September 1999: He punched the door and the wall. ¶ June 2001: He grabbed me by the arms and left bruises. ¶ November 2002: He threw things at me while our 6-month-old daughter played nearby. ¶ April 2007: He punched a hole in the wall of our son’s room. I covered it with a basketball decal. ¶ May 2007: He punched a hole in the wall near the stairs, swore at me in front of the kids, and stormed out. He came home and immediately told me I put the spackling on wrong. ¶ September 2008: He threw a fork at me in front of the kids during dinner. “You make my life miserable,” he said. “You can’t do anything right,” he said. “You are delusional,” he said. Women in abusive marriages are not always fully aware that abuse is even taking place. Crazy, right? Well, no. Domestic abuse is insidious, crazy-making, meshuga. Often, it creeps in like black mold, as it did for me. In 2010, I turned to art to process and confront my abusive marriage. I knew something had been terribly wrong throughout my 15-year marriage, but was it real?
A mixture of shame, financial co-dependence, a sense of loyalty, and the need to care for children can present a big hurdle to freedom and safety for women in abusive marriages. My ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, further propelled me to look the other way. I wanted to fulfill my commitment to equity and respect in a marriage. No one wants to admit she’s in an abusive relationship, especially when she thinks abuse doesn’t happen in her community.
I’m an educated woman and part of an educated community that values families and mitzvot, not violence or ignorance. Marriage is sacred and a source of strength — not weakness or pain. In contrast, marriage only caused me shame.
Telling someone about your domestic violence experience is comparable to sharing that you have cancer. People are frightened. Many friends become strangers. They didn’t want to examine the possibility that domestic abuse was going on under their nose. I had to build a new community.
I quickly realized that the challenge of fleeing an abusive marriage had nothing to do with my level of education, religion, or family of origin. It has everything to do with our society’s acceptance of the role of women — and the Jewish community isn’t any different.
Telling someone about your domestic violence experience is
comparable to sharing that you have cancer. People are frightened.
Violence is all over the news — not just wars, shootings, and acts of terrorism, but in violent language, misogynistic images of women, authority figures giving the message that it’s all OK. Often, abusers walk away with their lives intact, while those they hurt struggle to find peace and stability. Abusers often suggest that the victim made them do it, or it never happened, or it was no big deal. “He can’t be an abuser,” your friends say. “He’s so gregarious. He’s so good with the children. He’s committed to social justice. He’s a guy — they get angry.” The worst is, “It’s an anger management problem.” Abuse is not a management problem. It is the belief that someone is entitled to control and hurt another person.
So what did I do? I turned to the only thing I knew that would help process my journey, and that was art. I’m a dancer, an artist, a filmmaker, a mom, and a teacher. I never realized my life’s work has been telling stories until I had no choice but to share my experience. Not sharing my story would be turning my back on my children, community, and peers.
I contacted an old friend who studied film. He was willing to help me, and the yearlong process of making a short film on domestic violence began. My film, Pearls, is now a resource for a local doctor who treats women experiencing DV. Pearls was screened at the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a human rights film festival, and in private screenings through Jewish Family Service’s Project DVORA, a program that was integral to my recovery.
Project DVORA was a source of great solace. The staff gave me the courage to ask my husband to leave, assistance with legal fees, and a venue to find support with other women on the same journey. My support group comprised a spectrum of women, from non-Jews to religious Jews. It became clear that no community was addressing the issue head on.
The #MeToo movement is a game changer, but it doesn’t necessarily
help the everyday women who lack the power of fame and fortune. Which leads us back to the Jewish community. The deep work isn’t happening. Discussions about domestic violence are surface-level. Synagogues have few or no public discussions about DV. Are we being honest in our homes, places of worship, and social gatherings?
Many women are frightened to go public about domestic abuse. Yet, I knew that all the stories I had heard in support groups needed to be told. It was never my intention to go public, either, but as time went on, I realized I had nothing left to lose.
In the end, people didn’t want to hear the truth or face the reality that my husband was not the man he appeared to be, but it doesn’t matter now. I have found my voice, validated my experience through the powerful medium of film, and shared what one out of three women in America deals with every day.
No one gets involved with a partner in hopes of being treated poorly. People become entangled with others to experience trust, respect, appreciation, and empathy. Ending the cycle of abuse does not just help the direct victims, but heals the children and other family members who are exposed to physical, emotional, or verbal abuse.
Women who have been exposed to domestic violence can take back their beauty and forgive themselves for simply wanting to be in a loving relationship with a partner. I’m not a survivor. I’m a thriver. I have now created seven films and am currently in production of my eighth. I started my own production company, Hope Flies Productions. Pearls was just the beginning of telling stories.
“As I dance, whirling and joyous, happier than I’ve ever been in my life, another bright faced dancer joins me. We dance and kiss each other and hold each other through the night. The other dancer has obviously come through all right as I have done. She is beautiful, whole and free and she is me.”
The author would like to thank the following people, without whom she believes she would not have survived this journey: Caroline Plummer, licensed mental health counselor and expert in domestic abuse; Michelle Lifton, founder of Project DVORA; and Ed Hirsch, family law attorney. Pearls is not available publicly, but Sharon can arrange for private screenings.
*Last name withheld