"No way he can kick through those bolts," my friend whispered as the man who'd been my boyfriend for a year laid another thump on my apartment door.
She and I bartended together, and I had confided in her the real reason behind the bruises on my face that I'd unsuccessfully masked with foundation.
"You have to leave him," she said. "I'll stay with you until things cool down."
But this was fantasy. When the door gave way, Vic barreled through, tearing her away before dragging me by my ankles down three flights of stairs. As I twisted and turned, trying to grab ahold of something—anything—my face took several hits on the cement steps.
"You son of a bitch, I'm calling the cops," my friend yelled. By the time we got to his car, there was zero fight left in me. I slumped on the seat, defeated. Once we reached his apartment, it only took a couple of shoves before I was back in the very place I hoped never to return.
"If that bitch calls the cops and they arrest me, I'll kill your mom and your sister as soon as I get out," he seethed. "And then I'll come for you."
A part of me had been hopeful that my friend would dial 911, but I was scared for her—and my family.
The knock came.
Vic cut the power on the fuse box and ordered me to get under the covers where I lay on the bed. "You've been warned," he said, flashing his pistol, the metal reflecting the moonlight peeking through the blinds.
He wasn't able to sweet talk the police out of coming in.
"Oh, god," one of the cops said shining his flashlight on me. Vic had not allowed me to clean up or look in the mirror. "Better if you let me," he'd said, dabbing a washcloth over the painful bumps where I hit the stairs.
"Your friend called," the young cop said. "She said that you're in danger. Can you tell us what happened to your face?"
I drew the blanket up over my chin. "I fell."
"You want to come with us?" the second officer offered. "Maybe have that looked at?"
"I'm fine," I said, hoping that my boyfriend would approve. After a long pause, the cops both sighed. "We're here to help," one added, before leaving. "Call us if you need us."
Later, I would discover that most states require law enforcement to make an arrest under suspicions of abuse. But that night they left me alone, and I was too afraid and confused to advocate for myself.
My romance with Vic had begun a year earlier. I met him at one of the parties my roommate and I threw at our all-female apartment complex at Illinois State University days after I turned 21. He was a football player, at a muscular 5'9" and 215 pounds, his platinum watch and diamond-studded earrings made him look like he was on set for a hip hop video. My roommate had a crush on him, so my loyalty to her kept him off my radar.
"Vic asked if he could court you," she told me one evening. "Who says 'court'?" I laughed. This was the millennium; if we did anything by name, it was "chill."
I declined his offer but over the next week, I'd come home to find this baby-faced Usher look-alike waiting with the top down on his black Mustang while Luther Vandross and Teddy Pendergrass thundered from giant subwoofers in his trunk. After two weeks of his persistence, I agreed to dinner and a round of miniature golf.
"You look stunning," he said, opening the car door. Vic was old-school cool, buying flowers and yes ma'aming waitresses. Every move seemed to be taken from a gentleman's playbook.
A few weeks after our date, he handed me a first-generation LCD color phone. "I got you a new number," he said. "Too many people bug you on your old line."
Friends began noticing my upgraded clothes—expensive sneakers, fur coats and a used Jaguar, and that I seemed to suddenly be worlds away from my Goodwill scavenging and constant lifting of couch cushions to find change for the bus. "You should be careful about what he wants in return," more than one had said. But I discounted their concern, mistaking it for jealousy.
Being the object of such attention was new. I was the fifth of seven kids and was accustomed to hand-me-downs and striving to be heard. After my parents' divorce and my mother's descent into alcoholism, I ran away, was arrested for stealing a car at 15, and became a ward of the court. I bounced among youth centers until age 19.
After I managed to get into college, juggling work and classes had become a struggle. Vic didn't have to convince me to be his—and only his—girl. It was comforting to lie together on his sled-shaped bed while he said things like "I'm your family now."
What I didn't realize was that Vic's isolating me from friends was typical behavior for abusers, a red flag I mistook for endearment. My vulnerability made me a prime target for a man seeking to control his partner. At the time though, I thought it was adorable that he wanted to be the center of my universe.
What I also didn't know is that he was telling another girl the same thing.
"I can't choose between the two of you," he said when I asked about it, crying and hurt.
"Then I'm out," I told him.
But it wasn't that easy: Our love was an addiction that burned both ways. On good days, when he sang silly love ballads, I'd tell myself his anger was a phase, and that if I showered him with enough love he'd go back to how he'd been before. On bad days, I reached for the cocaine and pot he sold to help me believe things weren't so bad.
Vic had dismantled my independence and objectified me as his possession. Like most abusers, he lacked empathy. My feelings meant nothing to him, and there was no predicting what would set him off. I obsessed over pleasing him, even if I knew he was wrong. I would later learn that this is called traumatic bonding, and that many women who experience abuse become emotionally dependent. This dancing with the devil was something Vic and I did together. In a cruel irony, I felt I needed him as much as he claimed to need me.
For more than a year, I tried to believe this. But one morning while doing laundry as instructed, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and realized that my once average-sized figure had melted into a gaunt size 0. I knew then that I had to get out: I had lost myself, and if I didn't make a change, the losing risked being for good.
I packed nothing, went to classes as usual, and later drove to a rest stop off the interstate to sleep. I had no doubt he would spend all night scouring parking lots for my newly leased car, the one he forced me to sign for.
I took the battery out of my phone, fearing he could track me down or that I'd be too weak not to answer. When I checked my messages from a payphone, I found my inbox full of threats.
"You bitch, I'll fucking kill you if I find you before you come home!" In the final few, he promised to add himself to the death toll.
After a week of camping in my car, I was excited to hear a more upbeat message. "Let's be civil," he said. "I'll give you your things on campus." I could not afford to replace my textbooks and agreed to meet, thinking closure would be good for us both.
"Grab your stuff," Vic directed, nodding to the trash bag in his back seat. When I reached in from the passenger side, he pulled me in by my long braid, banging my head against the console. He skidded out of the parking lot while my legs flailed in the air.
Vic dragged me into his apartment, puncturing my head with the brass doorknob on the way. Because my vision had collapsed into a kaleidoscope lens, it took a moment to distinguish the blood on my shirt from the red laser beam projecting from his infrared pistol.
"Get naked!" he demanded. I stripped, thinking I was going to die by the very hands that had once caressed me.
As Vic twisted two wire hangers into handcuffs, it dawned on me that his football practice time was nearing.
"I was never really going to leave," I lied.
Missing practice meant he would be benched for the next game, which would interfere with the good-boy façade everyone else still believed.
Convincing him that I'd be there when he returned worked. "I do this for you," he said, before leaving.
After he shut the door, I remained naked and bound, straining to hear his breathing, unsure if this was a test. An eternal half hour passed before I wrenched my wrists out of the cuffs, threw on my shirt and pants and climbed out the bedroom window barefoot. There was no time to think about shoes. As I ran through the field behind his apartment, I braced myself for gunshots that never came.
I made it to a nearby gas station, asked strangers for change and strained to remember a friend's number. The concern in her eyes when she picked me up told me how horrifying my swollen eyes, lips and nose were.
"I'm taking you to the ER," she said. Having worked there as a receptionist, she convinced me that if I had a concussion, I would die in my sleep. "Then he'll win." At the hospital, I recounted the events to a nurse while she took photos, and again to the police she summoned because of a mandatory policy regarding violence-related admissions.
"Having the police come was your plan?" I asked my friend who stood next to me in the hospital room.
She nodded and hugged me, "I did this for you," she said. I reeled back, wondering if it was ever possible to know when someone was really looking out for me or not. With the focus always being on Vic's feelings, I'd lost sight of what was best for me.
Upon leaving the hospital, I agreed to check into a women's shelter and later that night, wrapped in donated sheets, I felt I'd returned to my group-home past.
The following afternoon, a detective said that Vic had been arrested and I had a few days to collect my belongings before his bail would be set. This misinformation could have cost me my life: Vic made bail within 24 hours. I discovered this while in my apartment when his number flashed across my caller ID. I panicked and hightailed it back to the shelter, not leaving again for days.
There, I met women who were regulars, coming and going with their children while their husbands "cooled off." I realized that partner violence is cyclical, and that I'd have to uphold the charges if I wanted to break the twisted spell.
Years later, I would learn that domestic violence is the leading cause of injury for women, more than rapes, muggings and vehicular accidents combined. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, every nine seconds a woman in the US is either beaten or assaulted, and only 34 percent of those who are injured seek medical care. The majority of violent incidents happen after separation, with 75 percent of deaths occurring once women try to leave.
Vic was convicted of a felony fifteen months after he held me naked and bound my wrists, but not for kidnapping and beating me—the battery charge earned him a misdemeanor, while the unlawful restraint was dropped altogether. The felony was for Phone Harassment/Threat to Kill. Sticks and stones did not carry as much weight as words in the eyes of the law.
As domestic violence consultant Lundy Bancroft points out in his book Why Does He Do That?, the frightening statistics about domestic violence in the US should come as no surprise in a society where Grammys are awarded to "role models" who sing about killing their wives (such as Eminem did in his chart-topper, Kim, just before I met Vic). By continuing to applaud this kind of violence, we demonstrate that this behavior is acceptable, if not normal.
The easy reaction would be to demand stricter sentences be handed down, but according to experts, prison is not a place of rehabilitation but is more likely where the abuser will stew over retaliation with criminals more violent than himself. While I think Vic should have done more than one day, what seems to work best, Bancroft notes, is that long-term therapy be in conjunction with, not instead of, legal consequences whether the woman decides to stay or not.
As for Vic, he was ultimately dismissed from the team and the university, which at the time felt like two more reasons for him to plan an assault. For protection, I sought asylum in the dorms and only worked campus jobs. I was startled to get a call on my landline from him after a semester had passed.
"I can see you from the parking lot," he said. "Come outside."
I curtained the windows for good, requested a room change and asked for my number not to be listed. But the university informed me that so long as I lived on campus, my information would be in its directory. So I became an RA, tucked in with hundreds of students who knew me by name, and immediately after graduation the following year, I moved to New York. But soon I received chilling messages like: "Be ready when I get there." So I changed my number.
The line went silent until years later, when he found another way. In a Facebook message, he wrote, "I need your email." The feeling of dread stretched across the decade that had brought me happiness, security, and a loving husband—one who doesn't have to point out when he has my best interests in mind.
Fearing my ex's rage would resurface if I didn't respond, I sent him an email address I rarely use. I waited almost two weeks before opening the message. In it was a picture of two Jaguars. "I named the first one after you," he wrote. "The second is named after my wife."
If you are in danger, take caution and plan a safe strategy by contacting the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1 (800) 799- 7233 (SAFE) or visit ndvh.org.