Hard to escape brutal grip

02:40, Jul 18 2012
Domestic violence

Monday marks the start of Women's Refuge's annual awareness week. Naomi Arnold talks to two Nelson women about their damaged pasts and their hopes for the future.

He'd get up close in her face and speak softly, telling her how much she'd like it if he really hit her. Then she could call the police. She'd love that. Wouldn't she?

"He'd sit there and say: ‘You act like a beaten-down housewife, but I don't beat you. I wish I could. I wish I could punch your teeth in'," she says. "He'd strangle me; he loved to spit. He spat on me and spat on me until I was wet one time."

She shudders. "Yuck. That was the ultimate; it was like ‘You're nothing but a piece of sh.. , filth'. He'd admit that he got off on it sometimes, making me feel bad."

We'll call her Sara. She's a cheerful woman in her mid-20s, a mother of two living in Stoke, a beneficiary, and just one of the thousands of women in New Zealand who have left an abusive relationship.

She has a protection order against her husband, whom she'd gladly divorce if only he'd agree to it. He's on electronic bail in another part of New Zealand, awaiting trial on more than a dozen counts of assault.


She hasn't seen him for months, and only now is her head beginning to clear. Her rented house is nearly the home she's been wanting since she started saving half her salary for a house deposit, storing knick-knacks and household goods in her glory box.

That serves as a coffee table now, a copy of Gary Chapman's The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts on top. Today her son is eating toast and honey on the couch, half-watching a Disney DVD while her baby boy plays with cream crackers in his high chair. The younger has her eyes; the older, his.

They met through friends when she was 18. He was on bail, awaiting sentencing on charges of burglary and male assaults female, among others. He told her his former girlfriend was a crazy liar; she believed him. He was fun, he made her laugh, and he was easy to fall for.

He loved hearing her talk about her goals in life and her values - how much she wanted to get married and have children, raising them in a home like the loving two-parent one that she'd had.

"I wanted the white picket fence," she says. "It's so accepted for everyone to just leave if things don't go right, but my parents have been through their fair share of crap and they're still together. He said that was the most amazing thing."

She bought a wedding ring, visited him in jail, and married him there when she was 19. He'd call his new wife three times a day from prison, writing her poems and love letters. It was only when he got out that the problems began.

He taunted her, slapped her, shouted, pulled her hair, pushed her to the ground and told her he'd kill her, threatened her with a knife, accused her of cheating, and hit her while she was pregnant. He wouldn't let her get a job, or go out, or drink alcohol.

She yearned for the times when he'd smoke cannabis and become relatively placid. From the moment their first child was born she saved $5 a week in a special account for his future; the balance was at $500 when her husband cleaned it out for drugs.

"If he had no dope he wouldn't sleep and then he'd be an arsehole," she says.

"If he didn't have it I would want to find it for him, just to keep him nice. When he didn't have it he'd call me all these names, he'd be so angry and leave; and when he came back he'd be like ‘You know I love you'. It's like: ‘What?' "

She finally called 111 on a summer Sunday in mid-February, after he'd slapped her in the car, raged around the house, grabbed their toddler around the neck, and hit her parents, who'd arrived to help after she'd rung them, crying.

"I was running around the house saying ‘I love you, I love you'," she says.

"I was calling his name; but there was nothing there. I couldn't stop him." Now, she is not sure what it was that she loved.

"Poppa in the ambulance. Daddy got strawberry on my Poppa," the boy explains from the couch, and she gives an embarrassed laugh.

"Those are the stories he's come up with," she says. "I find it really hard to deal with because I don't know what to say, and I don't want to say anything bad. They've seen enough. I'm like, am I going to build my child up to do something really bad? I freak out about it."

She has no physical scars except his name, inked on her skin in large, curling Gothic script; and the lingering pain of losing someone she loved. Throughout her story, she cries only when she talks about how she went to every relationship counselling session she could get, and and how painful it was to sit there alone. He didn't turn up once.

"Are you crying?" her son asks, and the boy slides off the couch and comes over to hug her. "Mummy's just feeling a bit sad, and that's all right," she says.

"Daddy hit you," he tells her later, when she goes into the kitchen. "Daddy hit Mummy. Mum cried."

"Little earwig," she says. She's embarrassed; but says she tries to explain everything to her children and to teach them right from wrong.

"The thing people ask is why did you stay? It's hard when you sit there and think about it. I guess it was [for] the kids.

"He'd say he was sorry and he loved me, and I knew it wasn't right; but at the same time as soon as my guard was down I'd get suckered back in again. He'd say ‘No-one would want you with two kids, I love you; no-one will love you like I do'. I believed anything he always said, until the end."

Society, she says, always blames the woman. She recalls the shame she felt when she turned up to one of his court hearings pregnant for the second time, and the judge peered down at her over his glasses. "He looked at me like: ‘Here's this girl again with another baby to this guy?' I felt so stupid.

"Everyone asks ‘Why didn't she leave?' Why is it never ‘Why did he hit her?' It's not that easy to leave. You feel so guilty - but he doesn't feel guilty for what he's doing."

Her parents, who live nearby, tried tough love, backing off completely several times, finding it too painful to watch her self-destruct. But she found that having no-one else made her need him more.

She's scared about facing him in court soon. She's not sure if a judge will be able to see through his charisma, and the way he seems to make everything her fault.

His lawyer told her he'd plead guilty and spare her a trial if she dropped the charge of assaulting their son - but she said no. Not this time.

She's lied in court to protect him before, and now has a perjury conviction.

If she didn't have kids, she'd wish she could have her life over again. Her early 20s are gone, lost in self-doubt, guilt, and love. But for the first time in a while, she saved up and went out to the movies and for dinner with old friends, and she's discovering hobbies, music and movies that she likes.

She feels more like herself again, and now wants to work towards being a women's advocate.

"My biggest revenge is being happy," she says. "I get dressed some mornings and think ‘You look nice!' But I just wouldn't when he was around. I don't know what it was; he made me feel like nothing.

"If he was still able to talk to me, I don't think I'd be feeling as confident as I do now," she says. "I could be feeling so strong about something and he'd twist it - I don't know how."

What would she tell a friend who was in the same situation? Who walked around on eggshells, wondering how things always ended up her fault, suspecting that she deserved better? "Oh golly," she says. "Run."

Julia (name changed) says she could have been dead hundreds of times. "A lot of people don't believe you," she says. "They look at you like ‘That can't have happened'. But it did."

She's pregnant, but thin, in her mid-30s, with a new dog in case he comes around again. She lives in a tidy flat in Nelson. Throughout the conversation she doesn't mention her former partner's name once. "I used to be happy," she says. "I used to have a lot of friends, sports, coaching, riding. I had so many mates." It was five years ago; it feels like 10.

She'd never been hit in her life before she got together with him, in her mid-30s. The first time, she went into shock. Later it became the norm.

"You think ‘Maybe it was something I said or did; if I didn't say that he wouldn't have done this'. I made up excuses. If we had one little moment of happiness I'd cling on to that."

She has two young children with him, and says he was a good dad.

"He was just a shocking partner. Two days after having my baby girl he was beating me up while I was holding her and the other one was hiding behind me."

Anything would set him off - half the time she never knew what it was. He's run her over with the car and dragged her under it, beaten her through both her pregnancies, broken bones in her face, hands, and body, slammed her hands with a car battery.

He had no qualms about where - in the middle of The Warehouse, the supermarket, the street. It didn't matter; people would just turn and walk the other way. "You look at them when it's going on - in the middle of the car park! - and you think ‘Can you do something? Can you just help?' What's wrong with picking up your cellphone, getting the car number? But no-one ever did."

His methamphetamine addiction made things worse. Once, after a protracted two-hour assault, she nearly died after he stomped on her, kicking her on their neighbour's driveway. The neighbour had lived next door to them for 13 years, but she'd been beaten so badly that he didn't recognise her bloodied face when he called the ambulance.

Her partner went to jail for that. When he got out, she "got sucked in" again.

"I just kept going back. I don't know why," she says. She believes she was so psychologically manipulated by him that she believed she didn't deserve any better. He would never let her leave the house with all of their children, in case she took them and didn't return, and she feared that he'd find her and kill her if she left. She asked him to get out several times, but he laughed her off.

"I think you want to put the best into them, and you think ‘Oh yep, they've changed, he does love me'," she says. "I'd go to work smashed up and pretend it was a normal day, then go home and know you're going to get the same treatment. After a while you don't feel any pain. The bruise will go away, but the mental s... never does. I'd rather get a punch in the head than hours and days of mental abuse."

When people at work commented on her injuries, she'd "put on a happy face" and brush them off. "I didn't think anyone would want to help me, and at the time I really didn't know where to go. I kept a pretty lonely life. I thought ‘No-one's going to believe this s...'. "

But last summer, she took out a protection order and has managed to stay away from him since. In the three years she's been in Nelson, she's met "heaps" of other women in the same circumstances - but they keep it covered up.

What she can't stomach is knowing that both friends and strangers saw what was going on with her but didn't do anything to help.

"They'll turn a blind eye. Our neighbour had seen it a few times but [people] don't want to get involved, don't want to choose sides."

Worse, she's lost most of her friends because of the abuse. "A lot want to help but they can't, and they walk away; they can't handle seeing you smashed up every day," she says.

At the moment, she's taking things day by day until her baby is born, but says it's going to take her a long time to trust a male.

"I know they're not all bad because I had a good one before [him]," she says. "I just really want to get back to work again. Make friends again. It'll probably take me years to get over it properly."

She still lives in fear, knowing that despite leaving him, he could come around any time "and go off". She's seen him on the street a couple of times and tries not to show him how scared she is. "If he's going to kill you, he's going to do it, isn't he? You do get to thinking like that."

She has people that know that if she sends them a blank text, something's wrong.

"But so far, things have been okay".