I understand that this is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Here is my story.
When I was 19 I was swept off my very naïve feet by a funny, talented man who was 27 years older. I cannot access my frame of mind then, although I have tried many times. No matter. Because of this man I left my comfortable undergrad life at a small liberal arts school, and a wonderful boyfriend and moved to New York City where I entered The Juilliard School.
This man, who wooed me with flowers and dinners out, bought me dresses that he felt I should wear, rarely let me out of his sight. In no short time after moving to New York I learned firsthand about psychological and physical domestic abuse. However, this was 1976. No one spoke of it. There were no obvious places to go for help.
After the first episode, I called a friend who hailed a Checker cab and picked me up along with my few belongings, and took me to the Barbizon Hotel for Women.
My relationship with my parents had always been wonderful but it had become a tad strained because of running off with a man their age. They were supportive of Juilliard but that was it. Realizing I could not possibly ask them to fund my sojourn at the hotel, I found an apartment and a roommate, close to Juilliard, which at that time had no housing for students. On a restricted budget, I ate granola and peanut butter and had three jobs outside of school. This was fun in a bizarre way and I was young in New York.
The older man apologized and wooed me back. He was contrite and I was concerned. I moved back in with him and sublet my share of the apartment. As time went on, my life was more restricted. I was ordered home within a certain window of time after classes or rehearsals ended. I had to be sure and pick up Viceroys and vodka or I would be sorry. I endured many days of lecturing -- he lying on the sofa in his terry-cloth bathrobe and me across the room in a normal chair. He told me that my parents were not important, that without him I would be nothing, that I could not put two words together so I should be careful when I talk, and pretty much broke me mentally. He had likened me to a Neanderthal. At a time when I should have been creative and growing as an artist, I pretty much stagnated.
As time went on, we were married at New York City Hall. That night he asked me never to wear the wedding ring. This man stopped working and grew dependent on alcohol, quaaludes and who knows what else. He insisted on bringing in women with whom he would have sex while I waited in the other room. I was labeled a prude because I would not participate. He once put a large knife through the kitchen counter because I asked him not to kiss other women when we were together at a party. He once hit a kitchen cabinet full of dishes so hard that they all broke inside.
I often found him wanting to leap out the 19th floor window. He also was sure he had numerous ailments. I knew nothing about psychiatric disorders.
Fast forward. By the time I received my Master's degree, we used some money my parents had loaned me for school to purchase a small house in the country. I worked flea markets and we opened a small junk antiques shop. I stayed because I was afraid.
In 1980 I received a call from my former teacher asking me to audition for a small company in Houston. I got the job. I left the house and eventually, after a terribly violent evening on a holiday break, the man. Once I got with new people I realized I was not the ingrate I had been led to believe. I actually was someone people spoke with and wanted to know.
I moved on, remarrying a wonderful guy and having a great kid. Even though that marriage did not work for unrelated reasons, I consider it a great gift. Now I have even reunited with the old boyfriend from college and am finding a bit of that person I once was.
How does this tie in with my singing? For years and years, deep inside me was that knowledge and trauma of what I lived through. Every small step -- whether it was actually speaking on a phone without fear, or singing a role well having a success, or giving a comprehensive interview -- each step was a huge triumph over the abuse. He had convinced me that none of these things was possible.
This man used to call me in the middle of the night for years. He would track down where I was staying and lead me to believe that he was there in the hotel. Once I had to stay at a YWCA in order to not be traced. Much later I was performing at the Metropolitan Opera and I had an odd feeling onstage that he was present and that I might be in danger. At intermission there was a knock at my door and there he was. I do not know how he got backstage. Thankfully, my manager was there and I asked him to stay with me. I was relieved when a few years ago I read of the man's death in the New York Times obituaries. I no longer feel the need to read them daily.
I persisted and I survived. It took years to overcome the lack of self-worth. I was even able to access the experience when I sang the role of the complicated and eventually abused Mélisande in the opera Pélleas et Mélisande.
Now looking back at my 34-year career I am proud of myself, and finally shedding the constant doubt and self-judgement that was seeded long ago at an impressionable age. I take my bow after each current performance of "Figaro" at the Met counting my blessings. I finally feel comfortable with who I am.
To use a cliché -- "I'm Still Here."