“Domestic Violence is the world’s best kept secret.”
As regular listeners know, we do our best on this podcast to not look away from the pain that patriarchy creates. In the past this has meant discussing the hurtful ways patriarchy erases history, the ways it diminishes women, limits possibilities for men and boys, and—on several occasions—this has meant listening to difficult stories of domestic abuse. On today’s episode we’ll be joined by an Anonymous Contributor who trusts us with another of these difficult stories.
Why do we continue to return to this painful topic? It’s because this is a historical project which seeks to document patriarchy’s history and present-day reality accurately, and this violence, unfortunately, remains a very real part of that reality. We share these stories because we have to be willing to acknowledge our pain before we can heal from it.
Note: this segment contains descriptions of domestic and sexual violence, among other potentially distressing content. I encourage everyone listening to please take care of yourselves as you know best.
by an Anonymous Contributor
If you were six months pregnant with your second child, naked and locked in a hotel bathroom, and you had just been raped by your own husband, what would you do? Would you call the police? Would you worry about how to get your first child, just two years old, out of there? Let me tell you what I did. It might surprise you. I’ll start from the beginning of the story.
I’m not able to share my name with you today, but I use she/her pronouns. I grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church. Recently I learned the term “Orthodox Mormons,” and that’s who my family were. My parents read the scriptures to my siblings and me in the mornings and had “Family Home Evening” every Monday night, which was a family meeting with a religious theme, usually followed by ice cream. My dad taught a youth Sunday School class and was my friends’ favorite teacher. He later became the “Ward Mission Leader”, the person who coordinates the local church’s efforts to find people interested in joining the church. We were that family.
My dad was a large, strong man with wavy, dark hair. His stories captivated an entire room. He loved fixing cars and motorcycles. He drove to the house of a boy whose dad didn’t go to church, and brought him to our youth activities. He filmed us on Christmas morning, showing the camera what Santa had brought us. He was childlike too. Sometimes I would find him sitting in front of the computer watching train videos on YouTube. I loved him very much but I was also afraid of him. My father controlled the family with fear and authority as the patriarch of our home. When he and my mother were first married, he pinned her to the ground with his knees on her arms and put his hands around her neck just to show her, I could kill you. He left her on the side of the road in the middle of the desert when she was nine months pregnant. He would go from either ignoring her for days or weeks to yelling at her but then act completely normal if someone came over to the house for a visit. He would use the belt on us kids when we got in trouble, up until we could grab it away from him. My dad had told us that his mother used the belt on him until he could grab it from her. As adults, my siblings found out that his mother, our grandmother, was beaten by her father too. My dad would come up behind me when I was washing the dishes and kiss my neck or bite my ear. He would have me sit on his lap while he was wearing his robe when I was a teenager. This is called covert sexual abuse. There was no personal space and he viewed me as his property. I would lock my door as a child out of fear he would come into my room and sexually abuse me. He lived a secret life with a girlfriend for most of my life. He used drugs and alcohol. My mom was a kind, smart woman, who I watched shrink into a shell of who she was over the course of my adolescence.
My parents’ group of friends were upper middle-class, even wealthy, and were also Mormon. The men made every decision and told the women what to do. The men liked it when, as a pre-teen, I massaged their shoulders, while their wives giggled and said I was so cute. I liked the attention because I knew my dad liked it. All I wanted was for him to be proud of me and love me.
Growing up, I took part in all the rituals prescribed by my church. One of these rituals was a baptism ordinance in the Mormon temple, which is more sacred than a regular church building. Before youth can participate, they first have to meet with the bishop of the congregation, which is like a pastor. In our church, however, bishops are untrained volunteer members of the congregation who only serve part-time. Only men can serve as bishops, because only men can be ordained to the priesthood. When I was 15 years old, the bishop called me into his office, alone. Our youth group was scheduled to make a Saturday trip to the temple to perform these baptisms, which we considered holy but fairly routine. In a matter-of-fact interview, the bishop asked me if I had committed any sins that I needed to repent of before I could enter the temple that Saturday. I’m sure he had this exact exchange with every other teenager in my congregation leading up to this youth activity.
I wasn’t allowed to date until I was 16 so at the time I had a secret boyfriend. I’d been told that when I died, the bishop would be sitting next to God when I was judged, so I couldn’t hide anything from him. So I told the bishop that a boy and I had touched each other’s private parts over our clothes. The bishop was very concerned and asked detailed follow-up questions like, “Did his fingers go inside of you?” I was horrified by the question. The bishop told me I couldn’t take the sacrament for a month, which meant that I couldn’t partake of the body and blood of Christ during Sunday service, where my parents and everyone else would notice that I wasn’t participating like I normally did.
Next, the bishop told me to read a book called The Miracle of Forgiveness, which was written by a former president of our church. I wanted to be right with God, and I was raised to believe the bishop had absolute authority over me, so I followed his instructions and read the book. That book changed my view of myself and sexuality forever. The book’s message was that sexual purity, which the author calls “your virtue,” is worth more than your life, and you should be willing to die before you lose any part of your virtue, and that “premarital sex is the sin next to murder.” I had barely had any sexual experiences at all, but after this experience with the bishop and reading The Miracle of Forgiveness I felt worthless–like damaged goods. Throughout my teens, if I had any of the normal physical contact that teenagers do, I felt unlovable and unclean. I was taught that it would have been better for me to die than to be impure.
My parents’ marriage was toxic to be around. My mother was constantly gaslit and controlled by my father. One morning as a thirteen year old I walked in to see my dad screaming over my mother, who was crying into her arms on the kitchen counter. They didn’t even notice I was there, too high on their emotions to be distracted. I quietly got my six-year old brother ready for the day and walked him to school. My parents seemed to hate each other but continued to be fine living in the hostile silence day and night. My dad’s absences and rage grew more over the years and I knew I had to get out of the house. I remember thinking to myself at 14, if I don’t get out of here, I will end up on drugs or pregnant. I was in so much emotional pain I knew I would turn to self harming behaviors. I graduated early from high school to escape the house and go to a church-owned college. I chose a major based on the life advice my dad always repeated to me–that I should choose a field of study that would attract a man to marry me. It was deeply ingrained in me that if a woman was too powerful–like if she was in academia, or finance–a man would not be interested in her.
…if I had any of the normal physical contact that teenagers do, I felt unlovable and unclean. I was taught that it would have been better for me to die than to be impure.
So I chose to study interior design, a feminine career that was more likely to attract a man than a more employable skill set, like business would be. I had no expectations that I could ever have a career, or even a serious job to earn money for myself. At age 17, I believed the only purpose of going to college was to find someone who wanted to marry me. The church-college community emphasized that once a woman was older than 22 she was an “old maid,” a sad spinster. I felt completely, 100% incapable of taking care of myself financially in the future.
I met my future ex-husband when I was 19 and he was 25. I’ll call him John. He started talking about getting married about three months after we started dating. To me, it felt way too fast, but I was afraid if I tried to delay I would lose my only chance to get married. By then, I had started to dream about living in New York City and getting a Masters degree. But I was so afraid of becoming an unmarried spinster that I believed I was lucky that he was interested in marrying me at all.
Something happened when I first met John that should have alerted me that he had a dangerous temper. His roommate had gotten a new moped so the three of us all jumped on it to go for a ride. A police officer immediately pulled us over. None of us had helmets on, there were three of us on the scooter–clearly, we were in the wrong. As soon as the driver ran home to get his license, John started screaming and yelling at the police officer. He was totally out of line and out of control. I was so confused and scared–the police officer was just giving us a ticket. I remember knowing that this was a red flag. But then I immediately talked myself out of it, thinking “John must have had a really hard week. Maybe he’s exhausted. Everybody has bad days.” But it’s almost like I knew I was talking myself out of it. Deep down I knew this wasn’t a normal way for a person to respond to getting a well-deserved traffic ticket. The truth is, he acted exactly like my father would have. It was so confusing, because John really came across as such a quiet, gentle person, and I wanted to believe that a man could be gentle. I put that experience in a box and buried it deep down inside me.
In order to get married in my religion’s most holy place, the temple, which is the expectation for every respectable member, I had to pass another interview with a bishop. This was a different bishop, in a different city, and he didn’t know me at all. I had to submit to a long list of questions so he could determine if I was “worthy” to enter the temple. I was 20 years old. The bishop asked me, “Is there anything you haven’t told your church leaders that you need to repent of?”
I said, “Well, I masturbated when I was 18,” and I felt so embarrassed that I had to talk about this with some old guy I didn’t even know. The bishop’s follow-up question was “Did you orgasm?” I answered that I didn’t really know if I orgasmed. I actually didn’t know. I didn’t know anything about sex. The bishop replied, “You’re lying.” He became angry with me and wouldn’t let me end the conversation until I “told the truth”. I started to doubt myself and wonder, was I lying? Did I know if I had had an orgasm the first time I ever masturbated? No, I actually didn’t know. He was so angry with me. He wasn’t going to give the permission I needed to enter the temple and get married in the acceptable Mormon way. It was humiliating. I had to go to his superior, the Stake President, and beg for mercy, because if I didn’t get these two men’s permission that meant no temple marriage, aka family and community shame forever. This church leader was kinder to me. His voice and demeanor was soft. He told me that God loved me and gave me the approval I needed. My parents were thrilled when we got married, even though I had just turned 20. They loved John, especially my mom. He was tall, dark and handsome, a charming college athlete. He’d even served a church service mission for two years.
Early on, John and I had some arguments about gender roles. At a family dinner, John’s father said it was a proven fact that boys are smarter than girls–and he said this in front of his own granddaughter. At church, while talking to John and his friend who had also just married a 19 year old, his father said, way to go boys, marry them young so you can train them right, in front of both me and the other wife. I challenged both these assertions to John later in private, and John defended his father. He became so overwhelmed by this disagreement that he got down on his knees, balled up his fists, and said he couldn’t tolerate the discomfort he felt. He threatened to hurt himself if I didn’t stop talking about it. Looking back, I see this was the first time he manipulated my behavior with threats. The first threat he made was that he would hurt himself, and it scared me into greater submission.
After a year, John was pushing me to start having kids. I didn’t feel ready; I thought it was too soon. But I didn’t have a good explanation for why I wanted to wait to have kids—I mean, I didn’t have lofty career goals or work I wanted to do. I was good at interior design, but I wasn’t passionately interested in the industry. And I wanted to make him happy, so I agreed. Three weeks after I graduated from college with a degree in interior design, my first child was born, the first true love of my life.
We had just moved to a new city and I didn’t know anyone. A few sleepless nights after our child was born, I was breastfeeding and I could tell the baby needed a new diaper. I woke John up to ask for help. He became enraged and started screaming at me. I was terrified. It was as if having a newborn in the house triggered everything he had ever been mad about in his entire life. Have you heard the saying that when you give birth to your first child you also give birth to your childhood pain? It really felt like I was watching him wake up into his trauma. I still don’t know what happened to him in his childhood, but I feel compassion for him, I know he was harmed in some way. All I knew then, is that he had a lot of rage and it was directed at me. It was like there was a monster in the house, but just at night, and he always told me he didn’t remember it in the morning. That’s when the domestic abuse in my marriage truly started, and it never really stopped.
This situation was more complicated because John had been using porn frequently for many years without my knowledge, which is forbidden in Mormonism. He had a meeting with the bishop about it and made a plan to stop in order to be “right with God.” The physical abuse started almost immediately after he stopped viewing porn. I have always thought of this stage as him being similar to a “dry drunk”. He had stopped using porn as a coping mechanism to regulate his emotions, so now, he was angry during the day too and became much more volatile. When we met with the bishop together about his porn use, the bishop’s advice was to keep praying and reading the scriptures together.
The physical abuse started with small things and grew quickly. In a matter of six months, I was the frog who found herself in boiling water. At first, he trapped me in the bathroom with his body–he wouldn’t let me leave. He threw a plastic chair across the family room. He threw a glass vase of flowers across the dining room and it shattered against the wall. He yelled, “I hope you burn in hell, you f****** B****” during a car ride with our child. He would grab my arm to stop me from getting away and shoved me up against the wall with his hands around my throat. He threw me onto the bed. He punched a hole in the bedroom wall. One time I locked him out of the house because he scared me, and he kicked the door in and broke the locks. After each of these, he would apologize, feel ashamed and turn back into the husband I recognized, the man I fell in love with, and we would quickly settle back into our normal life, raising and enjoying our one year old.
One evening, when our first child was 15 months and already asleep for the night, John and I had the tiniest argument about whose turn it was to do the dishes. He got that enraged look in his eye. Anyone who has ever seen it knows what it looks like. As soon as I saw that look, I knew it was not safe to stay in the same space with him. I turned around to leave the kitchen and go outside, and then suddenly felt myself flying down the back steps. My husband had kicked me from behind, so hard that my body flew through our small kitchen and laundry room and I landed on the ground outside. I locked myself in the car. I called my Mom and told her what happened, and I remember she asked, “Has he ever done anything like that before?” And I said, “Well no, he’s never kicked me before.” My mom didn’t make any huge deal about it. I’m still very disappointed about that conversation, but in her defense, she too had made a similar phone call as a young mother to her parents and had received the “this is how marriage goes, work it out” spiel. And without saying those exact words, that’s what she told me too. When I got off the phone with her I felt so helpless, trapped, and scared. I felt there were no options for me to do or change anything. I thought about going inside to get my child, who was still breastfeeding, and taking him to stay at an acquaintance’s house around the corner, but that felt dangerous. I considered calling the police, but I thought, “If John goes to jail, how will I pay the rent and take care of my child?” I ran through all these scenarios in my mind, but none of them seemed possible to me. We were living paycheck to paycheck and when you are poor, your options get much smaller. So I waited until I knew John was asleep and went back in the house.
I didn’t tell anyone other than my mom. It didn’t occur to me to ask my church community for help. If I told someone, I would have to admit that my husband was abusing me, and I couldn’t admit that yet. A few days after John kicked me, I took our child and went to my parents’ house. I told him it was just a normal visit. I didn’t want to trigger his anger–I was too afraid of what he would do. I think I hoped someone would see what was happening to me and they would help.
While I was at my parents’ house, John called to convince me that everything was OK, that he was meeting with the bishop, and that everything was alright now–he was doing so much better.
If you can believe it, I went back to John. Our marriage was uncomfortable and out of balance but better. I thought, “Maybe having another baby will bring our family closer together.” I got pregnant again and things were calmer for a while. Then, when I was six months pregnant, John raped me.
I want to say something now about rape, before I go on any further, especially in the context of marriage and all other relationships. The legal definition of the word ‘rape’ is “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (the United States Department of Justice) Rape is the same between married people or people in a romantic relationship as it would be between people on their first date or a stranger in a park at night.
It’s illegal to rape one’s spouse—or, in other words, it’s illegal to force one’s spouse into a sex act without consent–in every state in the U.S. But this is a recent legal development. Nebraska was the first state to make rape between spouses absolutely illegal, in 1975. The very first trial in the U.S. to convict someone who raped his spouse while they were married was in 1978, just a few years before I was born. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that rape between spouses was illegal in all 50 states. Even in my generation, many people still believe the archaic idea that it can’t be rape if the perpetrator and the victim are married. I assure you, John raped me while we were married.
I was six months pregnant with my second child, and I had been very sick with extended nausea from pregnancy. We were on a vacation with John’s family, staying in a joint hotel room, and his parents and siblings were staying in the rooms adjacent to ours. I was nauseated and miserable, so I got in the shower to see if that would make me feel any better, but it didn’t. I was getting out of the shower and wrapping the towel around me when John started initiating sex with me. I said, “No, I feel really sick.” I moved past him and barely made it into the bed. I was so sick I couldn’t even put on pajamas. I lay on my side with the towel around me, put the covers over me and just wanted to sleep off the sickness. I was trying to wish myself to sleep. John got into bed behind me. For a moment, I thought he was coming to comfort me. Suddenly, I realized he was naked and instantly he pushed himself inside me. I was completely in shock. Tears started streaming down my face. He was behind me and couldn’t see my face at all. I was frozen. I didn’t push him away, or scream “Stop!” It’s so complicated and it’s so simple. My body couldn’t process how the person I was supposed to trust most in the world was suddenly violating me. Not only was my husband abusing me again, in a place where I had no support, while I was weak with nausea of pregnancy, but I had a six-month-old baby inside me. There were so many parts of me activated to just protect myself from further harm.
Rape is the same between married people or people in a romantic relationship as it would be between people on their first date or a stranger in a park at night.
This was not a situation in which my husband was being a lazy lover and doing little to seduce me when I wasn’t exactly “in the mood.” This was an experience in which my husband wanted to have sex, I said no, and then within minutes he put his penis inside me. I crawled off the bed back into the bathroom and as I locked myself inside. I knew what I just experienced was rape. I sat on the floor and I went through all the possible scenarios. What would happen if I called the police? Who would come and get me? What would happen to my 2-year old child in the hotel room? I didn’t have any family in town. I had another big problem: I didn’t have unfettered access to my own money. The only credit card I had was a joint account with my husband.
By the time I had run through all the possible actions in my head, it was an hour later, my phone was in the main living space with everyone and I hadn’t come to any conclusions that seemed plausible to me, so I just walked out of the bathroom and went to sleep. We never talked about it again. Once more, I had learned to bury these traumatic experiences, and tried to forget it happened. It was too painful to acknowledge.
Some of you might be thinking—this story is so extreme, John must be an outlier. I wish that were true. John once said to me that once we got married, he believed that he owned my body. How could a church-going man living in a liberal state believe that my body was his property, to do whatever he wanted to do with it?
I gave birth to my second child three months after the hotel room rape and had a very traumatic birth experience. I could barely walk and was dependent on John to carry me up and down the stairs in our two story apartment. About a week after this second birth, he talked to me again in that rage-filled way, and instantly I thought, “I can’t believe I just had another baby and I’m back in this same situation. I’m going to be abused again and now I have two children to take care of and protect.” Family members came to help and support me during that early postpartum period, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell them about the danger. John’s temper got worse. John and I took our new baby and toddler on a road trip to stay a few days with some friends of his, a husband and wife. During the drive, we got into an argument and John yelled at me, “If you don’t stop talking, I’m going to crash the car into the median.” We were going 80 miles per hour on the highway. My life and the lives of my babies were clearly in danger, and that must have done something to me.
When we got to our destination, I found some alone time with the woman we were visiting and dispassionately told her that John had kicked me once during an argument. I wasn’t even close to her, but I just had to tell someone. She was so shocked. I kind of minimized the event, but she said over and over it was not OK for John to physically abuse me. The next day she sat down with me again and said “this is really serious.” And I could hear the concern and panic in her voice. She said, “You need to talk to your church leader and tell him what happened.” What was different about this woman? How did she know how to tell me John’s behavior was abuse? The answer: She had worked at a battered women’s shelter in college. She knew something about domestic violence. Not many people know anything about it. The reason I am OK today is because of that woman, who was knowledgeable and brave enough to talk straight with me and follow up with me. I believe that that one interaction saved my life.
I went home and told the Stake President – which is a level up from a bishop – that John kicked me. Both John and I went to his office but had separate interviews. This church leader, a somber but tender-hearted cowboy type, said, “That is absolutely wrong, your husband should never hit anyone.” He took John’s temple recommend away, which meant that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter the temple and was a symbol that he had committed a serious offense. I said, “Should I go to my parents? Do you think that’s the right thing to do? I feel like that’s giving up on my marriage.” The Stake President said, “That could be a good thing to do, possibly.” The only direct advice he gave me was to listen to uplifting music. He never followed up with me, and then he left that leadership position soon after.
I finally wanted to tell my brothers and sisters. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor with the phone in my hand, and having to make the decision–am I going to blow up my life or am I going to live in denial? I can’t tell my family and then go back to living in the same mental space as before. That was such a scary moment, and there was no turning back. My family took a yearly trip to a lake but since I had just given birth a few weeks earlier, I didn’t go. There was no service at the lake so I couldn’t reach anyone until Sunday night. As soon as I reached my brother I was so worried about how it would affect them, I was reassuring HIM that everything was gonna be okay. He was shocked and immediately called my sister who booked a flight, met my husband at the airport on his way back from a work trip and told him he was not welcome to come back to the house and that what he was doing to me was unacceptable. This had to have been so uncomfortable for her since John was friendly with all of my siblings. My sister stayed for a week and fed me and took care of the kids and then called the friend of my husband’s who had first helped me and she flew in for the next week and got me onto the airplane back to my parents house. Are you wondering why in the world I went back to the home I had years earlier escaped from? The truth is, I didn’t want to go, my family had to convince me. But where else would I go? I knew my mom could help with the kids since she didn’t work. At this point, my entire family lacked awareness of the complex domestic violence that we had grown up in.
I left John and stayed with my parents that summer. The first thing my dad did was pull me into my childhood bedroom and tell me to think about the part I played in my marriage conflict. I was in the most vulnerable state I had ever been in, and the first thing my father did was ask me to take responsibility for being abused. I actually listened to him at first, I remember looking up at him and agreeing, still trying to be a good daughter, wanting a father’s advice. It still hurts me to this day that he did that.
I was depressed and it was hard to take care of my two small children who were now three months and three years old. I read tons of books to educate myself and slept a lot. My mom and sister-in-law took good care of the three of us. I needed space away from John to really understand what was happening, the dynamics, the manipulation, the enmeshment. Once I was away from him, I was able to see things very clearly and I asked him to move out of our apartment for good. But even though we separated, he continued physically and verbally intimidating and abusing me, and often tried to get into my locked bedroom at night when he came over to “tuck the kids into bed.” Once, when we argued, John held our only months-old baby out in front of him, threatening to drop the baby if I didn’t stop talking.
The first thing I did after separating from John was make a plan to earn my own money. I started a business, which became very successful. But even after we separated I found it difficult to decide to divorce because of all the religious and cultural beliefs I held. I didn’t want to destroy an “eternal family.” I didn’t want to ruin my kids’ lives. As soon as I came back from my parents house, I made an appointment with the new Stake President to get support and guidance. The new Stake President said nothing except “I have experienced abuse in my family.” It was very ambiguous, and sometimes I wonder if he hadn’t yet processed his own domestic violence history. He certainly wasn’t ready to hear about domestic violence happening among his church members. He offered me nothing. He didn’t say, “I’m here to help you. Call the police, report it. Are your kids safe? Do you feel like you’re in danger?” He treated it like it was normal. Were couples coming in and saying, “My husband hits me,” and he just thinks that’s part of marriage? There was no shock in him, he seemed emotionless. He did not take it seriously and he never followed up. I realized that leaders in my church were not going to help me and that they prioritized the church membership of my husband and our family unit staying together, over the safety of me and my children.
I took my kids on a vacation to do something fun with them, visit friends, and clear my head. John agreed I could take the kids and I asked him not to come. Once I was there, John showed up on the hotel doorstep, unannounced, with nowhere to stay, so I agreed he could sleep on the couch. In the middle of the night, I woke up and John was on me in the bed with his fingers inside me. I shouted and kicked him off. He mumbled “sorry” and went back to the couch. Again, I ran through all the possible actions I could take. This time I actually knew people where I was vacationing, but it was the middle of the night and the boys were asleep on the floor next to me. I imagined the police coming and the boys awake and scared, watching their dad be taken away. The next day I asked to meet with a local Stake President in the city, who was the father of a friend, and told him that John had been physically abusive. This Stake President told me a man should never lay hands on a woman, and that I deserved a man who treated me better. It was at this moment that I finally knew it was OK to end my “eternal marriage.” I was still so dependent on the permission of male ecclesiastical authority… but at least I finally heard what I needed to hear. l immediately filed for divorce.
Through all this, I never told anyone that John had raped me. A few years after the divorce, I watched the film Half the Sky. There is a story in the film about teen girls raped by church authorities. The girls know they would be disowned by their families and communities if they told their truth, but they told anyway. When I saw that story, it was as if my subconscious brought my history of sexual assault forward, and I felt suicidal. I was shaking and nauseated all the time. I knew that I was raped, and I knew that because I was keeping it a secret my body was revolting. I knew I had to do something about it.
My first child turned 8, and in our church this is when children are baptized. The baptism ritual itself is usually performed by the child’s father, but only if he is considered worthy by his church leader, the bishop, who is the moral authority of each congregation. John wanted to baptize our child, but I couldn’t agree to this because he had never been held accountable for raping me. I requested a meeting with the bishop, and this particular bishop I considered a close friend. I said I did not agree that John should baptize our child because he had committed crimes for which he had not been held accountable, and that I was thinking of reporting those crimes to the police–including domestic violence and rape.
because I was keeping it a secret my body was revolting. I knew I had to do something
The bishop replied, “You don’t want to ruin John’s life, do you?” It was a classic line that people say to victims. Sobbing, I finally told this church leader my experience of both times John raped me, with John sitting next to me. Then the bishop asked John for his side of the story. Referring to the time John raped me when I was sick and pregnant, John said, “She was being really difficult that weekend, and I was just trying to be close to her.” Notice that John described the event to the bishop by detailing his own perception and his desires. John didn’t even bother to claim that I gave my consent to that sexual act. The bishop didn’t ask him, either. The bishop accepted that nothing illegal or unethical had happened, and the bishop judged that John had not committed rape. The bishop sent us out the door, gave John permission to baptize our son and didn’t follow up with me.
In total, I met and reported John’s abuse to eight men in leadership positions in my church, eight different times. Not a single one of them suggested I file a police report, asked if I needed a safe place to stay, or recommended any domestic violence resources.
This is why I have so much rage around this topic. These men were my friends. Their wives were my friends. Their daughters loved me as their Sunday school teacher. These weren’t the men in my church whom I didn’t like – the ones that had misogynist written across their foreheads. These men actually presented themselves as feminists. My whole life I’d spent around pretty bad men. Finally, I had moved to a progressive part of the country and I was around men who seemed to really respect women and treat them equally, but in their responses to my abuse I felt just as ignored as I would have been back home.
I decided to report the rape to my local police department. I felt it was the one thing I could do to say that I rejected what happened to me–that what happened to me was wrong. It was the one step or action I could take to have the truth be officially documented, written down somewhere. If I didn’t do it, I felt that by staying silent I was part of the problem. And I couldn’t live with being part of the problem anymore. Telling the police was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life, besides leaving John. It was so overwhelming, but I didn’t want anyone with me. I thought I had to do it on my own. I was so ashamed of what happened to me, I didn’t want another person I knew to hear the story.
I walked to the police station and the receptionist flatly told me that to report a sexual assault I had to pick up an old-fashioned corded phone on the wall and tell them everything. I looked over and in the middle of a waiting room full of strangers was a bright red landline phone. An officer saw me fiddling with the phone and invited me to a private office. A couple of officers discussed, in front of me, which one of them would take my statement. One officer said, “I’m a woman, I can take it.” It said online to ask for an advocate at the police station, so I did. They said they would try to accommodate my request, but that I would have to wait until one was available because the advocate covered several stations. I waited for more than an hour, and then they told me they still didn’t know when the advocate could come. I said, “I just want to get this over with.”
The officer told me her normal job was to write traffic tickets to high school students on bikes for not stopping at the stop sign near their school. She was writing haphazardly on a piece of printer paper. Apparently there was no protocol for taking my statement, or she wasn’t trained to do it. She asked why I had come, and I said “To report a rape. I was raped by my ex-husband while were married.” As I gave my statement, she asked, “So you were married at the time?” about 7 times. She said many times that I didn’t have a case. She kept saying that she and her own husband wouldn’t necessarily ask each other verbally when they had sex. She asked me a bunch of times what time it was when it happened. I said I could not remember what time it was–that it was 5 years ago. I could see her write in the corner of her paper “Has no idea,” and underline it 3 times. She said, “So you were trying to go to sleep, and you don’t know how long it was between getting out of the shower and when he got in the bed, so it could have been two sort of separate events. You said no after the shower, but you didn’t say no in the bed.” Unfortunately, I had watched too many episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and was expecting an Olivia Benson-type officer to tell me that marital rape is real, that it wasn’t my fault and that what happened to me was a crime.
The whole experience of reporting sexual assault at this police station was “a dumpster fire.” They told me that since the rape events hadn’t occurred in my home county–I was in hotel rooms, travelling, both times–that those county police departments would have to follow up. I also reported all of the other physical abuse-kicking me so hard I flew through a room, kicking the door in, grabbing my arm and my throat, pushing me onto the bed, throwing furniture, punching a hole in the wall. I told them I wanted to press charges but they said they would forward it to the District Attorney’s office. No one ever followed up with me.
As direct results of this abuse by John, I was diagnosed with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, had suicidal ideation, and have chronic digestive and chronic fatigue syndromes. I spent over $150,000, my entire savings, on legal bills and therapy for me and my children. My work performance has been deeply affected by all of my physical symptoms as well as the time needed to go to court hearings, attorney meetings and therapy appointments.
…they said they would forward it to the District Attorney’s office. No one ever followed up with me.
So that’s what happened after I was raped by my husband. I didn’t get legal justice, I didn’t get reparations, and I didn’t get pastoral care from my church–but I finally told my truth.
Sadly, Domestic Violence is the world’s best kept secret. It affects every socioeconomic group, race and country. It’s a horrific truth to confront, but domestic violence is happening all around us, all the time, acted out in secret and protected by the belief that patriarchy comes from God or that it is necessary for preserving the social order. Breaking down patriarchy is the only way to end domestic violence.
As I finish typing this, I’m sitting at the kitchen table next to my mom. She’s in town visiting to help with all the extra things that pile up from being a single mom. We’re in my apartment that I pay for on my own, in a city I’m completely in love with. I have a business that I feel passionate about and I have a freedom and independence I never knew was possible. Once I left John there was a domino effect in my family: my mom and sister both got divorced the same year I did. Everyone in my family, with the exception of my father, continues to heal from our generational trauma, working towards a safer and healthier place for our children to grow. I have made peace with my father and the limitations he has. Although he is not safe to have a relationship with currently, I try to imagine him as the boy, man and father he would have been without his severe childhood abuse. I have learned that I can have compassion for him as well as my ex-husband while at the same time holding strong boundaries to protect myself from them.
I want my story to be of some help to all of you. You can find a way out of an abusive relationship. You can be that person who walks beside an abuse survivor. The patriarchal system has built a thousand barriers in your path to try to maintain the status quo. It is possible to resist that patriarchal system, but you have to educate yourself–and that’s what this podcast is all about. Thank you for being here as a witness to my story.
Are any thoughts or feelings coming up right now? You might be asking yourself, “is that event that happened to me in the past actually rape? That event I’ve tried to forget? That time when I felt violated? It can’t be. I’ve never attached that scary word to it before.” If you were forced to participate in sex and you did not agree to it, that event meets the legal definition of rape. It’s a crime, even if you couldn’t bring yourself to call it rape. It’s a felony.
Or maybe you’re thinking, “Did I commit rape? Did I actually do something wrong but I didn’t understand that I was committing a crime? Did I assume someone wanted or agreed to have sex with me and I went ahead, but that person didn’t or couldn’t clearly provide consent?” It’s a scary thought, isn’t it? It’s so scary our minds resist even allowing the thought to surface to our consciousness. Did you ever rape someone, when you assumed that it was your right to have sex with that person just because you wanted to, or because you were married, and you never realized it was rape? These are good questions you’re asking. If you did anything sexual with another person without their explicit, free, sober consent—that event meets the legal definition of rape.
I’m emphasizing this point because it is very human to resist acknowledging that we have experienced or perpetrated rape. There is established research that the human brain will go to extreme lengths to avoid calling a sexual assault experience what it actually, legally is. My story may make you question your own experiences, and that’s hard to do. If you want to break down the patriarchy, think about it and be as honest with yourself as possible.
I want to share just two facts available in the United States National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. First, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner violence, with impacts that include injury, fearfulness, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation.
Second, 1 in 10 women have been raped by an intimate partner. In that survey, data was unavailable for genderqueer people or men, and they deserve to be counted. Whatever church, country, community, or family you are in–don’t assume these numbers don’t apply to your group. These crimes are going to be just as common among the people you know.
According to the United Nations, across the world, about 4 women a day are killed by an intimate partner. 1 girl or woman is killed every 11 minutes by someone in her family. 55% of all murders of women are by an intimate partner or family member . In the U.S. alone, the cost of intimate partner violence is 3.1 trillion dollars from medical costs, loss of productivity from victims and perpetrators, criminal justice fees and property loss or damage. For each woman, the lifetime economic cost of this abuse is $103,767.
At some point in your life you will have an experience in which the thought crosses your mind: is the person in front of me being abused and in need of help? In that moment, try to remember these dos and don’ts.
This is my best advice, from my heart.
- Don’t be afraid you will insult the person by voicing your concern. The person being abused is already ashamed of what is happening to her. You might touch that shame, no matter how careful you are, and there might be a reaction to your concern. But you can never go wrong with the message, “The way you are being mistreated is not normal and it is not acceptable. You deserve better. I will help you. Somehow we’ll think of a way.”
- Believe the person who is disclosing abuse! Even my best friend could not imagine John doing any of the things I told her. Abusers are often very good at keeping their abusive behavior hidden behind closed doors.
- Don’t blame the victim. Say this: “I believe you.” “This isn’t your fault.” “You don’t deserve this.”
- Learn who the victim looks to as their moral or spiritual authority and do what you can to secure their support.
- If the victim is financially dependent on their abuser, reassure them that they can become financially independent. Help them believe it. It is possible.
- Remember that abuse often escalates. In many cases, abuse begins with psychological manipulation and progresses to verbal abuse to physical and sexual abuse. If a partner demonstrates any abusive behavior, even once, the abuse is likely to progress if there is not an effective intervention. An effective intervention requires legitimate professionals who specialize in domestic abuse. If someone discloses even one disturbing event in their relationship, take it very seriously.
- Follow up, follow up, follow up!
- Support the victim however you can. One friend offered me a house key and said day or night I was welcome to come to her house. She also helped me have a safety plan with a folder of important documents like copies of social security cards and passports. One friend would bring food and clean my house. Another friend watched my kids while I went to court hearings and lawyer meetings.
- Respect their choices. Abuse erodes and sometimes destroys one’s sense of self, so they need to find a way to trust themselves again by making their own decisions.
- Let them know that shelters offer more resources than just a place to sleep. I went to one that had a free legal expert and former cops to help with security issues. The idea of going to a shelter was so overwhelming to me, so if you can, do as much research for them as possible.
- Recommend they open their own checking account and PO box, leave money, a set of keys, copies of important documents and extra clothes/medicine at a trusted friend’s house.
- Suggest that they bring an advocate with them whenever they report abuse. Whether it is the police, a church leader or to tell family, if needed.
If you serve in a pastoral role:
- You are responsible for educating yourself about all forms of abuse and domestic violence, especially child and spousal abuse. Educate yourself about all the relevant laws in your area and make relationships with the local groups/non-profits who assist with domestic violence. Nothing you do will have a greater impact on those you serve than how you respond to cases of abuse.
- You are responsible for using your position of authority to prevent abuse. Church leaders: Your first priority must always be the safety of the victims. Not the “saving” of the sinner’s soul or keeping the family together.
- You are responsible to report cases of abuse to the proper legal authorities.
- Do not recommend couples’ therapy in cases of abuse. Abuse is not a “couples issue”. It is an abuser’s issue.
the reason I am OK today is because of that woman
who was knowledgeable and brave
Listen to the Episode
Share your Comments with us below!