Breaking the Silence
The following is a sermon presented by a dear friend of ours, Carol Emmerling, who is a lay worship associate at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. The content is disturbing on its own, and even more so because it is so very universal. If you are suffering from domestic abuse, break the silence. Get help while you still can. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher
While brokenness is all around us, and much of it is quite apparent, there’s one form still hidden in darkness—a darkness I have known.
News stories break, from time to time, reminding us that this netherworld exists. In November 1987, Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum were arrested for the murder of their young daughter, Lisa. We sat glued to our televisions during that trial and eventually learned that both Lisa, and Hedda, had been violently abused by Mr. Steinberg. In June 1994, the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson sparked the sensational trial of her ex-husband, O.J., and again we sat glued to our television sets.
But beyond these, and other headlines that hit the news, lie countless untold stories—hidden even from the families and friends of those who suffer. This is the paradox of domestic violence. A feeling of shame, along with other factors, causes victims to stay silent. They guard the secret along with their batterer.
Eager to understand more about this problem, I volunteered for the Domestic Violence Crisis Response Team in Bergen County, New Jersey, in 2003. In this role I would go to the police station immediately after they’d arrested a batterer, to meet privately with the victim and offer comfort and useful information. I would listen carefully as they told their stories. Often they’d never told them before. Listening was the most important thing I could do. While the victims were mostly female, I did meet once with a male victim. Statistics support this disproportion. 85% of domestic violence is against women.
This past June, I took a course at Union Theological Seminary … to learn how we at All Souls can play a role in breaking the silence and preventing domestic violence. I found it interesting that almost all our fellow students had a personal tale to tell about domestic violence. This isn’t unusual.
Domestic violence is all around us. It cuts across all socioeconomic lines. Income, education, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation don’t matter. Many of you may have stories of your own.
When I met my husband in the 1970’s, I was 26. He was 41 and in the final stages of divorce from his first wife. He was successful and sophisticated and for our first date he took me to Lutèce, then the best restaurant in New York City. We talked mostly about travel and flying. He had his private pilot’s license and I’d started taking lessons a few months earlier. He was charming, and fun, and I felt comfortable with him.
We made a date to go flying the following week, and I invited him to come for breakfast first. When he arrived, I got my first glimpse of tension. He kept pacing about, just wanted to get going.
Within six months, we moved across the Hudson to Fort Lee. I had no idea how much this move would cut me off from family and friends in the city. He wanted to be closer to his new airplane at Teterboro Airport, and over the years our plane took us far and wide. He was naturally bold and adventurous, and it dazzled me.
So life was exciting. We loved to travel and within a year we made our first trip to Europe. He loved good food and we’d go to the best restaurants, often inviting friends to join us. Usually he was charming with waiters, engaging them in conversation, curious to know more about their lives—he was naturally inquisitive and loved talking with people—but if service was lax, if they forgot to bring water, or were slow with the wine, they might feel his wrath. He could turn on a dime.
Taxi drivers were targets, too. Once we were stopped at a red light behind a cabbie who dropped a bag of trash out his window. In a rage, my husband got out of our car, picked up the bag, and jammed it back in the startled man’s window.
In fact, driving was a way of doing battle for him. He used his car as a weapon and it terrified me and many others. When I took up the habit of wearing my seat belt, he was clearly irritated—perhaps because I was taking a step to protect and calm myself. Batterers like to see that their victims are fearful.
I use the term batterer to encompass psychological, as well as physical, abuse. Many batterers learn they can do just as much, or even more, damage with words. Verbal abuse is their main tool.
In restaurants I, too, felt his wrath. Some of the most humiliating scenes I ever endured took place with startled waiters and fellow diners looking on nervously as I fought back tears and suffered through his cruel tirades.
But life on the outside was mostly fun. The most brutal abuse took place at home, where there were no witnesses. Here, I became more and more accustomed to his violent and intimidating behavior, and I fell into a pattern of denial.
I learned to tread carefully, trying to gauge his moods. I used to dread hearing his key in the lock. Even when things were going well, I was always steeling myself for the next attack. But they came out of nowhere. I was always caught off-guard.
At the same time, I had no privacy whatsoever. He felt free to disturb me no matter what I was doing. At home, he would follow me from room to room, often staring at me for long periods of time. When he was at work he would telephone, often.
I remember only a few times when I had the courage to stand up to him. Normally, if I showed any strength, he put me down. If I put myself down, that was fine. As my shame and humiliation grew, I became more and more anxious, less and less capable of doing even the simplest of things. My isolation increased as I cut myself off from family and friends, and my emotional health deteriorated.
In her book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, Judith Herman says:
Traumatized people feel utterly abandoned, utterly alone, cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life. Thereafter, a sense of alienation, of disconnection, pervades every relationship, from the most intimate familial bonds to the most abstract affiliations of community and religion. When trust is lost, traumatized people feel that they belong more to the dead than to the living.
There were brutal incidents that added fierce punctuation to his everyday assaults, and helped to keep me under his thumb. For this is the essence of domestic violence—coercive control. It’s all about power and domination over someone else.
Early on, he did something that sent me to the payphone in the basement of our building. I called a friend. Neither she nor I can remember what he had done, but we remember that conversation as if it were today. She begged me to get into a taxi and come to her immediately. I made excuses. My purse was upstairs. She said she’d meet me with money. I said I was barefoot. She said it didn’t matter. But the truth is, I knew if I left then, I could never go back. I wouldn’t be safe. And I did not yet have the courage to leave him. Battered people have a keen sense of what is safe for them. Statistics show that victims are in the most danger when leaving their batterer.
He hit me a few times over the years—mostly a single smack across the face. But on a December evening in 1980 I went to visit my sister who was fighting for her life in New York Hospital. He’d been very irritated with all the attention I was giving her and was not at all happy I was going. When I returned home late, I tiptoed in quietly hoping he’d be asleep. But he was awake and in a rage, so I dove for my bathroom and locked the door. I was shocked when he kicked it in, breaking the mirror and scattering hardware. But I was terrified when he shoved me up against the wall, wrapped his hands around my neck, and dug his thumbs into my throat. I was sure I’d be dead in a minute or two. I don’t know what stopped him.
The next morning he was all apologies as he gently checked my neck for bruises. I accepted this as remorse. It never occurred to me he was afraid he’d left evidence. I once asked a domestic violence expert if he’d been capable of killing me, and she simply said, “yes”. I was stunned she could be so certain, so she went on to explain, “because it had escalated from verbal to physical”. These things don’t get better. They just get worse. In the United States, on average, more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends.
On a gentle August evening in 1984, he’d been haranguing me on and off for hours. His ugly words weren’t so hard to take. What was chilling was the delivery—the way he’d thrust his body at me, jabbing with arms and hands; and of course the shock of each new attack, just when I thought he was finished.
At long last he felt he’d solved his problem. “I know what I’ll do,” he said calmly, “I’ll buy a gun and shoot you.” A few minutes later I stood alone on our balcony, gazing down twenty-seven stories to the rocks of the Palisades below. As lights twinkled on the George Washington Bridge, and a soft summer breeze stirred, I thought about how easy it would be to climb over that railing. It’s not known how many people take their own lives in such cases when they feel there’s no hope, no help, no escape. Data collection is difficult because of the secrecy and silence that surround both domestic violence and suicide.
People stay in abusive relationships for many reasons. I think two main things held me captive. First, I truly believed I was the cause of his anger. If I could just clean up the apartment and learn to be on time, his violent outbursts would stop. Second, I truly believed I’d never make it on my own. As I became more frightened of staying than of leaving, I still had doubts. Was I doing the right thing? Would I make it on my own?
Eventually, he threatened to cut me out of his will. This set me free. A vision of myself, as an elderly widow, penniless and homeless, scared me more than anything else. Now I knew I couldn’t depend on him in any way whatsoever. It was time to fend for myself. I left him in January 1988 and set out to heal myself.
Family and friends helped immensely, as well as Ruth, my steadfast and patient psychotherapist, but the best healing aid I found was a book. In The Verbally Abusive Relationship, Patricia Evans breaks down verbal abuse into fifteen categories ranging from “Withholding” the most subtle, through things like “Trivializing,” “Undermining,” and “Forgetting,” all the way up to “Abusive Anger,” the one that precedes physical violence.
One of the most frustrating and damaging things about my marriage had been the utter incomprehensibility of it. There was no way to understand what was happening. The ground shifted. The rules changed. In sorting through a perplexing tangle of memories this book was a beacon of sanity. As I learned about two kinds of power: Power Over, which kills the spirit, and Personal Power, which nourishes the spirit, I began to grasp the underpinnings of coercive control.
If I’ve struck a chord with you, if you’re a victim of domestic violence, if you’ve been a victim in the past, if you’ve witnessed it, and of course, if you fear you’re abusing someone (for there is anguish behind cruelty), come in and talk. Our Lay Pastoral Associates are here for you. Our ministers are here for you. I know this takes courage. Confronting the shame, the pain and confusion is hard. But one of the main tools of oppression is keeping people silent, so breaking the silence is crucial. It is crucial to talk, and crucial to feel heard.
I thought my ordeal was over when I left him. It seemed to end again when our divorce was final, and again when I discovered the book on verbal abuse. It’s continued to end here at All Souls—this refuge of solace and support where we all can find healing. And it’s ended even more over the past few months, as I’ve worked on this sermon, reflecting on what it would mean and how it would feel to break my silence. Breaking the silence isn’t easy, but it is essential.
Carol Emmerling, Lay Worship Associate
Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City
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