Mary’s* Domestic Violence Story
I am here today because things are not always the way they appear. I was 19, I was at college in Vermont and that’s how I met him. Tall, blonde, charming and from an affluent, famous Harvard family, an alumni from my school– and he liked me. I was a girl who grew up without running water, on a family farm with my grandparents, and later experienced the worst imaginable ravages of a broken home with my parents, but he liked me. All I had was God and my dreams. And he had dreams too. We dreamt together of going to NYC and making it. He wanted to be a fashion designer and I wanted to help him. I wanted to write and be on television and he wanted to help me, or so I thought, until my dreams became a nightmare and I wound up in a relationship tainted by domestic violence.
We moved to NYC before I graduated. We had no money and lived off beans and rice for an entire year, there wasn’t a hint of violence. My grandparents were dead, he stuck beside me like a stand-in for my grandfather, seemingly, encouraging me along the way. Two years later we eloped — married, six months later the violence began first with a smack, later throwing me into closets, then strangulation and banging my head on the tile of our kitchen floor until I couldn’t see or I’d pass out from asphyxiation. I was put in choke holds and headlocks, kicked in the stomach, slung across rooms, verbally abused, demeaned and kept from my loved ones, but no one knew because I had made it!! I was celebrated!
Most people move to NYC with dreams that never come true, but almost instantly he was working for Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, and because of a hawk-eyed talent scout, I became a very successful model. We lived the life… the life everyone wanted. I had billboards and buses with my face plastered on them in NYC and around the world. I was on the covers and pages of magazines (Elle, Vogue, Seventeen, Essence, Oprah, you name it), the face of National Campaigns (Ford Cars, Target, Dove, Apple), and the face of other International Campaigns. I started working in television too… FOX, CBS, NBC, “How I Met Your Mother”, the soaps, I worked with Diane Sawyer, sang with Stevie Wonder and worked along side Whitney Houston. He and I became a team, later doing design work together, that landed us in Architectural Digest, The Boston Globe, on HSN and QVC. I managed to graduate college with my BA, majoring in Media and Cultural Studies. We moved to a glass house in the Hollywood Hills, right off Mulholland Drive, with a view straight to the Pacific Ocean. We had Porsches and BMWs, and brushed elbows with the stars. I had one of the best agents in town. Who could ask for more in a glass house, but you know what they say about glass houses.
Celebrated, but no one knew how I grieved at night — the beatings I endured. My dark secret, that he beat — always beat me and kept me up all night crying before every photo shoot or television appearance, or that he threatened to lock me in a room until I finished writing, or that I slept with a knife and hammer under the side of my bed and at my pillow, waiting for the night he would go into a rage and kill me. No one knew that some nights I prayed that God would take my life, and I had even tried by taking so many bottles of Aspirin that doctors were afraid I wouldn’t make it. I wanted out of my glass paradise so bad.
Not every women, or man, who is abused stays because they want to. I felt I had to. I was and still am a devout Christian. As I reached out to church leadership, many well-meaning parishioners told me the marriage was most important and I had to stay “till death do you part.” I didn’t want to disappoint God. So if death was the only way out, I thought so be it! But I needed to live, I had younger siblings and a family I loved even if I never got to see them and he told me they didn’t love me, and in fact no one really loved me, but him.
He isolated me in beauty. We were Ike and Tina. He picked my clothes, my colors chose my life, and had plans for my money even before I made it, and after he beat me. Though sporadic, not always a weekly or even monthly event and sometimes even when I was sleeping, I was so scared to death of him. I didn’t fight back and I’d flinch when he raised his hand, but He’d shower me with Prada, take me on lavish around the world vacations to make it up to me and then tell me how beautiful I was. They say the devil wears Prada, I’m not sure about that, but I can definitely say, the devil was in the details.
Then came the day I could no longer look in the mirror. We were staying in a posh $900 a night room at a resort in the Palm Desert. And he beat me, beat me so badly that I could not walk. He left me for dead, pulled me out of the shower vulnerable, wet, pulled out chunks of my hair, banged my head until I blacked out, and he left. When I came to, I cried to God. I said, “please help me, please, I can’t any longer”. I could not walk, but I managed to pull my self towards the bathroom where I planned to take my own life once and for all. As I cried to God for help to let me out of this awful marriage, my cell phone kept ringing and would not stop. So, loving my family, I thought there was something wrong with one of my siblings and I started pulling myself towards my phone — it was my best friend. She said something made her call me and not stop until I picked up. She told me how much she loved me and cared about me and at that moment I knew God did too. God heard me an d that was the answer I needed to know all other answers were misguided, that he had created me for a purpose and I had to live to fulfill that purpose. That meant I had to leave before he killed me.
I looked in the mirror during my stay in that hotel room and I didn’t like what I saw. Myself broken. By now, I’d started missing many of my auditions because of my secret shame. I couldn’t look in the mirror. I didn’t feel pretty anymore, or beautiful, no matter how many times he said it and shoved me out the door to go make money. What I saw was ugly. What I saw was shame.
What happened in the year to come, I can only call divine intervention. I can’t say I got myself out, doors were opened and I simply walked through them. My uncle who I had been very close to had heart failure. He’d been holding on for some time, but suddenly doctors gave him a week, two at most to live. To my unbelief, I was allowed to fly home to St. Mary’s County and be with him. I packed my Chihuahua and a very large suitcase just so happy to get away. My uncle lived 2 months! Not 2 weeks. And a series of other divine events during that time, even the passing of my dog, lead to me spending more and more time at home in Maryland. I had a taste of freedom!! He demanded I return or he was coming to get me. I was scared, but when you have been in bondage for years and you taste freedom, you aren’t willing to let it go.
At years end, he came after me, but I had become a different person, one that could look in the mirror. After a year of stalking, he emptied the bank account of all but $100 from over $100,000, took or broke everything I had including my BMW. I was once worth a half million dollars. I was penniless. But five years earlier, keeping a promise to my Grandfather, I had bought his old farm. I went there, I had no where else to go, to live, it was my home, but no one had lived there in over 20 years. It was beyond dilapidated, overgrown, a downright eyesore, a mess. The locals had been using it as a dumping site and the old antebellum house was an old antebellum shack. It wasn’t pretty, and the only place I had to stay was a barn that I had to make into something livable.
I looked at myself. I was a lot like my grandparent’s farm, … worn out, neglected of love, not much to look in the mirror on the inside. My insides were just like the old farms outsides. So, I got some goats to eat the brush, a couple of pigs and chickens… a chainsaw to chop down trees, borrowed a bobcat, and got to work! I set mobile homes ablaze and hauled scrap metal — living off the land and surviving on the scraps and produce I sold. As I worked on the farm, I worked on myself. I started therapy at a Crisis Intervention Center and started rebuilding my life from a place of beauty and love. They helped me see that I had no reason to be a shame, they supported me by providing me with others, such as myself, so that I would know, I was not alone. As I see the farm transform (though it has a long way to go), I see myself transform. It’s ramshackle on the outside, but I know it’s potential and I now know my own. I don’t need an Ike.
I can look in the mirror now. And I am proud of what I see. Things are not always what they seem. I am no longer celebrated, but I now celebrate myself. And as I run through my field after goats, or haul water to my chickens, I know I am loved. As I rebuild my farm, a survivor of domestic violence, I rebuild myself, I reclaim my life and the years I spent in bondage. I am almost done with my MBA, my backwoods farm is no longer littered with hundreds of tires, old stoves, and household items. I’ve cleared out a forest to create a home and I’m embarking on the dreams I’ve always held so dear. I am writing now, just like I always wanted. I have animals, trees, peace and my very own writer’s cabin, just like I always wanted. I am pitching to television, just like I always wanted. I go on auditions now, because I want to, not because I’m forced to. My plans are my own, no one is making them for me, plans to do television and publish books. No one is the boss of me. I am stronger now. Unbreakable. I’ve had a taste of freedom and now claim a God-given right that we all have, and that I will never let go of. As I reclaim my life, I don’t only reclaim it for myself, but the many who were not as fortunate as I was and have died at the hands of their abusers. I encourage you, I beg you this day, if you know someone who is living in domestic abuse, call them and tell them they are loved, and live your life to the fullest, and with purpose, for those who cannot.