No Way Out

UV Life mag coverThis week’s story is a segue from the Carding Chronicles because I was cleaning out a storage space this weekend, and found the archive of the newspaper and magazine stories I’ve written, and I thought I would share one of them with you.

My first regular magazine gig was with Upper Valley Life magazine where I wrote features and then became the editor. This story originally appeared in the July 1990 issue. It’s about WISE, the Women’s Information Service, located in Lebanon, NH.

WISE supports and advocates for women who are victims of abuse. Along with answering my questions, the staff at WISE connected me with victims of abuse so that I could interview them. I never knew—nor did I ask for—their names.

As it turned out, the interviews never made it into the magazine for fear for the women. But I will never forget how one of them told me that she finally left her husband “when he put a gun to my head, and threatened to kill me.”

There are some interviews you just never forget.

The Carding Chronicles will return next week, and on April 7, you are all invited to join us right here for the debut of the next Carding novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life.

No Way Out

originally published in Upper Valley Life Magazine, July 1990.

She could be any woman you think you know—the one who cuts your hair, teaches your children, works with you, hosts a church social every Christmas, bakes cookies for the PTA, holds public office.

He could be anyone you think you know—the one who volunteers for the school board, doctors your children, works with you, stocks shelves at the grocery store, leads Boy Scouts, delivers the mail.

In public, they smile, practice the social amenities, and keep their secret.

At home, he yells. She cowers.

He hits. She bruises and bleeds.

To use one of the many euphemisms adopted for public consumption, it is called domestic violence and abuse. For the millions of women caught up in its vicious cycle, it is life in a box where there are no horizons, no hope, and no way out.

The volunteers and staff at the Women’s Information Service (WISE) have refused to accept the finality of the box. For the past eighteen years (now 34), they have struggled—and are arguably succeeding—in helping women break out of the boxes created by domestic abuse and sexual violence.

The women at WISE are believers in the power of individual courage. They are also pragmatic realists who recognize courage as a fragile quality in need of support.

“The women who come here for help are among the bravest people I have ever met,” Nancy Forest, WISE’s director in 1990, said.

“There is a strong survival rate among battered women,” Carol Williams-Suich adds. She was the president of WISE’s board of directors in 1990. “WISE is only one stepping stone for these women but we’re glad we’re here for them.”

The WISE offices are on Hanover Street in Lebanon, NH. The quiet suite is four bright rooms staffed by graceful women with warm smiles and firm handshakes. There is no immediate sense of urgency in the air but a sense of needs being deliberately met.

When WISE was organized in Hanover, NH in 1972, it dispensed education and employment information only. There was no place in the Upper Valley for sexually or physically traumatized women to turn.

But that was not an unusual situation at the time, for feminism was then more powerful politically than socially. Congress had passed the Equal Rights Amendment, but talk about matters such as domestic abuse was still best done in whispers.

That situation had changed a great deal by the late 1970s. At first, WISE supported abused women almost by default, answering pleas for information and help because it was the only local organization dedicated solely to the needs of women.

Then in 1981, WISE made a full-time commitment to help women who are physically and sexually abused. The organization began to staff a hotline 24 hours a day.

When a woman calls, “we talk to her, as much as she needs,” Erica Levy explained. She was the educator/advocate for WISE in 1990. “We explain her options to her, comfort her. We’ll do whatever she needs—go to court with her, help her talk to a judge, engage the police services, find her a safe house—whatever she needs.”

“We’re non-judgmental here,” Carrie Brennen said. She coordinated WISE’s volunteers in 1990. “We talk and we listen.”

Since the hotline was established, the need to listen has increased twelvefold. That first year, WISE volunteers answer 101 calls about domestic and sexual abuse.

In 1989, volunteers answer 1,371 calls.

Nationally, the statistics on domestic and sexual abuse against women are just as grim and chilling. Last year, more than 2 million women were beaten by their partners. The U.S. Surgeon General identifies battering as the leading cause of injury to women in this country and hospitals estimate more than 80 percent of the emergency room visits made by women are the result of battering. In fact, Williams-Suich became a volunteer at WISE because she saw too many battered women in the emergency room where she was a nurse.

In the United States, businesses lose $3 to $5 billion a year in productivity and absences because of domestic violence. Approximately $100 million of those costs are in increased medical expenses.

The FBI claims that more than 30 percent of all homicides against women were committed by their partners, partners who battered before they killed.

One out of every three women will be raped in her lifetime. That statistic includes incest, marriage rape, and date rape. On the average, a rapist will plan and execute seven assaults before he is caught. More than half of the rapes in this country are gang rapes—two or more assailants to one victim.

And in most cases, women will know their attackers.

“The statistics don’t fit the stereotypes,” Lyn Staack points out. She was WISE’s program director in 1990. “We talk about a woman being unsafe on the streets yet most abuse happens in the home. When you look at the numbers, you could say a woman is safer on the street than in her own home.”

Have we become a more violent society? Or are these statistics identifying a problem that has always existed but has recently become socially unacceptable?

“Twenty years ago, there was an attitude that it was something that happened in families, and we kept out of it,” Ed Laurie, captain of the Lebanon police force in 1990, said. “But domestic violence is not acceptable any more.”

Neither Laurie nor Staack are sure the incidence of physical and sexual violence against women has increased. Even with greater support for women who are victims of such treatment, national and local authorities still believe most sexual assaults and domestic violence incidents are not reported.

Plus, it was not until the late 1970s that statistics on such crimes were recorded at all so there is little to compare with 1990 numbers.

Laurie explains that the Lebanon police department does not keep track of domestic assaults separately from other assaults. But he points out the number of first degree assaults, which are classified as misdemeanors, would probably include domestic situations. That number has grown over the past five years, as have all the crime statistics in Lebanon.

Many of the women at WISE believe their organization’s higher profile and outreach efforts account for a great deal of the increase due to the hotline.

For example, Levy recently lectured at local high schools in an effort to educate younger women about acquaintance rape. Within a few days of each of her appearances, volunteers at the WISE hotline saw a significant increase in calls from women ages 16 to 18 who had already experienced violence on a date.

Most sexual assaults to WISE fall into the same category as those from younger women. The calls are placed long after the fact. “When we deal with sexual abuse and sexual assault, we get more memory calls than crisis calls,” Levy said.

In a process akin to that of returning Vietnam veterans, women who are victims of incest or rape will often suppress their experiences for long periods of time. Alone, they will deal with their pain, humiliation, guilt, fear, and confusion, attempting to heal themselves through willful forgetting.

Then suddenly, vivid memories and flashbacks will be triggered by the sight of a shirt of a certain color, a phrase overheard by chance or a momentary feeling of helplessness. The woman will be plunged back into the emotional turmoil she had tried to leave behind.

“Many times, these women feel like they are going crazy,” Staack explained. “The experience is so real, it can consume their lives. They need a lot of reassuring.”

Domestic violence calls, on the other hand, are crisis calls. They are from women who have been recently beaten, who are terrified and vulnerable.

Of all the abuse crimes perpetrated by humankind, probably no other is more baffling to outsiders than domestic abuse—the longterm, systematic physical assault of one partner by another.

Many times, the victims of battering (95 percent of whom are women), return to the man who blackened their eyes, broke their arms, ribs, noses or threatened them with knives or guns.

To those outside an abusive relationship, the solution to the woman’s problem seems so simple. All she has to do is leave.

“Most women will try to leave six or seven times before they finally make it,” Levy said. “It’s not as easy as most people think.”

In most cases, abusive relationships are labyrinths of learned behaviors, dependencies, social or religious pressures, low self-esteem, fear, and the need to control. WISE director Frost says males who batter, when profiled psychologically, prove to be normal. That may mean the standard measurement of acceptable male aggression is too high but Peter Proulx of the Counseling Center of Lebanon feels there is another explanation for this “normalcy.”

“Battering is a learned behavior, not a genetic or psychological defect. No one is born a batterer,” he said. Proulx has coordinated and led several support groups for battering males. “Most of the time, batterers were exposed to physical violence in their childhoods. They were either abused or witnessed abuse in their homes.”

The same can be said for most, though certainly not all, women who endure battering situations. Many battered women were abused—physically, sexually or emotionally—as children. While they were growing up, they learned to think negatively about themselves, to regard themselves as unworthy of self-respect or the respect of others.

Abusive males feed that lack of self-esteem. (“I feel I am ignorant, he says I am ignorant; therefore, I am ignorant.”), reinforcing the woman’s poor image of herself to create a psychologically dependent situation.

Once a relationship is established, many batterers foster the economic and social dependence of their partners. Gradually, the women are isolated, their family and friends unwelcome intruders. He controls the checkbook, the car, access to the phone.

She may lose her job, if she has one, because she is often absent while her bruises heal.

If she has children, a woman’s problems are multiplied. If she dares to leave, he may threaten to demand custody of the children in court. According to Proulx and attorney Mark Larsen of Lebanon, this is most often an empty threat but many women do not realize that.

And if she takes her children with her, how will she feed them and where will they live?

“There are still too many women who are one good man away from welfare,” Frost said.

All of these factors are mixed with guilt (“It was my fault. I am not a good enough wife”), shame, and fear.

Battering has a three-stage cycle, Proulx explains. First is the tension-building stage, a time when there is no battering but the momentum for the next episode is advancing. This stage can last from a few days to several months.

Then there is the explosion, ostensibly triggered by an outside event such as a bad day at work, jealousy or unwashed dishes.

Third is the lover or make-up stage, a time when he says he is sorry and promises it will never happen again.

“And the woman wants to believe it. This is the man she fell in love with, the father of her children,” Staack said.

But the batterer is not sorry for his victim, Proulx explained, he is sorry for himself. In fact, there is little real remorse because batterers have difficulty understanding their own or anyone else’s feelings.

While there may be wide variety among abusive relationships, victims, and batterers, one general rule holds true for all situations. Once battering begins, it will continue, and each episode will be worse than the last.

Abuse may start with yelling, screaming or throwing dishes. Gradually, it escalates to grabbing an arm, pushing a woman into the furniture or shoving her into a wall. Eventually, the woman will be punched, kicked, and her life will probably be threatened. Chances are, the abuse will quickly escalate when the woman shows signs of independence.

“That is probably the most dangerous time, just as she starts to leave,” Staack said.

WISE maintains a network of safe houses to help in these situations, places where a woman and her children can hide for a short period of time.

Sometimes, when an abusive male is deprived of his victim through WISE’s support, he will threaten the organization.

“That is why none of our volunteers use their last names,” Frost explained.

“And it’s why we’re accused of homewrecking,” Levy said.

Close up, it can be discouraging—for the women at WISE, the police, the courts, legal professionals, counselors, family, and friends—to make an emotional investment in a woman struggling to change her situation only to watch her return to her abuser.

But in a broader context, there are signs of positive change, indications that these crimes are being forced into the open and that the general population’s tolerance for them is lessening.

In many cases, police officers are the first outsiders to know about domestic violence or sexual assault. Twenty years ago, an officer’s reaction reflected society’s opinion at large—women who were raped asked for it, and wife beating was best kept in the family.

No more. Since the mid-1980s, the Lebanon police department, as well as other police departments in the Upper Valley, have become more knowledgeable and sympathetic about the victims of these crimes. Some of this attitude change has been internally motivated at state and local levels. Some of it has come about through cooperation between WISE and local departments.

Today, when officers are summoned to a home to intervene in domestic violence, they leave behind an information sheet that describes when legal rights a woman has and where she can get help.

“We have tried very hard not to limit ourselves to the traditional ways of dealing with these crimes,” Captain Laurie said. “The resources for women are better now, and we try to let people know about that.”

Last January, the New Hampshire state legislature toughened the sanctions against domestic violence and sexual abuse. Abuse, whether between members of a household—whether they are married, single, of the same or different sexes—is a crime.

Vermont law in 1990 only applied to people of different sexes or who have lived as spouses.

When summoned for help, a police officer in New Hampshire now has the power to arrest a perpetrator within six hours if the officer feels there is sufficient reason to do so. This type of arrest may be made without a warrant signed by the victim.

Within hours of an attack, a victim can apply to a district court in Vermont or New Hampshire for temporary relief, a legal term that means an attacker may not have any type of contact with the victim. If this temporary restraining order is violated, the attacker is automatically jailed.

However, “restraining orders are only as good as the people who receive them,” attorney Tom Trunzo of Lebanon said.

“I always advise a woman to take steps to protect herself,” Lebanon district court (now retired) judge Albert Cirone said. “Most threats are not as serious as people believe but women need to be careful.”

“My best advice to a woman in this situation is to get out of the relationship the first time it happens,” attorney Mark Larsen said. “Waiting will not make it better.”

At the Counseling Center, Proulx would not go so far as to advise women to leave at the first signs of abuse but he was adamant with two other pieces of advice.

“Batterers rarely stop hitting on their own,” he said. “The situation will not get better unless there is professional help.” There are battering support groups available at the Counseling Center in Lebanon.

Proulx’s second piece of advice? “A woman should never keep this type of abuse a secret,” he said. “She should tell someone, a friend, a family member. She should call WISE. It’s one of the best places to go.”

The next Carding Chronicle will be published on March 4. If you are enjoying these stories (they’re a great break from politics, eh?) please encourage your friends to subscribe.

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