VOICES OF THE ABUSED. Mistreated wives tell their stories of physical threat. BATTERED FAMILIES - 1

At the request of the women interviewed for this story, their names have been changed, and some details have been altered to protect anonymity.

BATTERED wives in shelters are invisible refugees in our midst, fleeing a war declared on them alone.

Many are in hiding, innocent prisoners on the lam. You meet them in basements with no name on the door, in quiet, incurious, residential neighborhoods. The sorts of places where a succession of exhausted-looking wives and their children can come and go unremarked.

Routine information is oddly absent. It's an act of supreme trust to give someone your full name - and unthinkable to tell anyone where you live.

But if you listen carefully enough and stay long enough, you find in these shelters the story of women emerging from the shadow of secret violence into a world that, if not free of fears, is at least a safe haven from physical abuse.

Cathy is short, cute, a little plump, and she has a sensible, understanding, reassuring air, like a nurse, which she is. Life is peaceful now. She is about to receive an advanced nursing degree. She is safe and divorced, with full custody of her seven-year-old daughter. This is the calm after a storm.

Her relationship with her ex-husband started out like a fairy tale, with no dark shadows. ``I thought I was so ugly, and how could I get a man as tall and dark and handsome as George?'' Cathy says. They had a very romantic courtship, with flowers and dinners out: ``He treated me like a queen.''

Then, a month before the wedding, he pushed her. ``I thought it was because of the tension of the marriage,'' she continues. He said it would never happen again.

He always said it would never happen again. Her life became a round of slaps and punches - always below the neck, so the bruises would be out of sight. Sometimes once a week. Sometimes every day. Sometimes there'd be a respite of two weeks.

Her job as a nurse supported the family (he had 18 jobs in seven years, she says), but that was no guarantee of independence: ``He told me when to go to sleep and when not to go to sleep....

Cathy was always tiptoeing around, not knowing what was going to set him off. Her home was like a concentration camp for one. One terrifying day she was forced to sit in a chair, without doing anything, for 12 hours, while he got drunk and said things like ``I'm going to break your ... head and then tear you to pieces.''

``I used to wait for the beating. It seemed like an eternity,'' Cathy comments. She thought things would be better after Janey was born, but then she says, ``I was torn between being a mother and surviving.''

One evening, because Janey was crying, her husband knocked Cathy down and held a butcher knife at her throat. Missing a tooth and with a concussion, she ran into the January night in her nightgown and slippers, the several miles to her father's house.

In situations like this a person has to make instant, terrifying decisions. Asked if she felt comfortable leaving Janey behind, Cathy says her husband had never injured her. She feels now that leaving the baby saved her own life. To get her child back, however, she had to return to the marriage.

Her father-in-law had been a batterer, too. So when Cathy asked her mother-in-law for help, she said, ``You'll just have to get used to it.''

Cathy evokes these dark memories as we sit in a plain but warm and comfortable room. It has the feeling of a refuge.

In the other room, her daughter, Janey, and a friend are industriously playing house. There is a vigorous debate about whether some imaginary pork chops had, or had not, already been cooked. But in between the girls' housewifely comments you hear prattling references to foster parents, jail, police.

``He stay in jail so long,'' one little voice says.

WHY did Cathy stay? Because afterward there would be a ``honeymoon'' period, she says.

``They're so sorry for what they've done. They're going to kill themselves if you leave. You want so much to believe it's not going to happen again.''

Another problem: Her husband threatened to kill members of her family if she left: ``I always thought I was protecting them by staying.'' And he threatened her with loss of custody of her daughter. Cathy says it was a happy moment when the judge at her divorce trial said, ```Nobody has the right to hurt anybody, and yes, that baby is yours.'''

The neighbors would hear her screams and call the police, and then she would be blamed for the disturbance and beaten again.

``People think we like it, and that's why we put up with it. We're afraid he'll come after the person [who intervenes],'' she says. ``You show me the person who likes to get beaten. I think that's a myth that needs to be stopped.''

Cathy also says that other women should be alert, rather than thinking nothing like this could ever happen to them. She emphasizes that she had come from a loving family, and that she had been confident as a teen-ager.

Once, at 16, she saw a friend being slapped, and she thought at the time she would never allow anyone to treat her that way. She continues, ``And look what happened to me....''

The keynote of domestic violence is confusion. What is unclear is what love is, how it is properly expressed, how you recognize it, or its absence.

``You're practically mesmerized,'' Cathy says.

BUT physical violence is not the only battering that women fear.

``Emotional abuse is just as damaging,'' says Katrina Pope, from the staff of Elizabeth Stone House, in Boston. This is supported even by women with stories of attempted strangulation and broken bones.

Viola is a small, confident woman who tells her story in a pizza parlor. For her, it was a relationship that degenerated slowly, taking with it her self-respect. She stopped bathing and combing her hair - but saw to it that the children were fed and the rent paid.

Her family stopped coming: ``He created an atmosphere where my family wouldn't come to visit. ... I was so depressed.'' A friend pointed out the change in her: ``And this is when I began to see some light.''

Like many of the women, Viola says drugs were a large part of the problem, causing a complete personality change.

On one occasion, after she had taunted him, her husband started to strangle her and knocked her to the floor. She told him, ``You can't deal with the truth - knocking someone down to shut them up.''

Unlike many women, who stay to ever-intensifying physical abuse, that was the end for Viola. ``Some people stay in a cage forever. They believe they're powerless,'' she continues. THE question you ask after meeting Sarah is, Where did she learn about love? Abused as a child, she lived for 10 years with a man who, among other injuries, fractured her skull nine times.

``I was used to it because that's how it was when I grew up. I would get beaten for leaving toys on the floor or for not doing the dishes right,'' she says.

Mostly Sarah's injuries came from interposing her 5-foot-2 self between her 6-foot-4 husband and one of the children.

``When you're looking at a two-year-old getting a beating for leaving a toy on the floor, you have to put a stop to it,'' Sarah comments, firmly.

``The abuse started even before we got married. I was cooking supper one day, and he didn't like what I was cooking. He threw me up against the wall and broke a kneecap.'' Asked if she had been concerned about marrying a man who had broken her kneecap, she paused. ``I had doubts,'' she said hesitantly.

But it was his hitting the children that finally made Sarah leave. One boy lost several teeth. She says, ``If you raise your hand, he will duck automatically. He was afraid of moving out of the shelter. He felt `safe' - that's the word he used to use. `I feel safe here.'''

His teachers have commented on the seven-year-old's improvement in the nine weeks since they left home.

Now it's a triumph that her children will go off into the living room to play by themselves. ``All the people around them are showing them love. I think that's what's bringing them out of it.''

Sarah is not optimistic or ecstatic, however, about being free for the first time in 10 years. Asked why not, she said simply, ``He hasn't found me yet.''

The question you want to ask, over and over, is, Why don't you leave? One of many reasons is that it's hard to leave someone who won't be left.

STEPHANIE met Danny when she was 16 and moved in with him. She realized this was a major mistake when he held her over the porch edge of the third-story apartment and threatened to throw her over if she ever left him.

The offhand way she tells her terrible story shows you the happy-looking young woman still ought to have been going to school and giggling with her friends. Now in her early 20s, Stephanie has spent the last seven years fighting off a nightmare of rape and harassment, by herself.

``After a while, you get used to it. It's like a way of life.'' Danny said he didn't mean it, so Stephanie took him back, and then he left her when she was three months pregnant. But he didn't leave for good. After the birth he came back with a knife and gun, threatening to kill the little girl.

According to Stephanie, he told the Department of Social Services that she was abusing the child, and she was put on probation for three months. ``He said, `Now you have to be nice to me and do what I say.' That's when the rapes started.''

According to her, Danny would throw rocks in the window and come sit in her apartment with a gun. He called her 100 times a day. He would threaten to get visitation rights and cut the daughter to pieces. He would have her electricity and phone shut off. And when she was out, he would try to drag her into his car.

As a result Stephanie stayed in her apartment most of the time.

``I used to call the police, and they wouldn't come. I'd say, `He's outside!' and they'd say, `Call us when he comes to the door. This isn't ``Hawaii 5-0.''' I stopped calling the police.''

Meeting an advocate from a shelter - she didn't even know of their existence - made the difference for Stephanie. Now she has an apartment, a job, and a car. ``I started dating late last year,'' she says.

Stephanie is gradually relaxing her precautions. She doesn't, for instance, keep a butcher knife under the bed anymore. She no longer pursues her ritual of checking the closets and windows to make sure Danny isn't lurking somewhere. But freedom won and freedom felt are two different matters. Now she says, she just checks under the bed.

This series does not outline specific solutions to the distressing problem of wife abuse; however, throughout the narrative, attention is given to various individual attempts to deal with it.

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