A woman from Houston named Crystal McDowell went missing on the day Hurricane Harvey hit. After the storm passed and some of the floodwaters cleared, her body was found. A few days later, her ex-husband confessed to strangling her. Here’s a comment left by a stranger on an article posted about the case:
“When will these women ever learn. dating these types of men…”
In Lubbock, a man chased his pregnant girlfriend with a butcher’s knife, punched her repeatedly in the face, and slammed her into metal objects. Similar comments were left on an article about the case:
“What did she ever see in him?! Imagine waking up next to this thing every day…smh…”
“He was abusive, long before this incident. They always are. So, why stay with him? Have a child by him? It makes no sense at all.”
In Plano, Meredith Hight was hosting her first party with several friends when she and eight of her friends were gunned down by her ex-husband. It was her first party since their divorce.
These stories are all from Texas, all within the last month. And these are just the headlines. These aren’t the everyday instances. These aren’t the 24 people every minute in the US who become a victim of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner. These stories are all around us, and one of the biggest questions people always ask is, “Why did that person stay? Why couldn’t they just leave?”
In The Guardian‘s article titled “Private Violence: 75% of abused women who are murdered are killed after they leave their partners,” Kit Gruelle, an expert in the field of domestic abuse, shares, “It was always that she had tried to leave. She had done exactly what we think they’re supposed to do and she dies. And her children die.”
Statistics and devastating headlines are one thing, but what about when it’s someone you know? Someone who didn’t make the news?
I wanted to understand this issue faced by many victims of abuse—whether to leave or to stay—on a deeper level, so I decided to talk to a woman I love very much, a woman I consider to be a personal hero, and a woman who’d experienced this very thing: my grandmother, my Granny. Growing up, I’d heard bits and pieces from Granny and from my dad about why she left her first marriage to my grandfather. I’ve lived with both grandparents at one point or another in my life, so I knew that their divorce was rooted in domestic violence. I didn’t know many details beyond that.
When I was young, we didn’t ever talk about it outright, but there were snippets of conversation. I remember overhearing my mom talking to Granny. They thought I was asleep, but I had my eyes wide open in the dark, my ears wide open too. I overheard my mom telling Granny that she’d had a conversation with Granpon when my sister and I were very young. He’d said something derogatory toward her, some put-down about her being a woman, and my mom told him, “If you ever say anything like that to me again, you won’t be seeing me and you won’t be seeing any of your grandchildren. We will not come around here.” She told Granny he must’ve believed her because he never said anything like that again. It stuck with me, that this man I loved eating ice cream with and “monkey shining around” with—as he called it—would ever say anything mean to my mother.
It wasn’t until I was older, after I volunteered with Safe Place in Austin and learned a lot more about domestic violence, that I finally heard Granny say out loud that she left Granpon because of his abuse. It shocked me to hear her say the words—the explicit words—because we’d never talked about it, but I don’t remember being surprised to hear that it happened.
As I’ve gotten older, Granny has become more open about sharing her experiences with me. Maybe it’s because I ask a lot more questions now, but she’s always willing to lay out her pain and her joy for me to study and learn from. I asked her about the first instance of abuse she experienced in her marriage.
My grandparents were both twenty-one when they got married in 1953. Within a few months, he had struck her. She didn’t remember what they were arguing about—if they were even arguing—but she remembers the sensation of deepest bewilderment as his hand flew out and slapped her so hard, her head jerked sideways. The only words she remembers is my grandfather saying, “You won’t call me a liar and get away with it.”
And then he slapped her.
“Was there any kind of dread?” I asked. “Did you worry about what the rest of your life would look like with him?”
She was shocked he’d hit her. She was hurt, emotionally more than physically, but running out was not in her mind. For Granny, when a woman marries, she marries forever. She didn’t even begin to rethink her choice.
Instead, she kept the abuse to herself. She didn’t share what had happened with anyone, not even with her three sisters. And definitely not any of her three brothers, or her mother and father. After that first hit, the abuse turned more verbal and psychological, but they stayed together. Granpon worked. Granny worked. And a few years later, they had their first son, Greg.
After she had two more sons—my dad Kevin and his younger brother Steven—Granny received her first full-on beating.
Although she’d been married for years and had children, she’d never enjoyed the act of sex. She never orgasmed and never felt fulfilled. She and my grandfather chalked it up to her being a “frigid female,” and the intimate part of their relationship became all about him and his desires.
One day, though, her body came alive. She felt something, and it was strong. Only, it wasn’t for my grandfather. It was for another man.
Even to this day, she doesn’t know what it was about this man that drew her to him, but there he was, and her body reacted to him in a way she’d never experienced.
Granny was excited. She wasn’t a frigid female! If her body could react to some stranger in this way, she was sure she could somehow find it with her own husband, so she told my grandfather straightaway about her feelings and explained that she wanted to work on building up their own chemistry.
His response was to beat her.
Despite these new feelings, despite that instant of hope, she tried to ignore the way she felt about this man. She resisted for months but, eventually, had an affair with this other man. Granny was racked with guilt. She hadn’t wanted to break her wedding vows. It was completely foreign to everything she believed about herself, yet she got a profound sense of relief in the illicit relationship.
It’s my belief that we’re all human, and sometimes we do things that fill us with guilt, shame, remorse, and disgust. We behave in a way that does not align with our personal values or beliefs. We make life-changing decisions that cause pain to ourselves and to those we care about. Usually, at the root of these behaviors, there’s a truth yearning to break out, a self-knowledge struggling to burst into existence.
My grandmother’s unknown truth was simple—she could not be happy or safe in her marriage to my grandfather.
In a perfect world, she would have realized this, left the marriage, and moved on with her life in peace. Or maybe, in a perfect world, my grandfather would have listened to her when she said she wasn’t happy and worked with her to resolve their marital issues. In a most perfect world, one person would never abuse another person.
As we all know, we are far from a perfect world. My grandfather hit my grandmother. My grandmother betrayed her truest, finest self and broke her wedding vows. Then, my grandfather’s abuse got worse.
The emotional abuse increased—the manipulation, the isolation, the irrational bouts of rage. The physical abuse escalated as well. He choked her. He stalked up and down the hallway with a pistol aimed and the trigger cocked. He even took to hitting their children, my father included.
Eventually, Granny started to accept that she wouldn’t be able to stay in the marriage. She consulted a priest, who agreed with her that my grandfather’s behavior was not conducive to a healthy or safe relationship, but he warned Granny that by leaving the marriage, she would be leaving her sons without a father. Therefore, she would also be committing a great sin.
At that point, with the burden of sin hanging over her, she decided to stay. She stayed for years. By the time she decided her marriage was truly and finally over, their oldest son was eleven, my father was seven, and the youngest was about four.
The weekend before she decided to end the marriage, my dad had just come back from the hospital after having a concussion. My grandfather was knocking him around a tile bathroom, so Granny called the police.
They asked her, “Are there any broken bones? Is your son bleeding?” The answer was no to both questions, so they told her they couldn’t come out and she’d have to contact the domestic courts on Monday.
Later that week, Granny and my grandfather were arguing about her mother, my great-grandmother, because my grandfather didn’t like for her to visit family. The argument boiled over until my grandfather struck Granny so hard, she fell and hit her head on the wooden bed stand on her way down.
It stunned her for a moment, and when she looked up, my uncle Steve, four years old at the time, was going through a basket of socks. They locked eyes, and something inside her disconnected. Something she’d been grasping at. Something she could finally let go of within her heart.
Once she was on the floor, Granpon’s rage dissipated and the argument ended as quickly as it had begun. Granny pulled herself up, got dressed, and went to work. Once she was there, she called him. “Get whatever you want out of the house, but I want you gone by the time I get home from work.”
At this point in her story, I asked, “Did you ever worry that he would snap and come after you again?”
Here are Granny’s own words about her decision to leave an abusive relationship:
I wasn’t really afraid that he would come after me because he seemed to need to have an inciting incident. I thought if I wasn’t around him, then there wouldn’t be a need for him to attack me.
I did have a girlfriend at the time who was going through something similar, and she was advised to go to a secure apartment where you could only enter by key entry. The grounds were guarded, and they told her, “Never to go to work the same direction, always go a different path, drive one way to get there and a different way on the way back. Don’t do anything habitual. Don’t shop at the same grocery store on the same day or at the same time. Change all of your patterns and keep the patterns changing all the time because he is a borderline psychopath.” She couldn’t tell anyone because he was also a doctor and would have lost his practice. She didn’t make enough money to support her children, who were becoming adults by that time but who remained living at home with him. She moved out and just lived by herself. So they did warn her that he had the capacity to kill her.
Later I learned that if a man choked you, he would most likely be willing to kill you. Your grandfather had choked me. I was just naïve, naïve not to be scared.
Decades later, there are people in my family who still don’t believe my grandfather ever laid a hand on Granny. Her faith told her to stay in the marriage. A culture of silence and repression told her to stay in the marriage. Her sense of motherly obligation told her to stay in the marriage.
In a time when women rarely had the opportunity to do so, she made the most difficult and dangerous choice. She chose to save herself.
It took Granny over thirteen years from the first time my grandfather hit her to walk away. Some people, a lot of people, can go through similar things that Granny went through, and when they walk away, they end up losing their lives. Meredith Hight thought she was safe, thought she was free, but her ex gunned her down. Leaving an abusive relationship is complex. One woman stays for thirteen years, leaves, and lives. One woman stays for six years, leaves, and dies.
When someone asks an abused person, “Why would you stay?” The answer is simple.
Leaving ain’t so easy.
Each person knows their own situation best. Granny felt safe enough to stay in her own house and keep life as normal as possible for her three sons. As we talked through this together and I reflected on some of these recent headlines, I felt not only a rush of pride in her courage but also of thankfulness that her story continued on, leading her to a life filled with love and family.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Read more and learn more at the official DVAM website. Please help us spread awareness of this complicated issue by wearing purple, sharing stories with loved ones, and educating yourself about how and why domestic violence happens.