get back on their feet. Elise says she had no idea the shelter and services were completely free when she arrived and has marveled at employees’ kindness and hospitality.
“They actually care about you here,” she says. “These people don’t even know me and you can just walk right in. They make you feel really welcome.”
Elise, who chose this pseudonym for publication, agreed to an almost two-hour interview last week in the shelter’s conference room. With the accompaniment of a trusted guidance counselor, she recounted her experience with remarkable candor and composure.
Despite sophisticated security measures taken by Metro and regular cooperation with local police, Elise is afraid of John finding her.
“He follows me and that’s what makes me really paranoid here because I believe he knows where I’m at,” she says, fighting back tears, “I really do.”
Though employees suggested locals might know what goes on at the facility, the shelter is convincingly disguised. Metro employees have already offered Elise a change of venue, an offer she hasn’t yet ruled out.
For now though, Elise is exploring various employment opportunities. While she says she won’t work for anyone else, she has expressed an interest in doing what she can to keep her children near her large, supporting family.
A Home away from Home
But the environment at the shelter has the feel of family in its own right. Dale Standifer, the executive director of Metro, has worked here 20 years and says, “people might go, but they don’t go far.
“They always find a way of coming back here,” she says referring to a diverse staff of almost 30 employees citywide.
Despite any confusion, Elise’s children are relishing the chance to play with others their age. The shelter itself is also rife with distractions. The children, for instance, have a whole room full of toys to play with, and there are computers in the same room so mom can check emails while keeping an eye on the kids.
A few doors down, a common living room featuring three couches and a television offers a cozy place to unwind. A small library is also kept against the wall with some older best sellers, a plus for a voracious reader like Elise.
As far as clothing goes, the shelter offers a vast selection. A walk-in closet is overflowing with years of donations – shoes, jackets, pants, underwear and more – and an adjacent closet is full of toiletries and feminine products.
Meals are cooked by the residents themselves in a spacious community kitchen. A weekly line-up of chores and cooking responsibilities hangs near a coffeemaker. This week, Elise was assigned dinner duties as well as making sure the backyard garden/playground area is well kempt and organized.
“We do have our chores,” she says. “But I guess you have to give a little to get a little.”
Each family receives its own bedroom, as long as there’s enough space at the shelter.
Officially, residents are allowed to stay at the shelter for six weeks. But Metro is nothing if not generous. As long as clients show an initiative towards self-sufficiency and prove themselves accountable when it comes to things like buying groceries, they are usually welcome to stay indefinitely.
Metro does not check papers, Standifer says.
“We don’t want to know,” she says, acknowledging that harboring fugitives is illegal.
But there are a few ground rules at the shelter.
Clients are expected to respect one another. Curfew is to be observed. And if food is brought in from the outside, it must be enough to feed everyone.
Standifer emphasizes that the shelter is not a faith-based organization, but Metro has accommodated believers of all walks of faith. If clients want a Bible or Quran, Metro gets it for them. If someone requests a ride to church, it’s arranged.
Finally a safe haven
The shelter has already provided Elise a rare chance to catch her breath.
In the months leading up to her departure, Elise felt constantly watched. She would return home from meeting with friends and John knew exactly what had been said in her conversations.
He was suspicious of everyone and regularly accused her of lying about where she had been. Elise says she even thinks John installed a tracking device on her vehicle.
“He’s very controlling,” she says.
While Elise attributes several factors to what eventually became an unmanageable relationship, it wasn’t always this way.
She fell in love with John years ago and describes him as a handsome, charming man, “a real smooth operator,” she says. His ability to flatter made some friends and family members dubious to Elise’s initial complaints. Others simply called her “too passive.”
But what began as a pattern of defamatory statements to family and colleagues gradually escalated to wrist grabbing, shoving and sinister threats.
“At first I just kind of blew it off,” she says. “If it had really happened before the marriage, we probably wouldn’t have even married.”
Elise tried everything. She demanded they attend counseling sessions twice a week, which they did, for four straight years. John always promised to improve, and their business was booming, so Elise stayed.
But as the years went by, Elise accomplished more at work, which embittered John, who became uncontrollably envious. He sank into a deep depression and spent less time at home.
Elise would later learn he was out drinking and abusing drugs.
“He didn’t do those things at home around the house,” she says. “When he came in, he was a totally different person.”
John also began destroying Elise’s valuables. He destroyed her cell phone and baby pictures. He even stole several of her shoes or hid them around the house.
The first death threats came late last year, and about three months ago, Elise made the decision to move out. At first they got their own place, but John began hanging around and harassing Elise. Then they sought refuge with one of Elise’s aunts, but he found them.
Elise says she came close to obtaining a restraining order on a number of occasions but never followed through with it, partly because she feared retribution.
At the shelter though, Elise has the opportunity to reconsider those options. And there are plenty of people around who can identify with her situation as she recovers.
“It’s nice to know there’s someone who’s been in your shoes,” she says.
While Elise’s future is uncertain for now, she’s finally taken the first step in the right direction, one she didn’t trust herself to take for years.
“It’s like I have a backbone now,” she says. “And I can stand tall now, because I actually put my foot down with someone and said ‘enough is enough. I thought you were some fantastic person, but you’re really not.’”
*All names changed by L’observateur