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Mental prisons

National | Battered women find themselves trapped by more than just the monsters who abuse them

Issue: "Bush's tax-cut plan," March 10, 2001

in Forth Worth, Texas-Forest Hill, Texas, Oct. 29, 3:00 a.m: Gasping for breath, a young woman stumbles into a suburban street. She has just been stabbed eight times with a kitchen knife. "Help me! I'm hurt!" she sobs, pounding weakly on a neighbor's door. Minutes later, police cruisers scream into the neighborhood. Officers discover blood splattered on the sidewalk and in the front entryway of the neighbor's home. Inside, the barely breathing victim, 21-year-old Shauna Bess, identifies her attacker: allegedly, the father of her four children-all of whom were present during the stabbing. Each year, 1.5 million women like Ms. Bess suffer severe assaults by an "intimate partner," according to the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Justice. Comprising nearly 40 percent of police calls reported annually, domestic abuse is one of the most common and violent types of crime. But behind cold statistics are stories of people caught in a tragic cycle of abuse. People like Ms. Bess. A small woman with wavy hair and dark eyes that peer intensely from beneath long eyelashes, the cycle of violence snared her early in life. As a child, Ms. Bess watched her father beat her mother; more abuse followed at the hands of at least one boyfriend. By her early teens, Ms. Bess was looking for a way out. That's when she met Rodney Rich-seven years ago-at a local church. He was 15; she was 14. They maintained a relationship punctuated by four children and frequent abuse. They never married. "He said I wasn't good enough," she said. "Honeymoon periods" followed each beating, Ms. Bess remembered. Mr. Rich would take her to dinner or help with the children. But good times never rolled for long. Ms. Bess told WORLD she tried to escape the relationship several times-once staying in a shelter, another time fleeing to Oklahoma. Each time fear pulled her back. Battered women return to their abusers an average of five times before leaving permanently, according to Michigan psychologist Lewis Okun, author of Woman Abuse: Facts Replacing Myths. The victim's sense of worthlessness and the abuser's warped need for control fuels a cycle that is much like an addiction. There's relapse, when the victim returns to the abuser. There's the "high" when the abuser regrets his actions, and woos back the victim with romantic overtures. Then the violent crash, the moment when police arrive on-scene-again. "Women go back to an abusive lifestyle because that is what they are comfortable with," said Pam Easen, a counselor at Open Arms, a Christian women's shelter in Fort Worth. "They know what to expect. When they're in a healthy environment, they're always waiting for the floor to drop out, and the waiting is hard on them. But when you are with an abuser you can predict his behavior." Ms. Bess, however, did not predict attempted murder. Last year, she finally found the courage to break away from Rodney Rich for good. Two months later came retribution. In October, Mr. Rich drove his pickup truck to a lower-income suburb south of Fort Worth and pounded on the door of Ms. Bess's home. When she refused to let him in, he allegedly broke the door open and attacked her with a kitchen knife, allegedly stabbing her in the back repeatedly as she pleaded with him to take her to the hospital. Ms. Bess remembers seeing her arm "all bloody." Mr. Rich saw it too, she said, and suddenly softened. "[He] started kissing me and telling me he loved me. Then he snapped back out of it and started calling me names, telling me I was going to die tonight, and that my kids would not have parents." Then came cries from a back room. Mr. Rich suddenly ceased his attack on Ms. Bess and headed for the rear of the house to see which of his children had awakened. Shaking, bleeding, but momentarily free, Ms. Bess stumbled out into the street. When neighbor Peggy Walker answered Ms. Bess's frantic cries for help, police reports say she saw Mr. Rich trying to drag Ms. Bess back across the street. But when he saw Mrs. Walker, he dropped his victim and ran. Mrs. Walker helped her bleeding neighbor into the house, then dialed 911. Police officers responding to the call discovered Ms. Bess collapsed on the couch in a pool of blood inside Peggy Walker's home. Outside, officers saw Mr. Rich running toward a white pickup truck-with his 5-year-old son clutched under one arm. He leapt inside the truck, started the engine, and careened down the street, nearly crashing into officers who tried to block his escape. He didn't get far. Police nabbed Mr. Rich at an intersection a few blocks away. His son had suffered lacerations during the getaway. Police arrested Mr. Rich and sent the boy to the hospital. Ms. Bess had suffered stab wounds so deep that they punctured a lung and almost caused her to bleed to death. "I never thought in a million years he would try to kill me," Ms. Bess said. "Maybe black my eye or hit me-but never kill me." Forest Hill police were less surprised. According to the Justice Department, a third of American women murdered in 1998, the most recent year studied, were murdered by an "intimate male partner." That same year, about one in 10 murders nationally resulted from "intimate partner violence." Studies show that a domestic abuse victim faces the most serious risk after she severs a relationship with a batterer-an action the batterer perceives as a threat to his control. And though such violence pierces all socioeconomic and cultural strata, lower-income women from ages 16 to 24 are the most frequent sufferers. Legislators and advocacy groups have emphasized law enforcement and public education. President Clinton last year designated October "National Domestic Violence Awareness Month" and touted legislation that increased government funding for battered women's shelters and abuse-related training for law officers. Under the law, 41 states have received a combined $30 million to fight domestic abuse. In 21 states, police arrest of suspected batterers is mandatory if there is evidence of domestic abuse. But short-term law enforcement measures rarely stop the long-term cycle. "Our officers go to the same places over and over again," said Forest Hill Police Chief Sam Hill. One reason, he says, is that emergency intervention won't instantly help desensitized victims make healthy decisions. Despite serious, serial battery, most women refuse to leave their tormentors until faced with life-threatening danger to themselves or their children. It takes at least two years to break the mental patterns created by consistent abuse, said Brenda Jackson, who founded the Fort WorthÐarea Battered Women's Foundation after escaping two violent marriages of her own. In an abusive relationship, she explained, abusers derive their security from controlling the victim as their possession; victims form their entire identity around the abuser's demands. "That's where God's grace comes in," she said. "You've looked to men your whole life to bring you happiness and suddenly you have to look to your Heavenly Father. Our God is a God of grace.... The abuser has made [the victim] believe she deserves this treatment because she's worth nothing. But we try to show them that God is their Heavenly Father and He loves them unconditionally." Shauna Bess, who says she's a Christian, believes God loves her. But she said she hasn't yet fully considered why she made the choices she did in her relationship with Mr. Rich. Meanwhile, a Texas court last month convicted Mr. Rich of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced him to 11 years in prison. Ms. Bess's four children still suffer nightmares from the attack on their mother. Though she has physical custody of the kids, legal custody resides with the Texas Department of Regulatory and Protective Services-at least until a hearing with that agency this month. In some ways, though, life is better: "At least now I am not afraid he is going to come in at any time or call me whenever he wants," she said. But is this the end of her involvement with abusive men? Ms. Bess believes so: "I am not going to make this a cycle where my kids abuse their spouses or mates.... It has to be better than this. My life has to change." Ms. Bess is living in her own trailer home, working as a secretary for a marketing firm, and undergoing counseling with state mental health workers. As for spiritual counseling, she said it's something she "has considered," and she is attending church.

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