The bruising years

Monday, June 17, 2002

She shakes back a cascade of coppery hair, fires a cigarette with a newly-steady hand.

Slowly, a smile spreads across her freckled face, and why not? It's going to be a damn good day.

Every day is good these days, because after 20 years Terri can now get up in the morning knowing she won't have an eye blackened, she won't be choked or raped or lashed to a post in the basement. The local woman opened her personal chamber of horrors, so long hidden, to serve as living proof that there is life after domestic abuse.

"Not everybody gets a chance to start a life all over again. The first thing on my mind after hanging up the hotline call that day was to get back to school right away. I appreciate every moment because there was a time when I didn't expect to live to see them."

Terri is among the success stories of the local Council Against Domestic Abuse's campaign to bring the most shadowed of crimes into the light of public awareness.

"I'm not comfortable living life with people calling me 'the victim,' but since I'm emotionally ready to handle this, I feel I have to talk for those who aren't," Terri said. "There might be a woman in some farmhouse who is just as scared as I was. I want her to know there are people who care."

In May 1990, after almost 20 years of being beaten, she hid some clothes and supplies, left a note on the kitchen table saying 'Please get help, we love you,' and left her home forever.

When the young mother of five speaks of fear, she speaks from experience. She met "my Prince Charming" while in high school, and was dazzled by the flowers and "romance novel talk" he heaped on her. They was married by 18. What she didn't tell her parents is that when her man wasn't sweet talking, he was holding a rifle to her head.

"I never got over feeling that I was the one that should feel guilty. The first real abuse came over a checkbook argument. He backhanded me across the face, and I was the one who felt sorry because I shouldn't have spoken to him that way."

The minor incidents gradually became more punishing, and more frequent. "Every time I went to work with a black eye, I told them I had run into a door, and they just looked at me. I kept saying I'd just give him one more year to get well. I was always angry inside, but it seemed to be anger at myself. If I could just do something right ..."

She would be beaten if a meal didn't meet his satisfaction, shoved down if she took too long carting in groceries.

At one point the husband went into counseling, but within a year, the beatings started again, worse than ever.

"There were times I would be left tied to a pole in the basement, beaten with belts, or forced to lie in a creek through

the night. He got good at hitting me in such a way not to leave marks where they would be seen."

She hid a will in a drawer, asking that her children be taken away to safety if she should be found dead.

In the early '80s, awareness of domestic violence was not what it is today. The people who suspected either ignored what was happening or blamed her for not fighting back. Terri once called a national hotline looking for an escape, but was told that shelters would not take her children. She hung up and went on suffering.

"The mental abuse is worse, I think, than the physical. In time, I couldn't remember how old I was. I looked in the mirror and didn't know myself. I was dying, slowly. The sexual abuse I learned to deal with by going someplace else in my head. He can take my body, I told myself, but that would be all. He didn't allow me any clothing by then, and locked me in my room. In the last few months, I wasn't even crying anymore."

One night, after the family had moved from northwest lowa to an isolated spot in the southern Missouri foothills, her husband locked the door behind himself and started to choke her. He would stop when she blacked out, then start again when she woke up. She thought about the children as she hazed in and out of consciousness- who would feed them in the morning with her dead?

When she decided to run, a string of shelter groups - sort of a modern Underground Railroad - helped transport her back to Iowa.

"I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for CADA. I called other agencies, but they couldn't help me get transportation, and I had nothing. The CADA people were waiting for me when I got off the bus, and brought me and the children straight to shelter."

Terri urges other women who are enduring abuse to make the same break.

For her, that day of decision is a birthday- the start of a new lifetime.

"At the shelter, it was the first time I had ever spoken a word about what happened to me, and some of the stories I heard back would curl your hair. I was a lucky one. One sweet little gal, maybe five foot tall, told me about being beaten with a gun barrel, wrapped in a rug and shut in a dresser drawer to be left for dead. The only reason she lived is that her son got away and ran for miles to get help."

There is life after abuse, Terri found. She devotes most of her time to her children, 14-year-old twins, 6, 4 and 2 at the time she escaped in 1990. "There are repercussions on them, things to be taught all over," she said. "For example, they might ask why Daddy never allowed them to watch 'Cosby,' because the character of the wife Claire was too strong a woman. He'd tell them, 'I'd slap the crap out of (her) if she talked to me like that.' Once the boys woke up and saw me fighting him off with a baseball bat. That has to leave marks."

The husband was sent to jail for only 72 hours after she filed the abuse charges, then released early. "The last I heard, he was a Bible teacher. That's a scary thought."

The healing process for Terri includes a lot of reading about the problem of domestic violence, and her volunteerism with a domestic abuse council. "It helps a lot to discover the simple fact that it's not just you. Also, it made me stronger and more determined to never go back into a situation like that."

She went on to college, studying art. The first test of her skill was appropriately a portrait of the governor, which she did for the shelter that saved her to present at a domestic violence awareness event.

What the local woman has found in her experiences is just the opposite of the claims of many experts. "I'm not so sure you can educate men not to be abusers. After all, I know a lot of men who have grown up in environments some would call sexist, bad family backgrounds or violent childhoods that grow up perfectly wonderful. I think that someday there will be a name for the illness that causes domestic abuse, it is a personality disorder. For now, what we must do is educate young girls, before high school age, to see the signs I missed. We must teach them that no amount of love they can give will change a person who does not want to change himself."

Terri's is not a sad story, she stresses. She feels happier than she ever hoped to be - and for the first time in 20 years - safe.

"I still have a long way to go, but I've learned to trust people again. I have good friends, and they will sit and play cards with me on Saturday night, when it always seems to get to me worst. I've used the hotline at times when I've needed a little help. There are as many paths to a new start as there are women who go looking for them."

Terri White's freckles jump to make room for another broad grin.

She has it coming to her. It's a damn good day.