By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal
Editor’s note: This look at domestic violence is the second of four stories examining the situation in Northeast Mississippi for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Daily Journal reporters will explore the victims and abusers and why it happens as well as what can be done to halt the cycle of domestic violence, starting with youth.
TUPELO – Carol and Grace have one major thing in common – they’re both free from abusive relationships and are leading more emotionally stable lives.
Both are eager to share their stories of abuse in order to help others. To preserve their privacy, both have asked that their real names not be used.
Carol and Grace are different from each other in some ways.
Carol graduated from high school as a straight-A student. However, she was uninterested in college and wanted to begin working right away.
“I wanted a job, not a career,” she said.
Grace, on the other hand, graduated from a respected Christian college. She met her future husband, also a college graduate, while she was a student.
Carol is petite and carries more weight than she’d like. She’s not a slave of fashion and wears glasses with thick lenses rather than contacts.
Grace is tall and slender, dresses stylishly, wears makeup and has eyes that are striking.
They share similarities, too.
Both grew up in traditional two-parent families.
Carol married at 24 after being on her own and working for several years. Grace married at 23 after graduating from college and starting to work.
Each woman had two children in her marriage, and Carol had one child before she married.
Carol’s abusive marriage lasted about 20 years, Grace’s 21.
“There’s no particular socioeconomic background to domestic violence,” Grace said. “It’s a myth that you can tell someone who is likely to be an abuser, and one that gets cops killed and even forces women to go back to the abuser.”
Carol and Grace each tell of the many times they left and returned to an abusive spouse before finally leaving for good and getting a divorce.
Often family members, friends and other people wonder why it took them so long, why they would go back.
“When a woman meets the man who becomes her abuser she thinks she’s met Prince Charming,” said Martha Crawford, victim advocate with the Domestic Violence Project in Oxford. “It may be a year later before she sees that other side, and she remembers the person they first presented themselves to be.”
Even after she reaches a point of calling for help from the legal system, she doesn’t necessarily want her spouse arrested, Crawford said.
“She just wants the violence to stop, and she calls law enforcement to make that happen,” Crawford said.
So many other factors and pressures are at work, too.
“He slapped me the first time after about a year, then nothing for a couple of years,” Carol said. “I was shocked so much the first time it happened because I had never lived in anything like that with my mother or father. I convinced myself it was a one-time thing and I had provoked him. We had been arguing over something I thought was minor, but he didn’t take it that way.”
It’s about control
The bottom line for an abuser, Grace said, is manipulation and control.
“They’re just bullies,” Grace said. “They’ve had success in many areas of life being that way.”
Part of the pattern, too, is doing seemingly small things that make a woman doubt herself, Crawford said.
“It might be something as simple as him saying he prefers you with a different hairstyle or likes to see you in a certain dress,” Crawford said. “What woman wouldn’t want to do something that seems so small to please him? But he is beginning a process.”
Carol worked for several years before marrying and managed household and finances, but through years of verbal putdowns along with the physical assaults, she believed her husband when he said she couldn’t make it without him.
“He’d say, ‘I feel sorry for you; who else would have you?,” Carol said.
As the years went by the frequency and severity of abuse increased, Carol said, sometimes sending her to the hospital for treatment. Something he was very careful about, though, was to make sure signs of the beatings were hidden by her clothes.
“Once it started on a regular basis, it got worse and worse,” Carol said. “He’d punch me in the ribs, try to choke me, try to break my arm. He knew I typed for a living so he tried to break my fingers, damage me beyond repair.”
Religious beliefs, pressure from friends and family may contribute to women staying in abusive relationships, Crawford said. Statistically, a woman will leave and return to such a relationship seven times before she makes the final break.
If there’s a problem in the family or in the marriage, women are socialized, trained, conditioned to believe it’s their fault and, therefore, their responsibility to fix it, Crawford said.
“The abuser tries to make you feel like you’re nothing, that you can’t make it on your own,” Grace said. “Then, when you find the courage to leave, everything in the legal system moves so slowly that everything is still in his name like the house and vehicles, and medical bills and other expenses are piling up. Then people you thought were part of your support system pick up where the abuser left off, manipulating you. You get so tired you don’t fight any more when you should.”
Carol has gone through that boomerang pattern as well.
“I had left and gone back so many times that after a while my mother, sister and friends were tired of hearing my promises that I wouldn’t go back,” Carol said. “He comes back apologizing and promising it won’t happen again, but after a while you learn there’s always going to be a next time.”
Someone who is experiencing this constant abuse develops the traits of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Grace said.
“You become numb emotionally, like a living death,” Grace said.
Crawford says most women have a “line in the sand” that is the last straw that pushes them to make the break, even if it is undefined in her own mind.
What was the line in the sand for Carol? For Grace?
For each woman it was her children.
“My son was 10 or 11 years old and would start doing anything at all to keep the peace,” Carol said. “He’d climb out the window to leave the house when the fighting started.”
She was describing her youngest child, but her oldest son had moved out of the house at 18 and her daughter ran away at 15 to escape the abusive environment, even though neither of them had ever been attacked.
Grace said she finally woke up to the harm being done to her children.
“My children have a lot of emotional issues because of it,” Grace said. “Both of them live out of state now and are better, I think, because of that. But they could probably use some more counseling.”
New laws in Mississippi that took effect July 1 changed the choking that Carol experienced from a misdemeanor to a felony. Also, with a third arrest, domestic violence itself is a felony.
“Mississippi doesn’t recognize verbal abuse as abuse, only physical,” Grace said. “These are laws that need to be changed, not only for women and the children who grow up in these abusive households, but for the entire society. Society is only as strong as the families that make it up, and until the laws are changed to protect abuse victims, families won’t be the strong building blocks of society.”
Contact Lena Mitchell at (662) 287-9822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.