candleA couple nights ago I was relaxing at the local casino where I enjoy spending some time. There are a few people there with whom I’ve become acquaintances because we see each other every so often. The other night I was sitting in front of a machine when a woman—I’ll call her Maria—sat down next to me to watch me play for a while. She was apparently out of money, but not ready to leave yet. Maria is a woman I’ve talked to on occasion and who has opened up to me about some hard things in her life, including her father’s death last fall.

I was surprised when she mentioned her husband and said something about him that struck me as negative. She had not previously indicated any issues with him. She had a distant look in her eyes, then said something about him being mean to her. Apparently he calls her names and makes fun of her weight. The words she shared were cruel. I told her, “You don’t deserve that. You’re a very nice woman.”

“He shoved me the other night,” she suddenly shared, “and hit me. I have makeup covering it. He grabbed my neck—that’s what he often does; puts his hands around my neck. You’d be shocked if I told you how long it’s been going on.” I looked at where she was pointing and thought that I could see something of a mark underneath the makeup.

“Did you report it?” I asked.

She hesitated. “No, I . . . I can’t.”

I repeated myself. “You don’t deserve that. Nobody does. Have you thought about leaving him?”

She told me that she didn’t think she could do that. But I could see that she was torn about it. I told her, “I used to be on a committee on domestic violence for the county, and I understand how hard it can be for a person to leave that kind of situation, especially when you might be financially dependent on him. But these things tend to get worse over time . . .”

“You wouldn’t believe how long this has been going on,” she said. “It started three years ago. He takes most of my money and uses it himself.”

She started crying.

“These things usually do keep getting worse over time,” I said again. “It often starts with cruel words, then a slap or hit, and it keeps progressing. If you don’t do something he may eventually kill you.” I didn’t want my words to sound harsh or to scare her, but I wanted her to understand the cycle in which she was trapped.

She tried wiping the tears from her face.

I asked if she had ever heard of DAIS, Madison’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. I told her that they have shelters where women can stay that are places where nobody could find her. She didn’t answer, but it felt like this was something she was not aware of. “Could I ask you to consider calling them? They can talk to you about your situation and give you some advice and support. They’re really good.” I repeated the name of the organization, hoping that she would remember it.

She heard me but she didn’t commit to anything. I could see that the idea was both appealing and frightening to her. I could imagine that she was thinking of what her husband might do to her if she tried to leave.

After a bit she stopped talking about it and finally got up to leave. As she was about to step away I called to her again. “Maria!” She stopped and turned toward me. “Would you do me a favor? No, let me change that. Please do yourself a favor and call DAIS. At least give it some thought. Okay?”

She looked at me and half-nodded before turning to walk away.

I hope that she gave it some thought. I hope that she called, though I am afraid she may not be ready for that yet. I have no way of knowing whether she did or if she will. I understand the fear and the difficulty of leaving, even when faced with the horrors at home. Victims of domestic abuse get trapped in the cycle of violence and sometimes do not believe they deserve anything better or that it is safe to leave. I hope that she heard me and that at some point she accepts that she does not deserve the violence and the emotional abuse. I hope that somehow she finds the courage to leave and to reclaim herself.

Update, 11/15/16: I ran into Maria last night and she seemed very happy to see me. It’s been several months. We exchanged a few pleasantries and then she looked me in the eye and said, “I did what you said.” After a pause she continued with, I think you know what I’m talking about. She said she called the domestic violence agency and talked to some people there and got some advice. She told me that last Monday her husband hit her again. After things had calmed down she said she warned him that if he ever did it again she would call the police. She only had to wait until Wednesday for him to do it again and she went to the phone and dialed 911. He now has a January court date. I told her that I was so happy for her and proud of her and then asked if I could give her a hug. We hugged and talked a little more. It doesn’t sound like she has left him, but she said they are working on things. She made my night.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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