Conjugal Violence: Let’s break the Silence.
Good morning, I am honored to share some of my deepest thoughts and feelings with you. On June 29th, 2007, my best friend, Rachelle Wrathmall lost her life to domestic violence. That day has changed my life and my perception of the world, and I have been deeply reflecting on women’s issues, conjugal violence, and building awareness.
It has been 4 1/2 years since Rachelle Wrathmall, left us, and I ‘m still thinking of that terrifying summer day; you could say that I’m still waiting for the hole in my soul to be filled; I’m still hoping for justice. But why does it feel like time has been standing still? It is amazing how hours turned into days; days turned into weeks; and weeks into months and now months into years! And yet there is still nothing, after 4 ½ years.
In 2003, I was following the Laci Peterson case on CNN. Laci was a 27 year- old mother to-be from Modesto, California, who was murdered by her husband, Scott Peterson. I was in disbelief: how could a husband murder his wife and unborn child? I would have never imagined that between 2006 and 2007, 3 women from the Eastern Townships would share a similar fate as Laci Peterson. And, that one of those 3 women would be my best friend, Rachelle Wrathmall.
Despite my surprise and shock, violence against women isn’t a new thing. Throughout history, women have faced many challenges and obstacles. It all began when Eve ate the apple from the forbidden tree and was expelled from Eden, starting a long history of men blaming women for what they lost. Since then, we have faced witch-hunts; we fought for our voting rights and for equal labor rights, for equal salaries, and for abortion rights; and we are still struggling against sexist images in the media. Haven’t we been through enough already? Apparently, we haven’t. Why are so many women battered, murdered, or victims of psychological violence every year? According to statistics Canada, over 17 thousand conjugal violence cases have been reported to the police; 83 % of the victims are women and 17 % are men; 45 % of the abusers are a spouse; 41 % are an ex-spouse; 14 % are a friend. The abuser is rarely a stranger in a dark alley: it is someone you trust or once trusted.
Sometimes I wonder if Rachelle just a statistic? If Rachelle isn’t just a statistic, she is just another domestic violence case? But to me she was the girl who smiled and befriended me, the one who made me feel like I belonged. She was the friend who laughed and cried with me; she’s a part of my history; she’s like a limb/arm that has been cut off. No, to me she’s not just a faceless statistic! She was the tall, good-looking woman that made heads turn, the one who had it going on. How could this have happened to Rachelle? She was an intelligent woman; a competent co-worker; a loving daughter, sister, and aunt. To us, she was all that and even more. But, why does it feel like she is just another murder case, piled up on some detective’s desk?
Suddenly we, Rachelle’s family and friends, have become victims too. How could this have happened to us? How could we possibly heal after such a terrible, horrific loss? I am still baffled by this surreal fact and I have struggled to accept and understand. Who is to blame? Of course, it is her killer who is to blame, but at the same time, sense of guilt soars through my heart. If I could turn back time, I’d convince her to run, or I’d snatch her away like a superhero. I would tell her AGAIN that she deserves better, that love doesn’t have to hurt, and that love doesn’t imprison you, but I couldn’t be a superhero. There came a time when I had to turn my back on her in order to protect my self and my family from his threats; however, I am here today, so that we can break the silence in order to prevent other tragedies.
What else could we have done to save Rachelle? We tried so hard to help her escape. But was it enough? How can I prevent this from happening in the future? What is my role as a woman? What is my role as a teacher? These are all questions that I often ask myself, and I am not sure to have all the answers.
I think that the most important thing is to TALK. Conjugal violence is taboo in our society: it’s a topic that makes us feel very uncomfortable, but turning our head the other way on a situation won’t make it disappear. Family and friends play a crucial role in a victim’s life: they must listen without judging because victims often feel ashamed of the violence or ashamed of their choices to return to violent partner over and over again. This is like an addiction that is difficult to kick. The victim will isolate themselves because of their shame, but also because their controlling partner will not allow them to contact their friends & family. Despite this, let the victim know that you are there for them; offer to go with them to a women’s centre, to see a social worker or a health care professional. Let the victim know that there are shelters, and many other resources for them. BUT, before you tell the victim what to do, just LISTEN to them.
Education and organization are just as important as communication.
If you are in an abusive relationship, you must know what to do. In other words, have a plan to escape. Be ready to execute it. According to experts, you must follow certain steps:
1) Have a suitcase ready; have double sets of keys; have cash and change ready in case you need to take a taxi or call someone.
2) Make sure that all your important documents, such as identity papers or cards, keys, cheque books, your address book (etc), are easy to access in case you need to leave urgently.
3) Open a separate bank account to your name. Keep it a secret and have the bank statements sent to a friend’s home or a member of the family, or do your banking online (remember to never give any of your passwords). All your financial documents must also be organized, so you can take them with you.
4) Your children should know the police’s number by heart and be trained to call in case of emergency.
5) For identification purposes, have a picture of your spouse or ex-spouse on you for the police.
6) Revise your plan regularly as if you were practicing for a fire drill. Take it seriously for it can save your life.
Furthermore, we must learn to trust our instincts and run when a relationship doesn’t feel right. Run fast and never go back! One of the first things we teach children is to listen to their inner voice because it will tell them what to do, so don’t ignore that voice! Each time you go back to an abusive partner, you are putting your life as well as your children’s lives at risk, and you are giving up your power. Breaking up and making up in a violent relationship is a dangerous game. We must learn to choose to put our selves first before the relationship, & we must teach this to our sons and daughters. But how do we teach them?
How do you identify an abusive or violent relationship? There is a pattern, which is called the cycle of violence and there are 4 stages to the cycle. I will explain each stage with the specific behaviors & reactions:
1) Tension: the abuser is excessively angry, s/he threatens, gives intimidating looks, or could be giving the silent treatment. The victim feels worried and tries to improve the atmosphere, and is careful about what s/he says or does (walking on pins & needles).
2) Violence incident: the abuser lashes out and attacks. The attacks may be verbal, psychological, physical, sexual or even financial. The victim feels humiliated, sad, and feels a sense of injustice, like s/he doesn’t deserve this.
3) Justification: the abuser makes excuses to justify his/her behavior. The victim attempts to understand; helps him/her to change; and doubts her/his own perceptions; s/he feels responsible for the violence, as if they provoked the anger.
4) Reconciliation/honeymoon: the abuser asks for forgiveness (s/he will never do it again). S/he makes promises: s/he will go to therapy, s/he will change. The abuser becomes charming once more and tries to win the victim back even by buying a gift or sending flowers to show how sorry s/he is. He may even threaten to commit suicide, if their partner ends the relationship. The victim gives a chance by offering her/his help; acknowledges his/her efforts; even changes his/her behavior to please or avoid another situation. Things go back to “normal” for a while, until the victim makes a false move to trigger the abuser’s anger.
It is through this cycle that the abuser manages to control the victim. Eventually, the victim is broken down and feelings of helplessness grow; self- esteem and confidence are shattered. The victim will begin to feel emotionally and financially trapped and fear and insecurity will invade them.
AND it is thus that the VICIOUS CYCLE CONTINUES on and on, until someone gets hurt badly, or even dies. Victims often go back to the abusive relationship because they have hope; they wish to return to the good times (to the ideal honeymoon phase). For example, two weeks before Rachelle died, she confessed me that she would go back to him again, despite all the pain that he had caused her. I asked her, “why?” She answered, “When things were bad they were really bad; but when things were good they were so great!” These relationships are often dramatic and extreme. As I said earlier, some people are addicted to drama and find it difficult to leave the relationship, or they believe that a “normal”, “stable”, calm partner will bore them. If that is the case, inner work or therapy is recommended.
Everybody should know this information and take it seriously. I recommend that schools become more involved, because the cycle of violence starts before the kids get into a serious relationships; Think about the 15 year old girl, Marjorie Raymond, who committed suicide on November 28th to escape her tormentors at school (it seems that every 2 weeks we hear about a teen suicide case, which is triggered by violence they face everyday at school). Educators often, maybe superficially, discuss bullying and sex education. BUT, why aren’t high schools teaching lessons about dating violence? Why don’t we wear white ribbons at school on December 6th? We should discuss the cycle of violence and the types of violence that exist in order to be able to identify violence when it happens. Parents should teach their sons and daughters respect, gender equality, self- esteem and self-worth.
We need to tell our children that they must love themselves enough to be able to walk away when it doesn’t feel right, but we also must teach them about healthy relationships. Romance isn’t everything in their life: you shouldn’t lose your friends and family for romance; you shouldn’t give up your hobbies and interests; you shouldn’t die for love. Real life shouldn’t be like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga. Life isn’t a dramatic movie, or at least it shouldn’t be one!
Most importantly, I think that it is time for people to realize that violence against women isn’t just a domestic issue, not just a private matter between spouses. You see, when thousands of women die, it is called mass murder; therefore, it is a public matter; it’s everyone’s problem. Everyone should do their part to prevent tragedies.
Despite all the knowledge that I have acquired through my personal experience, I am still looking for answers and at times I feel powerless…I am waiting for a miracle and I wish someone somewhere would do something! Would Mr. Harper, the politicians and law- makers create stricter laws; give harsher punishments; have extradition treaties with as many countries as possible! Why should Raphiou Oumar Alpha Sow be living his life freely somewhere overseas, while Rachelle Wrathmall is 6 feet under? Why should he still be considered an “important witness” instead of a prime suspect? Yes, we are disillusioned with the Canadian justice system.
We, Rachelle’s friends and family, are still struggling with our loss, and we are left left in the dark: without any sense of closure. I realize how deeply Rachelle’s death has affected us, and we will always miss her and justice or a punishment will not bring her back or erase what happened. Because of my experience, I have also realized that these things don’t only happen in the movies, on the news, or to Laci Petterson in Modesto, California—they happen in our community. Violence happens in our own backyards.
The healing process is long and difficult, but I find comfort in the fact that we are meeting today to remember and acknowledge the women of the Polytechnique, Isabelle Bolduc, Julie Boisvenu, Rachelle Wrathmall, Faye Gareghty, and Nathalie Dupont, as well as ALL the other female victims in the world. Unfortunately, they are too many to name.
I will always think of Rachelle and keep her close to my heart, and I now speak on her behalf. Violence towards women is something we can fight TOGETHER by breaking the silence and building awareness. History has shown us that we have overcome so many obstacles already, so violence towards women is another battle we can win! I believe that we can find the paradise within ourselves. TOGETHER, let’s return to Eden and reclaim our power and find our voices!
(This talk was written by Paraskevi Mazarakiotis, who delivered it at UUEstrie on Dec. 4, 2011.)