Friday, August 17, 2012


I had to say it. I hated to say it. I wanted to crawl under a rock and not have to say it. I stayed up all night, working out scenarios in my head on how to say it. I dreaded the morning’s arrival when I eventually needed to say it. I knew the kind of impact it would have on my client, 32 years-old and mother of three. But in the end, I looked her straight in the eye and firmly said no.   

I had been her advocate for nearly two years. The bond we formed together during that time was difficult for me to break. I saw myself as her sister or her best friend. But on that particular morning I recognized my selfish desire to be more than that. I needed to feel effective. I wanted to be in control. I searched for ways to make her agony count for something better.

She told me that when she called for help, she was sure no one would believe her because her husband never left visible marks on her body. She didn’t know what she would do if someone did step in to help her. And when I showed up at her doorstep, she had a panic attack. Hyperventilating and crying, she pointed repeatedly at her head and kept saying, “Inside. The bruises are all inside.”

Most people don’t realize there are many forms of domestic abuse. Physical abuse is the easiest to detect. But emotional abuse is another type of monster. It destroys the victim from the inside, like termites eating up the house structure without anyone taking notice. An emotional abuser tears down his victim by convincing her she’s worthless, that every thought in her head is questionable and needs his approval, and that she is the cause of her own misery, not him.

Isolation was the first step. My client told me her husband prevented her from communicating with family members. Neighbors were off limits. She had a car, mind you, and she was allowed to take the kids to school and get groceries. He wrote down the mileage before each trip and calculated the distance to her destination. Had she gone anywhere else, he would have known. He monitored the home phone and her cell phone, so she couldn’t make an unapproved call. He convinced her he could watch her online through surveillance cameras when she went to the grocery store, and demanded to see the receipts. He knew her email account password and stood watching over her shoulder whenever she used the computer. If she used it in his absence, he would track the browsing history and know where she went online. The list goes on.

Intimidation came next. When she took an miscalculated step, or traffic caused her to come home later than expected, he would walk out to the backyard, spray paint a big “X” in one area, then three smaller ones adjacent to it. She knew those “X’s” marked her grave and her children’s.

And so she complied and remained his prisoner. She thought no one who interacted with her would think she was in danger because, after all, she had the freedom to leave the house, had a car and money to spend. No one saw the shackles around her ankles.

I’m not going to tell you how she eventually managed to call for help, or what exactly happened that pushed her over the edge. But she did, and her long journey to independence began. She probably cried every day and every night. Sometimes I was a witness to those episodes of emotional breakdowns, but I knew that the real horror happened to her when she was alone, when she physically felt her world falling apart.

The morning I said no to her marked the end of her case in court. I had to tell her that her abuser, her ex-husband at that point, would not go to jail. She couldn’t understand why the judge would allow him to walk away. I had to explain that his actions were not considered criminal in the eyes of the law. He never laid a hand on her or the children. It was her word against his.

Having won her divorce case with enough child support was not her ultimate goal, I found out. She wanted to see him in handcuffs so he would experience what she went through during her thirteen years of marriage.
“Not even for one day?” she had asked. “One day in jail would be enough for me.”
“No, not even for one day,” I had to say.

You may find yourself judging her, thinking she should have been content in her new life. She had escaped with her children and was finally free with a secure future. She should thank her lucky stars - you may want to say. If you think that, then you really do not understand the devastation of abuse. It was not about revenge in her case. It was about restoring balance. In her mind, seeing him behind bars, even if for just one day, would give her closure.

However, there are no “just” solutions when it comes to domestic abuse problems, neither is there redemption. The damage is always irreversible, and balance is never restored even with counseling. She must continue on with all the holes in her soul wide open. If emotional abuse is a different type of monster, its victim is certainly a special kind of survivor.


  1. This takes me back to all the domestic violence calls I responded to as a cop. I would get extremely frustrated at some women who I thought were allowing the abuse. This post helps explain the dynamic I didn't understand at the time.

  2. Just think of the tremendous effort it takes a victim, man or woman, to ask for help from a complete stranger. Be it a cop, a doctor or a social worker. It is something extremely private and humiliating to talk about. Yet those who are courageous enough try. I've had police officers tell me the same thing, feeling frustrated and useless when the victim refuses to press charges or backs down. Statistically, one out of seven trials produces positive results.

  3. This is great stuff Lila's. Surely,you have great soul .

  4. So sad :( You were definetely her angel.

  5. Powerful! I liked how you compared emotional abuse to how termites destroy a house from within. It does seem unfair that are no punishments for years of emotional abuse, yet if he had laid a hand on her he would definitely spend time in prison. Best of luck to your friend in her journey back to life.

    1. unfortunately, even if he laid a hand on her he would not spend time in prison. The system doesn't work that way, and unless he could be charged with a crime, like using a weapon, then probation is more likely what he'll get. If the physical abuse is very severe, meaning she ended up in the hospital with open wounds or life threatning state, then tougher actions may happen. It all boils down to the victim's ability to press charges and push for prosecution. ANd that's a whole other nightmare.

      Thank you for your input.

  6. my favorite so far... well written... very personal and draws a strong picture of the abused...


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