Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Up
This story is part of a series produced by Pooja Garg, with support from the USC Center for Health Journalism's Domestic Violence Impact Fund.
Other stories by Pooja Garg:
Khabar brings true life stories of domestic violence survivors who made it to safety. The ones who come out are a very small percentage of the ones who go through abuse. As they share their intimate experiences in their own words, we hope that this inspires others to make a choice towards living without fear. We are grateful to these survivors for their generosity in sharing what couldn’t have been easy.
These personal narratives are part of the Empowerment Project's Storytelling with Sakhi undertaken by Pooja Garg for Khabar magazine in partnership with Raksha and The Woman Inc. It is supported by USC Fellowship for Domestic Violence Impact. Survivors of domestic abuse from Indian-American community were guided in writing their intimate stories of experience with domestic abuse. It is an endeavor to give them agency in sharing their stories which often go unheard.
- Names have been changed to protect the identity of the survivors.
- This content is intended only for mature audiences. Reader discretion advised.
- Content Warning/Trigger Warning: domestic violence. violent imagery, language, mental and physical health, depression, anxiety, trauma.
Bent But Not Broken: Uma's Story
A sprightly, ambitious young woman looking for fresh career horizons, Uma was one of the many Indians who came to the U.S. for higher studies. An independent woman, Uma had her own visa. When she got married, she added her spouse to her visa.
Yet this independent woman, now an IT Director with a well-known firm in the U.S., went through domestic abuse. She put up with it for a long time hoping and wishing that things would change. When they didn't and she spoke with her family and friends, they told her to accept and bear it.
In the midst of a cancer diagnosis, she found the courage to leave the relationship.
This is Uma's story written by her as a personal narrative.
My name is Uma. I am a domestic violence survivor, and this is my story.
The girl that I was.
I grew up in India amidst a loving, middle-class, traditional family. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be someone who would get caught up in domestic violence. I was the enterprising one, the first girl in my family to get an MBA, have a job in the big city, and live in a new place by myself.
But life happens and who can stop destiny.
I got married. It was the start of my abuse.
I came to the U.S. almost twenty years ago for my M.S. and soon after met my ex. After a brief long-distance dating period, we decided to get married. His parents were against the marriage because I was from a different caste. We got married in India and then came back to the U.S. I came back to my studies. and he went to another city to his job.
Within a few weeks, he started making sarcastic remarks about my studying in a different city and not being able to come on the weekends to visit him. He told me that I should leave my studies and move to be with him. I told him that he knew that I was studying before marriage and wanted to finish my M.S. But he got angry at me and said that I was putting my studies ahead of my husband. I started seeing his temper explode more and more.
As it progressed, it turned into verbal and emotional abuse within weeks. Not having had much experience with relationships, I thought that friction was a normal part of getting to know each other for a newly married couple. But it grew worse.
And then I was hit for the first time barely three months into the marriage. He hit me on my jaw and then started choking me. Then he hit me again on the face and threw me on the bed. This was the first time he had ever hit me. I was shell shocked, I started crying. My jaw was hurting, and I had trouble swallowing.
“Hit” is such a small word and does not quite encapsulate the despair and sadness I felt that night. The first time it happened, I remember looking at the mirror at the bruises on my face, neck and swollen jaw, feeling heartsick and numb as if I was in a bad dream.
The next day he apologized profusely, told me that he loved me, and promised not to do it again. I wanted so badly to believe him but there was a part of me that grew frightened. I was frightened because he had shown me what he was capable of if I did not listen to him or agree with him. However, I buried my fear and pretended to myself that he would change, and things would be fine. I was wrong.
I supported him in every way—studies, visa. And yet.
Soon after, my ex lost his job and was in danger of having to leave the country. I applied for an F2 visa on his behalf, and he became a dependent on my student visa. He then moved in with me and said that he wanted to do his MBA instead of a job. I supported him in his wish, and he started applying to MBA programs. During this time, he often yelled and screamed, but I put it down to his frustration of being at home. He would yell at me about going to meet my project mates, putting dinner a bit late on the table etc. It started becoming unbearable but then luckily, he got admission to an MBA program.
Things were ok for a while, but I started seeing more of his controlling nature and explosive temper. I could not read books because it meant that I was not paying him attention. I could not fall asleep in the car if he was driving since it meant that I was treating him as a servant. Sometimes we would meet for lunch at the university since now both of us were students there. If I was late by even 5-10 minutes, he would shout at me that I was selfish and wasting his time and I did not care for him enough to make sure I was there on time.
After I graduated, I started looking for a job. It was difficult since the economy was bad, and no one wanted to hire an international student that needed to be sponsored. Finally, I joined a local startup.
Most of my salary went to a joint account that was controlled by him. When I suggested buying a car for myself, he forbade it.
When I got pregnant in 2006, I told him that with the baby, now I would really need to buy a car. He got very angry with me and told me that I was wasting ‘his’ money and he could not allow that.
When I got pregnant again in 2008, my pregnancy was much worse. I had terrible nausea and was very sick most of the time. He started getting more and more irritated and angry with me. His shouting at me became more frequent. He was angry that I wasn’t able to cook or clean like before. He said that it was just an excuse that food smells made me nauseous or sick. He refused to let me get help saying he would not waste his money just because I am lazy. Sometimes he would throw whatever was in his hand at me. Sometimes he would push me or shove me if I kept quiet when he was shouting at me.
In the next few years this cycle would repeat, few and far between at first, and then more and more as time went by.
His behavior towards me continued to worsen. He started threatening me that he would hit me or kill me or throw me out on the streets if I did not listen to him or if I disagreed with him on something. I remember when I enrolled one of my children in a class. He yelled at me and said they are ‘his’ kids; that I could make any decision regarding them; that if I did so in future, he would break my bones and throw me on the street. When I told him that they are my kids also, he got very, very angry and yelled at me that nothing in the house belongs to me—not the kids, neither the house, nor the car, nor the money in the joint account in which I had been depositing the salary for several years.
In the next few years, we bought a house in a good school district. If I bought even a small plant for the house by myself, he said I was wasting ‘his’ money and that he would beat me to a pulp. I started becoming very scared of him and was apprehensive whenever he was in the house. I did not know what would set him off. He started hitting me more regularly—slapping, choking and hitting me with his fist, shaking and shoving me. Sometimes he would do it in front of the kids. When I asked him not to do it, he said that the kids should know what their mom is like. He once choked me and slapped me because I had gone out for an evening walk in the neighborhood. He accused me of trying to attract men’s attention.
I tried to find support.
Whenever I talked to my family about our issues, they said that being a wife, I should not do anything to make him angry, that I should try and maintain the peace of the house. When I talked to my friends, I heard echoes of the same thoughts.
When our communication totally failed, I emailed him asking him to stop his abusive behavior and come with me for marital counseling. He refused. He said he did not like washing dirty linen in public, that it was not the Indian culture, that this was not abuse.
When I had no support and no way to save myself, I went and took a self-defense class.
And then I got diagnosed with cancer.
And then one day, I got diagnosed with breast cancer stage 3. The next day, I wanted to go to the temple to pray. When we got there, he kept making jokes about others who were coming to pray. When I told him to stop, he said I deserved my cancer because of my behavior.
My parents came from India after my diagnosis. But my ex started showing irritation and anger especially the days following my chemo sessions. He was angry that I was no longer helping in cooking, household work or taking care of the kids. When I told him that I could barely stand or sit up due to severe nausea, dizziness and bone pain, he accused me of making excuses. He said I was using cancer, chemo and bone marrow treatment as an excuse not to do any work and that I was just a bad wife, bad mom and lazy.
After I lost my hair, I was very sad. Some of my friends took me out to take my mind off it. When he came to know about it, he created a big ruckus. He yelled at me that I was sick enough to not do much housework, but not sick enough to not go out with friends.
During my entire cancer treatment, he has shown callous disregard for me and my health. He told me several times that he didn’t care if I lived or died. My friends would often take me to the hospital for treatments, therapy, meeting doctors, scan, etc. But he did not show even the slightest sympathy even when the cancer was suspected to have spread to the bones or when they said that I might lose the mobility in my left arm. He would laugh, crack jokes and listen to music loudly while I was upset and in pain. I could never have believed that he had so much cruelty in him if I had not seen it myself.
As I faced my mortality, I broke free of all fears.
And then it reached a point where I could not pretend that I was fine anymore. I was walking around with wounded eyes because of all the hurt I carried in my heart, not knowing what to do, how to get help.
After more than a decade of surviving like this, I finally had to call the police for help. My mother-in-law became very angry and furious with me for having taken this step. In the years since our marriage, she had admitted to knowing that my ex had a temper and abusive nature, just like his father. But when I called the police for help, she denied there had ever been any problems.
Divorce is a taboo subject in my Indian community and a huge stigma. The women, especially, are ostracized along with being blamed for “breaking up the family”.
But facing mortality up, close and personal made me finally break free of all my fears. I filed for divorce in the middle of my treatment and got a protective order. It was a difficult time but curiously enough, I felt relieved. I was no longer scared in my own home.
I have moved on.
Over the past few years, I have healed enough to be cured of my PTSD and found love with an amazing man. I volunteer and run a support group. Helping others helps me heal. I want to help others who are in abusive situations, bring them hope and remove them from harm’s way.
My message to anyone else facing extremely challenging circumstances: let that experience make you better. Let it bend you but not break you. Hardship presents a unique opportunity for us to become a better version of ourselves.
This is Your Truth: Jaya’s Story
Quiet and soft-spoken Jaya came to U.S. as a newly married bride. An engineer from India, she determinedly worked her way through a career in IT. Anyone seeing Jaya from a distance could be forgiven for thinking that just like so many Indian Americans, she too was living the American Dream. Yet, all wasn’t well at home. A domestic violence survivor, Jaya took the bold step of leaving with her kids. After so many years, Jaya shares her intimate experience in hope that it helps another going through the same circumstances.
In this space, Jaya wants to draw attention to the trauma the survivors continue to go through. That it doesn’t end with leaving the abusive situation. That court systems need to think of ways to alleviate survivors’ suffering instead of retraumatizing themin the process.
The hidden truth
It is the hidden truth. It is right in front of everyone, yet everyone around her, including she, herself, denies it.
One day, the morning glorious sun rises just a bit warped. The next thing you know, there is loud arguing booming and tearing apart the serenity of that peaceful morning. Raw tension is palpable. Everyone anticipates what would come next, but fervently hopes that today is different. Alas, now we hear screams and cries, first in anger, then in pain, and then in desperation. Her pleas for him to stop. His angry tones as he rains a series of blows on her. Slowly, it all becomes quiet. His pent-up anxiety has been released, now that he has put her in her place, taught her a lesson.
What starts out as a simple slap (Yes, I know! It is anything but simple to imagine one adult treating another adult this way. But let’s go with the story, shall we?) so what starts with a simple slap quickly escalates. She raises her hands to cover her face, to cover her head from the blows that are now raining on her. He innately thinks of these as her resisting him and twists her fingers. She writhes in pain. Before all is said and done, in a matter of a few minutes, she has a split lip, black and blue fingers, and her whole body is hurting. Her spirit is broken.
The surprising and sad bit in all of this? By now, neither he nor she remembers what was the grave mistake that had deserved this punishment? Everyone around her wonders the same. Nobody dares say a word. She ices her swollen fingers, gets the kids ready for school, talking to them gently but in a defeated, dull voice.
Years pass by. These memories are etched in her brain, no, burned in her brain. There comes a time when she is finally able to make a break. Finally, one day she picks up her kids and leaves. She hopes that now her painful past is behind her.
But life has other plans. Society has other plans. The courts have other plans. The police have other plans.
They ask her to tell exactly what happened that morning. She hits the mental recall button and regurgitates the story. Then they separately also ask him what happened that morning? He regurgitates the story as he recalls it. And here’s the catch--her story and his story are not even close. He tells them that all he did was to hold her hands so that she would not hit him. That all he did was try to calm her down, that it was just an argument that went a bit out of control.
By now, the split lip has healed. She had not taken any photos, had not called the police as she did not want to bring shame to the family. The only evidence that she has now is what she is carrying on her—her broken finger that was later reset.
When a victim of domestic abuse is able to make a break and leave the relationship, she is often faced with the legal and law enforcement systems. This is complicated further if she has minor children with the abuser. As soon as she separates from her abuser, who is also the father of her minor children, what comes into focus then is custody, visitation, child support, and temporary alimony.
Had she been in her familiar surroundings back home in a different country, she would have instinctively known what to do—taken a rickshaw and headed over to her mother’s house or a sister or a cousin. This would not have been an option given the shame it would have brought to her family, for having left her husband’s home. Daughters are only welcome back at the mother’s house if they are home for the delivery of their first child or to celebrate Teej. She knew even in her familiar surroundings, leaving was a non-option. Leaving an abusive husband to seek shelter and help would have resulted in a “Beta, thoda tum bhiseh lo, bacchon ki tarafdekho” and sent back. Now thousands of miles away, in foreign surroundings, she is dependent on him, and she is away from even that small sliver of hope and help. Her limited support system and her family and friends who have the best intentions at heart and want to help her and her children, at times, unknowingly set her on a path of conflict. Not because they are wrong but because what is straightforward and obvious to the outside eyes is far more difficult, if not impossible to prove in the court of law. They might say to her that she must fight in the courts, that she must not allow the children to see their father and especially that she must make sure that her abuser gets punished. However, the courts insist on regular visitation, despite the volatile situation and having one’s day in the court is only for TV drama. Reality is that she is just another case that the judge wants cleared from their docket.
She is often strapped for money, unable to get or keep a well-paying job, since now child rearing responsibilities are hers, on top of dealing with the legal process. All this while, the abuser, who has thus far been mostly absent in the children’s lives, becomes a super dad, showering the kids with gifts to win them over. If that does not work, he resorts to threats and often openly aggressive behavior towards them in the name of discipline. She is left to pick up the pieces, wipe the tears from her children’s eyes and continue living.
While all this is happening, the abuser also plays at her heart strings, begging for forgiveness and promises of a romantic true love, waiting for her, should she give in. Now in a safe place, away from her abuser, her fears have subsided. When he calls her begging for forgiveness and asking her to meet him, she does so in the hopes of true remorse on his part and a reconciliation of the marriage. But meeting him makes her realize that she is once again set to make the same mistake that she has made many other times.
Later she comes to know that this is the cycle of abuse--which starts from honeymoon phase to the tension building, walking on eggshells phase, followed by a violent outburst in the abusive phase and back to honeymoon phase again. This loop keeps a lot of women in that relationship for years, even a lifetime. Research shows that women leave and go back to their abusers on an average of seven times before making a final break. Yet, the courts fail to understand the raw fear and pain she expressed when she left her abuser is as real as her efforts to meet her abuser to work things out, to have the marriage stay but the abuse to stop.
Within this backdrop, there is the legal system which is based on assumption of innocence until proven guilty. The onus of proof and evidence is inherently stacked towards the domestic abuse victim. She often does not have any evidence. And the truth is only in the eyes of the beholder--the only two people who were present.
Abusers can then use the courts to their advantage, especially if they have the financial means to do so. They may bring in expert witnesses to discount her story, and may say what she recounted is HER version of the truth, which albeit is true scientifically, in how memories are recalled and stored back. However, it is very misleading and forces her to go on the defensive. Oftentimes, this is the first time that she has shared this dirty secret with anyone outside her abuser. The one time that she finally reaches out for a helping hand, she is denied even the acknowledgement of her story. Just on the basis of technicality alone, she can be buried under paperwork on account of discovery.
Lengthy depositions of multiple individuals from her support system is another such legal weapon. It has a sharp edge forcing her to shell out money she does not have for legal representation in these depositions. Simultaneously, it has the other sharp edge of shattering her support system since no one wants to get tangled in a legal mess. Her friends who had stood by her, who had seen her struggle up close, now move away worried for themselves, their families, and sometimes their own immigration status.
Additionally, the raw fear that she expressed when she left the house, and got the temporary restraining orders, is in sharp contrast with the woman who now appears in court. Although both are very much true, her story and her fear become less and less believable in the eyes of the courts. While living with the abuser, she learns what to do and what not to do to try and avoid triggering a violent episode, walking on eggshells all the time. However, this behavior which may have been what saved her life, now comes across as manipulative. While she misses the father that her children deserve, she has to protect them from his tirades and manipulations. Her actions are perceived as parental alienation.
Although all of these are real challenges that many women face, these may possibly be addressed with appropriate domestic violence awareness training of legal and law enforcement.
However, there is one significant area where knowledge of scientific facts may protect the domestic violence victim from being further victimized by so-called expert witnesses who question her memory when faced with a ‘he said-she said' story line.
The way human memory works is that every time we remember something, especially something that happened a long while back, the memory is pulled from our long-term brain storage and then after we process it, talk about it, or think about it, it is resaved as a new copy of the memory. So even though what we remember is truth as we know it, every memory slowly changes over time.
Additionally, we may remember very specific details about a particular event, but some other details that we should have obviously remembered, we are totally blank about. Trauma has the capacity to play havoc with our memories. Long term trauma, such as what domestic violence victims endure, has an everlasting effect on their ability to remember. Thus, even though we are telling the truth and are convinced that we are telling the truth, it is our truth, truth as we remember it now.
An understanding of how memory works would save so many victims from becoming a target of ridicule; or worse, accused of lying. As they tell their truth, they have to endure more grilling for details that they do not clearly remember. When the grilling continues, they get frustrated; and it becomes easy to label them as difficult and argumentative. The abuser, who has gaslighted and manipulated the truth, now comes across as very calm because his story comes across as the more logical one, hence more believable.
Having the knowledge of how memory works would put domestic violence victims in control. They would be able to start off by telling their story as their truth without fear of judgement. If their legal counsel has the knowledge of how memory works, they would be able to position the cross examinations of the expert witnesses correctly. In all the messiness and danger of life after abuse, the domestic violence victim would be able to stand with their head held high, knowing the power of their truth. Their story would be weighed in the right light, the courage with which they made the final escape.
Here is hoping that the blind legal system for once won’t be deaf and would stop allowing abusers to use it to further abuse the victims of abuse.
This feature is part of Empowerment Project undertaken by Pooja Garg for Khabar magazine in collaboration with Raksha and The Woman Inc. It is supported by USC Fellowship for Domestic Violence Impact Reporting.
Pooja Garg is City Editor & Community Engagement Editor of Khabar magazine. Member of Cobb County Domestic Taskforce, she is Founder Chief Editor of The Woman Inc., an advocacy and literary nonprofit magazine. To connect with her: linktr.ee/poojagarg .
(The Woman Inc. has been working for the past five years to provide survival resources for DV victims through sharing survivor stories, information and safety resources and network, and organizing phone donation drives for DV victims.)
Alka Writes is a California-based poet, artist and women's rights advocate. Her work has been reproduced here with permission from The Woman Inc. where it had previously been published as part of a series.
[This story was originally published by Khabar.]