Carmen E. loves samurai movies. She’s talking about the lessons she’s learned from watching samurais work for overlords in a sunny Manhattan park. “The samurais are the warrior class. They are always acting in service of something higher.” She pauses. “That’s how I escaped. I told myself: I am the samurai and the overlord is motherhood.” Carmen is a mom and a domestic violence survivor.
Kristin. Carmen. Ann Truth. Z.S. All four are mothers who, despite the odds and the overwhelming obstacles — financial stress, PTSD, co-parenting with your abuser — found their children to be a source of unrelenting strength. All four have been brought together by Sanctuary for Families, a New York City nonprofit providing shelter and support, where they now work to build a supportive healing community for other women struggling to escape and recover from domestic abuse.
Huddled in a booth, Kristin says the moment her son was laid on her chest was one of existential clarity. “I began looking at life through a new lens. Instead of what felt good or bad, my decisions were informed by what was healthy or unhealthy for my son.” She looks at me over the rim of her glass. “If it wasn’t for my son, I’m not sure I’d be alive.”
There is a ferocity underlying the calm of Ann’s words. “I looked at my daughter and thought, she didn’t choose him; I did.”
Z.S. looks down as she talks about the first time her four sons witnessed an act of violence. “I felt no pain. I just felt, I have to protect my kids. I have to leave.”
Carmen E. refers many times to what she terms a priority shift. “When I became a mother, I was [a] mother over everything else. I looked at my daughters and thought, this is my job now. I had to nurture them. I couldn’t afford to be crazy. I couldn’t afford to be manipulated. I had to teach them to be self-sufficient so they could achieve their dreams. So they could be better than me.”
Z.S. was dissuaded from filing a police report the first time she tried: 'They said oh no, it’s not violence, it’s only a discussion.'
The Difficulties In Identifying Domestic Abuse
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one in three American women experience intimate partner violence, and one in four American women experience this at a “severe” level. Many of these women are mothers, and one in 15 American children experience domestic violence trauma firsthand. Yet there continues to be a stigma attached to domestic violence and the women who fight their way out of it. Part of this stems from our culture’s treatment of domestic violence as a black-and-white issue. If your partner hits you, you leave. And if you don’t, then you are part of the problem.
The years of abuse and exposure to trauma that lead to PTSD are not acknowledged, and often, the testimony of survivors is treated with skepticism and doubt. That’s if they even make it to the courtroom, as navigating the legal system requires money, time, and support, which victimized women generally lack. In addition, the court system is bureaucratic. Some women are afraid that if they speak out, they will run the risk of losing custody of their children, but if they don’t speak out, their “failure to act” can be considered a contribution to an unsafe environment.
“This is a complex decision,” explains Sarah Love, a licensed social worker and trauma-focused therapist based in Brooklyn. “These women are not simply deciding to leave their partner. They’re deciding to become a single parent, to half their resources, to possibly alienate friends and extended family. They’ve been terrorized for years. They feel powerless and afraid.”
She talks extensively about PTSD, which is not only “extreme” trauma but also “repeated exposure” to a traumatic event or its adverse effects. “The courts simplify traumatic experiences by failing to recognize that these women are navigating a new and complicated system with depleted inner resources, no self-esteem, and more often than not, are battling with PTSD. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen mothers denied their request to testify in their own cases. How do you prove emotional and psychological damage? Most of these women are just trying to survive.”
Z.S. was dissuaded from filing a police report the first time she tried: “They said oh no, it’s not violence, it’s only a discussion.”
Love recounts her overnight shifts working at a domestic violence shelter in Colorado. “A woman would call, I’d get a taxi service on the line, we’d agree on a place and time to meet, and I can’t tell you how many nights I would wait for hours and the woman wouldn’t show up.” There are a number of reasons, from panic to finances. As Love points out, living in an urban area is a privilege. What happens to the women who live in rural areas, where the nearest shelter is more than an hour’s drive away? “Who can afford that kind of cab fare?”
Many women don’t even get as far as placing a call. “Do you have any idea how hard it is for a woman to get to the point where she feels able to leave with one, or two, or more kids on her back, with nowhere to go?” asks Love.
Many victimized people do not feel secure in their own perception of what is happening, and after years of being isolated and demeaned, with no witness to corroborate their reality, don’t recognize that their partner’s behavior is abusive.
I worked with these women every day, but I didn’t think I was one of them. I was still trying to fix my marriage.
It took Carmen E. years to realize she was in an abusive relationship. Well-educated, harboring a passion for romance languages, she married a professor. The values she’d been raised with taught her that it was her duty to make her marriage work. “I felt like, I signed up for this, and I signed up to stay, not to leave.”
It felt like everything was working against her. She’d recently been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, was in and out of the hospital, and her ex-partner used her diagnosis to undermine her perception of what was happening. “I know this is going to sound crazy,” she says, “but sometimes I just wished he would hit me. So I would know for sure.”
It wasn’t until she returned to school and was studying French colonialism and the African diaspora that Carmen began to draw connections between colonialism and the power abuse happening in her household. “The scales fell from my eyes, and I saw my husband with clear vision.”
“I kept thinking, if I just get the formula right, all will be OK,” explains Kristin. “That stopped when my son was born. But it didn’t stop the double feelings. My ex had a history of abuse and trauma. I felt compassion. And of course, I loved him.”
The normalization of pain in an abusive relationship is common. Ann calls the pain “the third partner,” an element of the partnership that you become so accustomed to, you stop seeing it. “I was the only one caring for our daughter, and I was so tired,” she says during our phone call. “I would take the baby to go move the car, and I would fall asleep sitting in the car.” This finally drove her to see a doctor. When he asked her how many hours a week she had to herself, Ann was bewildered. “I don’t,” she told him. Appalled, the doctor wrote her husband a letter requiring him to give Ann at least four hours a week to herself. This was the first alarm bell that maybe what was happening wasn’t “normal.”
Z.S. was well-versed in intimate partner violence. One of the few ways she exerted her autonomy during the years she spent with her ex was by volunteering with an organization that provided workshops and therapy to domestic violence survivors. “But I wasn’t ready to leave,” she says. “You need to be ready. I worked with these women every day, but I didn’t think I was one of them. I was still trying to fix my marriage.”
Working To Break The Abuse Cycle
Part of the problem is that abuse runs in cycles. It is an inheritance. “There’s a generational passing of trauma,” says Kim Neill, a family and art therapist who has been practicing for over a decade and works with Sanctuary for Families’ Children and Family Services program. “These women aren’t just fighting to save themselves and their children; they’re breaking a cycle of violence that’s been spinning for decades.”
Kristin is a victim of past sexual abuse. Carmen grew up witnessing “patterns” of abuse in the relationships around her. Z.S. talks about the cultural pressure to stay with her husband, accept his treatment, “fix” her marriage. All of them talk at some point about the trauma in their ex-partners’ pasts.
Growing up with a mentally-ill sister, Ann learned to conflate love with abuse. “I learned to accept abuse because I loved my sister. I was consistently told but she loves you. Abuse and forgive. This is what it meant to be a family.” This was implicitly taught to her by loving parents trying to do what they thought was right. “Children bear witness to what is happening around them. In front of them. In the room next to their room. They see us more clearly than we see ourselves. What we directly ‘teach’ them, or try to teach them, may not be what they are learning and internalizing.”
Kirstin speaks of her transition out of her relationship as one of the hardest times of her life. She’d started attending a support group, and decided to move and file for divorce in a different state, where the laws were less punitive than the laws in New York, which can require you to stay within a short distance of your abuser if he has child visitation rights. “I told my ex I needed a break. That I was looking for houses so we could start again. For six months I planned a life that I knew we would never live. I felt so duplicitous. It was awful.”
It took Z.S. four years to finalize her divorce, and for the first eight months, her husband refused to leave the apartment.
Can you imagine what it feels like to literally hand your baby over to a person you don’t trust, a person who hit you while you were seven months pregnant?
Ann’s divorce took two years. “He wouldn’t leave. For a year, I had to wake up and confront him every morning. I tried to pretend he was invisible but...” Ann pauses. Breathes. “The judge had to force him to go.” Even after he was gone, Ann points out, he still had legal visitation rights. “Knowing he was spending time with my child on a regular basis created anxiety. At the time, my daughter was too young to express herself or protect herself.”
Months after her ex had left the premises, Ann’s daughter, who was 11 or 12 at the time, witnessed him trying to break her arm with a door. It was the look of terror on her child’s face that drove Ann to seek counseling for herself and her children.
Co-Parenting With An Abuser
Kristin speaks about the stress of new conflicts arising as she navigated the tumultuous waters of co-parenting with her ex. “I never knew if he was going to return in a good mood, or if there would be an explosion. And if that explosion would be immediate or come later.” When she recalls placing her 18-month-old son in her ex-partner’s hands for an overnight visit, the fear in her voice is still palpable. “Can you imagine what it feels like to literally hand your baby over to a person you don’t trust, a person who hit you while you were seven months pregnant?”
Love explains that visitation can become a vehicle through which abusers can continue exerting control. “Most abusers have never been engaged parents. But they turn up to court making outrageous demands for custody simply to burden their partners. To continue hurting them.”
Ann talks with passion about the difference between isolating a child and protecting a child. The facts seem obvious: if you fear another party is going to harm your child, you protect your child by removing them from that party’s presence.
Suddenly they have to figure out how to support their family, find employment, housing. They need to navigate the legal system. And on top of all that, they need to single-parent a traumatized child.
Too often, however, our legal system takes a different view. Mothers who refuse to accept that they must wait until their child is actually harmed to implement legal protective orders are accused of isolating their child. Of denying partners their rights.
Ann speaks of refusing to leave her daughter with her ex-husband’s father, as he had tried to sexually assault her in the past. When the judge told her lawyer, “I am not going to hold that against him. That’s between him and her. She’s an adult,” Ann jumped out of her seat. “I am not going to wait for him to do something to my child,” she asserted. “There are indicators here.”
It was this raw reaction that moved the judge. But, Ann points out, most judges don’t get to witness such emotion. “A woman in trauma is in a fearful state,” she explains. “She’s thinking this law, this judge, this system presides over me. The same way her abuser did. She’s thinking, I have to surrender. I’m losing.”
Z.S. has educated her four sons on how to set boundaries when they spend time with their father. “We have a plan of what to do if their father crosses a line. They know when to tell him hey, don’t do that.”
When she was younger, Ann’s daughter came to her and asked for a new father. “I told her, imagine if Daddy had a broken arm. Would you ask him to give you something using that arm? Of course not. Daddy has other broken parts, parts that we can’t see. So he can’t give you everything you need from him.” Ann pauses. “But that doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy of those things. I have to find a way to let her love her father, but also to make sure she knows she deserves so much more than he has ever given her.”
Ann is adamant that the greatest source of strength, support and guidance for herself and her daughter was therapy. “It’s so important to dispel the negative connotations attached to therapy in many cultures and religions,” she says. “Women need to know, you simply can’t do this without counseling. My therapist was my baseline. She provided a safe space for me to unpack my story. And you need to unpack. The body holds on to things.”
Love calls therapy “foundational” for understanding the complexity of domestic-violence trauma. “Trauma shifts your perception of reality. Most women are victimized for years, which affects their self-worth and all levels of functioning. Suddenly they have to figure out how to support their family, find employment, housing. They need to navigate the legal system. And on top of all that, they need to single-parent a traumatized child.”
“Most of the women I meet have been told that they’re not good parents for years, both by their abusers and the systems they utilize,” Neill explains, and goes on to speak of the importance of support groups to help normalize the experience and assure women that they are not alone. “Domestic violence trauma can create barriers that make it hard for a mother to bond with her child. Therapy helps remove those barriers.”
This is a process that takes years, often a lifetime. Katharine Ernst, a licensed social worker who works with RISE Project, addressing the intersection of gun violence and intimate partner violence throughout New York City, points out that some women take issue with using the word “survivor,” explaining, “It implies that the struggle is over. It overlooks the fact that healing is a lifelong process. That every day can be a battle.”
Passing On Support To Others Who Need It
Today, Carmen E., Kristin, Anne, and Z.S. continue to work with Sanctuary for Families. Sanctuary has provided wrap-around services for domestic violence survivors and their families, as well as for women victimized by sex trafficking and all manner of gender-related violence, for 35 years. With eleven locations throughout New York City, Sanctuary provides counseling services, crisis intervention, referrals, and a range of supportive services to over 10,000 children and adults annually. The Children and Family Services Program offers both individual and family counseling, as well as well as therapeutic childcare, educational support, and special events where families can bond. They retain over 1,000 pro bono lawyers to help women through the challenges of navigating the legal system.
Carmen E. couldn’t have escaped her situation without the support of Sanctuary’s legal assistance. When she finally opened up to her older sister, who worked at NYU, her sister connected her with NYU’s Courtroom Advocates Project, a program where Sanctuary attorneys train law students to help with this pro-bono work. “Sanctuary is where I learned to focus on myself and on becoming healthy so I could be an example for my daughters.”
Kristin received immeasurable support from Sanctuary’s Shelter Services. With five shelters in New York City, Sanctuary provides a safe place for nearly 450 families each year. Kristin spent several months in one such shelter with her son. When I ask if Sanctuary helped her find an apartment, Kristin answers, “They paid my down payment.”
Z.S. is thriving with the support of Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program, which provides extensive career and skills training, with the goal of securing career-track jobs. A leader herself, she tells me how she can “recognize” survivors, and works in Queens and Manhattan helping Latina women obtain work permits.
All four women are outspoken leaders working both to remove the stigma attached to domestic violence and foster healing within their communities.
“Society needs to take the lead,” insists Carmen E. “We need social contracts to stop this sociopathic, winner-takes-all attitude. This mindset perpetuates violence. It allows all forms of abuse to exist. To thrive.”
Kristin feels it is her duty to advocate for people who don’t have access to the same privileges from which she has benefitted, privileges which include white skin and three Ivy League degrees. “I’ve benefited from white privilege, educational privilege and financial privilege every step of the way. I want to help women who don’t have that stable base to fall back on.”
Ann works as a healer. “My gift is inside my wound,” she says, and tells me about the workshops she runs, how therapists have approached her, weeping. “You told my story, they tell me.” Ann works in schools, and also with police officers who carry their own trauma. “This is not one person’s problem, it is a community problem, and we need community healing.”
“My medicine becomes medicine for all,” Ann says.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.
To support domestic violence survivors, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Sarah Love, licensed social worker and trauma-focused therapist
Kim Neill, family and art therapist with Sanctuary for Families
Katharine Ernst, licensed social worker with RISE Project
National Statistics Domestic Violence Fact Sheet. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, https://assets.speakcdn.com/assets/2497/domestic_violence2.pdf
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Ann Truth's name, and incorrectly stated the annual reach of Sanctuary's services. It has been corrected.