"The devil is beating his wife": Let's take Family Secrets out of the Closet

Family secrets are no joke; instead, they are like moldy vestibules where deep shame, guilt, and humiliation take up permanent residence. The consequences of these "skeletons in the closet" can spread pain and agony across generations of innocents. Frequently linked to violence, lust, greed, substance abuse, thievery, and more, it is entirely possible that what might be considered "character faults in the bloodline" could hold value -- if taken out of the closet. Truth be told, there are lessons in these secrets. And these lessons could possibly inoculate propensities for descendants to make the same mistakes as their ascendants. These are the thoughts that occur to me as I continue to emerge from my closet and open up about a family secret.

I grew up in what I call the Anderson compound, a small lot of grass-less land containing three shotgun houses on wooden stilts. The homes were enclosed in an aluminum fence that housed four generations of women, and me. I lived in the house farthest to the left with my mother (Betty Jean) and my grandmother (Nana). In the house to the far right lived my great-grandparents (Mama Carrie and Daddy Roy). And in the middle house lived Mama Lily and Papa, my great-great grandparents. Despite few financial assets, our family was richly blessed with good physical health, strength of spirit and an abiding faith in God. But all that we had was not to be prized, and this is because in my family there was a diabolical pattern of domestic violence.

Domestic Violence, or more specifically -- Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), is what my Nana used to call: "married folks business". As a child, I first became aware of this type of "business" listening to adult whispers of a years-old story about Mama Carrie pulling a gun on my grandfather (Danny); he was Nana's husband. From the bits and pieces I could gather with my childhood ears it seemed Danny had beaten Nana one time too many. Though violent itself, Mama Carrie's act was labeled courageous and she was considered a heroine. And while it was insinuated that my grandfather's act was wrong (after all, it was this final assault that ended his marriage), no one ever called it such. And unfortunately, this final assault on Nana was not the end of my grandfather Danny's violence against women. You see, after Nana there was Miss Rose.

Miss Rose was the woman who would become my grandfather's common-law wife and bear him 13 children; she was also the woman who would bear the brunt of his violence. Growing up, it was not uncommon for me to overhear murmurings like: "Danny beat Miss Rose again. This time, put her in the hospital." Or, "I saw Miss Rose today, she was covered in bruises ... could barely walk." Or, "Danny kicked Miss Rose down the stairs. Then started with the children. Scared them half to death." Yes, my grandfather Danny was a crazy terrorist in his own home, and to me it seemed everyone accepted that that was just who he was. End of story. No discussion needed.

Regrettably, Nana and Miss Rose were not the only ones in my family who lived with Intimate Partner Violence; for example, there was my Aunt Mena. I remember looking into Aunt Mena's pretty brown eyes surrounded by skin that was puffy, black and blue. As a child, I thought this was how her face was supposed to look. But shortly after her death the whispers started and I learned of what had been secreted knowledge of her husband's violent rages. Some years later, the victim would be my cousin Vicki whose body turned up stabbed and buried in her ex's back yard. He had threatened to kill her, and so he did. Even the Order of Protection could not protect her.

And then there was my mother. My beautiful, smart, loving and always secretive mother who seemed to bear shame for situations she had no responsibility for. As a woman who had been taught to live with secrets, my mother laid on her deathbed and told me of having lived in fear for her life because of the threats and violence she endured from my stepfather. Of course, by the time I learned of her fear it was too late for me to do anything to help her; within the next 24 hours she was dead. After my mother's passing I learned from her best friends that she had done everything she could to keep secret the deep emotional pain of violence she experienced in her marriage. Again these things were not openly discussed as access to the secrets was restricted, and so was access to the lessons they might hold. Besides, now - it was my turn.

My experience with Intimate Partner Violence would last a full 13 years. It may seem strange, but while I was in the midst of it all I never, ever saw it as violence. Instead, I saw it as painful and unfortunate "married-folks-business" that needed to be worked through. As you read this and judge me, trust me - back then I judged myself more than you ever could. And I was ashamed, so I never told anyone. This means that for a time, I became the keeper of my own family secret. When I eventually tried to talk to others about what was happening, I felt somehow responsible for my own pain. It did not help that the responses I received were things like: "But you are so smart. How could you let this happen?" Or, "Why don't you just leave?" Or, "But he seems so nice. What do you do to make him angry?" Or, "You don't seem like one of those women." I told myself that maybe I wasn't as smart or as strong as people thought I was. After all, I was indeed one of those women; but thank God, I am no more.

Since escaping my own IPV Hell some 15 years ago, my life has been on a positive trajectory upward. I have absolutely no regrets -- except that it took so long (most victims will leave and return 7 times before they leave for good). After breaking away, I dedicated much time to trying to understand what has been termed the "Cycle of Violence" that impacts supposedly loving relationships. And I have learned that many partners get caught up in a rotation between intense violence and passionate affection that leaves victims of Intimate Partner Violence confused and second guessing themselves. For example, it is not unusual that after an assault (verbal, emotional, mental or physical), the violator appears genuinely remorseful and apologetic. This means he might cry, send flowers, buy gifts, and give sweet kisses and assurances of "never again". And maybe in his own head, he really believes there will be no more violence. But more often than not, this behavior will not signal a true end to the violence. And victims need to know this.

For the past 10 years, I have volunteered with Georgia's DeKalb County-based Women's Resource Center to End Domestic Violence where I am a trained advocate and frequent speaker against Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence. I have grown to understand the complex dynamics of emotion, personal and family history, social pressure, religious beliefs, finances, familiarity, habit, children, mental health and other influences that persuade individuals to remain in hurtful and unhealthy relationships. And because I now understand this complexity, I know better than to judge Nana, Miss Rose, Aunt Mena, Vicki, my dear mother, myself, or anyone else for being caught up in a madness they would rather keep secret. I also understand that had I not lived my own experience, I would be unable to empathize with and support others on their quest to be free of the pain associated with loving someone who hurts them.

Likewise, I have learned that family secrets can hold lessons, and only through openly discussing the secrets and their consequences - whatever they may be, might future generations be shielded from replicating pain-filled behaviors. With regard to my own family secrets involving Intimate Partner Violence, maybe open family discussions would have challenged the notion that violence between partners is "married-folks-business". And then maybe those who had been violated would have become empowered to speak out and others would have been encouraged to support them. Quite possibly, we could have even had family discussions about avoiding unhealthy relationships and building healthy ones.

Growing up in Florida, we children were often perplexed by the Sun shining while it was also raining outside. The explanation adults gave was, "the devil is beating his wife". We were like, "oh, okay." We never questioned this odd referent. Now as an adult, I can see wisdom beneath the words. It was actually a veiled reference to the inherent contradiction and absurdity related to having violence (rain) in a so-called loving (sunny) relationship. It also makes sense that the only reason someone would beat his wife is because he is the devil.

Secrets, by definition are bits and pieces of information whose knowledge and acknowledgement are restricted. Intimate Partner Violence should be no secret. If it is suspected, it needs to be brought out into the open. If someone is suffering through it, she or he should seek resources for support and assistance. If someone tells you she is living with Intimate Partner Violence, do not judge her; this creature is not selective about a victim's intellect, race, level of education or socio-economic status, and it impacts multitudes. Instead of judging, help her find support and be patient as she contemplates her choices. Understand that it can take years for the emotional bruises and scars of having been violated by a "loved one" to heal. In fact, post-traumatic stress syndrome has been linked to survivors of IPV, so be patient as they struggle to be whole and healthy. And finally, try to understand that it is often the scars endured by verbal, emotional, mental and financial violence that cut the deepest and are the most obscure. This means that all forms of IPV, not just physical violence, must be taken seriously.

"Oh this, it's from my closet. Just like me."
- a Winnipeg High School Student
11th International Winnipeg Storytelling Festival