On April 10, Karen Smith’s estranged husband told a San Bernardino elementary school’s front office he was dropping something off for her. He entered the classroom where the 53-year-old taught students with learning disabilities and pulled out a .357 caliber handgun.
The teacher had intended to divorce Anderson, despite the couple only getting married in January, after being together for a couple of years. Smith had become increasingly terrified of her husband. Yet, she never filed a police report and kept the details of their relationship hidden.
What happened to Smith is the sad reality for too many black women. Despite making up 8 percent of the population, black women comprise 22 percent of homicides resulting from domestic violence and 29 percent of women victimized overall. A study from the Centers for Disease Control found that 4 in 10 black women have been raped, experienced physical violence, stalked or some combination of the three by an intimate partner. In 2007, black women were four times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than white women. Black women are also 11 times more likely to be murdered while they’re pregnant and far more likely to end up in jail because they defended themselves against an abuser. And, like Smith, they are less likely to report the abuse or seek help.
The Huffington Post spoke to five black women who were raped, beaten while pregnant and even arrested for defending themselves against an abuser. Their names have been changed to protect their identities.
Here’s what they told reporter Julia Craven of their experiences.
Warning: The stories below contain violent and graphic accounts of domestic abuse and sexual assault.
I was 15 and he was my first boyfriend. The relationship lasted two years and it was always abusive. A lot of the time, I would act like nothing was happening. I had never really watched a relationship flourish without some form of abuse ― whether it’s mental, verbal or physical ― when I was younger so I just thought it was the thing that people did.
One time we had intercourse and, the next day, I came to his house after school and heard myself on a video that him and his [friends] were watching in the living room. When I attempted to say something about it, he dragged me downstairs and slapped me. And I had to sit on his stoop the whole time while they watched the video. I could hear them laughing out the window.
I wasn’t close with my family, so he got exactly what he wanted ― the isolation. I told my mom that I never wanted to see him again and that he hit me, but I don’t know if she believed that it was anything serious. I’m from a Jamaican family. This is the culture. In Jamaica, you hear it in music all the time, that the men dominate the women. When I said anything about it, a lot of people took it as “at least you have a boyfriend.”
But, after telling her, I went to do something in another part of the house and he was in the living room when I came back. I told her that I was afraid of him, but I guess he had come over to get me to go back with him. Instead of her doing what I was hoping she would do, she let him come into the house and she treated him like he was one of us.
Later on in the relationship, he found out I didn’t want to be in the house with him. He was going to take a shower and he wanted to make sure I didn’t leave, so I had to stay in the bathroom with him. I remember sitting on the toilet seat and, out of nowhere, he had a gun.
He shot it straight past my ear. I felt blank. I was so afraid. Even when I think about it now, I can see myself sitting there and I’ve never sat that straight in my life. I said nothing. I had never seen a gun before and I had no idea that he had one. It made me afraid for any time moving forward. I was just really scared. He was so reckless.
And he would cry after the abuse, talk about how sad he was and how bad he felt. I would be scared for a minute but after I would feel guilty. Like, had I decided not to press him about leaving, maybe I wouldn’t have gotten him so upset.
The night I left, we were having very violent intercourse at his apartment and I didn’t want to do it anymore. He was hitting me. My face was bleeding. I had blacked out during the sex and I thought I was going to die. I was kind of undressed, but I just ran out of the apartment. I ran into the street, disheveled and I ran onto one of the blocks where I saw a bunch of people.
I was really embarrassed. Now that I think about it in retrospect, I feel like everyone knew what was happening but no one really talked about this stuff. His mom lived in the house. And anytime he was screaming at the top of his lungs or throwing something at me, I’m sure she heard it. But she never said anything. She never knocked on the door, she never interjected.
Maybe she was afraid of him too.
I was 21, or 22, taking some college classes. I had my own place and I was doing pretty well. I was in a long distance relationship and I met someone else as a sidekick of sorts. My friend had started seeing someone and I became the tagalong. They couldn’t drive and they needed someone. So I became friends with Steve and we hit it off. As my actual relationship started to wind down, I spent more time with Steve and I really enjoyed his company ― until I went away with my ex-boyfriend.
When I came back, Steve and I were going for a walk. He asked me about where I had been that weekend and I noticed he kind of bristled. I noticed how angry he was. As we talked a little bit more, he got nastier and I thought, at that moment, he’s gonna hit me one day. But I just let it slide and I continued to date him. We got married and had a baby.
Shortly after I had the baby, I was taking a couple classes. One particular night, he was supposed to watch the baby while I studied. We ordered some food and he became upset because I wasn’t engaging with him. He threw my books around the room and literally jumped on me.
He jumped on me with a level of hatred I had never seen. It was like he hated me. He beat me to no end that night, but I didn’t leave. I wasn’t working. That wasn’t something he wanted me to do so I didn’t have access to my own money.
Another night, he came home really angry. He hit me with an iron. It landed on my left arm, but I don’t believe that’s what he was aiming for. He was aiming for my face because it was coming in like a swing. That man tried to bust my face.
I’m not a supermodel but I’m also not a bad looking chick. But every time we got into a serious fight, he went for my face. He was always punching me in my face. He was always hitting me in my face. It was always my face like he just wanted to destroy me.
That night, I pulled a knife and ended up cutting his arm. I was arrested and sent to jail ― even though you could still see the bruises from the last fight. You could still see the bruises from the iron.
I left shortly thereafter. I got a place in the local projects, but we never really separated. We continued to do this until my child was almost 12.
One thing I remember is nobody really asked me what was going on. But there was a stranger, who saw the black eye ― and this was back when pay phones were a thing. She gave me $10 and a quarter. The quarter was for the pay phone and the $10 was for the cab. So when I was ready to go, I could go.
Eventually, he got arrested for drug charges and that was my cue to leave. I picked up my kid and I left. I wouldn’t tell him where we were. I haven’t told him from that day.
I haven’t been in a decent relationship since. The fear is more crippling now than it ever was before. If a man is yelling, that’s too much. If you raise your voice, it changes who I am. I feel like I need to fight, like I need to protect myself. I’m always in a protective stance when there are men around.
I’m never going back to being just OK. I’m scared.
I was just coming out of a divorce and he seemed to be Prince Charming. Everything about him was perfect. A couple months into the relationship, he gave me a key to his place. The first time I used it, I walked into his bedroom and noticed a pair of shoes at the end of the bed. Obviously, there had been another woman there. But his response was, “Are you gonna act like a child, or are you gonna act like a grown up?” You’d think he’d be apologetic but he put it on me.
That was the red flag that I should have left. But I already had a failed marriage, so I wanted to make this work.
The biggest thing was how he started to talk to me. He would hit me up and ask me to change my Facebook profile picture. He’d say the current photo was ugly. I looked at it like he was caring about my reputation, but I know now that that was control.
I have vitiligo (a skin condition that causes a loss of pigmentation in patches). The first time he saw my spots ― I had two spots on my back and one on my wrist ― he told me he didn’t like them. He talked me into tattooing over one of them. Once, I told him that staying away from citrus and eggs would help with the vitiligo. And, the very next day for breakfast he made scrambled eggs, Cream of Wheat and a glass of orange juice. I told him I couldn’t eat it because I was trying to fix this thing he hated about me so much.
He went into a rage. He said,“You’re ungrateful! I got up to make breakfast for you.”
One day, toward the end of the relationship, we were in this beautiful Italian restaurant and he said, “I bet you’ve always wondered about the women that I’ve cheated on you with and what it was like for me to have sex with them.” He went through the seven women he was cheating on me with and he told me what it was like to have sex with each one. And I sat there and listened because my brain was so twisted.
I went into a depression where I blamed myself for staying with him. He was so similar to my mother that I didn’t realize this was abuse because it’s what I was use to. I didn’t even feel like I was abused until we broke up and he started stalking me.
He would show up everywhere. Every single place I’d go, he just happened to be there. When I would leave for work, he’d be parked outside. We worked together, so I filed a harassment claim against him and he filed a counterclaim saying I was harassing him. If I was at a community event, he’d just happen to be there. I was at a bowling event and, out of all the spaces in the parking lot, he parked next to my car.
At one point, I was on six pills a day. I was paranoid that he was going to show up wherever I was going. I was on pills for that, anxiety, insomnia and depression. I didn’t even want to live anymore. And this was after it was over.
People have to know that this psychological and emotional abuse is domestic violence.
It started when I was 30. We lived together off and on. Every time he would come back, we would get along for a little while. He was the type of abuser where there was a honeymoon phase. He’d say sorry. And I would do whatever he said to do to stop the abuse. I did everything I could to avoid the physical brutality, to keep the peace.
While my kids were there, he wouldn’t hit me in front of them. But the last six years of our 20-year relationship, after the kids moved out and it was just us, were the worse.
One time, he was picking me up from the airport after I got back from a work trip. I had texted him a bunch of times while I was gone and he asked why. I said, “You didn’t respond, I needed to tell you what time I was coming in.” As we were driving down the freeway, he reached over and socked me in the face.
Usually I could brace myself, but this time I was blindsided. He tore my retina. Blood gushed out of my nose. The sunglasses I had on broke. I was holding a cup of coffee and it spilled. My first reaction was to open the car door and try to get out. I would’ve rather died than stay in the car with him another moment.
When we got to the house, he jumped out of my car, into his and took off. I changed the locks and told him I never wanted to see him again.
The following week when I got home from another trip, he was on the couch. The apartment complex had let him in. I called the police. They told me I should have called when he hit me and that now they couldn’t prove he was how I got the black eye.
So I stopped calling the police. I hid the bruises, I took the abuse and went to work.
I’m 5’1”, he’s around 215 [pounds] and 6’3”. When we would fight, he would pick me up and slam me to the ground. Sometimes, I would have to crawl to the bathroom ― I thought he was going to break my spine.
He pulled my hair out one time. So I went to the beautician and got my hair cut real short. I told her I got into a fight with a girl and that she had pulled my hair out.
He would say “If you tell anybody, I will kill you.” I thought he would do it. So I never said anything, out of fear, about what was going on in our house.
Finally, I told my boss and that was the catalyst that got me out of the situation. My boss suggested I try to get him evicted. I went to the courthouse to get a restraining order and they said there was no immediate danger, but I could file for an eviction. I posted the eviction notice on the refrigerator and he tore the house up. I called the police and they said it’s his house too so he can do whatever he wants.
The last time I saw him, it was after I filed the eviction. We were sitting down, eating spaghetti, and I asked him if he had thought about when he was leaving. He got up from the table, walked over to where I was sitting and he smashed my plate of food in my face. The chair went backwards as I fell out of it. I had spaghetti all in my face.
I got up, washed my face and stayed in a hotel that night. I went on my work trip and, when I came home, he was gone.
He left a note on the table, saying he was tired of me calling the police and trying to evict him. He took all my stuff and he moved out.
I met my husband online. He was very charming. He presented himself as a single-father raising one child. As time progressed, other children he had with other women started to come out. He said he didn’t want to tell me because he didn’t want to turn me off and I accepted the children. Then I found out that he had spent a significant time in prison on gun and drug charges. He kept explaining that he was a different person now. And I moved my entire life to be with him.
Before, I was very assertive, very happy and I had a high self-esteem about myself. If I didn’t like something, I would verbalize it to him and he never seemed to have any problem. But one day after I moved, I told him I didn’t agree with something and he just punched me in my chest while we were driving. It stunned me because I didn’t think he was that kind of person. He apologized profusely, so I stayed.
When we were just talking online, we would talk about our sexual fantasies ― nothing I ever thought I would do in real life. But once I got to him, he brought me to a swinger’s club without telling me that’s where I was going. He forced me to stay there. He would tell me that if I didn’t participate he was gonna beat my ass. So I did it but I felt like garbage.
He proposed to me during all of this, and I accepted. I thought maybe things would be different but that didn’t happen. I found out later that he was in another relationship when he married me and he continued that relationship with that person. I got pregnant shortly after we were married.
The abuse continued. He would kick me, beat me in the face. He broke my nose. I had black eyes. He would strangle me. He would threaten me. I couldn’t leave him. I tried several times to go to a friends house but he would stalk me and find me everywhere I went. I went to homeless shelters. I was too embarrassed to tell my family what was happening to me. I’d stay in the shelter for a while, he’d call, say he’s sorry and I’d go back home. Once I had the baby, he’d use her to make me stay.
He chronically cheated on me. He would force me to have sex with him because once I knew he was having all these affairs, I didn’t want to sleep with him anymore. He would beat me and rape me. Or he would beat me and force me to go to sex parties.
He almost killed me twice. He strangled me, once, to the point where I had hemorrhages in my eyes. He had me in the crook of his arm and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t say anything and I wanted to let him know that he was killing me. I lost control of my bowels, my bladder, everything. I felt myself passing out. Our child had to beg him to let go of me. If he would have held on a few more seconds, I could have lost my life.
I finally called the police that day.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.