“But Ruthie, you have a PhD!”
This was my older sister’s shocked reaction when I spilled my secret over the phone and told her that, due to many years of domestic violence, I was separating from my husband of nearly two decades.
I faced the same sort of disbelief a few days later when I visited the local Domestic Crisis Center requesting temporary housing for myself and my adolescent son and I was asked to complete an application. Among other things, the form asked for my highest level of education. When the administrator saw what I had written, she told me I had come to the wrong place—that I should go to the Women’s Resource Center instead. I explained that they had sent me to her and emphasized that I was a poorly paid adjunct professor and had no place to live while the court heard my plea for separate maintenance.
Yet the Domestic Crisis Center turned its back on my domestic crisis. In the administrator’s eyes, I didn’t look like a financially-strapped battered woman. When we think domestic violence looks a certain way—that it only impacts certain types of people—we make a very grave mistake.
Why I Waited
Why did I wait so long to seek help and why would I approach a crisis center instead of relatives? The fact that my siblings were spread out from Seattle to Rhode Island is only part of the answer. Didn’t I have friends close by and a church home where I could seek help?
For many women, the deep shame of domestic violence never seeps beyond their middle-class closed doors. My son’s safety, however, trumped my shame. And I did seek and receive an offer to stay for a short while with a family in my church.
Still, a fair question arises: Why would an abused mother delay a flight to safety? Here I speak for many women in my circumstances. Shame is a reason, of course, but far more than that is the question of child custody. Women often stay in an effort to protect their children. During the years of abuse, my greatest fear was that my charming husband would be granted joint custody if we were to separate. Once my son reached age thirteen, however, Carlton was permitted to testify before the judge. His testimony clinched the decision to grant me full custody.
Charming? Not only that. My ex-husband was an intelligent, articulate, well-educated minister who had served in two Bible churches, taught for six years at a Bible college, and edited books for two Christian publishers.
If we assume we can easily profile a battered wife and her abuser, we are dead wrong. And we’re dead wrong in far too many cases. Consider Carol Irons, a brilliant judge in my hometown of Grand Rapids, who was shot dead in her court chambers in 1988 by her violent husband. Clarence Ratliff, her abuser and killer, was a Grand Rapids police officer.