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March 16, 2010

Difficult to escape abuse -- I know

Naomi Schalit

In January 2007, Richard Reynolds murdered his wife Rhonda in front of their two young children. He shot her after she got a restraining order against him and, children in tow, fled their home, intent on filing for divorce.

A few weeks ago, Reynolds was sentenced to 45 years in prison for his wife's murder. As he was being led out of the Somerset County Superior Court, Reynolds raised his shackled fists in defiance, shaped his hands into guns, pointed them at his late wife's family and said, "Ring a ding ding. South Boston." It was a bald reference to the mob, and the threat was clear: Reynolds would have his revenge.

The horror of that act was felt not just in the courtroom. Any woman who has been beaten by a man she loved -- husband, father, boyfriend -- felt it as well. I know -- because I am one of those women.

I have never written about my abuse before, but what Reynolds did in that courtroom has, finally, moved me to speak. For his actions demonstrated the awful reality that for many women and their families, there is no escaping your abuser.


When I was growing up in a suburban community during the 1960s, what happened in my home wasn't called "domestic violence." It wasn't called "spousal abuse," either.

It wasn't called anything, because it wasn't acknowledged. It didn't have a name, it didn't have a movement to stop it, it didn't have a legal structure to fight it or a network of support groups to help its victims.

So I went to sleep every night not knowing whether this would be the night my father killed my mother.

I memorized the telephone number of the town police, but why I called them, I couldn't really tell you. They'd come and while my mother, brother and I sat cowering in the kitchen, the policemen would stand outside the back door chatting with my father.

"Everything OK?" they'd ask my father.

Everything was fine, he would say, and they would leave. As long as "fine" meant a pregnant wife whose belly he had just struck multiple times, or "fine" meant a wife whose pierced earrings he'd just ripped out of her ears, or "fine" meant a daughter whose arms he had twisted so hard that welts would soon rise.

Welts that turned into bruises that would have to be hidden when she changed into gym clothes the next day at school.


And then it would be worse, a night filled with further beatings that would, always, be followed by my father's demands for apologies and kisses on the cheek. It was not bad enough that we got beaten; we had to kiss the man who beat us.

The police didn't want to hear about it, but they weren't the only ones.

When I was 14 and so desperate that I was contemplating suicide, I secretly went to talk to our family's rabbi. Secretly, because my mother would have gotten angry that I told anyone about what was happening. If it got back to my father that I had spoken to anyone, it would mean another beating.

So I sat for an hour in the rabbi's elegant, book-lined office, telling him that the war hero and charming international businessman who was my father actually beat the crap out of his family. Through my tears, I begged for his help. The rabbi's response? He showed me the door, saying "I can't interfere in family matters."

I am 51 years old now and by all accounts a happy, well-adjusted person. I married a fine man and with him raised two wonderful, well-loved children.

But for the first 25 years of my life, my father's violence was the dominant, shaping force in my existence. My earliest memories were of hurling my small body between my father and my mother, of hanging on my father's huge arms to try to stop him from hitting my mother.


My house was filled with blood and screams, my life defined by the secret that could not be told.

If my mother cut her hair, she was beaten. If I defied my father, he went after me. If my older brother refused to do Dad's bidding, he was hit, kicked and spat upon.

If we tried to get help, things just got worse. And anyway, where was my mother to go, with no job skills, no money of her own, and no real relationships with family or friends because my father had isolated her from all support?

My mother died when I was 17. And here's the awful truth about her death: I was relieved by it because it meant I wouldn't have to worry any more about my father hurting her.

That's how violence can warp your heart. Ultimately, though, her death offered me only temporary respite from my father's violence. He turned to abusing my little brother instead, until I took him to court and got custody of my brother. Finally: peace.


I am heartened now to see how much help is available to women and children who are domestic violence victims. I am pleased when I see the notices posted in lavatories, referring people to services that can help them and I applaud the work employers are doing to assist domestic violence victims among their staff.

I believe the programs doctors and health professionals have initiated to learn if their patients are abused -- a fact many keep hidden out of fear -- will lead to even more victims getting help.

And I commend the work of law enforcement officers who put their safety on the line when they do the very dangerous work of intervening in domestic disputes that have turned violent. It is among the riskiest and deadliest work that they do.

It is a huge and welcome change from how things were when I was a kid. But when I see someone like Richard Reynolds inflict his violent threat in a courtroom -- in the very heart of our justice system -- I know that the work our society is doing to help the victims of domestic violence is only half of the solution, if that.

That's because bringing the law to bear after violence has occurred is too late -- men who beat their wives, girlfriends and children don't give a damn about the legality of what they're doing. When their power or authority is threatened by an intimate partner, there's not a restraining order, a cop, a judge or a law that can come between them and their targets. Richard Reynolds' victim, the wife he murdered who had gotten a restraining order against him, is dreadful testimony to that.

I hate to say this, but while we can help domestic violence victims, we can help them only so much. It is a deadly dangerous thing to challenge the one who beats you.


So this is what I ask of those who are doing the saintly work of trying to help victims of domestic violence: Find a way to stop the violence before it starts. Keep up what you're doing, but don't let the work of helping victims replace the drive to figure out what creates abusers.

In the landmark federal legislation that targets domestic violence -- the Violence Against Women Act -- the vast majority of the almost $700 million in annual spending goes to helping victims or holding their victimizers accountable. Only a few prevention programs -- $5.3 million worth at last count -- have been funded through that legislation. We must expand our work on domestic violence to encompass getting to its roots. Otherwise, we will be spending money on victims forever.

This is, in a sense, the harder work -- how do you stop something that hasn't happened yet? But it is essential work -- and in a state where the number of domestic violence murders more than doubled in the last year, taking care of the victims is a task that we don't want to get much better at.

Naomi Schalit is the editor of the newspapers' Opinion pages.

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