HUFFPOST PERSONAL

I Kidnapped My Son To Escape My Abuser

Kat and her son in the Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba in 2018.
Kat and her son in the Cuban city of Santiago de Cuba in 2018.

Dear son,

These days when I pick you up from school, you ask, “Where’s Baba?” Your classmates’ fathers pack their lunches, come on parents day to teach basketball or music. They ask you about your dad, so you ask me. And one day, when we’re both ready, this is the story I’ll tell you.

As your father pounded angry fists on the back door, I struggled to whisper the right words in Portuguese over the pounding of my own blood in my ears.

“I can’t hear what you’re saying,” said the operator, frustrated and overworked at 3 a.m. She hung up with a hiss. Desperate, I dialed 180, Brazil’s national domestic violence hotline, again.

The hotline was launched in 2006 under the Maria da Penha law, which increased punishments for acts of domestic violence and provided protective measures for victims. This was the same law that once inspired me ― pregnant with nothing but a three-month tourist visa ― to move to this country from the U.S. As a journalist, I wanted to understand how such policies played out for women and black and brown folk in a country reflecting the same dark history of slavery and violence against women as the U.S. Now my reasons for moving to Brazil seemed as flimsy as the thin slats of wood your father threatened to fling open at any moment.

Enraged that I had touched his phone and discovered dozens of messages he had sent to other women in our São Paulo neighborhood, he had towered over me shouting insults and striding angrily in circles around me. After he stormed out of the house, I quickly locked the door behind him. I frantically paced our tiny bedroom as a then-smaller version of you snored on the bed, oblivious to the memories racing through my head.

Memories like ...

Me breathless on the floor as your father threw his forearm onto my lower stomach, trying with all 200 pounds of his body to force the 3-month-old unborn you out of me, because I wanted to meet a friend for a walk in the park. Him wrapping his fingers around my throat, then a leather belt around his own, for something I sincerely cannot remember. A hard shove into our bright orange couch, followed with a kick to my right thigh, purple stains spreading under my skin like watered-down wine. Wandering the empty streets of the gray city that was a hemisphere south of home for my first warm Christmas. Alone, eight months of you curled up in my stretched-out belly.

Your father finding me hunched over on the steps of the Metrô Sacomã station, lifting my chin off my fists with his rough fingertips and promising to do better for our family. Right there, where we met for our first date years ago, I summoned what love I had left for this broad-shouldered, big-hearted man who had caused me so much joy and so much pain. With that love stayed the fear.

Memories like ... Me breathless on the floor as your father threw his forearm onto my lower stomach, trying with all 200 pounds of his body to force the 3-month-old unborn you out of me, because I wanted to meet a friend for a walk in the park.

Then, the endless firecracker lit under my crotch as my body split open to bring a heavy, aching life into the world. You ― a slimy, wrinkled, bloody thing screaming at the top of your lungs as if you knew the angry screams I hurled at your father while you grew inside me. The settling of these violent fights as I settled into sleepless nights of new motherhood. Your first gurgles and kicks to the rolling drums of Carnaval. Cocoa-buttered toes dusted with white sand in the warm Atlantic. A chocolate cake with coconut filling baked for your first and your father’s 29th birthdays.

The sad, knowing eyes of your cousins when they watched me cover my face after your father’s biting insults, wiping the tears from my cheeks with their pudgy palms. Some of the women in your family scolding me for the bruises, the blue-green and spotted purple peppering my arms — a result of my being difficult during his moments of stress, they said, and my inability to satisfy a frail male ego both in bed and out of it ...

I closed my eyes to the memories as the phone continued to ring in my hand.

I brought to the front of my mind a simple image, a diagram I came across one day scrolling through my Facebook feed. A circle with three points connected by curved arrows: a cycle.

Phase 1: Tensions Building. One partner isolates the other from friends and family, threatens violence, inflicts emotional abuse, destroys property or creates full financial dependence. The victim starts to live in constant fear of the abuser.

Phase 2: Explosions of Violence. Hitting, choking, verbal abuse, hurting oneself in the presence of the partner. The victim protects themself and their children, tries to call the police, tries to leave the place of violence. Fights back.

Phase 3: The Honeymoon Phase. Claims regret, begs for forgiveness, declares love, presents gifts, promises to never hurt the other again. The victim returns to their abuser, may stop legal proceedings, looks for counseling for partner, makes steps to move forward. A period of calm may follow before tensions begin to build again, and the cycle repeats.

Kat and her son celebrate her 25th birthday in their home in São Paulo in 2016.
Kat and her son celebrate her 25th birthday in their home in São Paulo in 2016.

The diagram opened my eyes for the first time to the calculated nature of my imprisonment in this relationship with your father. A calculation passed down over generations of this same cycle, assertions of power and control over someone assumed to be the weaker sex, the abuser as much a victim of toxic manhood as the abused.

I recognized how he isolated me from my community by starting fights every time I planned to see anyone besides him, telling me he didn’t like who I was when I was with my friends. Then, of course, the many honeymoon phases, ever shorter and tinged with resentment, zapping me of the emotional force I needed to keep up several jobs ― from teaching journalism workshops to filming music videos ― between your breastfeeding and nap times.

For someone living as a foreigner in Brazil, opening a bank account can prove so complicated, and as a freelance journalist, I had to tell all of my employers to send my pay through his business ID and into his bank account, which I had no access to. I had only the payments in cash hidden in my underwear drawer to promise money to the many lawyers I consulted over the course of months.

I would think of that diagram of domestic violence again and again. First, in shock. How did this series of arrows so accurately describe what was happening inside my home? Then, resolve. Caught in a cycle that affects 1 in 3 women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, I realized that I was not alone in my fear and desperation. With words to describe my situation came the courage to step outside of it. To run. 

I feared and anticipated the operator’s response with every knotted muscle in my stomach. If your father heard my call through the thin back door, it would only heighten his rage, creating a worse hell for both of us when he ultimately broke through the lock. In my head, I ran my lines:

“Please send a van to pick me and my son up. I am afraid for our safety. We need somewhere to stay for the night.”

I hoped that this time, the operator would understand me despite the loud pounding over my stifled cries for rescue.

When the operator finally answered, I tried once more to whisper intelligibly enough to be heard by her. But your father figured out what I was trying to do and shouted at me to hang up the phone. Knowing my time was limited, I gave up on the call and started to throw diapers into an old gym bag. I recited prayers for courage, sending out telepathic requests to loved ones continents away for their strength and support. I placed our passports and every Brazilian real I had saved since your birth into a plastic folder underneath warm sweaters and extra socks. With one last plea for determination, I put my tired face into your sleeping belly and inhaled deeply with your rising breaths. Before I could lift my head, the sound of pounding fists faded into the background and my exhausted body fell asleep, breathing in rhythm with your small body.

Kat and her son film a street demonstration of mothers diagnosed with the Zika virus and their babies born with microcephaly
Kat and her son film a street demonstration of mothers diagnosed with the Zika virus and their babies born with microcephaly in Recife, Brazil, in 2016.

I woke to the thunderous crack of the door finally breaking open, footsteps and shouts bringing danger closer to our bedside with every second. I gathered you into my arms, threw the bag over my shoulder and faced my greatest fear head on. Your father pushed me back, held me down, ripped you from my arms — waking you from your innocent sleep to bright lights and angry sounds — only for me to wrestle your screaming, writhing body back into my arms. There were bruises across your back during the days to follow.

Somehow, with a strength and endurance that I didn’t know I had, I pushed past him, ignoring his claims of possession and assertions of manhood, and ran uphill into the rise of the sun. I caught the first bus and rode for hours as my thighs went numb to the bumpy roads, your mouth clamped to my breast until your eyes finally closed.

I had made an irreversible decision. I could not go back to a place that held all our material reminders and comforts of home, but also an existence on the perpetual edge of physical harm and emotional manipulation. I could only go forward, tracking down family shelters and a friendly — affordable — attorney, idling in endless lines at the delegacia da mulher, the police stations dedicated to combating violence against women. I spent hours conversing with other women who had been abused by their partners, fathers, uncles, neighbors ― even their own sons. We forged friendships, brief but intense, listening to each others’ stories while the children played together, imagining a world without police stations and lines of broken women.

I soon discovered that even if I were to win a monthslong battle for full custody, I would need a signed and notarized consent form from your father every time I wanted to travel beyond the borders of Brazil. Anything less than that would be cause for me to be detained and you would be handed over to your father. The thought of this scenario terrified me at every uncertain moment of those first weeks — when giving you cold baths in the metro’s public restrooms, or breastfeeding you on the sidewalk in the unforgiving sun ― as your father’s last threats to call the police on me for kidnapping you replayed in my mind.

A former student of mine, a public defender, connected me with a family lawyer specializing in cases of domestic violence, who offered to take on our case for a fraction of what the other lawyers had been asking. Through negotiations with your father, she was able to write up a custody agreement that would allow us to travel to the U.S. where my sister — your xiaoyi — awaited us in New York. The only stipulations were that I would take you to visit your father before leaving and that I had to return to Brazil with you twice a year to continue these visits.

Kat and her son attend a march against gun violence in New York City in 2018.
Kat and her son attend a march against gun violence in New York City in 2018.

So weeks after that night in the bedroom, we embarked on the last trip back to your first home in this world, that sun-filled spot of color against a hill of many toppling homes. Upon arriving, your father’s family doted on you ― crawling, curious, crinkly-eyed. I threw as many of our clothes, photos and documents as I could fit into one large suitcase.

When the taxi came to pick us up, your father trapped me on the side of the car and forced his mouth and body onto mine. You were sitting quietly on the seat, watching us. I tried my best not to scream, pushing as hard as I could until he finally backed up enough to let me get in the cab. I gathered you up in my arms and buckled us in for the ride. Although I knew your older brother and cousins were waving from the sidewalk, I didn’t turn around. The image of your father instilled enough fear in my blood without me seeing him one last time. I couldn’t risk losing my courage to leave for good.

When we reached the airport checkpoint to leave Brazil, the border police stopped us. I had you strapped to my back with a giant bag of our clothes slung across my chest, and I swayed you to sleep while three officers questioned me about why I was leaving the country with a Brazilian child. They mentioned the international child abduction cases that ran nightly on the news, accusing me of kidnapping my own child. I presented them with your father’s travel consent form, signed and notarized, but they found fault with everything from the hasty handwriting to the mistakes crossed out in pen. Playing with their power, they threatened to not let me through, handing the paper around so each officer could hold the form up to the light and squint to find the slightest error. They finally released me with only minutes left to catch our flight.

We didn’t return to Brazil twice that year and haven’t since. The custody agreement was ultimately turned down by the Brazilian judge, who demanded your father pay child support before the agreement could be approved. He refused, saying I wasn’t holding up my end of the contract. By that time I was juggling multiple jobs in New York, trying to make a new life for us. Not only did I not have the money to pay for trips to Brazil, but I didn’t feel safe going back to your father. I feared the violent fights would start again, only for you to get caught in the middle. I knew that once we set foot back in Brazil, he would have the power to keep us there by refusing to sign the travel consent form.

In the eyes of the law, I kidnapped you from your father, from the home that was your rightful residence. Which is why we can’t go back to your birth country until you’re 18 and I no longer fear losing you to accusations of kidnapping or another custody battle.

In the eyes of the law, I kidnapped you from your father, from the home that was your rightful residence. Which is why we can’t go back to your birth country until you’re 18 and I no longer fear losing you to accusations of kidnapping or another custody battle.

I hold hope that one day your father will reach out in recognition of the harm he caused us, ready to salve the scars and build some kind of relationship with his son while respecting my decision to start a life independent of him. I dream of the day we can return to Brazil to embrace your brother, your cousins, your grandmother, aunts and uncles. That you can know your blood and your earth.

But I also recognize the slippery slope of what can seem like true reconciliation but in fact regress into the cycle of violence, a return to the abuser’s control. I fought hard to escape our imprisonment under his thumb, and I will keep fighting for as long as it takes to be truly free.

For the past 18 months, I’ve attended weekly therapy sessions to battle my own psychological and emotional dependence on the norms created by the cycle of violence. I’ve taken you to child therapy sessions to address your explosive emotions, be they a regular 2-year-old’s tantrums or imitations of violence you’ve witnessed. We’ve attended group therapy sessions with other mothers and families who share their trauma, journey and encouragement.

And with slow, careful growth, I’ve learned to forgive myself for being a victim, love myself for being a survivor, and find ways of rejoicing in motherhood despite the inner demons that haunt me for taking you from the father you resemble so closely it hurts sometimes to see. I know we enjoy a priceless freedom because of the choice I made. Freedom from fear of sudden rage without reason. Freedom from false affection expressed through jealousy, possession and physical dominance. I fled for the freedom to be a new family, to explore healthy notions of love, masculinity, female beauty and strength.

As we near our two-year anniversary of self-liberation, I rejoice in the village we have built and nurtured around us. A tribe of survivors, fighters and reformers who refuse to conform to any binary gender structure and work for a world where you can grow into your own desires and affections.

I’m writing this piece for you, my son, but also for us: the mothers who have made the terrifying decision to uproot their families in pursuit of safety, who have gathered the strength to fight back ― some facing life in prison for the fundamental act of defending their lives. Survivors across age, gender and sexuality who are learning to recognize that the violence we faced was part of a greater social injustice rather than just an everyday aspect of life to be tolerated.

Your father and family may read this and feel hurt that I’ve aired our “dirty laundry” or believe that I’m exaggerating, even lying. I’d want them to know that I love them and miss them so much. I am only telling the story that I lived. I did what I had to do to stay alive and be a mother to you. We are all victims of a society that perpetuates abuse, allowing families to rot from the inside out, by convincing us to feel shame for our shortcomings rather than openly discussing our conflicts and seeking help when we most need it.

Baby boo, this is the story of how we left the only family you knew behind. How we went from warm sand beneath your wiggling toes to concrete giants cut into the sky. I’ll tell you that it was never my plan but that I chose my path. I chose to survive. I chose you.

Katherine Jinyi Li is a writer, video journalist and educator based in New York City. She speaks five languages and gets her love of stories from a life of immigrant journeys. For more from Katherine, follow her on Twitter.

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