Empowerment Project: Storytelling with Sakhi

This story is part of a series produced by Pooja Garg, with support from the USC Fellowship for Domestic Violence Impact Fund.

Other Stories by Pooja Garg:

Empowerment Project: Storytelling with Sakhi: Bent But Not Broken: Uma's Story

When Home is Not a Safe Haven

Domestic Violence Survivors Speak Up

Quiet and soft-spoken Anjali Khambete 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 Khambete 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, Khambete took the bold step of leaving with her two small kids. Even after many years and after her kids have grown up, Khambete shares her intimate experience in hope that it helps another going through the same circumstances. She has been presented with the Raksha Award for Resilience.

This is Your Truth

Art: "On Her Way" by Alka Writes.

Art: "On Her Way" by Alka Writes.

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, take a rickshaw and head 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 bhi seh lo, bacchon ki taraf dekho” 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.

With In 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 storage into the hippocampus 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 essay is part of the Empowerment Project's Storytelling with Sakhi 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.

Survivors of domestic abuse from Indian-American community are 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.

[This story was originally published by Khabar.]

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