[Editor's note: Names and other details have been changed, except for people quoted in an official capacity.]
In Ronald's Playplace at McDonald's on a Wednesday evening, "Joel" bounces up to his mother, "Sarai McAllister," who's sitting at one of the tables and asks if he can buy ice-cream sundaes for himself and his new friend, a kid in a karate uniform. "Sure," says Sarai, handing her son a few dollars and some change. "Come back if you need more money."
Sarai is about the same height as her 11-year-old son. She's so soft-spoken that, at times, I have to lean in to hear her over the din of kids clambering through the playroom's plastic tunnels. She seems shy but smiles often, and she's so eager to share her story that her words practically spill out of her. It's hard to imagine how Sarai managed to withstand seven years of abuse.
Sarai met "Mike" at work, and they were married about a year later. "He was nice, and his family was nice," she reports. "The abuse didn't start until after we were married, and it wasn't so serious in the beginning; it wasn't hateful. He would elbow me in bed and not remember it. He said he did it in his sleep."
The first time Mike hit her, says Sarai, was after she'd had a miscarriage, early on in the marriage. He was working out of town, and when she went to meet him at the airport, he was upset by the way she looked. "He dragged me through the airport. The porters tried to stop him and asked if I needed help. I said I did, but Mike said no, that I was just sick. They wouldn't come near."
Mike took her back to his hotel room and slapped her. "He blamed me for it. He said I had made him afraid because of the miscarriage. After that, it escalated."
Sarai's story is just one among millions. It's estimated that a woman is abused every nine seconds in the United States. According to a 2001 U.S. Justice Department study, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends each day in America. In 1999, women accounted for 85 percent of domestic-violence victims nationwide, according to the report. And in 2000, a Violence Policy Center study of intimate-partner homicides ranked North Carolina fourth in the nation for the number of women murdered by their partners.
In Asheville, police answered 2,557 domestic-disturbance calls during the last fiscal year. Of those, 259 qualified as domestic-violence calls (including child abuse as well as abuse of a partner or spouse). During the same period, the Buncombe County courts received 950 applications for domestic-violence protective orders: 397 were awarded in full or in part. (Twenty were denied by judges, and 226 cases were involuntarily dismissed, meaning that one or both parties involved didn't show up for the court date. There were also 162 voluntarily dismissed cases, in which the plaintiff withdrew the complaint.)
But statistics don't tell the whole story, warns Executive Director Valerie Collins of Helpmate, a Buncombe County-based nonprofit that provides counseling, court advocacy and temporary emergency shelter to men and women in abusive relationships. Over the last fiscal year, Helpmate provided shelter for 131 women and 92 children in the county and saw 428 people in support groups.
Although her agency sees all types of victims of abuse, Collins says most clients are indigent women. "Women [ages] 20 to 40 may not have built up the social and economic contacts or the job skills they need to get out," she explains. "It's also a stressful time ... when the couple is building an economic base or raising kids. These things cannot cause abuse, but they can contribute to it and make things explode."
Domestic abuse isn't limited to physical assault, continues Collins. "We see mental and psychological abuse that goes along with the physical abuse. Abusers may say, 'You're crazy; I didn't hit you that hard.' There's a lot of minimizing going on, to the point where the woman herself will start to minimize it." Abusers also use sex and money to wield power over their partners, notes Collins.
Not human anymore
Mike came in and handed her a grenade. He pulled out the pin and left the room while a terrified Sarai kept her hand clasped around the grenade, holding down the lever.
All of these elements are present in Sarai's story. A few years into the marriage, Mike started getting in fights and stealing things at work, she says, and he lost his job. "He was still spending money, and I was going to college," she reports. "I was trying to save money for bills and food." That's when she started hiding money around the house. "If he didn't want me to go somewhere, he would disable the car or say the keys were gone." Later, Mike took the checkbook and wouldn't let Sarai use it.
"I thought I could do better. All of a sudden, my cooking wasn't good anymore, when before it was the best he ever tasted. I couldn't do the wash, I couldn't drive. I had a truck before we were married, and when I couldn't fit behind the wheel because I was pregnant with my daughter, he drove it -- and he drove it into the ground. Anything to do with me, all of my identity was gone. It disappeared when I married him."
Rape was also part of her husband's repertoire, says Sarai. Mike would often pin her by her wrists or her hair and rape her on the couch or the bed, she says. "It would go on for hours. He would tell me he wanted to get other men to rape me so he could watch. I would have bleeding inside and scars, but how could I prove that? He was my husband."
Prior to 1993, North Carolina law held that a man couldn't be charged with raping his wife unless the two were living "separate and apart." Sandy Rice, executive director of the Asheville-based nonprofit Our Voice (which works with victims of rape and other sexual abuse), says she and other counselors across the state worked to get the law overturned. "A lot of times, one of the aspects of domestic violence is sexual violence," Rice explains. "It's another way the abuser controls the victim." Our Voice also partners with Helpmate to counsel victims of domestic violence who were raped or sexually abused in their relationships.
In Sarai's case, the physical abuse happened regularly, but the emotional and psychological attacks came daily. "In a situation like that, you're not human anymore; you're not real when you're being put down and degraded so much," she says.
One day, as Sarai was sitting on the couch and her kids were playing on the living-room floor, Mike came in and handed her a grenade, she says. He pulled out the pin and left the room while a terrified Sarai kept her hand clasped around the grenade, holding down the lever. Eventually, he walked back in and replaced the pin. "The kids thought it was a joke. I still don't know if it was a dud or not.
"I try to put so much of this behind me," says Sarai. "It's almost as if I'm talking about someone else."
She can sit on a stool in Ronald's Playplace and talk about events like these -- even the rape -- without tears, without flinching. But remembering a day when she ran out of food brings tears to her eyes. "I didn't have any food or diapers. I was breast-feeding my son then, so I wasn't worried about formula, but my daughter needed to eat and my son needed diapers," Sarai recalls.
"The WIC checks and food stamps had just come in the mail that day and Mike wasn't home, so I decided to risk it. The car wasn't working, so I put my kids in the double stroller I had and walked along the highway to the grocery store. I packed the groceries in as tightly as I could into the stroller and carried my son. My daughter had just learned how to walk, so I let her walk."
Later, Mike came home and walked in the kitchen. "He opened the fridge, then all of the cabinets. He saw that I had been out. After he hit me a couple of times, he walked out into the garage and stayed there for about half an hour. Then he came back in and sat at the kitchen table and asked, 'What's for dinner?' It was like nothing had happened. It just showed what type of person he was."
Leaving is often the most difficult step for victims to take. "A lot of people say, 'Why don't you just leave him?'" says Collins. "It's just not that easy. The average victim of domestic violence [returns to] his or her abuser seven times before they leave for good."
Sarai hung on through seven years of abuse. There were plenty of reasons for staying, she maintains; paramount among them was the fear of losing her children. Mike had friends in local law enforcement, she says, and she was afraid he would use that to his advantage. Sarai says she never filed charges because "I didn't know I could. I didn't know what the system entailed."
She also feared for her life. "He would keep trying to get me to go off in the woods with him. He would threaten me by telling me about all the bodies of people who had been killed on the Parkway and would say I would never be found."
But Sarai doesn't deny that there were other reasons, too. "I loved him: He was my husband and the father of my kids." She recalls a time when Mike picked her up and threw her against the kitchen counter, then dragged Joel by his arm up the stairs to his room and locked the door. Sarai raced up the stairs and kicked the door open. "He was belting Joel and stomping on all the toys. I got Joel away, but he was screaming, 'I want my daddy!' We were all kind of the same way -- like whipped puppies. We all wanted to make it work."
The beginning of healing
Like so many people in comparable situations, though, Sarai didn't consider herself a victim of domestic violence. "I didn't see myself as abused," she says now. "I thought abuse was getting hit in the face, and he never did that. He would hit me where it couldn't be seen, like on the side of my head. Or he would tie my hands behind my back when I was asleep. If I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, he would push on my bladder until I passed out from the pain. I had to learn what abuse was."
During the last year she and Mike lived together, Sarai reports, the abuse grew even worse. Mike, she says, was drinking heavily and also using drugs. "He was ordering stuff from catalogs of outlawed weapons. One time, he came at me with two bayonets and put them in my face and held them close to my throat. He didn't do anything; he just told me what could be done with these things, what they could do to a person."
Things escalated until, one weekend toward the end of the summer, everything seemed to explode. Mike was out most of the time during the day, says Sarai, but he would come home at night, intoxicated, and get violent. The family was remodeling their home, and in the evenings, Sarai would barricade herself and her children at one end of the house. "I didn't know what he would do at night. It was like living with a wild animal," she recalls. "He wanted me to come to him, then he would yell that he would shoot me. Then he would tell me he loved me. On Thursday evening, I went in to take him some aspirin he asked for. I was afraid to go in his room, so I stood in the doorway. He grabbed me and hit me.
"Until that last year, I really thought we could work it out, if he would just quit the drugs and the drinking," Sarai recalls. "But he meant business that last time he hit me; I wasn't meant to get up. As I was going down, I saw this satisfied look on his face. I fell against the wall and ended up on the floor. I was trying to reach the phone. He went into the bathroom and I saw him brush his teeth and wash his face. He was getting ready to go out."
At the urging of her parents, Sarai called the police; she says two officers came. But as she was showing them the bruises on her wrists, a sheriff's deputy named "Tim" -- a friend of her husband's -- suddenly appeared.
"Tim pushed my wrists out of the way with his flashlight. Then he turned my head to the side and said, 'There's no bruises there.' I hadn't even told the officers where I had been hit."
The police decided to let both of them back in the house -- Sarai first, she says. She barricaded herself and her children in again, and they made it through the weekend. On Monday morning, says Sarai, she awoke to find police officers at her door. They arrested her for hitting her husband. Sarai says Mike had gone so far as to inflict a wound on his face and tell police she'd hit him.
Sarai spent the night in jail; the next night, she went to a shelter run by a nonprofit in the outlying county where they lived. (For several months, she'd been secretly attending a support group run by the same agency.) Sarai stayed at the shelter for a couple of months, forming friendships with other women in similar situations.
"That was the beginning of healing," she says. "I had to learn to be a person all over again. I saw that it was happening to other people, and I wasn't crazy. It's like deprogramming. I learned that my feelings, thoughts and opinions matter.
"For my first week at the shelter, they had to hold my hand to get me out the front door," Sarai recalls. "I was terrified of everyone. How could I function in the world if I couldn't take care of myself? Going to the store and buying something for myself was scary. I hadn't done that in a long time. It was hard to not buy for anyone else. After so long, I didn't really know what I liked or what I didn't like."
The long road home
In retrospect, Sarai says she can see things in her former self that made her more vulnerable to domestic abuse. "I grew up with a low opinion of myself," she says. "I believed everything I heard. I was not a strong person inside; I was codependent. I had to start to build myself up and believe in myself."
At Helpmate, staffers don't insist that the victim of abuse has to leave right away, says Collins. "We're about the empowerment of the victim," she explains. "It's only more disempowering for us to say, to a woman who hasn't been able to make her own decisions, 'You're crazy if you stay with him.' We support the victim in whatever decision she makes."
But while Sarai was in the shelter, her worst fear came true: Her husband was awarded custody of their two children. The next several years were marked by a series of court trials and hard work on Sarai's part. "I had to work like a man and be strong and suck it up," she says now. "I stayed with my parents, then with friends. I had no money, but I went to college on scholarships and also worked. I had a little plan in mind to get it all established. I wanted to do it without public assistance, because it seems that that was the way the abusers got the kids, because all the husbands worked. The judge will automatically put the kids where they will be taken care of. They look at the wife with no money, job or home. I knew I had to go beyond that."
Eventually, Sarai gained custody of the kids. Mike stopped bringing them for visits with their mother and later moved away. Sarai didn't see her children for two years, until a judge issued an emergency order enabling her to take them back.
Sarai is almost gleeful when she talks about the day her divorce became final. "I went all over town that day. I changed my Social Security card, my driver's license, everything. I got my life back."
Still, Sarai says she doesn't regret not having left on her own, or even the way the relationship ended. "I can't do that: God has His own timing. I would be dead now if I had stayed, but it's just not my time. I couldn't take care of my kids then, I was so caught up in the person he wanted me to be. Now, I'm more secured. I know we can make it and I can make something of myself, contrary to what I was told by my husband and my family. The system stinks, but I tell my kids you can't be wrong forever and get away with it. You have to keep trying and do right."
Sarai and her children have moved to another county, and she's working on another associate's degree. "We're living comfortably and my kids are well cared for. We live paycheck to paycheck, but we have cable TV," she jokes.
The last time Sarai saw Mike was in a courtroom, a few years ago. But not knowing where he is takes its own toll. "My son has nightmares. Both of my kids will hide on the floor of the car if they think they see him," she says.
"The other day, I was at McDonald's and I looked out the window. A man with the exact same profile of my ex-husband was coming in. He walked through the door, but he didn't look at me. I don't know if it was him or not." Sarai ran out the other door. "Certain smells and sounds, or the way someone says something, bring it back to me. It's something that will stay with me forever," she says.
"If I were to see him, I would be afraid. Now, I'm constantly aware of what's around me. Now, I'm always listening."
Local resources for victims
The following agencies in Buncombe County serve both male and female victims of domestic and/or sexual abuse.
Helpmate offers emergency shelter, individual counseling, children's counseling, support groups and court advocacy. Their 24-hour crisis number is (828) 254-0516; their office number is (828) 254-2968.
Our Voice provides counseling (including both a Spanish-speaking counselor and a male counselor). Their 24-hour crisis line is (828) 255-7576; the office number is (828) 252-0562.
Interlace works with domestic-violence victims who have children and are homeless. The program combines housing, financial counseling, abuse counseling and goal setting to help victims get back on their feet. (There may be a waiting list, however.) Contact Interlace at (828) 252-1155 for more information.
2-1-1, the county's emergency-assistance number, can also direct callers (whether calling on their own or someone else's behalf) to domestic-abuse services.