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My Female Colleagues Told Me Not To Talk About The Abuse. I Did It Anyway

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MICHELE WELSON
Barb Levant

"You will have 'victim' on your name tag for the rest of your life."

She said it crisply, curtly. I imagine her intent was to perhaps save me from what she perceived as a career-ending move. She and I were friends from college, and I respected her personally and professionally; she had, after all, won a Pulitzer Prize.

I told her I wanted to write a memoir about my nine-year marriage to a cyclically violent man and the difficulty of coming to terms with the shame. In 1996, freshly divorced, I was a working journalist with years as a staff writer or contributor to newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Times Herald, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times, as well as scores of magazines from Bride to Seventeen to Parenting. At the time, I was an adjunct journalism lecturer at Northwestern University's Medill School. I was building my career, already respected on a national scale writing features, columns, essays. I had ambition.

"You will be known for this forever," she scoffed.

She told me I would never escape the label of a battered woman. She told me I was damned to be forever served up on the talk shows and identified in all my work as the woman who was abused by her husband. No matter what I did, this took precedence. No one would ever take me seriously or give me a reporting or writing assignment that was unrelated to the abuse; and the market for victim journalists was small.

We hung up that afternoon and never spoke again.

I needed support, not criticism. I wrote the book in stolen moments over the next three years, beginning when my sons were six, four and one. Now, 12 years after the publication of I Closed My Eyes (Hazelden, 1999), a book reprinted in seven languages, and selling many, many tens of thousands of copies, I have published a million more words since in other books, newspapers, magazines, websites and keynotes. But my memoir remains my single greatest personal and professional accomplishment.

The abuse from my handsome, smart lawyer husband I had known my whole life happened mostly annually from 1987 to 1995. It is now so long ago it feels as if it happened to someone else. Even thought I told the story, it has not limited me. Instead, the act of owning up to the truth and proudly walking fully into who I am defines me. My professional reputation is built around courage, honesty and authentic storytelling in all forms as a professor, journalist, speaker, mentor and author. I can tell other stories with empathy because I was brave enough to tell my own.

My goal was to take control of a life I had lost control of. I wrote to understand and explain to myself a confusing and chaotic marriage to a charismatic, convincing abusive man, a litigating attorney who dazzled others in a Brooks Brothers suit, toasted me at parties and made my woman friends swoon with envy over his public professions of adoration. He brought my closest friend flowers the first time he met her. Years later, he bit me on my arm before a family party.

Many women like me who are confident, successful and without a history of any form of abuse do not report domestic violence disputes at first because they are afraid they will die of embarrassment. It is never embarrassment that kills them.

Because October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, news stories, studies about violence trends and press coverage of diligent preventative programs are prevalent. I applaud the effort and contribute to it myself in keynotes, contributions and writings on the issue. It is necessary to remind people that domestic violence occurs everywhere, in every state, in every country of the world, to women -- and some men -- from every racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, ideological, political and geographic sector imaginable. Domestic violence has no boundaries.

The murders of eight people including his ex-wife in an upscale hair salon in Southern California earlier this month by an estranged husband made for shocking headlines. Scott Dekrail shot and killed his former wife, Michelle Fournier, and seven others, plus injured a ninth, in a rage over a custody battle involving their son. The custody battle is over.

While incidents of murder of intimate partners has been rising in many states, earlier this fall the mayor and city council of Topeka, Kansas, voted to decriminalize domestic violence, making incidents of domestic violence a misdemeanor, citing budget concerns.

What price a life?

In newly released statistics, 169 women were killed as a result of domestic violence in Pennsylvania in 2010, according to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. In Texas, the number of domestic violence murders increased 27 percent in 2010 to 142 deaths. In Idaho, the number of deaths of women by intimate partners increased 30 percent.

The Violence Policy Center releases its annual rankings by state of women murdered by men in domestic violence cases. A total of 1,818 women were murdered in this country at the hands of a partner, with the highest rate of such murders per capita in Nevada. The greatest number of deaths of women, however, was in California, with 193 deaths, although because of its size, the state was ranked no. 31. Illinois ranks 48th on this list, with Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona, Tennessee, Georgia, S. Carolina, South Dakota, Hawaii and Missouri in the top 10 of murder rates from domestic violence for women.

So does the awareness help? We can raise funds, but can we change the behaviors? We have the documentaries, we have the anecdotes, we have the news stories, we have the books. What can we do to make sure no woman dies at the hands of a partner? Should we insist every woman be given a "Love is Not Abuse" app for her iPhone?

It's a start.

Maybe we speak up in every arena of our lives as intolerant of violence against women. Maybe we protest the mainstream naming of sleeveless t-shirts as "wife beaters." Do a Bing, Google, even an Amazon search of that term, and you'll find hundreds of pages of links to sites selling tank tops under that name.

In a simple search you also come up with songs about wife beaters, and a 2011 youtube video, "Wife Beater" by the band The Plot In You, that depicts a beating, followed by a gruesome, gory, cannibalistic murder of a woman. The video has more than 52,000 views. Thankfully, the majority of the comments on Youtube call it disgusting.

Five and a half years ago, Therese Pender was murdered by her estranged husband just blocks from my home in suburban Chicago. Her ex-husband, James Pender, bludgeoned her to death with a masonry hammer after following her as she went to a friend's house where she had been staying to get away from him. In 2009, he pleaded guilty, was convicted and given a life sentence without parole.

I did not know her; she was a decade younger than me, though we went to the same high school. I know from what I have read and heard about her that she was a kind and accomplished woman, friend, sister and aunt. She never expected domestic violence could happen to her. She filed for divorce and got an emergency order of protection against her husband, an order in effect when he killed her.

The statistics released every year during Domestic Violence Awareness month contain the stories of hundreds and thousands of women who never anticipated they would be abused in their lifetime. According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center one in three women around the world will be abused in her lifetime. Three out of four women will know a woman who is abused.

What action can you take? You can speak up. For yourself, for a friend, for women you will never know personally. You can be known for your intolerance of violence against women. Say the jokes about "smacking her" are not funny. Say the songs with name-calling provoking violence against women are not amusing. Volunteer in your neighborhood at a domestic violence shelter. Say something if you hear about someone abusing a partner. Listen. Help. Do not walk away. And never advise anyone that telling the truth will ruin her career.

It's true that no woman wants to have "victim" on her name tag for the rest of her life.

But more than that, no woman wants it on her headstone.