Thursday, December 5, 2013
A chaste first kiss on a fragrant August night and her heart opened up. She felt the goodness in his heart and he became her world. She was a bookworm of a girl, shy and full of daydreams, and the summer she turned 13 she had scarcely begun adolescence. He was a skinny kid with big brown eyes, dark hair, and a bright smile She believed he loved her, at least in the beginning but she knew so little about him; only that he had appeared in her life, moved in right next door. That summer changed her life.
As suddenly as he had appeared, he and his family moved away without notice during following school year and she didn’t get a chance to say good bye. She was broken hearted, and thought her world had come to an end but life went on. Her family moved into a house closer to town. She now had her own room and attended high school, immersed into the routine of attending classes and doing homework. She had no romantic interests and rarely dated. Taller that most of her classmates she was shy and lacked the self confidence that would have made her feel more accepted among her peers.
She was thrilled when, months later she got a letter from D, asking her to marry him. He stated that he was coming back to the area and wanted her answer by then. She accepted his proposal but kept it a secret. She was supposed to graduate high school and go to college. Marriage was not at option. After he moved back they spent every spare moment together, this made easier because he had a 1959 maroon Ford which lent them the freedom to be alone. Her parents were not too pleased but they didn’t forbid their relationship, thinking that she would come to her senses but she had fallen under his spell and was determined to go her own way.
She had been taught to be a good girl, to be abstinent until marriage. Intimacy in a relationship could go so far and no farther. This was the source of frustration for D. He would get angry, and she, not recognizing this as an unhealthy pattern finally gave in and lost her virginity in the back seat of that ’59 Ford. The incident left her confused and disappointed. This was nothing like the romance novels. There were no gentle words to woo her, no nice dinner; only a fumbling, rushed encounter accompanied by threats that he would break up with her if he didn’t get his way. He accused her of not being a virgin which was ridiculous, as he was her first and only boyfriend.
Once they drove across the border from Eastern Washington to Idaho to elope but she was not old enough for a blood test, so they drove back to face her frantic parents, who had realized by this time how futile it was to keep them apart. She graduated high school in June of 1967 and they got married in September of that same year in the church where she had gone to Sunday school and church her whole childhood. She was 18.
And so she left the nest, believing she would live happily ever after in the arms of her Prince Charming and in a bright, cheerful world where people took care of each other, the happily ever after story: the house, with the white picket fence, the children, the security, the love, the epitome of the dream of happiness attained. Years later she could not recall her wedding day. There was a blank space in her mind and if it weren’t for the pictures in the photo album at her mother’s, she would wonder if the wedding happened at all because she felt no connection with that young woman in the photograph who stood in the church in her beautiful white dress.
Meanwhile in the world at large the Beatles sang the debut of “All You Need is Love on Our World, the first international live television broadcast. In 1967 the Summer of Love, the first Human Be In Golden Gate Park in San Francisco occurred. As the decade of the 60’s came to a close, the war in Viet Nam raged while tens of thousands marched in protest in Washington DC and other places across the country. Man walked on the moon. Racial tension is rampant and there are riots in some of the larger cities.
In 1969 thousands of people gathered in the biggest gathering of all, a three days Woodstock. Perhaps the San Francisco Oracle said it best: "A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.” Vol.1, Issue 5, p.2
The house was heated by a wood stove, and the decor was early 70's disco/hippie, a unique blend of simple country and flashy city; back to the earth combined with black lights and Jim Morrison posters. They decorated the walls with tapestries and posters of various rock stars, taking pride in being a part of the counter culture. The baby had his own bedroom and she and her husband shared another bedroom. An extra bedroom served as a guest room which was always full, the first attempt at communal living. Most of people that stayed were musicians or drop outs from high school and college. Marijuana was a big part of the lifestyle, either the buying or the selling thereof, which centered out of the house. Groups of people came and went at all hours of the day and night. Along with the herb there were other substances such as LSD, mushrooms, mescaline, and cocaine. There was no one among these diverse characters that drifted in and out of their lives that she could bond with and so she felt adrift.
The marriage wasn’t thriving, partly because of the prevailing attitude of disrespect towards marriage in general. After all it was love was free, wasn’t it, and not limited to just one person? Something else was missing and she couldn’t define exactly what it was. Her husband was controlling and possessive. She was completely dependent on him, having no money of her own, no close friends and isolated from her family. Motherhood was the rock that she clung to. She took care of their son, cooked meals and tried to keep a reasonably clean house but she still felt adrift and began to search for her spiritual center in earnest. She and been raised to believe in the Bible but at that point it no longer had the answers she was seeking so she read books like “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass, “The Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda, and books by Alan Watts.
D disappeared for days at a time, without explanation, leaving her and the baby at home. Although she wasn’t afraid of being alone she wondered what was going on. He wouldn't tell her but it wasn't long before she realized he was having affairs. Miserably jealous she confronted him but he remained unfazed and continued this behavior to the point of bringing home his girlfriends which made her even more unsure of herself. It never occurred to her to leave him.
Then one evening a whole group of people arrived together, a fascinating group that were open and friendly and seemed to get along with each other in a way she hadn’t seen before. The called themselves the Family. This encounter sparked a desire within her to become a part of whatever this was. She knew, somehow, that these people were going to become a big part of her life. They represented change. This was the beginning of the end of the marriage.
In this decade of the 70’s the media was full of stories about the Watergate scandal that rocked the nation. Nixon resigned as President of the United States and the 20th amendment was passed, allowing 18 year olds to vote. College students were killed by the police at Kent State and Mother Theresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
He grabbed a handful of her hair and slammed her head against the kitchen wall. He slapped her face, hard, and she slid to the floor, coiling into a fetal position to protect the new life inside her. She didn't cry out because she didn't want to wake their two young children who were sleeping upstairs. Her ears buzzed with his voice, “If you EVER leave me, you’ll leave the children. You will NOT take them with you. You’ll LOSE them. REMEMBER that!” She has heard different versions of this threat many times over the past few years from this man who was her first love, her husband who was now a stranger. She waited for him to strike her again but instead he stopped suddenly, tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry. I won’t hit you again. I promise.” He knelt beside her to help her stand up. She let him hug her but was repulsed by his touch because years of his abuse have shifted her world. Something in her mind snapped and she can’t take this treatment anymore. Panic set in and she was possessed by the need to run away and could think of nothing else.
She had little memory of her journey to the peaceful, park- like garden this late April evening , other than a long car ride through the night, and snippets of conversations between the friends she went to for help. Here, at least, she was safe, for now. The fragrant flowers, soft music, and people dressed in flowing robes and long colorful dresses were a sharp contrast to the world that she had escaped. Part of her mind seemed to have vanished and she felt disconnected from everything around her, as if she was watching herself act in a movie that had become her life. Tears threatened to spill out but she didn't let them escape. She knew that if she gave in to her feelings she would cry forever. These kind and gentle people enfolded her with comfort but there was not one person within the group that had an inkling of the depth of her isolation and her misery. Her only comfort was that she knew she would not be beaten or verbally belittled as she had been in her seven year marriage. The respite she has chosen was a religious commune, (referred to as the Family) one of many such groups that formed during the cultural upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s. Some called this group a cult and others have said it was not a real family at all.
It was obvious who was in charge. She watched him stroll through the group that milled around the softly lit grounds as he talked and embraced people around him. He approached her in greeting and she managed a smile. In his presence she felt loved and beautiful, but his self assurance diminished her and she was relieved when he walked away. “Who’s ready to be baptized?” He called out. Several people, both men and women raised their hands or stepped forward in affirmation. Someone standing behind her touched her shoulder and whispered, “You’re ready!” In that moment she decided to dedicate herself to this group of people, their ideals, and to the charismatic man who led them. She joined the others who gathered around the hot tub that was near the center of the area. When it was her turn, he asked her, “Do you understand this baptism is a marriage to the Family?” She didn't truly understand but she said yes, desperate to change, to become a different person and she rose up out of the water with a new name, no longer encumbered with her possessions or her past. By this baptism she agreed to sever ties from all previous relationships, including her own flesh and blood family. Her new life has begun. She was 25 years old.
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
My life was out of control. My first marriage was a disaster and crumbled after seven years and three children. I fled in the night from my husband who was violent and unpredictable. I thought that once I was away from him that I'd be happy but this wasn't the case, and in fact after that I couldn't seem to maintain any of my relationships with men. My self esteem was low. I still didn't have control over my life.
One of my friends, my batterer's second wife was mistreated by him as well. She reached out to me and gave me a book called Battered Woman by Lenore E Walker. As painful as it was to read, this book set me on the path to healing. I didn't speak of it to anyone. There is a stigma that accompanies victims of battering, much like that of rape. The victim blames herself for what happened and is ashamed. My living situation at the time was not a nurturing one in that respect. I was part of a religious cult. We were taught to only speak for positive thoughts and speaking about the past was not encouraged. This only led to my feelings of isolation.
By putting a name to the crime of battering, to know that I was not alone was an enormous relief. My friend encouraged me to seek out a support group but this was not a choice for me at the time but I continued to read books on the subject of battering and I also kept a journal which was therapeutic and a catalyst for empowerment.
During the years that followed I lived, religious cult had gradually gotten less strict but for me was still repressive and controlling. The women were not encouraged to speak out. We were taught to be submissive, and as I call it "barefoot and pregnant”, in the emotional sense. In other words: dependent and kept at home. This situation crumbled after more than 30 years. I now realize the reasons I stayed for so long were basically the same reasons I stayed with my batterer; low self esteem, co dependence, and lack of personal finances. This is not to mention the fear of being banished from the group or stigmatized in some way.
I have some perspective now and as a grandmother feel it is time to tell my story, not only for my own healing but for the sakes of thousands of battered women and children in this world today. You can break through, you can heal, and you can break the silence. I read a saying recently that states if you are going to write your life story, don't give someone else the pen. You are the one creating your own life, no one else.
Many years have passed since my custody hearings. My children, the two I lost, are grown with lives of their own. They are survivors and I am so proud of each of them. They have both overcome tremendous challenges. This may seem a trite statement, but it is true and there is no other way to say it.
I am thankful for those in the system who are advocates for those who need help navigating the complications of the legal system, not to mention emotional and physical trauma of domestic violence. I was fortunate to have help from a dear friend who set me on the path to healing, for the legal help of a wonderful attorney who fought for me, and for my family who stood by me every step of the way.
Although I have never been personally interviewed I can relate to what the women in this video endured. It is an all too familiar story for way too many women and children.
INVISIBLE SCARS, BROKEN LIVES, NO TURNING BACK
I sit in the front row of the courtroom, finding it hard to breathe. I feel powerless, like an insect suspended in a spider’s web. The thick hush of the room is punctuated by noises: the clock’s tick as another minute passes, a sneeze, a child’s whisper. Deep inside I am angry, but most of all I am afraid. I am not given a chance to give my reasons for running away from my husband or describe how I was terrified for my life.
Across the aisle is my batterer. For appearances he has shaved off his beard, cut his hair and donned a suit and tie. He has put on the disguise and demeanor of a clean cut business man and wields his power well. Behind this charming façade he is a manipulator who twists the truth to suit his own needs. My leaving him is a blow to his ego and he does not approve of the lifestyle I have chosen. He is using my love for children as a way of hurting me and I feel powerless against him.
The judge is an older man with a grandfather’s face, but he does not look kind and I can only guess what thoughts are going through his mind. I know what he sees as he looks at me from his judiciary perch. He sees a woman several months pregnant wearing an ankle length, loose fitting purple dress. Her straight brown hair falls past her shoulders and she wears no adornments or make up. She is very quiet and when questioned her replies are barely heard.
“The custody of these two children is awarded to the father.” In that instant I realize that my children are truly lost to me and my heart clenches with the pain of it. I want to stand and shout, “This is wrong! Can’t you see him for what he is?” Instead I sit in stunned silence. The judge has been conned into giving the primary care of the children to this unstable and violent man. I knew what the judge did not; that his decision would set off a series of events that will, in time, completely destroy the fragile bond I have with my children and leave them motherless. I feel sick with the knowledge of this.
My batterer complies with the visiting arrangements at first, but it isn’t long before these sessions become distressing. He insists on being present to control every conversation and make the children do his bidding. They are afraid to disobey him and won’t even hug me because he has made sure I am seen as a bad person. After these visits I am physically drained, emotionally exhausted and profoundly miserable.
The inevitable happens and my ex husband flees the state with the children and his new wife. I am glad that he has gone but this does not ease the kicked-in-the-gut feeling when I am given this news. My heart aches each and every day for my children and my efforts to find them over the years are fruitless.
For too many years I acquiesced to those whom I perceived as stronger than me and lived with a subtle, ever present fear of those “in power”. Because of domestic violence my children and I were torn apart. I can’t change the past, erase their pain, or give them back their childhoods. It is this that haunts me in the quiet, dark moments of the night when I am alone. Time does heal some wounds, but not all. My children are scarred in their souls and I grieve for our broken lives. The truth is that we can only go forward, for there is no turning back.
Two men burst into the dwelling. Startled, I looked up to see my estranged ex husband and a sheriff’s deputy who was armed and carrying a night stick. “Ma’m, you better let your little girl come with us, or we’ll have to take her by force.”
The deputy flashed some official looking documents in my direction. My five-year old daughter clung to me tightly but my ex husband grabbed her from my arms and rushed out, followed by the deputy. Within minutes my little girl was torn from the only life she had ever known. For a moment I stared blankly at the documents in my hand. My heart was pounding. I left the tent and followed the men out into the meadow where, at the sound of the shofar well over 100 people had gathered to witness this kidnapping.
Until that morning I had a peaceful existence in a commune (which I will call the Family) which had like so many groups in the 60’s and 70’s emigrated from the city into the country. Some of us who lived on the land had known each other since Haight Ashbury in San Francisco. In those days on the farm most of the group shared quarters in either yurts or large tents. The home site that I shared was at the end of a driveway that was about half a mile long and lead from a large barn and bordered along a meadow. There was a lake at the far end of the meadow and those of us in our household liked to say that we lived “at the back of the lake”. We spent our days working in the gardens, cottage industries and caring for our children who were birthed and schooled at home and raised like brothers and sisters. Essentially we had created our own culture and maintained this lifestyle mostly undisturbed until that morning.
In shock, I stood in the meadow as the sheriff drove away. I couldn’t see my little girl inside the car. I had no chance to say good-bye. Later someone told me what had transpired earlier elsewhere on the land. I was told of the dozen or more police men and as many police cars lined all along the road to the barn. I was told how one of the Family men released the logs which were in the bunker beside the barn. The logs rolled across the road, blocking the sheriff’s car from driving out, creating a Mexican standoff. The sheriff and troopers were trapped. Finally one of the spokesmen of the Family approached the state trooper in charge to negotiate a solution to this potentially volatile situation. Since the legal papers had been served they agreed to let the sheriff take my daughter which would avoid unnecessary conflict and possible harm to any of us. One by one the logs were picked up, put into the front loader and moved so that the road was clear. The sheriff and his entourage drove away.
So this was it. The respite was over, and as I stood there in the meadow the past came back to haunt me. Old wounds were ripped open. They say that when you are close to death your life flashes before your eyes. This was a death of my soul, an emotional stab in my heart. Images flashed through my mind. I remembered that fateful night of fear, the night I fled, the night that altered the course of my life and the lives of my children. I felt the stinging slaps and saw the crazed look in my husband’s eyes. I saw myself on the floor curled in a fetal position to protect the new life inside me. I saw the courtroom where the judge declared that I had lost custody. I felt the despair when my ex husband fled the state, taking the children.
I had loved him once. He had been the light of my life and my childhood sweetheart. How young and trusting I was! How little I knew him. We got married three months after I graduated high school in 1967. I had just turned 18. I became a mother at 19 and our second child was born when I was 23. Free love, drugs, and rock and roll ruled the decade of the 70’s and wreaked havoc on our already fragile marriage. I was pregnant with my third child in 1974. My husband’s behavior was erratic at best. Not only was he was womanizing and dealing drugs but also his violent behavior had escalated to a degree that I feared for my life. I fled to the safest place I knew, the Family.
During the five years of his absence since our youngest child’s birth, my ex husband’s anger had simmered to a boiling point that led to his decision to take her from me. A preliminary custody hearing ensued a couple of weeks after the kidnapping. After much deliberation the judge divided my daughter’s life in two, which in this case wasn’t the Wisdom of Solomon. She was to live two weeks with her father and two weeks with me for several months until the last hearing in which permanent custody would be decided. In my gut I knew this was a doomed arrangement but I was a pawn of both my ex husband and the court. The judge told me that if I was to have access to my daughter at all I had to move into the city. I complied.
One evening after a few weeks of back and forth visiting it was my turn to take her home. I went to get her from the trailer park where she lived with her dad, her siblings, and his new wife. I knocked on the door and did not recognize the man standing in the doorway.
“I hear they packed up and left a couple of nights ago. Didn’t leave no forwarding address. Sorry I can’t help you.”
I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. The bleak days passed slowly and I lost sense of time. Losing the two older children was devastating but the second kidnapping of their little sister was overwhelming. I still feared my ex. I was deeply hurt, but this time I was also angry. Seeking respite, I went for a solitary walk to the neighborhood park. It was a lovely, serene morning and as the sun rose above the horizon the flowers were luminous in the sunlight. My heavy heart was not consoled. I went to my knees, bowed my face to the earth wept for each of my children, and for all children and women victimized by the insidious crime of domestic violence, hurt by those they trusted. I realized that I, as a battered woman I was only one part of a great wounding. I had to accept my life as it was, accept things I could not change and heal myself and my children. I didn’t know how to do this but I had to try.
A few days later there was a Divine Intervention. From a neighbor I found out that my daughter and her siblings had been taken to a small town in Montana. Since my ex husband had illegally taken our daughter out of the state I had a chance to get her back. Two friends from the Family offered to drive me, and when we arrived we enlisted the help of the sheriff, a tall thin man. He looked like a character in an old Wild West movie.
He spoke in a rumbling voice, “Yup, I know this fellow. He’s a troublemaker. I’m not surprised that he done this. I'll call the courthouse. It’s just right up the street; they’ll give you papers that authorize you to get your girl."
When the sheriff drove me to my ex’s house two of his deputies stationed themselves outside in the back yard while he and I approached the front and knocked on the door which to opened to a scene I will never forget. I still see clearly in my mind’s eye all three children framed in the doorway, their arms around each other. My heart twisted. The desire to take them all with me was powerful but the choice was not legally mine to make. Justice was blind and wielded a two-edged sword.
“Dad isn’t here,” said my son. I read the fear in his eyes and knew that his father would hold him responsible for what was about to happen. My youngest daughter’s face lit up and she ran to me. The other children hung back, which, while not surprising was still heartrending. Because of their father’s influence and my forced absence I was the stranger and the enemy. The sheriff took me aside. “I can’t legally serve these papers because there is no adult in the home. But don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. My deputy here will escort you to the state line.”
I took my little girl’s hand, turned from the other children, and got into the vehicle. I didn’t dare look back for fear that I would collapse or turn into a pillar of salt. Not a minute has passed after that day without thoughts of my children. The days turned into weeks, the weeks into years and it wasn’t until they were adults with lives of their own that I saw my children again.
My firstborn was a little boy of six when I lost custody and eleven when we were separated the second time. I had missed so much of his life. Our first reunion was like the scene in The Color Purple when Celie is reunited with her children. To see him walking towards me as a young man was the fulfillment of my hopes and prayers. At long last I was able to embrace him again. He came to visit with his wife, a lovely woman with whom he now has two children. The thrill of my first two grandchildren is always with me. The delight of seeing them grow and change over the years is more than I had hoped for. My son has created a positive and creative reality for his family in spite of the dysfunction of his childhood. He and I don’t see each other very often but he calls me Mom, the sweetest sound in the world.
My oldest daughter was only a year and a half when I last held her, and seven when I left her standing in that doorway in Montana. Her early memories of me are dim, like a ghost. Our relationship was, and still is as fragile as a gossamer thread. She does not acknowledge me as her mother. This is the brutal truth of the matter; I was not there to mother her. My absence was not my choice, but it was still an absence. My daughter is not unkind; she is doing the best she can and has worked hard to heal and through the process has confronted her father who no longer holds power over her. She married a kind and loving man who loves and nurtures her, and I am thankful for any happiness and love that comes her way. I love my daughter as part of me and I will love her forever.
My 2nd born daughter, the kidnapped little girl that I brought back home has matured into a strong, compassionate woman and a loving daughter, wise beyond her years. She and I have forged strong bonds through difficult times and I am thankful she respects me as a person. It is a miracle that I was able to raise her, to have her near me, as imperfect as life has been. She, too, was traumatized by those that she trusted, spite of my belief that she would be safe within the Family. She and her husband have a stable marriage and are raising two sons. I have been blessed to have been at both my grandsons’ births and involved in their lives.
As for my ex husband I rarely give him a thought. For all his efforts to control his children by fear and keep them separate from me his children have as little as possible to do with him. I see him for what he is, an unhappy and insecure man with a sickness of the soul.
Healing is a painstaking process. I can’t change the fact that my children and I were torn apart nor can I restore their childhoods. I cannot ignore or erase the trauma of battering and sexual abuse for any of us and it is this that haunts me often in the solitary hours of the nights when I cannot sleep. I mourn for our shattered family but I must move forward, one day at a time.
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