‘I wasn’t going to die like that’
Survivors discuss the moment they had enough of domestic violence
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on domestic violence awareness.
Why didn’t she just leave?
It’s a question all too frequently asked of or about victims of domestic violence, and it is a question many advocates are trying to change.
“We tend to say, ‘Well, why did she stay?’ We don’t ask, ‘Why did he do that?’ We don’t ask why a human being treated another human being that way,” Albert Lean Tanya Fure said. “Instead of asking, ‘Why did she stay?’ ask ‘Why did they treat her like that? Why did that happen?’ Instead of saying, ‘Oh that boy pulled your hair because he likes you,’ we say ‘That’s not right, you need to tell him to stop.’”
Fure, 35, lost her younger sister, Trisha Nelson, earlier this year to domestic violence. Nelson, 28 at the time of her death, was a 2005 Alden-Conger High School graduate and had been with her boyfriend, Corey Perry, for six or seven years before Perry shot at her and then ran her down at a busy intersection in February in the Minneapolis suburb of Plymouth. Police said at the time it was unclear whether Nelson had fled the vehicle or was pushed from it.
Fure said her sister and Perry had an on-again-off-again relationship for years, with Perry’s attempt to control and isolate Nelson evident to her family.
“I think everyone sensed something wasn’t right, but didn’t know to what degree,” Fure said. “Statistics out there state a woman will leave between five and six times before she’s actually ready to leave for good. So much of the time, those five to six times burnout so many friends and family because they’re so frustrated and they don’t understand.”
Since her sister’s untimely passing, Fure has become a strong advocate for domestic violence awareness, both locally and statewide.
“It’s my responsibility to tell her story, so hopefully somebody else can get a piece of her story and go ‘I don’t want to do that to my family. I’m not going to be next,’ and to make that her legacy,” she said. “If we continue to talk and continue to bring things up, in doing that we can reduce some of the stigma around domestic violence, as well.”
Domestic violence in Freeborn County
Domestic assault or domestic violence is the No. 1 violent crime in Freeborn County, according to Dwaine Winkels, director of public safety for Albert Lea Police Department.
“Over my career, I’ve seen how violent a person truly caught in a cycle of domestic violence can be. That person’s totally controlling another person,” Winkels said. “When you first come across that you realize just how much they’re like a prisoner. It’s just amazing how much that person is controlling another person, abusing them on a regular basis, and the conditioning that occurs with that.”
Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said domestic violence calls are some of the most unpredictable incidences law enforcement can respond to. He said there are always numerous variables in each situation — from other individuals showing up at the scene to suspects using hidden weapons, or victims getting scared and starting to turn on law enforcement.
“When I say it’s unpredictable, it’s because we don’t know which way it’s ever going to go,” Freitag said. “It’s a volatile call for us to go on. It always is.”
According to Winkels, while efforts to bring awareness to domestic violence have come a long way, there’s still too much of a stigma surrounding the subject.
“There’s so much blaming on the victim that occurs,” he said. “I think there’s still some denial that exists out there. Even in today’s world people want to deny it. It cuts across all socioeconomic scales. It’s not limited to any population, culture or any particular group.”
Both Winkels and Freitag said on top of dealing with the stigma and denial, something law enforcement also deals with is the recidivism of domestic violence — repeat incidences between the same perpetrator and the same victim.
“For people that work in the system, there’s frustration at the number of times you get called there and nothing happens,” Winkels said. “You’ve just got to keep going and hope one of the times will break the cycle.”
“We try to keep in mind that there’s a reason this keeps happening, and a lot of time it happens the same way — very similarly — and we keep in mind that one day the victim’s going to have enough,” Freitag said.
‘I basically lived in survival mode’
About a year into her abusive marriage, Diane Lenway took her infant daughter and left their home in the middle of the night. It was the same night a friend of her husband’s had called her and told her to get out, that her husband was strung out on heroin and talking about killing her. Lenway met an advocate from a victims crisis center at a meeting place and followed him to a safe house.
“I remember getting there and thinking, ‘He’s going to find me. My car’s here. It’s right there in town,’” she said.
It took her husband three days to realize she wasn’t home. He started calling her friends and family, which Lenway found out about when she finally called her family to let them know she was OK.
“My dad told me to stay there, that he was looking for me. I still have this really horrible guilty feeling, because at that point my dad wanted to kill him,” she said. “I had a baby and I’m in this strange place with strange people. I felt like if I left that house I had nothing.”
Lenway remembers feeling she had messed up her entire life at the age of 22. The safe house she was living in eventually helped get her into counseling, find an apartment and get assistance to help with day care so she could go back to work. Within six months of Lenway being on her own, her husband found her, and had seemed to be trying to better himself. He cried and told her how he was sorry and begged her to come back, she said, and she had never seen him be sorry before.
The couple made an attempt to reconcile by going to marriage counseling, and their counselor told them they’d need to be living together if they wanted their relationship to really work.
“Strangely enough, the abuse was not a topic of our marriage counseling. I did sit there and let him say I was a bad wife, and I didn’t do this and did that and all of these things,” Lenway said. “I never said ‘He beats me, he hurts me, he scares me.’”
Lenway moved back in with her husband with both her daughter and a dog. Lenway said her husband wasn’t nice to the dog — a cocker spaniel — to begin with, but once he saw how much it meant to her, it was just another way to control her. Things came to a head when he slammed the dog against a wall while arguing with Lenway one day.
“I can still remember the sound of my dog hitting the wall, sliding down and just laying there whimpering, and I couldn’t move until (my husband) left,” Lenway said.
She called her dad, and within two days she had given the dog away because she knew she couldn’t protect it in that house.
“It’s an example of how you’re willing to give up everything in your life to protect it. You come to a point where it isn’t about you anymore. You’re already in survival mode,” she said. “Now it’s about protecting the people and things around you because you’re already damaged goods.”
Within a few months of Lenway moving back in with her husband, he was arrested and given the option of either jail or treatment for drug addiction. He chose treatment, and Lenway thought things finally might get better. Her husband had been in inpatient treatment for about one month when she came to see him for family week, during which time he told her that if she talked about anything that had happened in their home, he would kill her when he got out.
When her husband eventually got out of treatment and came home, Lenway said that within an hour he had called someone to take him out to buy drugs.
“It was like the minute he saw that I accepted that and didn’t leave, I was back under his control,” she said.
Lenway said many people then and in the years since have asked her why she went back — why she didn’t leave the first time he hit her.
“By the time that comes around, you’re already brainwashed. You’re already believing that everything that has happened is because of you. If you had only done something different or looked different or dressed different or not talked to this person, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said. “Once my daughter was born, it took on a whole new meaning to me. I basically lived in survival mode. I felt like I was all she had and my goal in life was to protect her. Every day was just another day that you tried to survive through.”
After her husband went back to his usual habits, Lenway did move out. Then started a long, painful divorce and custody battle that would go on for years.
‘I just felt so alone’
After having her baby, Beth felt like more of a prisoner than ever. She couldn’t leave her daughter for more than an hour or two since she needed to be breastfed, and whenever she’d try to pump milk to save for her daughter, her boyfriend would dump it out.
“I hear people talk about how it’s such a wonderful, loving, nurturing thing, but for me it was torture,” she said of trying to feed her daughter. “She lacked primal nurturing because I was trying to keep myself alive. It was really bad.”
When her daughter was about 3 months old, Beth tried to go back to work, but couldn’t hold down a job. She didn’t have a car, and her boyfriend would disappear for hours or days at a time when he was supposed to be watching their child. With no one to take care of her baby and no phone to call her places of employment, Beth said she lost at least three jobs because of her boyfriend’s control over her.
“I just felt so alone,” she said. “I was just completely beat down at that point. I was an emotional wreck, I was a financial wreck. It was just a nightmare.”
Not long after having her daughter, Beth became pregnant again. She terminated the pregnancy — something her boyfriend agreed to, but then never let her live down.
“There was no way I was raising two of that man’s infants, horrible as it sounds. I’d have never made it out,” she said. “The abortion was an alarming experience. I was alone. I had to take the bus. There were slip ups in the delivery room. I’ll never forget it. But apparently I’ll block it out as much as humanly possible.”
Beth said she remembers sitting in a rocking chair at one point, holding her infant daughter in her arms, and justifying suicide to just about every single person in her life. She said the only thing that kept her from killing herself was one of her friends — one who she knew would never accept her ending her own life. She decided she’d continue to survive.
After having long-running suspicions that her boyfriend had been cheating on her, Beth finally got her hands on the phone one day and found proof that he had been unfaithful to her. She confronted him.
“I don’t think there’s much in that house that he didn’t throw at me,” she said. “Playpens, chairs, books, big heavy (stuff).”
He started throwing all of her things outside, and Beth got her parents to come over and help her leave. When it came time for her to grab her daughter, her boyfriend wouldn’t let the baby go. The police were called and Beth was eventually able to take her daughter and go with her parents. While he had thrown all of Beth’s things outside, he refused to give her anything of the baby’s — no clothes, formula, diapers, toys or anything else.
“I knew that I was never going to let that happen again,” she said. “I was never going to put myself in that position again to have someone throw all of my (stuff) outside and kick me out.”
Beth then moved in with her sister for some time, and applied to a program specifically meant to help single mothers get through college. After being denied her first time applying, she moved into her parents’ home. After applying again to the college program and being accepted, Beth moved onto a college campus.
She still dealt with him, and he’d use her daughter to try and bring Beth back in and control her. He’d guilt her by talking about family loyalty and saying their daughter needed to see and know her family. He’d also let the air out of Beth’s tires and tell her not to go home because he’d be waiting for her. She said they’d go through their cycle of abuse — between their honeymoon period and bouts of violence — on a weekly and at times daily basis. Without knowing why, Beth said he always seemed to be worse during autumn; she could always feel them getting to that violent point then.
“When you get into an abusive situation, you start noticing — even if you don’t have words for it — you start noticing a spiral,” Beth said.
Things came to a head at one point on her daughter’s third birthday. The day started happily enough, with Beth waking up her daughter with a cinnamon roll, putting ribbons in her hair, wearing birthday hats and sending her daughter off with treats for her friends.
Later that night Beth hung out with her daughter’s father and at one point left their daughter with him and went home so they could spend time together. He came over later trying to drop their daughter off, when the two started arguing, prompting him to walk off with their daughter. Beth chased him outside and through a busy city street, with him yelling at her the entire time. At one point he shoved Beth, sending her to the ground and breaking her wrist. Being on a heavily-populated street and with people noticing what was going on, Beth told him to take their daughter and leave while she waited for an ambulance.
“If I went to the hospital and he went to jail, what was going to happen to (my daughter)? So I told him to just leave,” she said. “It’s hard because I still struggle with how much responsibility of that is mine. When you’re out of your mind, you’re just out of your mind. That’s not something I would ever do.”
Beth filed for her first order for protection about a year after the broken wrist incident. The incident is something Beth’s daughter still remembers and has talked about a number of times, among other things her father did.
“She remembers everything, and it’s scary how much she remembers,” Beth said.
Beth said while her daughter remembers a lot of traumatic instances from her childhood, she remembers things in a different way.
“(She) talks about her mommy ‘having naked sex’ with Daddy. I haven’t yet found a way to tell her that her dad raped Mom repeatedly in front of her,” Beth said. “I’m working on it. So far I’ve only been able to explain it as ‘Mommy didn’t want to do that and I’m sorry you saw that.’”
‘I knew he would kill me’
After a few years without hearing from her son’s father, Stephani Adams was getting her life back on track. She was clean and sober, and she and her son were living with her dad while she was going to college.
She still doesn’t know how he got her number, but one day her son’s father called her. He shared that he was now clean and sober and trying to be a better person. He said he was interested in seeing his son again. While hesitant, Adams said she trusted that he was trying to better himself, and she wanted him to see his son.
Seeing him again was like meeting an entirely different person, she said, and it was exciting for her to see him in a new light. Adams said they got along great and talked about their son’s future, and eventually they started dating again.
When their son was about 6 years old, Adams was pregnant, and the two decided to get married. They also moved from Iowa to Rochester. Adams had graduated from college by then, and she said it was her husband’s chance to now go to school. He went to school full time while she stayed home with their son and eventually their daughter, and Adams’ dad moved in with them at one point to help pay the bills. She said she thought at the time that everything would be OK, that they’d be clean and sober parents together.
Her husband relapsed before they had their daughter. Adams said she had a hard time asking for help and wanted to do everything herself. She was depressed her husband was using again, and that he always had excuses for why he was.
“I couldn’t keep him clean anymore. … So I started using, too,” she said.
Eventually Adams’ dad moved out, saying he wasn’t going to be there to pay their bills while they got high. The couples’ drinking and using made everything go to the extreme, she said. Child Protective Services was called on the couple when they’d get into screaming matches and when neighbors heard Adams scream for help. It left her feeling depressed and like she wanted to escape, so she would. She’d go out to bars to drink away her troubles while leaving her children at home with her husband.
“I felt like I was so stuck. I didn’t have anybody to help me out, I didn’t have anybody to help me move out, I didn’t have any ideas on where to go, I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have money,” Adams said. “Looking back I wish I would’ve left when my dad did. I wish I would’ve left with my dad, because I put my kids through a lot more hell than they ever needed to be in.”
She said she tried to leave at times, only for her husband to either threaten to hurt her or say he’d get rid of all of her things.
“He held knives to my throat and told me he would kill me, so I had to play the game, too,” she said. “I had to pretend like I was going to stay and that I was going to make things better and that everything would be OK and that we were going to work things out — even though I knew it was never going to end.
“I know a lot of times the (Child Protective Services) worker tried to get me to leave and tell me that there was a way out and that she would help, and I believed her, but at the same time there was no telling what he was going to do. … There were times when I knew he would kill me. There were times when he would threaten suicide.”
Adams’ husband once went as far as slashing cuts into his arms and bleeding all over their home when Adams spent a weekend with her dad. Another time, the couple went out drinking together. After they went home to relieve their babysitter, they started to argue, when Adams told her husband she was going to leave because she didn’t want to fight anymore and didn’t want to wake up their children.
He wouldn’t let her.
When Adams tried to use a phone, her husband broke it. He blocked the door, telling her she wasn’t leaving.
“He made it seem so easy, like he would just kill me,” she said. “And I just wasn’t going to let that happen. I was not going to die. I wasn’t going to die like that.”
Adams said she took a run for the door at one point, throwing things behind her and knocking over chairs to try and block her husband’s path. She remembers the door being about 20 feet away, and felt that if she could just make it to the door she could get out and run. She eventually made it to a window and was able to crawl out and run away.
“And that’s when my whole world ended,” she said.
Look to Tuesday’s Tribune and albertleatribune.com for the final part in the series, and for a video of interviews from the series.
Read the first part of the series here.
Read the third part of the series here.
See a video of interviews from the series here.