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Read the Powerful Letter a Domestic Violence Survivor Will Read Aloud in Court Today
Editor’s note: Karah submitted her domestic violence impact statement to Wear Your Voice, saying she had been inspired by the one delivered a few months ago by the Stanford rape victim. She will read it aloud in court today, Sept. 27, in the case against her former abuser. Content warning: domestic violence.
by Karah Frank
In Judith Herman’s now-foundational text on trauma, she outlines the process of psychological domination. The final stage in this process is known as total surrender, where the victim becomes utterly complicit in their own abuse.
Herman explains the necessity of this — in the mind of the abuser — using a quote by George Orwell: “We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.” It is necessary for the justification and continuation of the abuse cycle. The perpetrator insists on total loyalty; mind, body and soul.
During the abuse, I thought of nothing but trying to calm you down and save you from the inevitable consequences of your actions. Even as you kept repeatedly mocking me, exploiting your knowledge of our shared convictions against a biased justice system and the prison industrial complex, calling the police was the furthest thing from my mind.
Instead of calling the police, I tried begging you to stop, being sweet and soothing, yelling or acting angry, pretending to be asleep and even playing dead at certain points in the hope, not that I wouldn’t die, but that you would not get into trouble. Back then, my devotion to you was so complete, I would have gladly died if it would lessen your distress. The many times you strangled me to the point of unconsciousness that night, what kept me alive was knowing how much more trouble you would be in if I died. In the end, instinct and my will to protect you allowed me to fight for my life.
When the police arrived, you politely let them in and surrendered yourself. Reports describe you as calm and collected. My memory of those initial moments is fuzzy. I do remember screaming and crying hysterically, terrified out of my wits of any physical contact with the officers, hiding in a corner of the bed pulling out the chunks of hair you ripped from my scalp and repeatedly pulling up my torn tank top to avoid being exposed. Decidedly uncollected and not a bit calm.
Police snapped photo after photo of my injuries — my face, neck, back and even the inside of my mouth, because you had shoved your fingers so far down my throat trying to muffle my screams that it was bleeding. After about 25 minutes, I was finally allowed to put on pants and was given my eyeglasses, which, as you know, I am nearly legally blind without, making the experience all the more terrifying as I could not gauge the officers reactions or facial expressions.
Throughout this process, I repeatedly defended you.
From the moment the police arrived, despite being in a state of shock, through the days and months that followed I went around being the rabid loyal defender I had become after years of lying for you, hiding and justifying your abuse to myself and others. As an indigenous woman, I also believed it was my job to protect you from state violence. I was terrified of the police harming you that night because you don’t have the passing privilege I do, and terrified throughout our relationship that if you were ever caught you would be treated unfairly. This seems ironic now, as you will probably barely serve an entire month in county on work release as per your plea agreement. Entirely enmeshed, entirely dependent on you for what morsels of emotional validation you allowed me, I did what anyone that far gone would do. I truly felt like my life depended on your safety and protection from the consequences of your actions.
The prosecutor can tell you that I aggressively defended you; I minimized and omitted many of your actions that night and the many nights that preceded it. Still trying to protect you, I investigated effective defenses, poured enormous amounts of emotional support and labor on your behalf and even hired someone to be a support person for you, since I could not be in the same ways I used to due to the no-contact order. I researched and vetted your DV treatment facility as being trauma informed and also made sure you would be allowed to continue seeing your therapist because I believed him to be culturally responsive.
All I could feel was the unnaturally strong attachment which occurs through a process known as “trauma bonding.” When a victim is brought to the brink of death through strangulation or other means repeatedly and then at the last moment their abuser allows them to live, the abuser simultaneously becomes assailant and benevolent savior. Despite seeing a chiropractor two to three times a week for several months to correct the injuries to my neck and back I sustained when you thrashed me around the bed and dragged me around the apartment by my hair, trauma bonding from over a year of this type of abuse ensured I could think of only one thing; how to get back to you.
It is difficult to describe the physical pain that a victim — that I — went through when a trauma bond is broken. Physical sensations of unmitigated impending doom, as if I had just slipped off a cliff and was falling to my certain death dominated my days and nights for months. I cannot put into words the anguish I felt. This was, I discovered, only the beginning of my suffering.
After about five months, I heard vicariously that you had come back to the top of your abuse cycle as you had time and time again. You began to blame me for your abusive behavior, paint me as the primary aggressor, exaggerate your injuries, attempt to isolate me from support and obsess over or completely invent whatever petty offenses you believe I visited on you during the course of our relationship. You become self-obsessed and cognitively distorted events until they were unrecognizable from the original occurrence — what you previously so vehemently apologized for suddenly never occurred, or was my fault anyway. It was the naming and realization of these patterns that allowed the wrongness and severity of what you did to me to sink into my body little by little.
For two months now, the full weight of what my body and brain endured that night and many others has hit me full force. I can still feel what you did to me that night; not like it’s emotionally “distressful” but like right now, standing here in my body I can feel the acute sensations of being strangled, drowned and a sharp pain in my neck that never goes away.
I never told the police that as you strangled me on the living room floor, you simultaneously poured soda water onto my face; that was the single most terrifying moment for me because, as I discovered, while being strangled slowly to unconsciousness actually isn’t that painful, drowning is incredibly painful. Aspirating carbonated water burned my mouth, nose and throat. Carbon dioxide levels rise and the lungs burn as well. The body becomes confused, awkward. There is no graceful way to die from drowning. I am sure I looked ridiculous floundering around, sputtering and gasping underneath you — because you laughed gleefully at me while doing this. I am unsure if the police got pictures of the living room that night, but if they had, they would have seen a squished up 42 -ounce bottle of Crystal Geyser Berry flavored water at the entrance to the living room — that was why that was there. When I have flashbacks, which are frequent, that is the moment I most often return to.
I am not sure how you waterboard someone in “self-defense.”
Because my job provides no paid time off or sick leave, I find myself feeling like I am drowning or cannot breathe in the middle of facilitating groups, going to the gym, seeing friends or literally whatever I am doing. What you did to me is never not with me. Your hands around my throat are never not with me. The pain from being punched in the vulva and vagina repeatedly while you screamed “this is mine” is never. Not. With me.
Each day I endure the full gamut of trauma symptoms. Hypervigilance, anxiety, agitation, sensations of dread and impending doom, sleep disturbances, lack of a baseline of calm and comfort, tension, neck pain, headaches, flashbacks, nightmares, gastrointestinal disturbances, trust difficulties, fear of betrayal, relational issues, irrational fears and intolerance for change among other issues. All of this suffering because, in your words that night: “you needed to prove a point.”
I know this phase won’t last forever, though I am told it can last many years. I will never be the same. You have caused me irreparable harm. The three of us are here together today because we know the truth about who you are and what you’ve done, no matter what you claim to the judge. There is another woman that could not be here today: your ex-wife. She was able to detail graphic stories of your abuse of she and your son. You are a serial abuser of women and children.
Women are sacred. You have violated and betrayed me, your tribe, and the values of the people. Take responsibility and end your suffering. Find peace in honesty.
Karah is a queer, mixed race Nimiipuu/white working class woman and student living in Oregon.
Feature Image: Beth Cortez-Neavel, Creative Commons