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Editor’s note: This is the second half of Scarlett’s story, published in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Read Part 1 here.
Even after surviving and leaving one abuser, Scarlett wouldn’t escape a second cycle of domestic violence.
She had known Jason (not his real name) and his family for many years – “there was something about that that was very nice to have,” she said. She was drawn to his kindness and attracted to his good looks.
But Jason had another side. As Scarlett looks back, she realizes the warning signs were there at the start. “He was the type of person that if someone met him who didn’t know him, there was something about him that bothered them,” she said. “I didn’t see it because I got put into his special circle.”
The abuse didn’t start right away. By the time it did, Scarlett and Jason were new parents. Scarlett was a stay-at-home mom and financially dependent.
At first it was just words. Scarlett said he would tell her things like, “You’re fat. You’re ugly. I deserve a trophy wife, and you’ll never be that. He’d say I was stupid. I would say, I’m not stupid, and he would say, ‘I didn’t say you’re stupid; I said you were acting stupid.’ Then you start to doubt yourself and what you know. That’s where the control starts.”
As the months passed, Jason would try to pick fights, Scarlett said. He started throwing furniture. One night, she said, he walked into their bedroom holding a shotgun. Calmly, he told her they needed to talk.
“He sat on the edge of the bed, pointed the shotgun at me and said, ‘I don’t think we can do this anymore. I don’t like this.’ I said, ‘Put the gun away. We can talk.’ He said, ‘No, I don’t think so.’”
A haunting image flashed through Scarlett’s mind. “I saw me in bed, dead, blood everywhere, police in and out like it was a crime scene. I thought, oh, my gosh, I think he’s going to shoot me.”
She talked to him quietly until he put the gun down. But she knew something had shifted.
Things began to escalate. The neighbors called the police one day when they heard her screaming as Jason held her on the floor. Their child was in the house at the time.
About three months later, another bad argument erupted. Scarlett grabbed the phone and accidentally hit redial. A family member overheard the fighting and called Scarlett’s parents, who came over. By then Jason had left the house.
“My parents said, ‘Are you going to call the police now? Are you done now?’” Scarlett said. “It’s so hard. This is your husband and the father of your child. He was the breadwinner. But part of you is afraid you’ll die if you stay.”
With her parents’ help, Scarlett called the police and made a report. She told Jason she wanted a separation. “He started freaking out. I told him, ‘We’re just separating, and you need to get help. It’s just too dangerous for me and our child.’ He said he’d do whatever he needed to.”
The final straw
Jason sought help and seemed to be making progress. He wasn’t living in the house, but he, Scarlett and their child went on family outings.
Then one weekend, Scarlett and Jason left their child with Scarlett’s parents and went on a trip out of town. On the drive home, things took an ugly turn.
“He just completely lost it,” Scarlett said. “He punched through the center console and looked at me and said, ‘That should have been your face.’ It was getting so bad and so weird that I started recording it on my phone.”
Talking nonsensically and driving erratically, Jason told her he was going to take her to a cemetery. “He said, ‘I know you’re going to divorce me and take (our child) away and go off and marry somebody else,’” Scarlett said. “’So you need to die. I’m going to take you out there and kill you. Then I’m going to kidnap her (our child).’”
Her mind and heart were racing. “I’m scared for myself, but I’m trying to stay two steps ahead because I’m not going to allow something to happen to my child,” Scarlett said. Remembering that the last people she’d called on her cell phone were her parents, she discreetly pushed the redial button and started talking.
“Jason, I don’t want to go to the cemetery. Why are we passing” such-and-such a place, she’d say, cluing her parents in to their location.
He would not let her out of the truck. She talked to him soothingly, trying to placate him. Her mother called Jason on his cell phone, talking casually at first, then more directly. If you don’t bring Scarlett home, we’ll call the police, she told him.
Jason drove Scarlett home. But again, she knew things had changed.
“From that point on, it was like he meant it. He started leaving voice mails that he was going to blow up the house with me in it,” she said.
She got a restraining order and filed for divorce. Jason violated the order a couple of times and ended up spending about a month in jail, Scarlett said. Court records show he was convicted of making criminal threats and placed on probation.
By this time Scarlett was working with Angela Fitzgerald, an advocate with the Crime Victims Assistance Center in the Shasta County District Attorney’s Office. When word came of Jason’s pending release from jail, Fitzgerald told her she needed to move for her own safety.
“I said, ‘Are you crazy? I just got a job,’” Scarlett said. “I was trying to get settled, trying to stand on my own two feet.”
But Fitzgerald and her family convinced her she needed to go, so she gave up her job and moved south to stay with a relative for a month.
“We encourage all women in domestic violence situations to stay with family and friends, especially when there are threats of injury. Let that period of anger de-escalate,” Fitzgerald said.
It was a scary step for Scarlett. “Sometimes you just have to let your body kick in on autopilot and let somebody else drive you for a minute,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘I have to survive, how can I move?’ instead of letting go and saying, ‘This is a step I have to take to get out of this.’”
Jason hasn’t seen his child in a few years, Scarlett said.
Learning a healthy way
Scarlett’s journey out of domestic violence is still fairly new, but it’s gaining ground. She sees a therapist – “one of my angels,” she calls her – and says her spirituality has helped her find some clarity and release.
“I know there’s a reason why I went through this,” she said. “I know there are things I still need to recognize and look at. But I can do it. I’m not alone.”
It has not been easy. After Jason left, she had to go on welfare for three months. “I was embarrassed about that,” Scarlett said. “But I had to swallow my pride and do it for my child.”
Though she lacks a college degree, she managed to get an office job. “At first it was just trying to find my place and get my energy back. Now I’ve been there a few years,” she said.
Gaining financial independence was an important step in growing her confidence. Therapy gives her tools to better understand her behavior. “It gave me the structure and guidance to start looking at myself and what I was not seeing,” Scarlett said.
She’s quicker to recognize some of the unhealthy ways she still reacts to people as a result of her abusive relationships.
For instance, she didn’t realize she was often trying to anticipate and act upon what her friends might say or do before they did — a habit she formed to protect herself and her child in dealing with Jason’s erratic behavior. “One of them pointed it out and asked me why I do that. I explained my history and asked them to be patient with me while I work on that.”
She’s also noticed that she takes things much more personally than she used to. “It’s kind of sad,” she said. “If somebody made a face or comment, it used be, whatever. After the abuse, my reaction is to apologize and assume it’s my fault. I realized I was doing the ‘abused woman’ thing.”
Shasta Family Justice Center
On Sept. 1, a new resource for victims of domestic violence, child and elder abuse opened in Redding. The Shasta Family Justice Center (1670 Market St., Suite 300) was one of six sites selected by the California Family Justice Initiative for grant funding to set up a one-stop location for victims of family violence. It offers a location for existing agencies — including Shasta Women’s Refuge, Legal Services of Northern California, the Inter-Tribal Council of California Inc., Shasta County District Attorney’s Office, Health and Human Services, and the Child Abuse Prevention Coordinating Council, among others — to send representatives as part of a rapid response team.
When Scarlett learned about the center, she got excited about the opportunities to help. She realized she could offer to teach women some basic independent life skills to help them work toward leaving abusive situations.
The wheels kept spinning.
“It started dawning on me that this is one of the reasons I’m supposed to live,” she said. “It was like a fire lit up inside me. I’m supposed to be a part of this. It became a passion – I can be someone who has gone through this, come out of it and can show other women that they can survive it.”
Scarlett has offered her time to help women who come to the center and want to talk to someone who has walked in their shoes.
“I had people who had never experienced domestic violence tell me it would be OK, I’d live. They’d try to be supportive, which was great,” she said. “But I wanted to tell them, ‘Shut up. You have no idea what this is like.’ When I met someone who had gone through it, I wanted to listen to them.”
Fitzgerald has worked with victims of family violence for more than 12 years. She said Scarlett was a “typical” domestic violence victim. “Her emotions were so caught up in her abuser’s isolation and power-and-control tactics that she didn’t have a realistic sense of what was going to happen,” she said. “When we see that, we start chipping away at those distorted cognitions that may have been embedded by that constant abuse. We try to support and empower these women to stand on their own and show them they can stay on their own.”
While the majority of domestic violence victims are women, Fitzgerald noted that about 1 percent of the clients who come to her office are men – she sees about one a year or so. National statistics show that only 25 percent of abused women report the violence. Men are even less likely to report it, she said.
Women in abusive homes face serious challenges in getting out. In her experience, Fitzgerald said children are often used as pawns. “The No. 1 aspect is that these women need to know there are legal services available to help them obtain restraining orders and custody orders.”
Secondly, they need to know their basic needs will be met. “If you’re depending on your perpetrator, how do you break away if you don’t have your own means?” Fitzgerald said. “Getting self-sufficient by getting food, clothing and shelter is vital to their independence.”
Shasta Women’s Refuge has been helping domestic violence victims in the north state for more than 30 years. “We have many, many success stories,” said John, its director. The refuge offers a 24-hour crisis hotline (244-0117) and partners with law enforcement to get victims out of dangerous situations.
A common misperception about domestic violence is that people think they don’t know anyone in that situation, she said. “The odds are that you do,” she said. If you suspect someone you know is being abused, slip them a card with the crisis hotline number on it, she suggested. Don’t physically intervene if a fight is going on – instead, call 911 – and be careful not to talk about suspected abuse in front of the suspected perpetrator, John said.
Taking the first step
Scarlett’s heart aches for women who don’t have the kind of support network she did. She wants to encourage them to take the first scary step of going to an agency like the Shasta Family Justice Center or Shasta Women’s Refuge. “You are not as alone as you think,” she said. “If you can finally admit that you don’t want to do this anymore and tell someone, you’ll have people who step up and help you, more than you think is possible.”
She notes that each woman’s journey is her own. “You can have all these people telling you that you need to leave, but until you’re ready, it’s not going to happen,” she said. Many women choose not to leave. “It’s their way of survival – it’s what they know,” Scarlett said.
She gets that, deeply. But she wants to be an example of what can happen when you move beyond just trying to survive and wanting something more. “As I started to think about how I didn’t like the way I felt, how I couldn’t find me anymore, I started saying, ‘I just want to live.’ Not just physically – I wanted to feel like a person again. I wanted my child to feel like that.
“That’s when I started going, ‘Here’s my first step.’”
And it’s all about small steps, she said. When you’re in survival mode, it’s nearly impossible to envision a better future.
“It’s not going to be done overnight, but women should know you don’t have to jump out and be 100 percent better right away,” Scarlett said. “Take that first step. It’s going to be scary, hard, frightening, sad, but you’re going to be alive. Take the first step, then think about the next step. When you’re done with that, take a third. Before you know it, you’ll be starting to see that the way you were living was not OK, not normal.”
Candace L. Brown has been a magazine and newspaper reporter and editor since 1992, including eight years at the Redding Record Searchlight. She lives in Redding and can be reached at email@example.com.