We’re going to take a break here for a minute from all of the soaking, sozoing, and shabar-ing we’ve been doing lately, so grab yourself a towel and sit tight.
A week ago today, the March issue of Good Housekeeping hit the newsstands. I, along with five other women, were interviewed by a journalist for a story the magazine wanted to do on domestic violence. I’ve never been interviewed for a national magazine before, and I have to say it’s been an interesting experience. The whole process took about six months from beginning to end.
I wrote a lot, not just about my own situation, but about domestic violence in general, and emotional abuse in particular, which is what the term gaslighting refers to. It’s taken from the 1944 movie Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Other terms for this kind of abuse are mind games and crazy-making. They’re tactics used by an abuser that are intended to make you question your own reality, or worse, make others doubt your reality. It’s a ploy designed to isolate you, and cut off any means of support or help. It deflects attention away from the behavior of the abuser and onto the person they’re abusing. The behavior itself isn’t addressed; instead, the mental stability of the person being abused becomes the focus (yes, gaslighting occurs in counseling, and frequently results in collusion) and this is why you do not ever counsel both spouses together when there is domestic violence going on. It’s a dangerous (and in my case, almost deadly) mistake, and one that Christian counselors in particular frequently make in their zeal to “save the marriage”. But untrained and uninformed people can do a lot of harm, even when they mean well. Domestic violence is not a matter of anger management. Abusers manage their anger very well, and can stop on a dime and turn on the charm when they want to. Most churches, at least the ones I know of, never have a domestic violence agency come in and train their leaders. This is why most of the people in the pews don’t bother reaching out to church leaders for help. It isn’t there.
Anyway, I thought I had made myself pretty clear, both in what I had written and in the phone interviews, but I think that in the end the editors of the magazine tried to make my story fit their story. I think that what they wanted was a part on spiritual abuse, and pulled bits and pieces from what I had written and said about my own experience in order to do so. The problem is that while my husband was emotionally, physically and verbally abusive, the spiritual abuse, if any, came from the church, not him. (I personally don’t consider my disappointment about not being able to go to Bible college to be abuse at all). They completely missed the fear and danger of what my daughters and I went through.
The part about what the elder’s wife said is true, unfortunately, but that is not the point at which I “quit reaching out and started praying I’d find a way out.” The truth is, I never did actually reach out to begin with; help found me, first from my primary care doctor, and then from a pastor at a different church than the one we were attending. The part about my pastoral counselor isn’t true at all; she never said that, or even implied it. All I said in the phone interview was that I made the mistake (huge mistake) of having my husband go along with me to my counseling in the first place, and that he controlled the whole thing from the beginning. But my counselor was never his counselor, and we didn’t go to her for marriage counseling. Looking back, I can see that maybe I didn’t make that clear. I thought I did, but I was so upset at the time that it’s possible that I didn’t. I had to look over all of the notes from the police reports and court appearances in order to send the facts of the charges and orders of protection for the magazine, and in reading the court reports I can see that the counselor honestly thought we were there for marriage counseling, when, in fact, the counseling was for me. I knew I needed a witness and an advocate, and help with the grief and anger I was trying to deal with on my own. I knew that whatever I was facing was going to be too heavy – too difficult – for me to handle by myself. Friends and family can love and support you, and they did, but they can be too emotionally involved sometimes to be of much practical help. I just needed the facts regarding adultery, from him, because those were the facts I believed I needed in order to decide what to do about divorce. I didn’t know that it was okay to leave an abusive situation if you were a Christian; I was never taught that. He went, because he wanted someone to validate him and protect his reputation; and to make sure that my counselor didn’t believe me.
I also wanted to make it clear to the editors that I, like most women, didn’t stay in the marriage because of “low self-esteem”. The average woman will leave an abusive situation an average of seven times. The church leaders (at the time) had a “three-times-and-you’re-out” policy, meaning that they would help and support you no more than three times, and if your situation didn’t improve, then they were done with you, and you were on your own. There was absolutely no knowledge or awareness of domestic violence, or how to help people in crisis. The most dangerous times for any woman in a domestic violence situation are when she is pregnant, or during the first six months after leaving. Another huge reason woman stay, and something I stressed to the writer, is the issue of finances. When women leave an abusive situation, they, along with their children, quite often fall immediately below poverty level. If all you have ever been is a stay-at-home mom, and in my case, a home-schooling mom, and all you have is one car, which he is going to get to take with him; and no viable means of getting employment and health insurance, you’re going to do your best to make that marriage work. Losing your house is not a small thing, especially if you have children; in our case, it has resulted in years of moving and instability that have only made things worse, not better. I’ve never had the chance to get better, because I’m always trying to keep a roof over our head and the lights on. I can’t remember a day that hasn’t been clouded by grief and worry for over fifteen years. There are no ‘happy’ days, although there are happy moments, albeit few and far between.
Having said all of that, years of physical and verbal/emotional abuse do take a toll, and yes, your self-esteem suffers. When all you hear, day after day, is “No one will ever love you – no man in his right mind will ever want you – even your counselor is going to see what you are and reject you” (and she did, in the end) it hurts. You don’t feel attractive, you don’t feel pretty, you don’t feel wanted. You feel pathetic. Rejection and fear are the feelings you learn to live with on a daily basis. The physical abuse is simply too embarrassing and too difficult to write about, to be honest. The whole thing is humiliating.
The one quote in the article that is exactly what I said is that “divorce doesn’t end abuse, it merely changes it. It may not be happening in your living room any more, but it happens on the phone, in the driveway, at school events and soccer games.” The church still shuns you, although they let you know in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that they are “praying for you and hoping you come back to the Lord.” I didn’t fall away from the Lord however, or ever lose my faith in God, although I’ve lost it in people. On the contrary this experience has deepened my faith in God. The person who actually helped, in the end, wasn’t my own pastor but was Pastor John Carter, from Abundant Life Christian Center in Syracuse, N.Y. He is the only person I actually ever saw confront my husband about the violence in our home (on the midway at the State Fair, of all places) and I will forever be grateful for that, and for his help and counsel. I went to Abundant Life after the divorce because I felt safe there. The counselor helped in that it she provided a safe place to go and try to deal with all of it. Sometimes we need to pay someone to just sit still and hear us. To be both a presence and a witness to our grief, and sometimes, but not always, a friend.
Anyway, I thought that everything I said in the interview was all very clear. The problem, I believe, lies with the magazine editors, not the writer of the article. She seemed to understand what I was saying, and as a counselor myself, I know how difficult it can be to try to write a verbatim account of everything that was said in an interview, especially if you don’t know them personally. It’s easy to make a mistake, or to get a wrong impression, no matter how hard you try to be accurate. When the ‘fact-checker’ editor from the magazine called me, I did tell her that she did not have the facts quite right, and tried to correct her, but she seemed to already have the story written as far as the magazine was concerned. I told her that the quote from my counselor was incorrect, and asked that it not be included, but for some reason, they wrote it into the article anyway.
I am horrified to see that they quoted her as having said something she did not ever say, or even imply, and to see it when I got my issue last week was extremely upsetting. I can’t fix it, no matter how sorry I am, and have had a difficult week worrying about it all of it. Any relief I had from finally being able to tell my story has been ruined by the error, however unintentional it may have been. After six long months of waiting for this story to come out, I don’t think I’ve done anything but cry since it did. Believe me when I say that I haven’t slept in a week. I am just so disappointed.
What I learned from this whole experience is that the story that results from an interview is not necessarily going to be written at all the way it was said. I will never read an article again without thinking I wonder if that’s how it really happened? I learned that from now on I will write my own articles, and tell my own story. I may not get it all right, but at least I will know why, and where the problem lies.