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  • Writer's pictureMelanie Brown

Mass Commission on the Status of Women

Updated: Apr 6

(Orignial testimony April 2014)

I’ve heard many women who have shared similar experiences to mine begin speaking about their lives with a declaration of being a “survivor." I, like those women, stand before you as a “survivor” of domestic violence.

I’ve heard many women who have shared similar experiences to mine begin speaking about their lives with a declaration of being a “survivor." I, like those women, stand before you as a “survivor” of domestic violence. I survived the threats to my life at the end of my marriage, when my ex-husband “snapped” and became very unwell. I wish I knew then that that would be the easy part...I don’t feel like a survivor, because I have yet to survive what came next. During my early teen years my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and became progressively unwell. Mom’s MS has taken a rare track for the disease and wreaked havoc on her cognitive function and eyesight. Her state was compounded by the reality that she was not well to begin with, as she had always refused any treatment for her bipolar disorder, and my stepfather slowly stepped away from her during that time. He was unable to handle her illness, and they would divorce in a few years. I have other sisters, and they love our mother and possess many strengths, but they don’t have the personalities that make the phone call or keep asking the questions when the answers do not easily arrive.

The demyelination of mom’s nerves and the negligent care of her doctor collaborated in a psychotic break on my 19th birthday, when my 16-year-old younger sister and I would admit her to a psychiatric hospital. We wrangled her out of the neighbors house, as she was talking about the dead baby she saw sitting on the top of their television set, and we drove her to get help. Of necessity, I spent my teen years learning to navigate healthcare and insurance bureaucracy and researching treatments and the best doctors. When Mom lost her sight, my small-town working-class teenage self managed to get her into seeing the head of Neuro-Ophthamology at Harvard. It was a moment of pride and a period of hope that would soon deflate. Mom never got better and would only progressively sink into a worsening state. I mention this formative experience because I would only recognize later the resourcefulness that time grew in me at an early age. I had no idea how much I would need to rely on those skills. Mom’s illness was difficult in many ways. As many women are, she was the glue that held our highly unhealthy and dysfunctional family together. The kind of support a family might provide in a future time of crisis never returned. Still the most difficult part for me was the way I kept feeling drawn back home at a time when all I had ever wanted to do was get away. I left college after a very successful freshman year and returned home that summer and resumed Mom’s neglected case management. It was a devastating decision, my dream had always been to get out of the working class community in which I grew up. Mom gradually disappeared over those years. It was a slow unacknowledged death--not able to be seen or healthfully mourned by me and my sisters until years later. My mother is physically alive, but we lost her slowly many years ago. Emotionally drained, a young woman finding herself, that was when I fell into the comfort of the wrong relationship with a man who would become my ex-husband. Part of me was viscerally aware it wasn’t right from the start and I broke it off 3 weeks after becoming involved with him. Still, he just had a way of finding his way back into my life, even from the earliest days. I would spend the next 10 years in an on again-off again relationship with him. During that time our most pressing relationship problem was his gambling addiction and possessive nature--as he was not physically violent toward me prior to my leaving him for good. We had a son early in our relationship, and he is now 13 years old. My ex-husband had many positive qualities and strengths. He worked hard and consistently, loved his son, dreamed big for all three of us and was and is still one of my biggest cheerleaders. However, when he gambled away the rest of our savings and retirement while I spent 3 weeks by the bedside of my father-afflicted with terminal lung cancer--I left him for good. After a few weeks he realized this time was the final time, and that was when he became deeply disturbed. Stalking, threats to my life and waking in the middle of the night to find him staring at me while I slept, in violation of multiple restraining orders, landed him in jail on a 90-day hold—as a person in danger to another person in the community. Initially due to safety and then due to financial challenges, over the next 2 years my son and I would live in 8 different places, including domestic violence shelters. Unable to land in any one particular space long enough to secure a job, my son and I had become “other”. Having been required to flee my home and our entire community, we were homeless, broke and in need of assistance-and, although it's not often voiced there becomes an overwhelming understanding that we or I must be incompetent to be in such a was deserved. My ex-husband was incarcerated on Dec. 5th 2009. That Christmas as I walked into my older sisters home on Christmas Day, irritated over burning biscuits, she told me at length how it was my fault things had become so bad because I had taught him through rounds of promises and attendance at Gamblers Anonymous meetings that I “would always be willing to take him back.” My loyalty to my family, and being willing to commit to supporting someone through their internal struggle became another exemplar of my ineptitude, how it was all my fault. The years that have followed the end of my divorce can be described as unstable at best. Importantly, I was privileged in many ways; I had a fierce advocate in my therapist, my own education, background and navigational skills, but we had swiftly ridden a wave to the “other” side. Structural problems, policy mismatch, lack of training and a myriad of other work needs to be addressed; but that noticing did not prevent me from becoming “stuck” and still being stuck in many ways...

Having previously been an urban high school teacher in Springfield MA, I now intimately confronted the experience of some of my students and what it felt like to be the “transient” and technically “homeless." For me, there was nothing more disorienting than having to wake up in the morning and take a full minute to remember where my toothbrush was or how to get to whatever bathroom was available in that space. It’s the small moments that can build powerfully to shape experiences and I recall feeling like my son and I were void of permission to take up space on the planet, a complete lack of belonging. Just when energy and strength are needed most, the exhaustion kicks in and the cortisol runs out. Who would we be as a society if taking full care of ourselves was considered an essential part of our collective development? Who would we be if holistic self-care was a competency given status in our education systems? How would we then treat one another? What would be our expectations of our government, institutions and ourselves? The learning journey since my divorce has revealed a far deeper understanding of how we pathologize people instead of the maladaptive behavior that results from searching for unmet needs and histories of trauma. Too often over the course of the last couple of years since my divorce I would be viewed as ‘victim’, as innocent, and from the beginning I found myself uncomfortable and rejecting that language as it connotes a sense of a lack of power within me...a helplessness. Concurrently, that lens, that paradigm, views my ex-husband solely as a perpetrator. It’s not who he was viewed as before our divorce, and it does not serve him, my son or anyone else for him to further usurp that identity and label. It’s the same paradigm I find troubling in too many of the current trainings and understandings of bullying and prevention. Imagine being an unwelcome house guest when you’re having the worst flu of your life. That was the exhaustion I felt after two years of chaos and desperately wanting to have reasons to smile as I dared to date again. I believed I was getting rewarded for enduring those hard years when I met a single divorced father of 2 with full custody of his two boys. He made me laugh so hard that one time I herniated my belly-button listening to one of his stories. We moved in together too quickly, mostly of a desire to leave where my son and I were staying because it was an unhealthy living arrangement. With damaged credit and periods of professional disruption, during one of the worst job markets in modern history, I had found it difficult to stabilize, as many women do. Although unrecognized by me at the time, I was still a live wire rife with the symptoms of PTSD and so was my son. Seeing only what I wanted to see in this man, it would be four months after we moved in together that I would discover information about him that would clearly qualify him as a sociopath. His dishonesty and a corrupt landlord resulted in a protracted housing court case where I was forced to represent myself, as I did not have the funds for a lawyer. The case stretched a year and a half, culminating in a 3-day bench trial for which I am still awaiting a verdict. The year was consumed with housing court and weekly meetings with my son’s teacher, as the trauma he experienced was affecting his learning and success at school. The dominoes have failed to stop falling... There are many problems with the practices and policies designed to help and support women and children—particularly how they too often infantilize and disempower women and actively traumatize children. Domestic Violence victims are too often seen as deficient or damaged if they aren’t superwomen and there exists gross lack of acknowledgement of the practical realities of displacement. There exists a prevailing archetype that if the woman is strong enough (i.e. competent, good-enough and deserving) she will triumph back to stability and-moreover success. It’s all within her... Clearly, this archetype fails to recognize the social structural realities and pragmatic undertakings of single-mothers. I am no victim, or survivor because my ex-husband is not a villain, and he is not an “abuser."He was abusive. He was unwell. He was also abused, a victim himself and deeply traumatized. These are pieces of life experiences, not definitions of individual people. Does the allotted amount of empathy for my ex-husband change when I offer some of his story? Who does he become when I included how his father tried to murder him and his whole family when he was just five years old? Does he become less evil? My ex-husband has many wonderful qualities and strengths. When he became an “abuser” and when I became a “victim”…throughout that ordeal we both lost pieces of our humanity. He needed a mental health intervention not to be criminalized. When he was criminalized he lost his job, grounding and the ability to provide support for his child—further exacerbating the harm my son and I would need to endure. I needed not to be infantilized—to be allowed to stand in my own knowing, choice and power. I also needed not to be seen as deluded or inept and taught to question my own perceptions. Once we start owning community responsibility for the systems in place that perpetuate theses small atrocities we won’t be able to view “victims” and “villains” so readily. I will not become a survivor who is weak or pathological if I don’t “survive” like a superwoman—unaffected—and my ex-husband and others like him will not carry “abuser” or “villain" labels with them and become permanently defined by (although wholly accountable for) their behavior in times of high stress. If we really want to raise the status of women we must always recognize our interconnected nature. Vilifying individuals allows us to locate the problem within the individual. A man acting out is a man who was acted upon…healing, transforming does not happen disconnected and caged... and raising the status and life circumstances of women…first… begins with this acknowledgement.... otherwise we will all continue to remain engulfed in these cycles.

**Update: Although I don't anticipate ever receiving the judgement, I won the housing case.

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