From the SYS Co-Founders: October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month and the stories we’re sharing this week shine a light on the experience of victims. Intimiate Partner Violence is an epidemic that tears at the fabric of our society, tears families apart, and takes the lives of too many sisters, mothers, friends every year. We cannot be silent or sweep these stories under the rug. We live in a world where one in three women will be victims of intimate partner violence during her lifetime. Where a woman is assaulted or beaten every nine seconds. Our brave contributors this week are survivors of domestic abuse who refuse to be silenced by shame and fear.
This story is an excerpt from the book, Overcome, written by Julie Benning. Her book details a lifetime of abuse and violence that is painful to read, but triumphant in the telling. At the time in her life when this story takes place, Julie was a single mother to her young children and pursuing a college degree. A trusted mentor and esteemed faculty member of her college would eventually become her worst abuser, showing us the ugly truth that there is not one image of an abusive partner. Hers is a story of a young woman taken advantage of by an older and seemingly respectable man.
So often abused people are judged by others who ask questions like, why does she stay? Why did she get involved with a person like that in the first place? Or they just don’t want to know, saying it is bizarre. Meanwhile the credibility of the abused is destroyed as well as life as they knew it.
News flash. They don’t walk up to you and say, I am so insecure that I need to own you, control you and sap the life out of you.
Below I have shared a part from my book, Overcome. I chose this excerpt because it’s where my relationship with my worst abuser began:
I awoke in a hospital bed. Mr. Renner was sitting beside me, looking like he had been crying. I wanted to speak, but I was too tired.
I next woke to a nurse calling my name. This time, when I was able to form words, the nurse told me I was in the psychiatric ward and the doctor would see me in fifteen minutes and explain further. She helped me up and I followed her down a hallway. A woman slunk up to me and said, “Beep, beep, beep, bzzt, bzzt,” then clapped her hands as she danced away. The nurse parked me in a large open area with couches, chairs and a TV. It looked like a skewed attempt at a living room. A kitchen area across the room bustled with men and women, from late teens to elderly. A woman snored softly on the couch to my left and the man in the chair beside me was enraptured by a game show blaring from the television. As I was taking in my surroundings, a schmoo-shaped man walked into the center of this cockamamie living room and announced that he could f ly. He laid face down on the floor for almost a minute, then turned over and asked, “Did you see me go?”
I was relieved to hear my name called. A nurse motioned for me to follow her. She led me to a small room with a desk and two chairs. I sat and waited to see what the next diversion would be.
A man with thick white hair and bushy salt and pepper eyebrows appeared. He picked up a notepad and rotated his chair in my direction. His eyes sparkled with what looked like amusement, but his manner was kind. We talked a while about the events and symptoms leading up to this point, and some of my history. Then he explained to me that he believed I had suffered a post-traumatic stress breakdown (PTSD)—the first time I had thought about this term with regard to myself—and how I was found unresponsive, in my car, and brought to the hospital. I felt numb and sat quietly, trying to absorb what the doctor was saying.
A nurse appeared to escort me back to my room. I was trembling and not sure how long my rubbery legs would hold up. Exhausted, I fell asleep.
When I next awoke, my mind seemed clearer and I wasn’t dizzy. Everything that had happened so far seemed like a dream, but reality walked right in when Mr. Renner arrived, grinning like the Cheshire cat. He laid down the law, telling me to restrict my phone calls to only him and to put the same restriction on visitors. He went on to explain that the people I thought were my friends only wanted to get the goods on me. They didn’t really care, and I needed to protect myself. I hadn’t realized the danger I was in. His information made me sad. I felt stupid for think- ing people really cared. He was looking out for me, so I did what “Mr. Renner said …”
After our talk, we walked down the hall together. He had his arm around me, saying he was concerned that I wasn’t steady. I felt steady, but what did I know? I walked to the locked door with him as he was leaving. He hugged me tight and pinched my waist like he was checking the firmness of a cut of meat.
In the days that followed, Mr. Renner visited several times a day. I wondered how he was able to teach his classes. One day after he left, the woman who beep-bopped around came up to me and asked if my boyfriend had gone. I told her he wasn’t my boyfriend, just a concerned professor. She said, “No, he is your boyfriend. Beep, bop, bzzt, bzzt…” and off she went. Ah, crazy wisdom.
I was feeling much better and attended all the therapy groups that were offered. But by the fourth day I was anxious again. I felt confused about Mr. Renner, mixed with anger that I didn’t understand. I called him and told him I needed to talk to him. He arrived shortly after and we were given a private visiting room, as usual. I realized it irritated me when he put his arm around me. My anger gathered energy. I asked him what was going on. Why was he coming to see me so much, and what did his wife and daughters think about it? He sat down next to me, took my hand and told me he was in love with me. I was dumbstruck. “What about your wife and kids?” He said he wasn’t in love with his wife any longer and his kids no longer needed him, like this was supposed to make sense to me.
I was speechless. He presented himself as such a family man and was the church planner at the Catholic Diocese, in addition to being the founder and director of the social work program at the university. I guess I wouldn’t have recognized a healthy person any more than I could recognize parts of a rocket engine. Surely Mr. Renner didn’t mean anything inappropriate.
I was given a pass from the psych ward to attend my exit interview for my internship with Hospice, on another floor of the hospital. Just before the meeting, Mr. Renner showed up to have me sign a release for him to obtain my psychological records, so that he could decide whether I could stay in the social work program. Then we went to the meeting together. I felt like a ward of his personal fiefdom.
I was nervous enough about having to finish my internship on a pass from a psychiatric ward, and now I might get kicked out of the program by a professor who says he is in love with me? I should have been questioning his sanity, but I had too many doubts about my own, and was grateful that he was there for me when no one else was.
As soon as we entered the meeting Mr. Renner’s countenance changed. His eyes hardened and he was rigidly professional. He asked me questions that I am not sure he knew the answers to. I stammered my way through, looking and feeling every bit the psych ward patient that I was. After the meeting he walked me back to the ward, holding my hand. I took no comfort in that. I attributed my confusion to my disturbed mind.
The next day when I met with my psychiatrist I told him about Mr. Renner’s behavior, and that he said that he was in love with me. Eyes twinkling, Dr. Kemp said, “We like to think of our psych ward as a place for people to fall in love.” It was not the response I expected. It felt like more confirmation that I didn’t belong in this world. And that I was unlikely to find anyone to believe me.
Before I was discharged, Mr. Renner had my phone number changed and unlisted so I wouldn’t be harassed by my fellow students. I hadn’t felt harassed by my fellow students; clearly I was clueless. He also explained that there was no such thing as confidentiality and that the staff was already talking about me in public. I was being idealistic, he chided, to think people stuck to their professional codes of conduct.
I did as he said, but it hurt me to think that way about people. To think that I had been so oblivious to their real intentions. Thank goodness Mr. Renner was looking out for me.
I was discharged from the hospital to Mr. Renner, who was waiting to give me a ride home. I had only been in the hospital for five days, but I felt like I was in uncharted territory when I left the hospital. I realized I needed to change my views about people and the profession I was studying and planning to practice in. I found it depressing to see the world the way Mr. Renner explained it to me. I was being gently pushed into a state of paranoiac isolation.
My children had been in foster care while I was away. Not only was I worried about how they were doing, I missed them terribly. But Mr. Renner said it would be best to leave them there a few extra days so I could recuperate.
In the days and weeks to follow, Mr. Renner visited me at my home almost every day to see how I was doing. He took me into his arms for a big embrace each time he arrived or left. Megan didn’t like him and tried to make him move away when he reached to hug me. He thought she was so cute.
With Renner coming by my house at least daily, often more, it didn’t take long for students and faculty in the college community to have their suspicions. I went back to school, functioning within the boundaries of Mr. Renner’s rules: don’t talk about anything to anyone and keep to yourself. It was hard for me, especially when I thought people were genuinely trying to reach out to me. Usually people want to be around me. Now I was alone and hurting. It seemed others understood better than I did what was happening, but I needed to be tough and make it through school. I needed to listen to what “Mr. Renner said.”
I was in the grips of this man for 15 years during which he was very abusive physically, sexually, psychologically and alienated my children from me and disabled me physically and mentally from the workforce, putting me on disability, losing the career I loved.
I had to go to another state and hide out to leave this sociopath. I am an intelligent, educated, creative woman, strong and independent. Yet I got caught in a trap that almost ended my life many times. My abuser told me the reason I didn’t do well is because I don’t play chess well. I need to look at life that way and anticipate other’s moves, be on the offensive. These kind of people play this game very well and are dangerous.
But how much purer and cleaner, even angelic, is war, compared with the struggle where your enemies are beside, not facing you. –Jefferey Deaver