Victims No More

These four survivors of domestic abuse tell their stories, and reach out to abused women with a simple message

Wednesday - October 17, 2007
By Alice Keesing
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Dara Carlin, Alison Stewart, Rumi Murakami and Juliet Lighter
Standing strong and supportive together are (clockwise from top left) Dara Carlin, Alison Stewart, Rumi Murakami and Juliet Lighter

“He would clean his gun in front of me and say stuff like, this kind of bullet leaves this kind of exit wound and this is what it would do if I shot you from here.”

“I was always walking on eggshells, trying to do want he wanted so he didn’t blow up.”

“I got to the point where I realized I would rather be dead trying to run away from him than dead while staying in the relationship.”

These are voices from the darkness - from a place of fear and pain that is called domestic violence. These women have heart-rending tales of the physical and emotional trauma that can exist in the embrace of intimate relationships. They are rare voices from that darkness, and they are determined to break the silence and fight domestic abuse against all women.

In Hawaii this year, more than 22,000 adults - mostly women -will be victims of domestic violence. Nationally, experts estimate that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Those are staggering numbers for a problem that is largely bound up in silence.

“Traditionally the thing is to keep family business private,” says Dara Carlin, who heads up the Oahu chapter of the survivor organization called VOICES. “But domestic violence is one of those secrets that shouldn’t be kept. It’s a crime, not a secret.”

Paradoxically, it’s a secret that even victims struggle to keep, sometimes out of fear and sometimes out of shame. Carlin even kept the secret from herself through years of an abusive relationship.

“I have my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy - you’d think of all people that I would have known better,” she says in an ironic voice.

It is the twisted nature of domestic violence that the victim can become so beaten down - emotionally and physically - that she ends up explaining away the abuser’s behavior or even blaming herself for upsetting her abuser.

When Carlin met her partner she was swept away. He was charismatic and smart, and within a week they had committed to a lifetime together. The first hint that all was not well came on Valentine’s Day, she says, after she had spent hours cooking a romantic meal for her partner.

“He came home, he wasn’t really acting himself, he just looked at the dinner, put his fork down and said, ‘You know, I get the feeling you made this for someone else.’ “

Accused of being involved with someone else, Carlin was panicked and desperate to prove her love. That was the beginning of a life in which Carlin says she walked on eggshells, never knowing what might spark an outburst from her partner. Using tomatoes in her cooking wasn’t allowed, nor was wearing perfume, and dinner had to be served at a certain time and in a certain way. The relationship took another nasty twist, she says, when her partner had her cat put down because he felt the animal was getting in the way of their relationship.

“I was paranoid, trying to make sure I did what he wanted so he didn’t blow up,” Carlin says. “There were certain rules to keep the peace, and it seemed like the rules always changed.”

For Carlin - as it can be for many women - the abuse revolved around emotional control rather than physical battering. And it wasn’t until Carlin saw her partner using the same behavior toward her daughter that she says she faced up to reality and realized she had to leave.

For years Carlin kept her silence about what she experienced. Even though she was working in the field of domestic violence, helping other women, she didn’t reveal herself as a survivor.

Then one day she realized that by staying quiet she was contributing to the problem. Now she is the active leader of VOICES on Oahu. As part of the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, VOICES’small, grass-roots group of members testify at the Legislature, help shape policy goals and work to get people to look honestly at the problem.

“It’s a very, very deep social problem,” says Rumi Murakami, who joined VOICES seven years ago. “Socially, we do condone power, we praise people who have power, so in intimate relationships when there’s one person who exerts power, I think society sort of accepts that.”

It is also not uncommon for the abuse to be so well-hidden that others - even family members - find it difficult to believe the victim when she does speak out or seeks help.

“He was very careful not to leave a mark where people would see,” says Alison Stewart, a VOICES member and writer of MidWeek‘s Click Chick column. “I would have bruises on my legs from the kicks to the shins, and I would purposefully wear pants or pantyhose to cover up.”

Stewart lived through several years of emotional and physical control during which she says her partner wouldn’t let her see her friends, tracked her phone calls and e-mails, forbade her to wear perfume, stifled her ambition to join the Air Force, threatened suicide and physically battered her.

“It’s almost like an illness,” she says. “When you’re in it, you’re in the cycle. It’s this vicious cycle that you don’t know how to get out of.”

And Stewart couldn’t believe she was a victim of abuse - after all, she didn’t fit the image of an abused woman, did she?

The reality, however, as she so harshly learned, is that domestic abuse does not just happen in poor neighborhoods. It does not just happen to the disadvantaged.

Victims are often strong, independent, well-educated women. The perpetrators can be community leaders.

“I’m just a regular, middle-class American and it happened to me - it can happen to anyone,” Stewart says. “I almost died. I’m lucky to be alive.”

In 2004, nearly one in every


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