Monday morning in San Diego, and I’ve been up since five waiting to be delivered to the battered women’s shelter. Not the sort of place I expected to end up in my 70s, although you could say I’ve led a sheltered life.
"My husband keeps me in a whirlwind all the time so that I can’t even think enough to know what he is really doing to me.”
At Hidden Valley House, location top secret, Judith Winter introduces me as a poet and former nun. “Ms. DeFrees is going to write a poem about the shelter,” she says.
Until today, Judith Winter has been just another cultivated voice on the phone, sometimes reached after hanging for minutes onto the crisis line. This meeting is a crisis of sorts.
Lupe’s husband wants a blood test to determine paternity of the child, and if it’s his, he plans to file for custody.
I'm embarrassed that I must set her straight on the first words she utters in person. How do I tell I that my editor is a literalist of the imagination who, like Marianne Moore, shows you imaginary gardens with real toads in them? Sometimes I'd just as soon skip the toads, but I know I can't: The single most important trait of the poet is the need to know.
The shelter gives a skewed perception of family violence.
In a roundabout way, I’m aware that the character of my need already places me in a privileged class. We’re talking quality of life and not mere survival. But the world I’m about to enter is one of basic survival, and I know that crossing the threshold is bound to change me in ways I can’t foresee.
"Not a poem,” I say to Judith, “although I may do that, too ... later. For now, an article.”
After 38 years of convent life, I’ve been on my own for 20. In 1985, I retired from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, bought a house in Seattle, and moved back to my native Northwest for the Golden Years.
I grew up in a small Oregon town in a respectable Catholic family and entered the convent right after high school at 16. I’d never been beaten in my life except at Scrabble and tennis. To the best of my knowledge, family violence was something that happened in the tabloids or on soap operas. Something that occurred to a passing acquaintance of a friend of a friend or a distant relative’s long-ago neighbor. I hadn’t given the subject much thought.
Under the circumstances, a little preparation was in order, so I did what academics do: I turned to research. I could have gone to the library, but I wanted to use a highlighter on key passages and scribble in the margins, so I headed for the University Bookstore,
When I ask where I’ll find books on battered women, the blonde desk clerk eyes me curiously, then says brightly, “We have an ABUSE section.” She leads the way to a tier of shelves with that label where I find the ABCs of violence: Alcohol Addiction, Battering, Child Molestation, through Date Rape, Homicide, Incest, Intimidation, Marital Rape, Murder Threats, Stalking, Suicide Threats....
I buy two books for starters and begin reading one on the bus ride home. The first sentence is riveting:
- You are more likely to be physically assaulted, beaten, and killed in your own home at the hands of a loved one than anywhere else, or by anyone else in our society.
How long have I been unconscious? In Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, writes:
- The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: litis is the meaning of the word unspeakable.
Speaking out is the raison d'etre of the EYE Counseling and Crisis Center, which began in 1969 as the Escondido Youth Encounter and retains that acronym. The private, nonprofit organization now operates eight outreach programs serving 23,000 children and adults a year in San Diego County. Assistance ranges from child abuse services to transitional housing, treatment for sex offenders, and a day program for chemically dependent pregnant women.
Judith Winter is director of development for the EYE. Petite and dark-haired, she’s a former high school English teacher who edits the agency newsletter, writes some of the grant proposals, and raises funds from two offices — one in Escondido, the other in San Marcos, her place of residence.
We climb into Judith’s red BMW and drive to the shelter. Someone inside unlocks the door, and we enter the reception area, which reminds me of the makeshift offices at Spokane’s Fort Wright College, converted from officer housing on an abandoned Air Force base. Unlike the EYE headquarters, this structure wasn’t designed for its present use, but women are good at making do, and the staff has pitched in to organize and brighten up the workplace.
Katie, the shelter director, has gone to a training session in San Francisco, so I meet Shirley, the top brass for the week. She doubles as counselor and caseworker — a job she’s held for two years after serving one as a volunteer. She has the quick wit and shrewd common sense of the born optimist. She’s a walking encyclopedia of legal arcana affecting her clients and knows exactly what to do in a crisis. She’s a straight shooter whose resilience and humor are a source of strength to her colleagues.
I’m relieved to see that most of the staff dress casually. Years in the habit have taught me how clothing affects relating, and the last thing I want to do is widen the gap between me and the women who live here. I’m wearing navy cotton denims, a short-sleeved camp shirt, and easy-walking sandals. I carry my gear—notebooks, pencils, a microcassette recorder, tapes, and batteries — in a rugged nylon briefcase with zippered compartments.
Clients’ safety is a primary concern, so it’s not surprising to find elaborate precautions to insure it. To safeguard the shelter address, volunteers sign a promise not to disclose it. A high fence surrounds the premises. Doors are kept locked and curfews enforced — 7 p.m. bn weekdays, 8 p.m. on weekends. Residents come and go by a roundabout path.
Most of the clients have taken advantage of Monday’s light schedule to pursue goals they’ve set with their counselors. They’re looking for housing, conferring with legal advisers, filing for public assistance, or applying for jobs.
Judith escorts me from the office building to three others: two dormitories with combined space for 30 residents and a kitchen-dining room-laundry facility. I spend the day talking to staff and the evening trying to sort out who’s who. The sign-out board for staff is helpful, but some of the given names are as much alike as the names of nuns: Barbara, Gretchen, Ida, Ina, Irene, Katie, Mayra, Myra, Sara, Shirley.
Mayra — not to be confused with the absent assistant director Myra — is the bilingual one with red-gold hair. She dresses tastefully but not so dramatically as Ina (pronounced Eena). Have I met Irene and Gretchen, and if so, why can’t I remember? No trouble remembering the student interns, Heidi and Gina, who run the children’s group. Heidi is dark-haired and lively, a graduate of Mount Holyoke, where I once taught a spring quarter class. We talk about mutual acquaintances and the doctoral program Heidi plans to prepare herself for her career. Gina is soft-spoken and thoughtful, with warm coloring and a personality to match. They make a good team and enjoy what they’re doing.
What motivates all these women in the work they’ve chosen? Why would someone go out at midnight on a crisis call without pay? Sodial responsibility is a strong factor: they want to make a difference in people’s lives. When I ask Katie, in a follow-up phone call, how the staff can keep from being permanently depressed, she tells me that, after a while on the job, a kind of desensitization takes over. It’s like doctors getting used to the sight of blood. Such resilience keeps staff members from burning out, enables them to do their job.
Clutter and chaos stalk like wildlife through the rich understory of the shelter in spite of the staff s well-meaning efforts to hold them at bay. Everywhere, one glimpses the idea of order in tidy compartments for dozens of required forms; in neat desktops; in the blue plastic cubes where interns put away books and crayons from the children’s group. But real life — messy and unpredictable — keeps breaking through.
Twenty or more loaves of bread and dozens of dinner rolls appear on the kitchen counter. Several plastic bags of clothing crowd the open space in Mayra’s office, and mothers rummage through to outfit babies and toddlers, while keeping a watchful eye out for their own needs. The phone jangles its alarm into the backyard where the morning support group wrestles the dynamics of battering. Babies demand to be changed or fed or coaxed asleep. And in the midst of it all, clients come and go, often arriving in the middle of the night. Each morning when I return, my first task is to check on the constant migration in and out of the shelter.
Lupe has arrived during the night with her 7-month-old daughter Tierra. “I just got in the car and drove 421 miles,” she says. “I went straight to the Escondido police station, and they brought me here.” Lupe’s husband wants a blood test to determine paternity of the child, and if it’s his, he plans to file for custody. That’s part of the explanation for Lupe’s flight.
At the morning support group. I’m again introduced as a poet and convent dropout. I want to say, “My name is Madeline, and I’m a recovering nun,” but it’s too early for such levity. For some reason, the ex-nun interests them more than the poet, even though leaving the convent or the priesthood has become endemic in the United States. Grover Diemert, assistant director for the EYE and one of its few male employees, is a former priest. Only one woman — Laurel, a 32-year-old with brooding, dark eyes and a gap between her front teeth — takes note of the poet. She wants to talk to me later.
“Do the clients know why I’m here?” I ask Shirley. I’m assured that they do. They’ve been told that I’m writing a shelter story, and they’re free to talk to me or not. If these women are to take charge of their lives, they need choices, and I appreciate the staffs decision to be democratic. Earlier, I’d overheard an intern’s advice to a young mother who complained of her Terrible Two’s one-word vocabulary, consisting exclusively of No!
“Let him find out that sometimes he can say No,” the intern suggested. “If he wins once in a while, even if it’s not totally convenient for you, he won’t have to try so hard.” Committed as I am to democratic procedure, I’m relieved when the Domestic Violence group votes to let me sit in on their meeting.
Shirley repeats what Judith has already told me. The shelter gives a skewed perception of family violence because its clientele consists mainly of the poor. More affluent victims have other choices: private treatment centers, temporary residence in hotels or motels, refuge with relatives and/or friends. All the authors I read stress that battering exists in every region, among all socioeconomic classes, within all ethnic groups, and at all educational levels.
For much of the day. I’m overwhelmed. Every specialty has its private language, and the social sciences are notorious for theirs. Staff converse largely in acronyms. Their dialogues float on an alphabet stew that is caviar to the general. Again and again, I must ask for translation. By week’s end, I’ll be talking with the best of them about DVs (Domestic Violence), CMHs (County Mental Health), AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children), OCJP (Office of Criminal Justice Planning), GR (General Relief). SSI (Social Security Insurance), CPS (Child Protective Services), and ROP (Regional Occupation Program). My interest in language rivals my interest in the people who use it.
In the backyard, Megan, a tall, slim woman with shoulder-length hair, sits smoking. I’m introduced. She’s pleasant but obviously preoccupied, so I leave her to her solitary nicotine fix. If the Surgeon General’s warning seems to have bypassed the shelter clients, maybe it’s because smoking is one of the few indulgences left to the poor. Life itself is hazardous to their health, every intake of air drawing steadily nearer the dangerous final breath.
Megan and her son will soon be moving into new housing but not before she asks me to change a $20 bill so that she can give another client $5 for baby formula. Marquita takes the five and says, “If I had another dollar, I could get two.” Coco gives her a dollar. I don’t know whether to admire the giver’s generosity or suspect Marquita of taking advantage. In any case, the incident makes me reexamine my own priorities.
When nothing else is going on, I hang around Shirley’s office because she says she can listen and do her paperwork at the same time. For someone who describes herself as an auditory learner, it might appear that Shirley’s ratio of talk to listening is reversed, until you realize that the balance of knowledge and experience tips in her favor. We learn from our betters — in any sector they’re beyond us — and for now, the odds are all on Shirley’s side. Shirley recalled telling Megan’s counselor that his client sexualized her therapeutic relationships. He wasn’t so sure. “Then why did they send her to me?” he asked.
“They didn’t,” Shirley said. “They gave her a list, and you were the only male on it.” You have to rise early to get ahead of Shirley Smalley. When I say that to her, she tells of an incident from her classroom past. One of the teachers asked a problem child why he misbehaved for everyone except Shirley. The boy squared his shoulders, looked his questioner in the eye, and said, “I don’t mess with Mrs. Smalley.”
At noon, Judith takes me back to the EYE, then to a nearby restaurant for lunch. Somewhere along the line, we talk to Gerry, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, who coordinates the 24-hour crisis line. I can’t identify Gerry’s ethnic background, and her surname doesn’t give a clue, but her skin tone and eyes suggest Asian. She’s interested in hypnotism “on the side" and identifies herself as Buddhist. To me, she seems “very California” with comments suggesting past lives theory and reincarnation.
Volunteers must be carefully trained and closely supervised, a time-intensive task for the 20 to 60 active workers in this category. Their course includes about 50 class hours and a “ride-along” with the police department. Gerry talks about cues leading up to verbal abuse; of a husband crossing the line from nurturing play (tickling and pinching) to masochistic play. Sometimes, she says, the woman goes along with it: “Oh, look what you did to me! You put a bruise on me.”
Eventually, just as the books explain and Gerry confirms, “Things get turned around mentally where she starts to question her own behavior and who she is. It’s very hard to see the bottom line and to get out of the forest, so to speak.” Gerry talks of “reconnecting with the Inner Child” and “externalizing the Inner Child” — that is, appearing to come to the rescue of their children when women are really protecting themselves.
Motive is secondary, she believes, so long as the woman learns to be more assertive. “The bottom line is saying, ‘You know what? Hurting people is never okay. I don’t care if you broke his ... favorite fishing rod. Hitting you for that is never okay.’ ” Even today, certain traits that are the consequence, rather than the cause, of victims’ battering are used against them. These women are often misdiagnosed, “therapeutically” mistreated, discriminated against by police and the courts, and exposed to grave danger by a system responsible for their protection. When a mother has custody of the children and a father has visitation rights, further violence may occur unless the visits are supervised and held apart from the victim’s residence. Court-ordered arrangements have been known to result in the death of one of the partners. Often the court grants custody to the batterer because he has the family home and the financial edge. But thanks to shelters like Hidden Valley House, some of these women are finding justice and a new beginning.
One of the shelter’s principal success stories is Sara, a fulltime student on staff since 1990 as a residential counselor. Six years ago, she was a shelter client. Watching an Oprah Winfrey show on battered women helped raise her consciousness, it gave her a name for the horror that was her life and the scant comfort of knowing she was not alone. She speaks openly of the two years of severe abuse — verbal, emotional, psychological, physical — that brought her to the point of plotting to kill her batterer. She just had to find the method.
“The spiritual abuse was the worst,” Sara says. “My husband had persuaded me that I was sent to him by God so that he could drive out the devil. He followed me around the house, hissing, ‘Henceforth, the demon!’ After a while, you’ll do anything to protect yourself. I knew exactly how much to drug his drink so that he wouldn’t beat me."
Empower is a word often on the lips of shelter staff. They are aware that battering centers around issues of power and control. Their task is to mobilize victims through counseling, support groups, and advocacy. The neutrality so studiously cultivated in other types of treatment doesn’t work here. Resolution and independence must gradually replace the passivity, fear, and self-blame that result from prolonged trauma.
Judith Herman’s broad-based study, mentioned earlier, is especially good at connecting public and private worlds, individual and community, men and women. Her goal is to identify commonalities: between rape survivors and combat veterans, between battered women and political prisoners, between the survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants who rule nations and the survivors of small, hidden concentration camps created by tyrants who rule their homes.
Sara knows all about a tyrant in the home. Her husband used to take her car apart to keep her from driving while he was at work. But a cousin bought duplicate parts and taught her how to install and then dismantle them before her husband came home. No such “easy fix” was available for Sara herself. Her one hope was parents who believed and loved her. They came to the rescue the day she was sure that her husband meant to kill her. They packed up her belongings to store in their shed and took charge of the 3-year-old daughter. Sara went to the shelter where she stayed a month. She hid out somewhere else for another two months. One day her husband stormed into her parents’ backyard, where they were sitting with their granddaughter, and broke into the shed. He used a machete to cut Sara’s bed to ribbons. “There wasn’t a piece longer than two inches,” Sara says. It took Sara five years to regain custody of her daughter, who, at nine, still requires periodic counseling. Sara’s ordeal has left permanent physical damage and deep emotional scars, but she has regained her dignity and her religious faith. She can also serve as a role model for battered women.
Until a decade or two ago, stories like Sara’s were common. Jhe women themselves, like victims of incest and rape, were held responsible. They were said to be sleeping around or mouthing off to the head of the household. Or they were masochistic: they actually enjoyed being dragged around by the hair, kicked in the head, or beaten half senseless. One reason for public indifference has been a legal tradition, rooted in English law, that regarded wives as property and beating as a matter for regulation, rather than criminalization.
Feminists have been quick to recognize the part language plays in changing awareness. Consider, for instance, the nuances that swirl around the terms inmate, patient, and client. Inmate is pejorative. It calls up visions of convict stripes and white-coated men with hypodermic syringes hauling victims off to another kind of prison. Patient is a label evoking pity. It derives from the Latin verb patior meaning to suffer, and it is a deponent or passive verb. Client, on the other hand, implies a choice — an active role in decisions. Staff habitually refer to the shelter residents as clients.
When I left the convent after 38 years, words were partly responsible. I had read Erving Goffman’s Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. The book studies common characteristics of “total institutions,” defined as those in which people live, work, and recreate in the same environment. Goffman covers prisons, mental hospitals, old folks’ homes, the military, and the monastery. I read Asylums in 1961, shortly after it appeared. It would be 12 years before I applied for a dispensation from my religious vows and another year before it arrived from Rome. But if Goffman had subtitled his book Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Clients, who knows where I’d be today?
Back at the hotel each evening, I look over my notes, make new ones, listen to tapes, trying to sort out the onslaught of impressions. I had expected to see black eyes, swollen lips, and multiple bruises — maybe a cast or two and some facial stitches. Instead, it was the emotional scars I witnessed.
Typically, victims of domestic violence endure three phases in a cycle of abuse that repeats incrementally. The pattern was first documented by Dr. Lenore Walker, a psychiatrist who specializes in treating battered women.
Walker’s 1986 book. The Battered Woman, identifies three phases, which vary in length with different men and with the same man at different times: 1) the tension-building phase; 2) the acute battering incident; and 3) the “honeymoon phase” of kindness and contrite, loving behavior. This phase is one reason that women return to their abusers five to seven times before separating permanently or negotiating treatment for the batterer. It usually takes a court order to get an abusive partner into treatment, and much work remains to be done in this type of therapy. Women usually manage their getaway during the first or third phase of the battering cycle when physical damage is less apparent.
When Laurel and I get together to look at her poems and drawings, I’m reminded of my own early verses. I lettered them, just as she has done, on loose sheets and in decorative books. Calligraphy endowed the poems with significance. It was the closest I could come at the time to actual print. About ten minutes into our discussion, the door bursts open, and Fay charges in. She’s a chubby, blonde 16. She works the combination of her locker and starts hauling out her worldly goods. Laurel asks whether she’s leaving and gets a flip response. She’s clearly in big trouble and trying, with adolescent sangfroid, to brush it off.
“Did you meet your friend?” Laurel asks solicitously. In return she gets a grudging acknowledgement.
Fay has violated curfew. She has been out all night drinking with a friend — her way of preparing to enter an alcohol treatment program.
“But did you have a good time?” Laurel insists. Fay shrugs and continues to gather her belongings.
“They panic sometimes when it comes to the crunch,” Shirley explains later. Fay has been drinking since she was 13 and already has advanced cirrhosis of the liver.
Laurel and I return to her work. The metal laundry case she keeps her writing in also contains a thick sheaf of drawings. She tells me that her goal is to complete the 90-day program at Serenity House (a daytime center for chemical dependency), go to art school, and eventually regain custody of her 5-year-old son Matthew. Laurel is considered too fragile to be on her own after hours, so she’s living at the shelter. I’m as supportive as possible about the poems and drawings. I ask whether she reads contemporary poetry.
“No, I don’t want to plagiarize.”
It’s the predictable answer. I promise to send her some books if she’ll give me her address. And when I learn that her family background is as murky as that of my orphan mother, I give her the one copy I’ve brought of my Imaginary Ancestors poems. Laurel’s verbal and visual art shows flashes of originality, along with the need for more education. After 40 minutes, I plead fatigue and the need for a cup of coffee.
My next encounter is with Karalee, a middle-aged woman with a Southern accent and a down-to-earth drawing complacency. My mother would have called her “chunky.” She has the reliable look of the Prudential Rock, meant to preserve our faith in insurance. Later, I will find her waiting around for her medication and guess that her calm is not so much temperamental as pharmaceutical.
Karalee zeroes in with the deadly aim of the religious zealot. Have I ever been to Mother Teresa’s convent in Tennessee? she asks. I have my own dead-end streets, and one of them is Theology Row. Hoping to deflect the conversation from my past to hers, I say that I didn’t even know Mother Teresa had convents in this country, and has she ever been there? Karalee says that she was a member for two years. Something about her approach sets off warning bells. Over the years. I’ve learned to feint like a prizefighter. especially when the blows are coming from below the Bible belt. But Karalee detects my weak spot. Abruptly, she switches to her real interest.
“Ah know that Dante’s Inferno is in the Bible,” she says, “but is there anything in the Bible about purgatory?”
Instinctively, I rise to the bait. She must sense the old World Lit teacher under the disguise. Or maybe it’s pure coincidence, but I can’t let it pass.
“No, no, no!” I say, “Dante was an Italian author who wrote The Divine Comedy in the 14th Century. It’s divided into three parts — the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. And purgatory? It isn’t mentioned as such in the Bible, but there’s something about ... they themselves shall be saved yet so as by fire. Something like that. But I don’t remember what book it’s in.” Out in the sandlot, 2-year-old Kelly kicks up clouds with his tennis shoes and scoops up sand with a broken plastic dish to sift over metal bars of the playground equipment. A slim young blonde — a volunteer — is on child-care duty. Ten-year-old Nathan carries a large pepper shaker everywhere he goes. Inside are sand, a few leaves, and a spider. Nathan’s 5-year-old brother Alex, who “can’t even read yet,” follows him everywhere. Both have the long, lean build of their mother Coco and move with the loping grace I connect with the basketball court. The boys are clean, neat, and well-behaved.
Another newcomer to the morning women’s support group is Marquita: very young, with the smooth olive skin and chiseled features of a genuine beauty. She seems like the last person to end up in a place like this, and she is impressively devoted to her baby daughter of seven weeks. Unlike most of the others, she protests that she won’t be here long. Her husband has made a successful business deal and has promised to buy her a trailer to live in and a van for doing errands. He needs her help with the business, she says, and she’ll be on her way in a day or two.
Privately, I reflect on the batterer’s honeymoon phase. Is that what’s going on? Can Marquita really trust him to deliver, or is this just a ploy for getting her to come home? Each time the story is repeated, the other women marvel at her good fortune. After the group disbands, I’m standing alone in an empty room when I hear an angry tirade sift through the walls. It could be Darlene, I think, remembering the young woman who dominated the morning group and talked so fast that I thought she might be on speed. I go back to the yard where Ruth sits chain-smoking.
Ruth is a sweet woman — probably the eldest resident — who wins my heart completely. Although she’s thin, she has the puffy look of the recovered alcoholic. It’s hard to tell whether her hair is white or platinum, and her dentures fit badly. She greets me warmly, reports on events of the preceding night, and makes coffee for me when I can’t get to the staff kitchen without interrupting a counselor.
Ruth’s daughter died in February at age 40, two years after having a mastectomy. After the surgery, mother and daughter shared an apartment while the daughter returned to cook at the Senior Center. When the daughter died, Ruth couldn’t afford the rent and ended up at Hidden Valley House in need of housing.
“One thing you should know,” Shirley says during a brief pause in the turbulent life of the shelter, “is that we have too many CMHs this week. We can absorb two or three, but this week we just happen to have more.” She explains that County Mental Health sometimes uses the shelter to house clients “who are stabilized” but waiting to be admitted to other programs or more permanent housing.
“I notice that one of them had you cornered yesterday for 40 minutes,” Shirley says.
“You mean Karalee.”
“Karalee?” Shirley says. “No, she’s one, too, but she’s just on the borderline. I really like her. I’m talking about Laurel.”
I try not to show that I’m stunned. “I was just looking at her poems and her artwork,” I say. “I think she’s really quite creative, although she needs more direction if she’s going to make progress.”
Shirley isn’t impressed. “I think she needs an adjustment in her medication,” she says. “She thinks she’s JFK’s daughter.” “Well, I did wonder about that,” I admit, “but then I remembered my orphan mother who fantasized kinship with Ulysses S. Grant.”
To me, it seems natural that loners should invent ties. I think of the kids with no siblings who create imaginary playmates. Three-year-old Julie, the daughter of a Seattle University colleague, had an invisible kitten I nearly sat on one afternoon when her father gave me a ride.
“The day before that,” Shirley insists, “she thought she was Marilyn Monroe.”
In a millisecond, my sense of several shelter clients turns upside-down. I feel really stupid. And wary. Then it occurs to me that if Laurel is sick enough to need these famous attachments, something in her psyche is trying desperately to protect her.
“What’s her diagnosis?” I ask, recalling the extraordinary image-making faculties of schizophrenics. I tell her what I know about this phenomenon.
“Of course,” Shirley says. “They can’t tell their hallucinations from reality.”
Laurel’s delusions notwithstanding, I find myself stubbornly justifying my faith in her. Deception and delusion can be coping strategies, I remind myself. The obverse side of creation is destruction. In this light. Laurel's continued commitment to writing strikes me as a hopeful sign.
Sometimes the only way to know whether a woman has been battered is to see whether she shows up for the DV group. Even then, her story could prove false as in the case of Maxine, who greets the intern’s first question with, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Nevertheless, after a few others have spoken of their batterers’ sadistic acts, Maxine joins in, warming to her own story. Her mother beats her, and her 2-year-old son has already started pounding on Maxine. She loves him but is afraid that her anger will get out of hand. When someone mentions the cycle of abuse — most batterers come from violent homes — Maxine argues. Her brother is a model of good behavior, she says. Imitating violence is not a necessary pattern.
Laurel tells of childhood abuse, which drove her from home at 15. She vowed never to be a victim again, but after 12 years, she was being battered by her husband. Her description is graphic. Characteristically, she blames herself and is ashamed of not having kept her promise to herself. When she fled her batterer and he filed for custody of their son, she had to appear in court while she was emotionally upset and badly bruised. Her husband was granted custody and gave the baby to his mother for day care. Laurel believes that her child is being abused. She says that her husband stole her ID and she needs it for her disability check. Although I don’t know how much to believe, Shirley says that she probably has been battered, judging from the number of police calls in her file.
Darlene tells of a husband who accuses her of cheating on him. True to the pattern, he wants to isolate her from everyone else. He says that his friends don’t like her, and he doesn’t like her friends. In fact, he thinks they are lesbians — unfit company for his wife. In less than an hour, I have a vivid sense of the hell these women must have been locked into.
By Wednesday when I return, the air at the shelter is thick with hostility. Maxine is sullen all day. Her son has intestinal flu, and she makes demands instead of asking for help. She bangs on the office door when Mayra is on the phone. She insists on going through the bags of clothing.
“Kelly doesn’t have anything clean to wear because he’s been sick all night,” she says. Mayra asks her to come back in ten minutes. She sulks off and returns ten minutes later.
Laurel appears briefly in her bathrobe, looking withdrawn and pale. She joins me long enough to smoke a cigarette and complain about being ill. No one seems anxious about catching the flu, st) my own concern makes me ashamed.
On the second try, Maxine finds some clothes but is asked to enter the child’s medication in the log. Angrily, she writes down the information and scrawls her initials. She is called back to write her full name. Maxine wants to take her son back to the hospital before the interval advised by the doctor. And when she finally leaves with Kelly, she never arrives at the hospital. Nor does she return to the shelter. Room for one more — two, actually, counting the child.
Bit by bit, details of the clients’ stories emerge. Earlier, Ruth has told me that Marquita — beautiful Marquita — is a troublemaker. “I’m just glad to have a place to stay,” Ruth says, “but that one stirs up discontent.” She rolls her eyes eloquently.
Sure enough! That night, insurrection widens. Coco turns mean and threatens a counselor. Helen is caught shooting up. Darlene comes back to pick up Marquita: two dissidents teamed for escape.
Some violations call for swifter action than others. I recall Karalee’s explanation of the procedure: “First they warn you that you’re going to get a warning. The next time you get the warning. The second warning, and you’re out.”
"I have to bring you up to date,” Shirley says when Ina checks in the next morning. “We had to exit half our clients last night.” Exit as a transitive verb? Why not evict or throw out? Because those are loaded words — sometimes we fudge a little on naming things. At least two of the clients were exited with police escorts.
Large-boned and flawlessly groomed, Ina is the legendary statuesque blonde. Her horn rimmed glasses lend a no-nonsense air to balance her stylish black pantsuit. She is the shelter’s principal claim to a fashion statement, but she is all business during the workday.
Advised that Maxine has vanished, Ina agrees with Shirley that her story of being beaten by her mother is a hoax. They believe that Maxine’s goal is to have herself, not her mother, named the payee for her disability check.
I’m still worried about Laurel. At the morning group, Nancy, a student intern, told of her initial difficulty in handling details of her job. Called to account by a supervisor, she says that she faced her accuser and said, “Lighten up! I’m trainable.”
Almost at once. Laurel wants to know whether she can have Nancy for her counselor. “I’m just not comfortable with the one I have now,” she says. She wonders whether putting in for a change will mar her record.
Nancy demurs. “That’s tricky,” she says. “It would probably be better for you to talk directly to the counselor.”
We’ve reached another island of quiet. Shirley and I have returned to the topic of “crazy artists.”
“Half of the great writers were psychotic or on drugs,” Shirley says cheerfully.
Obligingly, I rattle off a list. “Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Clare, Edgar Allen Poe....” And to myself I add Theodore Roethke, Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. I’ve read Lionel Trilling’s essay on “Art and Neurosis.” I know that art can be therapeutic, but not all therapy is art. But like the enfant terrible of Shirley’s bygone teaching days, I recognize a war I can’t win, and “I don’t mess with Mrs. Smalley.”
After buying Laurel’s JFK story. I’m more skeptical, so when Jennifer, 17 and homeless with an 8-month-old son, joins me in the backyard, I ask for her story. Her father is a naval officer with a new girlfriend. After Jennifer had the baby, her father tells her to leave. His girlfriend doesn’t want her around. “What’s your father’s name?” Karalee asks.
At first I’m shocked that, here in the shelter’s anonymous surround, she would pry into personal details. Then I remember that Karalee’s ex-husband was in the Navy.
“Ross Perot,” Jennifer answers. (Actually, an equally famous millionaire, not identified for obvious reasons.)
I jerk to attention, studying Jennifer’s face to get the joke or unmask the lie. Her expression is bland and serious.
Wrong again! Her father really wears the same name as the rich and famous individual. To cap it off, she’s named the baby Perry: Perry Perot.
The millinery parade is back: two small boys in brown-bag hats stylish enough for the Paris runway. They are tall, crimped at the crown, fanned out to make a brim, and accented with a colored band. The only wheels are those of an all-purpose stroller that triples as baby carriage, dolly for moving heavy items, and a parade vehicle.
Just as I’m inwardly admiring the kids’ ingenuity, an attractive young woman I haven’t met before joins us. “I got a job,” she says, glowing with triumph. “And on the first try!”
Sondra has a crown of blue-black hair, violet eyes, and a pale, creamy complexion. She’s wearing a scoop-necked dress that flatters her trim figure. It’s a subtle plaid in black with shades of blue, green, and lavender. The only odd feature is that the dress is wool and the temperature is 80 degrees.
Congratulations greet the announcement from every side.
“It’s at Ristorante Paradiso. He wants me to come in Saturday evening from six to nine to observe. Then on Tuesday, I have a longer interview. I think that he wants me to replace him sometimes because I ran a restaurant for several years.”
“That’s just great!” someone says.
Sondra beams. “That will help my confidence,” she says. “I really need that.” She excuses herself to change into black slacks and a T-shirt and rejoin the circle. The women are discussing the odds of being tracked to the shelter by their batterers. Some of them have been stalked, so it’s not idle chatter.
“How do they know the volunteers won’t reveal?” Karalee asks suddenly. I banish a distracting image of a godlike volunteer on a mountain top, haloed with light, map in hand: THIS WAY TO THE PROMISED SHELTER.
“They can be put in jail for revealing,” Jennifer says.
“What?” Karalee again.
“They can convict you,” Jennifer says. "That’s what they told me.”
Just who “they” are is not clear. Newcomers sometimes get unreliable information from the more experienced. One instance: a resident distraught over the prospect of having to surrender half of her monthly subsidy to the shelter. In fact, the shelter is mandated to take half of a much smaller grant homeless clients can apply for every two years. Motels and hotels routinely take all of it — $30 — but the shelter takes only half. Still, a disgruntled client who doesn’t know the law can perceive this as unfair.
I’m introduced to Sondra and ask her to tell her story if she’s willing. She speaks with a raw eloquence that transcends lapses in grammar. As her story, fueled by metaphor, wheels towards conclusion, there are sudden shifts and changes of course, pauses for self-editing and amplification. There are also obvious omissions — blanks the listener must guess at or question. Later, transcribing the tapes, I become so infatuated with the authenticity of the speaking voice that I can’t bear to change anything except for the speaker’s protection.
“Well, what happened,” Sondra begins, “was that my husband was supposed to pay me so much a month for ... for our business. We agreed upon it, and I had been running the business myself. So I gave the business back to him so I could be with my children more. And then he — he quit... he never paid a dime of it, which put me into a poverty level almost. I did have a part-time job, but it wasn’t.... With my part-time job and what he was supposed to pay it would have been more than enough to live. And then he didn’t pay, which was probably a plan on his part.
“So I lost my apartment and was ... been struggling for months trying to just keep going. And then I got an apartment — a cheaper apartment — and then when ... I let the girls stay there | with him |, trying to settle and get rearranged for the summer, and when it was time to go back ... to school... he refused to give them back, so I went to the business, and that’s when he beat me up the first time, and I had to go to the emergency room. He wasn’t arrested, which I can’t understand. He should have been arrested. So I went to Battered Women downtown because I went the next day and filed a restraining order against him, which gave me custody of the children. So ... ah.... They told me at Battered Women to go and get, ‘Go get the San Tomaso police and get the children back,’ so on Friday night — that was Thursday — on Friday night, I went with two police officers to get the children, and he served me with a restraining order, which — downtown — and I filed mine in La Verda. And he had an attorney — I did mine on my own — which ... which.... They put in for family court counseling, which meant that when I went to La Verda for my restraining order, theirs overrode because they had counseling involved."
It’s a real-life soap opera, and the other residents are as interested as I am. Only now and then is the narrative interrupted by a crying infant.
“First counseling appointment was a month and a half after that date. So then the children had to be enrolled in school, and my youngest daughter was starting kindergarten. What was I supposed to do for her education? Put her in school and a month later yank her out? See, they use things that bind your heart.”
I ask whether she had ever been physically abused before this.
“Oh, ten years! I haven’t lived with him for almost two and a half — three years. But he hadn’t worked when I had the business. I was giving him money — which I know now is a very sick thing — giving him money to go and do all the fun things .with the girls on the weekend. While I was working! Because I wanted them to be well-adjusted.”
Karalee intervenes, “So he won their love.” Silence takes over for a few seconds, then Sondra resumes.
“So then, when it came to the first court thing, he wasn’t there, so.... And then when he wasn’t there, I started having anxiety attacks where I would.... I felt like I was being closed in. All the voices were echoing, and I was breaking out in sweats, and I had to leave the courthouse. So then the next one that I knew about, I was never notified.”
Staff members say that it is not unusual for batterers to get a new girlfriend to pose as the estranged wife and pick up the notice, thus insuring that the court will side with them. And since at least one client says that her abuser stole her identification, it seems plausible.
Sondra continues: “That’s when the judge granted custody to him. And in the meantime I’ve had two jobs this summer. I’ve lost both of them because of the anxiety and everything else, which put me — homeless.” The harsh jangle of the phone intrudes, but residents have learned to ignore it.
“So now I’m here, and if I go back with an attorney, they’re going to say, ‘Well, look at him — you know, he’s got the kids, you don’t have a job, you don’t have anything. So who’s gonna give you the kids?’ He just was — I came here because he was put in jail on Monday. He beat me again. He had had me coming over babysitting the kids, and then he had pushed my oldest daughter with excessive force, which started us into an argument. Something just snapped in mybrain, where I said, ‘No, you can’t do this,’ and ... ah ... he was arrested, went to jail. He was released Wednesday. So Wednesday I came here. He threatened to kill me. His family was threatening to kill me. So now I have to start at Square One. Which my credit is ruined. I’m on a bad renters’ list because I lost my apartments.-So how do you even begin? You could go for aid from the city, but like I say, I’m not going to say that I’m ... which I think is very, very bad. Who is getting the money for this? Somehow, these hands have to be washing each other. [Ironic laughter) You know...?”
Karalee has a comment: “Well, whatever you paid into Social Security is what you get from GR [general relief]. It’s not... ah ... it’s not... ah ... just that you didn’t pay anything?” “No,” Sondra says, “they would say that I have to go on a nine-month recovery program so I’ll get this money and I’m not gonna do it, say I’m...."
I can only guess the unspoken parts of this exchange, so I make a mental note to check it out with Shirley. The conversation turns to computerized records and the trouble a single mistake can make once it’s in the mechanical memory.
“Oh, I had that one time,” Sondra says, “where a girl had a Drunk Driving, and it was put on my record ... in Somerville, and I was in Central City, and we went to get insurance on my new car, and they wouldn’t insure me because they said I had a Drunk Driving, and I said, T never had a Drunk Driving.’ And I had to come up here and go to court a number of times to get it cleared up. Her name was.... It was under my maiden name, Martell, and her name was Martelli, and I had to go before the judge and take my ID and say.... Well.... Somehow, I guess they had a picture of her, or something....”
“Did y’all look similar?” Karalee asks.
“It does sound as if you know how to find your way through these mazes,” I observe. I’m remembering my own impossible encounters with Social Security during the first year of my retirement.
Sondra says, “I had to end up here before I could get — finally — help. In different systems, they don’t tell you that there’s a place like this. You know, you almost have to — as a woman — be beaten half to dtath before you can get any help from the law enforcement on those because they’re mostly males, and somewhere in their male egotistical mind they still feel that women deserve it. You might get one officer, like the first officer. I had to go to the emergency room. I had six good injuries that were done to me. And he didn’t go to jail because that officer just felt like his story was better. I was pulling out handfuls of my hair in front of him.
“ ‘Well, I’ll go over and talk to him.’ See, he had lived across the street from the business. I told him where he was and everything. So, if... if... maybe he would have been arrested the first time, I wouldn’t have had to ... got the second beating.
But this officer I... I ... when ... after, and I didn’t call the police. I had went outside to get away from him, and it was somebody else, and, and finally it took a witness, a man witness, who saw him choking me and banging my head against the wall, and I ... and he had choked me so hard he closed my windpipe and I couldn’t breathe, so I was trying to gasp for breath, and this guy came out and he said, ‘Are you okay?’ And it was like God was looking down on me, and there was finally a witness saw him do that because he was very sneaky about doing it where anybody would see him cuz he had a image to uphold, and I said, ‘Please,’ I said just, you know ... and I knew the police were going to be coming, and I said, ‘Please, would you just tell the officer what happened?’ And that was probably the reason why he got arrested. He couldn’t have been put in jail unless.... Somehow I’d provoked him in the policeman’s mind, the officer’s mind, had provoked him to do that. They still are not educated on this, they still have that mentality, especially Thurston County police.
“You.... Well, police officers need to be educated. For as long as a lot of police officers, their education, you could.... A dental hygienist has a longer education than police officers, and somehow it makes you wonder, although they are getting better on it.”
Karalee volunteers a comment: “I read a magazine article where it said policemen and ... policemen and most people that deal with people all the time about, you know, social problems on an everyday basis have to get away from it after so long because they get burnt out. They have to do something else, and that’s understandable. A priest, a minister, you know ... a policeman....”
Sondra says, “Well, you know, that was the best thing. My mother-in-law tried to get me, when he went in jail on Monday, to drop the charges. You know, they badgered me to drop the charges on him, threatening me with ... my children were going to go into the system and this and that. So she called the DA’s office and it was a woman, and she said, ‘Well, this is my daughter-in-law here, wants to drop the charges against my son,’ cuz she thought he was gonna get ... and the woman told her,‘I’m sorry, she cannot drop the charges.’ This is ... and you know, and that’s with the battered woman, you’re so confused ... that that in action was something that was very good. So many battered women go back. I went back for ten years, and then police say, ‘Why should we help them?’ That might be part of their mentality.” I ask whether Sondra has met Sara, a staff member who was once a client of the shelter and who serves as a role model of what can be done to turn one’s life around.
Sondra says, “I would love to do something like this later on in my life.”
“Well,” Karalee says, “you can talk from experience. You know what it feels like to get hit... hurt.” There’s a brief lull. “Boy, he must have been tough, huh?”
“Still is," Sondra answers. “Do you know what he did immediately when he got out of jail? Filed a restraining order on me. And I told the district attorney’s office in La Verda where I was, in case he needed me to sign some papers so he wouldn’t fall through the cracks again, and they called me and said if I didn’t come and pick up my restraining order they had to reveal the address here. So I could be served. Which I don’t think they have this address, they might have the crisis center."
Karalee asks, “How do we know that some of the volunteers that come in here won’t give out the address? They’re sworn to secrecy?”
I try to reassure her, suggesting that the volunteers receive careful training.
“Of course,” Sondra says, “ ’cause there’s children here. What if your maniac boyfriend came in here and was in the line of fire? Look at this young boy at the Family Fitness. You know, sometimes other people ... they don’t care if they’re that angry inside. They don’t care who they’re gonna hurt.”
Again I try to put their fears to rest.
Sondra remarks, “Well, the district attorney downtown — and it was a woman, too ... ah ... told me about this place because they wanted me out of San Tomaso. They thought it was safer for me here. And I came with hardly any money, so I almost have to look for a job here because I can’t leave here without money.” Karalee asks, “Well, what would stop him from coming down where you work?”
“He doesn’t know where I work,” Sondra says.
“I mean if he found out?” Karalee insists.
“Well, he’s now had ... maybe some time to cool off,” Sondra says. “Yah, he’s too busy manipulating his plans.”
I tell them how Shirley suggested advising a woman whose ex-husband kept finding her through the children’s schools. She said, “Write the principal a notarized letter promising to sue if the address is given out over the school phone.”
“Oh sure,” Sondra says. “And a man who’s so smart and manipulative like that — like my husband would do — keeps me in a whirlwind all the time so that I can’t even think enough to know what he is really doing to me.”
“Is he a good father, though?” Karalee asks.
“Well, anybody that would put me through that for ten years is not a good father,” Sondra answers.
Karalee persists, “A lot of men would abuse a woman, but they won’t abuse their children.”
Sondra’s answer comes quickly: “No, that’s wrong ... that’s wrong, especially with girls because there will come a time when that daughter reaches 11 or 12 years old and it will start turning on her, and maybe not so much when they’re young, but when they hit pre-puberty or puberty that’s when ... when ... the violence will start on them. And if a police officer sees that, they’ll take ... if, if... my children were there and they woulda saw a beating to me, CPS would have taken the children right away. That’s why he was very sneaky about the way he did it.” “Would you want your children to be put in protective services?” Karalee asks.
“Well, they just might be,” Sondra says. “It’s already, you know, been reported. And at this point... I’ve ... I’ve ... protected them so long. That’s why I gave him money and made up for what he did. Now there’s a time in my life when I said, ‘Well, if that’s what needs to be, maybe that’s what needs to be.’ Because I can see that.... I cannot let my girls grow up to be ... me.”
Karalee sounds like a Job’s comforter: “Well, what if they grow up to be fine? You may be horrible. I think that’s fine, but you don’t have to put up with abuse. There are also good things about you, even without this abuse, I suppose."
“No, no,” Sondra says, “they will grow up to think it’s okay for a man to treat a woman that way, and they’re gonna marry somebody like I married because ... they’re not.... Well, maybe not necessarily, but I would say maybe only 2 percent would not.
“You know, and the thing is, I’ve been through counseling with this and ... and I know the reasons why I do the things, you know, like I was saying this morning at the meeting, but I can’t seem to change it. I keep making the same mistakes over and over because it’s embedded so deeply back here, you know, that I find myself falling into the same pattern and I don’t even realize it. And it’s hard for me to stop and say, ‘I’m into this same pattern again.’ But I know that I need much more counseling to beat it.”
On Sunday, my last day at the hotel, I have several free hours before my afternoon flight to Seattle. I’ve brought along some stamps and large postcards and write to more than a dozen friends. Shortly after my return to Seattle, I get a 7 a.m. phone call from a poet-friend in Eugene. I’ve told her that I’m in a battered women’s shelter but neglect to say why. She’s concerned about me and wants to be sure I’m all right. “Brain damage," I want to say, “a classic case.”
Two weeks later when I call Shirley to check a few facts and ask about several women I met in the shelter, she tells me that they exited nearly half of their clients that weekend. Laurel has gone back to the psychiatric facility. The book I mailed to her at Serenity House comes back marked. Not Here. Sondra has started working at the restaurant. Ruth has moved into a room in the home of an elderly couple. Jennifer has received housing assistance but not welfare. She will be taking parenting classes to help her with Perry. And Karalee? To borrow her own scriptural language, she has “revealed.” She has done the very thing she feared from a volunteer, directing her boyfriend to the shelter to help her remove her belongings. Together, they’ve disappeared into the wide world outside where bad things happen.
Names of shelter clients (but not staff) and certain physical details have been changed to protect the women’s privacy. Fictitious place names have also been used in some instances for similar reasons.