The insidious creep of abuse
Why don't victims of domestic violence just walk out the door? One woman explains the insidious creep of abuse to BECK ELEVEN.
Hand-picked flowers in her letterbox make Laura's stomach turn. A daffodil, a snatched red geranium - they're not reminders of beauty, they're something sinister.
Laura is 46. She is mother to a teenage daughter and a son with special needs. She is a successful businesswoman, owns her own home, is slim, blonde, well- dressed, well-groomed, articulate and has a sense of humour. A middle-class Christchurch pedigree meant she was destined for a normal life.
But she was abused by two consecutive partners for just over 20 years before even realising she was a beaten woman. Laura was in her early 20s when she met her (now ex) husband, Al. He romanced her and whispered sad secrets of a 1960s upbringing in rural Southland where his father would come home after the pub on Saturdays and give his mum a smack or two. Al told Laura how awful it was hearing those sounds while he cowered in his bedroom.
In those early, heady days, Laura planned a rosier future with a new life and a happy family.
They were married for less than a year when the sly digs started.
"You've put on a bit of weight," he'd tell her.
"You might have to join a gym.
"That dress doesn't suit you.
"You've let yourself go."
In the beginning, Al claimed his mood wasn't always Laura's fault because his job was stressing him out, causing these little outbursts.
Laura didn't like the way her husband treated her but it was best not to make a fuss, especially around friends or family.
She went to watch him play touch rugby one Saturday morning. That really pissed him off and he blew a stack so she didn't go again.
It was so subtle, so incremental that she never really noticed how unhappy she'd become.
They had two children together. As the kids got older, the power he'd slowly exerted over Laura extended to the children. It was only small things, like telling them which presents they could open first on Christmas Day.
Then the intimidation started - the puffing up of the chest, stand over tactics, waving his finger in her face. Arguments were punctuated by an ornament whistling past her head and home had holes where he'd kicked or punched out his frustration with her seemingly boundless stupidity.
Increasingly, she was a f...... bitch, a bloody useless cook, a crap mother and she was sh.. at cleaning.
Laura cried about these things for a while but her tears often made him worse so she learned to cry privately in the shower. Actually, sometimes he got just as angry when she was happy. Or sad. Or worried. It became too complicated to predict which emotion was best for her welfare so she shut them all down.
Not that it mattered which mask she wore because he continued to find her useless at everything. And after a while, Laura started to agree. She was useless - which is why, when the shoving and threats started, she accepted them believing it must be terribly frustrating for Al to live with such a stupid and useless wife.
One New Year's Eve, he got late- night calls.
She asked why.
"Don't ask f...... questions," he said.
"Don't poke your nose in where it's not wanted or I'll f...... kill you."
He shoved her clear across the bedroom and she considered he might just kill her there and then for asking a question.
Laura lived in fear. By all definitions, she was a victim of domestic abuse, or family violence, but the physical assault never went beyond pushing and shoving so it simply never occurred to her. The degradation and humiliation had come to feel normal. And, as he'd told her, no- one would want her anyway.
She felt ashamed of the way he treated her, ashamed to be the only one in her family with a divorce, ashamed her fairytale had the wrong ending.
After 17 years of marriage, most of them bad, it came as a relief when Al suggested they separate.
It should have been over but the worst was yet to come. It was confusing to feel like she was allowed to express emotions again. Almost two years after she and Al parted, Laura went on a long business trip to India. She and her colleagues stayed in a five-star hotel where they kept New Zealand hours, so inevitably afternoons were free, often spent in the hotel restaurant.
The restaurant manager, Jay, took quite a shine to Laura and by the time she arrived home, they were texting and talking over Skype.
She found him witty, intelligent, good looking and attentive.
"I had been ignored and told I was fat, ugly and gross for so long that I was just swept up by it. It took me by surprise."
A few months later, Jay visited for a holiday. The relationship continued long-distance. And within a year, he was living with her. Within a month she was again in an abusive relationship.
Compared to Al, Jay would be dynamite.
Not long after he arrived, the September quake struck. It made him unhappy but not as unhappy as Laura going out for a drink without him. His mood darkened. He gave her the cold shoulder.
In bed that night the questions began.
"We spoke to a couple of guys for a while," she said.
"Did you give them your phone number?" he said.
"No, why would I?"
"I don't want you talking to other men."
The next time they had sex, he was rough. He pinched her.
"Ow, that hurts," she said.
"You deserve it," he said.
Jay started to enjoy hurting her, squeezing her arms until she bruised.
With Al, her self-esteem gradually flat-lined. She was programmed so completely that with Jay, she collapsed immediately.
Laura put the mask back on in case her mood triggered an outburst but soon enough, Jay took offence to something and delivered a powerful clout across the head.
When she remembers the attack now, the only clear detail is an earring flying out. Remembering inconsequential details is a common symptom of a battered woman. The words and wallops become jumbled, perception is distorted and it's hard to recall the scene chronologically.
Jay bought flowers to apologise but he never seemed to recall things as harshly as Laura did. And of course she had no-one to dispute him because he never did it in front of her children or anyone else.
Like her ex-husband, Jay explained that it wasn't always her fault. He was frustrated by his job, his new country, the broken city.
"I'm not like that," he said. "I just lost it. It won't happen again."
When he did it again, the whack around her head was so hard she spun as she fell so he kicked her up the bum. That would be his signature move, the clout and kick.
And again. And again. And again. Because she was nagging or cooking, or cleaning the wrong way. Or she'd walked away when he was talking to her.
He said that if she could be more understanding, then it wouldn't happen. So she tried to be more understanding and he raped her.
With the physical violence and the rape, now all Jay had to do was make a threat and she was under his thumb.
Despite this horrific existence, there were good times too. They took day trips to Hanmer or Akaroa and he said he loved her. The fun raised her hopes. If it was good today, it could be good tomorrow and, perhaps one day, all the time. So she kept trying to modify the way she behaved thinking that was the way to fix the way he behaved.
Laura's house was red- stickered after the February quake so it was a series of temporary accommodation for her, Jay and the children and finding a way to keep the business running.
She simply didn't register that she was strong for keeping the rest of her life together.
Christmas came and went.
Jay was an accomplished thrower of tantrums. At Westfield Mall in Riccarton, they had a fight. He stormed off. Laura knew she'd have to go after him, grovel and coax him back into the car and placate him before he burst.
After a while, he stopped apologising for the hurt.
One day he put his hands around her throat. Laura was so far down the spiral it didn't even register as a red flag. In family violence circles, choking is one of the most dangerous indicators that serious and long-lasting damage or death will be next.
He choked her because she spoke back to him.
"If you say anything like that again I will kill you," he'd said.
Now Laura was the one who was apologising. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said it."
She tried to smooth things over.
"But I was on eggshells all the time and I could never relax. I wasn't even a participant in my own life any more, I was just someone who was always being careful."
Jay spat at her, called her a white whore. Sometimes the force of his verbal rage was so far out of control that white spittle formed in the corners of his mouth.
The cycle was set to endless repeat: rage, tantrum, placate, apologise.
Laura didn't even realise their dialogue was doing a 180-degree turn. Jay caused the pain and hurled the abuse but somehow she was the one apologising. He would say he didn't mean to do it and that he was scared she was going to leave him. Then she would promise she'd never leave and go out of her way to make him feel safe in the relationship.
The earthquake provided a lucky break in the form of unemployment for Jay so he moved to Auckland for a few months. The distance allowed her time to breathe and by the time he returned she felt able to ask him to move out but promised to still be his girlfriend.
Then she found text messages of a sexual nature to another woman and despite all the terrible things he had done it was the discovery of an affair that gave her a reason to say the relationship was over.
Without knowing, she had entered the most dangerous phase of an abusive relationship - when the victim leaves either physically or emotionally.
Jay pestered her work mobile, personal mobile and her landline relentlessly. He emailed and texted. She ignored him but soon enough he turned up at her house with a present for her daughter as emotional bribery to visit. He just wanted to talk, he said.
"I had no energy to fight it, I just thought, 'OK, we'll do it your way' and I let him back."
Battered women make an average of seven attempts to leave before the break is total.
Laura tried to have more freedom. If she was out with a girlfriend, his messages started soft:
"Where are you?
"What are you doing?"
When no answer came, the messages turned nasty.
"Who are you with?
"I bet you're f...... someone."
If one tactic didn't work, he would try another. She broke up with him again. He sent e-cards, delivered flowers. He turned up at her bedroom window. He just wanted to lie down with her for five minutes, he said. If she ignored him she was a whore.
When she was ill he brought soup. She let him in and explained it really was over. He reached for the utensil drawer and pulled out a carving knife, turning the blade on himself and putting her hands on the handle. He told her to push. "You might as well kill me," he said.
He sent "good morning" emails and "good night" emails. She asked Vodafone to block his number. He found an app to bypass it.
A friend suggested she call the police but Laura didn't want to get Jay in trouble. Two days later when he was standing outside her house yet again Laura's friend bundled her into a car and took her to the police station.
"I'm just having a bit of trouble dumping my boyfriend," she said.
The officer asked if Jay had a history of violence.
Timidly, she said "yes" then turned to her friend and said: "I'm sorry, I was too ashamed to tell you."
Within half an hour of leaving the police station, Jay was on the phone asking why she had set the cops on him. He denied everything.
Laura's conversation with the police had triggered contact with the family violence team who suggested she consider a permanent protection order, meaning that any contact - email, text, phone call, standing outside the house - would be a breach of the order and he could be arrested.
Laura thought it seemed too harsh but officers told her in no uncertain terms they were concerned for her safety and issued a five-day protection order. This gave her time to apply for a permanent one which is how she met an advocate through the Battered Women's Trust on Bealey Ave. The trust guided her through writing an affidavit and advised a safety plan for Laura to follow.
Meanwhile, the stalking continued. She would return home to find freshly picked flowers in her letterbox or catch a glimpse of his car leaving her street. While dealing with the legal affairs, Laura met a man online. She and Dave shared common interests and exchanged mobile numbers. However, Dave's texts seemed only directed at her previous relationship.
One evening, when she was documenting Jay's history with a police officer, she brought up her suspicions about Dave. The officer suggested she end communications which sparked a series of angry texts from Dave. The police officer noted his phone number.
Shortly after, Laura received a call from a friend of Jay's saying he was in hospital. The police officer took that call, asked to speak to Jay and said: "I think you and I will be having a little chat."
When police arrived to arrest Jay for contacting Laura, they also rang "Dave's" number. A phone in Jay's pocket rang, revealing it had been him all along. They were able to charge him with two breaches of the permanent protection order.
Jay went to court in March. It was his first offence so he was fined but the judge's message was clear, any more contact would result in a jail sentence.
Finally Laura had peace. Jay has not contacted her since.
"I just couldn't believe it came to that when all I wanted was to be left alone. That's all I wanted." She is now taking a 10-week programme about domestic violence which explains the profile of an abuser, why they do it and how their tactics work.
She has met a group of warm, brave women who understand without judgment and who silently nod in agreement when she talks about her life. Their stories are hauntingly familiar.
The programme touches on guilt too, an emotion strongly connected to exposing her children to the men.
"I feel terrible what it did to them. It is hard to explain why I stayed. We had a door that opened, I had a key. We didn't live in a prison but emotionally I did. You cope just to get through an episode but that's all you have the energy or confidence for. Nothing else. Now I want to show them how to live a proper life."
She keeps to her safety plan, locks her doors and windows, keeps the car full of petrol and has access to money (some women are kept financially bereft by their abuser). A copy of the protection order is at her local police station and she keeps her bag, keys, phone and charger together.
She has shared her story with her neighbours, describing Jay and the car he drives.
"It's about breaking through your own and societal barriers about domestic violence and reaching out for help. I'm not living in a state of paranoia."
In the past two months she has begun talking more openly with her friends. They tell her they knew something was wrong but not the extent.
"What could we have done?" they ask. Laura doesn't know. She thinks maybe just asking her if she was OK rather than telling her to leave because that made her leap to her abusers' defence.
"Living a life of subterfuge, keeping every emotion in check is hard, you've got nothing left for yourself and no perspective to look at it with. I'm just glad my sister and best friend conspired when I had no mental energy to do so.
"You really do believe they will change. You don't want them to get into trouble or go to prison, especially if it's the father of your children.
"I am gradually stronger, day by day I'm giving myself back the control I lost over my life.
"It's not easy, everyone wants something from you - the police, lawyer, women's refuge, the court. You feel like you're in a maelstrom but it is a relatively short time and after that hope and a future."
Every day Laura doesn't find a flower in her letterbox is a good day.
All names have been changed at the request of the interviewee.
If you would like to talk to someone call 0800 REFUGE (0800 733 843) womensrefuge.org.nz