Seven years ago, while going through a custody war with the man who eventually killed my son, I began blogging about my horror story with the courts. I needed the world to know the truth about America’s broken family court system. At first, I believed the only ones reading would be my friends and family. But one day, people starting writing back.
Over the years, I’ve received hundreds of letters from men and women who are in the midst of their own custody nightmares. One spring morning, around 3 a.m., I received a particularly heartbreaking letter. My phone pinged loudly to notify me of a new message in my inbox. I rolled over in bed, rubbed my eyes, and immediately got mad at myself for forgetting to put my phone on mute before getting into bed. As I lifted my phone to turn off the noise, I glanced at the message:
“I am having trouble leaving my current situation. I’m afraid to leave my husband because I am afraid of having to leave my son alone with him,” Sara typed. (The woman’s name has been changed to protect her identity.)
There was no way I could go back to sleep after reading Sara’s haunting note. I rubbed my eyes and continued reading.
“My son is only 11 months old. Is there anything I can do to make sure he is safe while still leaving this situation?”
Each time I receive a letter like this, I am torn between wanting to give words of wisdom and also being afraid that I won’t say the right thing.
“I am so sorry…” I wrote, trying to shake myself awake enough to tell her something helpful.
“Is he physically abusive?” I asked because I didn’t want to assume. I knew that not everyone had the same definition of abuse and wanted to better understand the urgency.
“Well, it’s more verbal abuse,” she said.
“Emotional abuse is terrible, but what is he doing that is making you scared about your child’s physical well-being?” I asked, remembering having felt a similar deep worry in my own gut before leaving my son’s father.
“He has hit my daughter in the head with his cell phone when she doesn’t listen to him. I am not sure this is abuse, but I don’t think it’s OK because she isn’t even his daughter,” she wrote.
There it was ― she wasn’t clear on what constituted abuse, and he had crossed that threshold. It’s natural to not want to admit that someone you love, especially the father of your children, is abusive.
“Sara, that is abusive. Whether or not the child is biologically his doesn’t matter,” I responded.
“I know this is hard,” I continued. “I understand how you have justified staying for so long, and leaving is not going to be a walk in the park. But if you intend to protect your children, and if this man is as violent as you have described, you owe your children the best possible chance at having a good life.”
It was now four in the morning, and I could no longer fall back asleep.
Every time I speak to women who remind me of myself when I was in an abusive relationship, I tell them things that I wish I had been able to tell myself.
1. “My gut tells me everything I need to know,” ― Olivia Pope, “Scandal.”
Women don’t trust their gut enough. Many people who have met my ex have told me that they could tell something was off with him immediately. They aren’t wrong, and their gut isn’t more functional than mine. The difference was that I, like many others, made the dangerous mistake of second-guessing my gut.
Sara’s gut was completely functional. Though she wanted someone to validate her feelings, and explain that what she was witnessing was abuse, she knew she needed to get her children out of that situation long before I told her. Our gut often tells us everything we need to know.
2. “If someone tells you who they are, believe them,” ― Maya Angelou.
I remember at least one time in my relationship when my ex told me that he wasn’t a “good guy.” In fact, he revealed that as a young adult he had treated women horribly to the point where his own mother was disgusted with him. At the time, I falsely assumed that if he was telling me this, he must not still be bad. In Sara’s case, her child’s father was showing her who he was and he was telling her. This can be one of the most helpful red flags of a bad relationship.
3. “What the f*#@ is going on? Where are those keys, Rose?” ― Chris Washington, “Get Out.”
In the 2017 film “Get Out,” directed by Jordan Peele, a psychotic white family lures an unsuspecting black man into a nightmare. While things start out friendly and polite, the main character continues pushing past red flags until it’s too late and he is trapped in this house of horrors. At some point in every abusive relationship, the target reaches the moment when she realizes she is stuck in her own house of horrors without the keys to her car. If you wait too long, making excuses for all the red flags, you risk getting stuck. My relationship with Joaquin lasted less than two years, but it could take a lifetime to repair the damage it has caused.
4. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” ― Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When I left my abuser, I remember feeling as though there was no justice or morality left in America. I was devastated to learn that the police were not automatically in my corner, and that the family court judge would blame me for how long I stayed with a man I was accusing of abuse.
Any time I encourage someone to leave an abuser, I also don’t sugarcoat the struggle that lies ahead. There is a dangerous current in this country of victim blame, and it pulses through our justice system like an infectious disease. It is important for a parent to understand that you will have to fight to protect yourself and your children because nobody else will care as much as you do. In every case I have seen where justice has been served, it hasn’t been without a fight.
Sara’s story isn’t unique, but for every woman who has experienced an abusive relationship, there are at least a handful who would rather believe it could never happen to them then face the reality that it absolutely could.
If I had a dollar every time I heard someone say, “If my partner abused me I would be gone so fast he wouldn’t know what hit him,” I would be able to pay for my daughter’s college tuition in one dollar bills.
But abusers don’t generally come up to their targets and punch them in the face as a special form of “hello.” Instead, they boil us like frogs in a pot. At first, it seems like you are taking a warm bath in paradise as they shower you with affection. By the time they throw the first punch, the water has already risen to a boil and you are so far entrenched in his abuse that you can no longer identify that you are even being abused.
For those of us who fight for justice, we often do so at the expense of continuing to live deep within our own trauma. While it isn’t easy to keep confronting these painful issues head on, I always write back to people like Sara because I want others to have the opportunity to recognize these red flags before it’s too late. I didn’t choose this cause ― it chose me.
I believe that my son chose me as his mother because he knew I wouldn’t stop fighting until justice was served not only for him, but for the children who would come next. I will continue to fight until the moral universe bends all the way toward justice.