Sunday, January 25, 2015

Behind the facade of domestic violence

I responded to the inquiry of a work-from-home mom. I liked her immediately even though we couldn't be much more different. Tonya was educated and intelligent, but by the way she asked the interview questions, I could tell she lacked self-esteem.  "I'm not sure if this is the right way to do it," she would start, as if apologizing in advance for the way she chose to mother Jonah.

I met Jonah and his dad, Bill, the following evening. The family lived in a small subdivision, neatly nestled in a busy but affluent section of town. Their home could have been a picture from a decorator magazine. I followed Tonya to the living room where I found Jonah playing on the floor. I took my place on the carpet with him, engaging him by putting toys on my head, while his parents sat on separate leather sofas.

Tonya had decided the day before that she wanted to hire me. Something about us simply clicked. I made her feel comfortable and there was no question in her mind that I would be an excellent care taker of her little boy. I had, after all, already raised 4 boys of my own. Jonah also seemed to take to me quickly too as he laughed and giggled at my antics with his toys. It wasn't long before he was crawling up on my lap.

Bill had an air of confidence about him. Arrogance even. His questions about my background as a mother/teacher/nurse were fairly innocuous, but his tone was not that of one adult speaking to another. He did not seem to notice that I was at least 10 years his senior. Bill asked multiple choice questions of me, limiting my answers to the ones he selected, and attempting to interject humor by creating ludicrous scenarios. And then there was the way he spoke to and about his wife. At first he told her "this is your venture. You were the one that wanted to hire her" and then to me say "Did Tonya talk to you about how we....?"

At the end of the interview he stood and looked down at me saying, "You will be well paid to keep Jonah and Tonya company."

Tonya, Jonah and I developed a rapport and routine over the months that followed. I had been warned that working for a family while mom works from home can be more difficult, but I didn't find it to be hard at all. Jonah loved me and as much as he wanted his momma when he saw her, I could easily distract him and he would get over it immediately.

I very rarely saw Bill. On one occasion he came home early and stormed through the kitchen without speaking to me or Jonah. Tonya came down from her office and I told her Bill was in the bedroom. I could see the emotions of fear, shock, and confusion sweep her face at once. She told me since it was 20 minutes until the end of my shift and she was already done with work, I could just go. She tried to smile but I could see the stress.

I couldn't help to notice the family's habits as well. I noticed the massively stocked bar in the kitchen. I noticed the pair of empty wine glasses in the sink several days a week. What really stuck out was the morning a full wine glass was left on the bar. I noticed the pillow and blanket on the couch several times. And I noticed how often Tonya went away for the weekend.

I sat for them for a date night once. I got to the house just as Jonah was eating his dinner. Bill was in the kitchen with him, sipping on a Woodford Reserve. Bill pointed toward the bedroom and told me Tonya was putting on her make-up if I wanted to go talk to her. I politely declined and sat down to feed Jonah. Bill and I began to chit chat. He offered me a drink. I thanked him but said no, I don't drink when I am caring for children. Still he told me I was welcome to imbibe on anything in his collection at the bar. He then told me about a male friend of his who was staying at the house for the weekend but not joining them for dinner. "He may come home before we do, but he's only a buck fifty, so you could easily lay him out if you need to." I said nothing, but wondered, why in the world would he say that to me???

After a few moments he asked me "how long is it allowed for adults to stay out with a sitter at home?" He was not asking me how long I could stay, and I knew that. He wanted leverage for some reason. Tonya came out before I could answer, and after I complimented her Bill repeated the question. Tonya's smile vanished immediately as she turned to look at him, obviously disgusted. "I have no one at home who needs me tonight. You all stay out as long as you like."  Bill qualified my comment by another question, "So, you are saying it's ok if we go to a bar for a drink after dinner?"

"That's up to you all." I replied. "Jonah and I will be fine."

"Well, you see, Tonya has a boob issue..."

"Bill!" Tonya chided, as she was now getting her coat from the closet.

I made a comment to Jonah about playing in the bathtub and told them to have fun.  Bill poured a glass of wine and carried it to the car, and the two left, Bill driving.

Several months later Tonya told me that she had to leave the house for the weekend because Bill was hosting a bachelor party there. She made several jokes about it the week before it occurred. I showed up for work the Tuesday after the party to find the refrigerator filled, and I mean filled, with beer. She joked that when she got home on Sunday the house was clean and every candle she owned was lit. We laughed and didn't speak about it anymore.

On Friday that week I arrived and Tonya was not her chipper self. Our usual morning conversation was short, so I simply took Jonah from her and began working, and she set off toward her office. I really thought nothing of it until I turned and saw her still standing in the kitchen, lip quivering.

"Are you ok?" I asked. She shook her head, began sobbing, and ran off to the bedroom. I knew. I knew what was happening. She reemerged in a few minutes, apologized to me, and hugged and kissed Jonah on the cheek telling him "you don't need to see your momma like that."

Jonah went down for a nap very quickly after I got there. I was sitting on the couch reading a book when Tonya apologized to me again. But this time she couldn't control it. Her emotions came flooding out. And so did the truth.

At first she told me about the insults he hurls at her. She shared with me texts he sent where he called her a stupid bitch. She told me about the times his anger builds at home and he yells at both her and Jonah. She told me about the time they went to dinner with friends and she told him she needed to go home to pump soon. He yelled at her and caused a scene in the restaurant with their friends. I listened to the stories of the arguments and fighting, and all the different ways she has tried to make it better. She told me about the threats he made, the times he told her that he was going to physically hurt her.

And then I asked "Has he ever touched you?" This made her cry more. She admitted to me that he had held her by the throat against the wall, but she insisted on defending him by clarifying that he had not hit her nor left a mark.

"Tonya, are you familiar with the cycle of violence?" To my surprise, she wasn't. I pulled this graphic up on my phone and began talking about how violence escalates and how victims tend to respond. She denied that was happening and told me "There is no honeymoon phase. He never does anything for me."

As the conversation continued I picked up on certain behaviors that Tonya had not noticed. After one particular fight Bill had made a favorite meal of hers. After another one he seemed like the man she fell in love with years ago. I asked her how she reacted to those times, and then redirected her to the cycle of violence graphic. "He is doing that. I am doing that," she spoke softly as the weight of the reality set in.

And then she admitted the reason she was so upset today, the crux of the problem; she didn't want to be alone and intimate with him over the weekend. She was still angry over things that happened, in her house, over the prior weekend.

"Tonya, I'm going to ask you a tough question. Do not be embarrassed, I am not judging. I've seen and heard it all.  Has Bill ever made you do things sexually that you didn't want to do?" Again Tonya flooded the tears. She shared no details, but made it very clear that in response to his anger, in response to being called prudish, uptight, and selfish, in her state of fear;  she had engaged in sexual activities that made her uncomfortable. She did things to make him happy, to fix the situation.

I shared with Tonya another document I have on my phone, a handout from my local court on domestic violence. I went through the domestic violence statute, what it is, what her rights are, and who to call for help. Tonya then described for me the trap in which she is caught. Tonya's role as mother means she must protect Jonah. If Tonya leaves Bill, he will inevitably end up with Jonah for visitation unless she can prove he is unfit. Tonya does not believe that she has enough evidence, or enough witnesses, to provide for Jonah's safety if she leaves.

"So Tonya, if you need to prove he is guilty of DV, you need to be willing to do something very hard. Are you prepared to call the police the next time he threatens you or puts his hand on you?

It's been two weeks since Tonya confided in me. The week after her confession to me she was awkward and distant. I said nothing. I am just the nanny, and I am ok with that. On the first day of the second week I again saw the red flags. His tone was short and his words demeaning as he spoke to her before going to work. Her demeanor was timid- I knew the tension was once again building. On my arrival the second day, as she was giving me the run-down of the schedule, she rubbed her hip and asked me if I could do something not "work related;" she needed me to help her take a picture. "You have a bruise, don't you." I said.

But this time she did not cry. Today she is angry. I took the picture on my phone, and she has already set up a new, secret email account. She has plans to call the attorney and DV hotline. She is fortunate in that she is the one in control of the money. But she is still afraid.  "This is just a small bruise," she said, again minimizing the abuse. "It's not like he hit me in the face." Again I reminded her that no one, absolutely no one, has the right to leave bruises. Size is not the issue.

I planned to have Tonya meet me for lunch the following Monday. I wanted to introduce her to a friend of mine, someone who has successfully escaped the bonds of a narcissistic, abusive husband. But that would not happen. On Sunday night Bill strangled Tonya and caused her to lose consciousness.  Rather than lunch, I accompanied Tonya to the court house as she sought protection. Bill is now facing charges, including assault.

There are millions of Bills and Tonyas in this world. They are hiding in plain sight in your subdivisions and work places. They are in poverty and in multi-million dollar estates. Some statistics indicate that as many as 25% of women will experience DV. It is a complicated web, violence unlike any other, because at its root there are feelings of love, attraction, and commitment. There is no easy answer. But just like any kind of abuse the key is breaking the silence. We must say NO MORE!

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