It's someone in the supermarket checkout line. It's a friend from high school or a suitemate from the dorm. It's a coworker, a neighbor, a member of your book group. Maybe it's your cousin, your aunt, your sister. Maybe it's you.
One in four American women between the ages of 18 and 65 reported having experienced domestic violence, according to a 1998 study led by the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of them, says writer Michele Weldon, are "smart, educated women with options."
That describes Weldon herself: successful journalist, longtime essayist for the Chicago Tribune, newswriting teacher at Northwestern University. But for years Weldon's seemingly picture-perfect life had a secret side: a pattern of physical intimidation and increasingly violent assaults by her husband, a high-powered lawyer as smart and successful as herself.
Weldon goes public in I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman, her book detailing the romance, hopes, and dreams that coexisted with the violence. Her and her husband's families had been friends for years before the two of them started dating; even now, Weldon says, "all the things that attracted me to him are still true." During their nine-year marriage, the couple worked with three therapists, all of whom they told about the violence. None mentioned separation; only one suggested Weldon devise an escape plan, now standard advice for battered women.
And the assaults, Weldon is careful to point out, were sporadic, sometimes just one in a year. The issue, she says, was power, not injury; if her husband, a college boxer and lifelong athlete, had intended to seriously hurt her, he would have. Each time there was a single blow--resulting in a bruise, a fat lip, a black eye--followed by profuse apologies and flowers. The last time, at his parents' summer home, he knocked her to the floor. She screamed, his family came running, and the lie ended, as suddenly as it had begun.
"In three years of dating, he had never done anything of the kind," Weldon says. "I knew his high school girlfriend from kindergarten. I knew his college girlfriend. There was nothing like this.
"But he was never married before," she continues. "I've talked to a few women with a similar pattern, where everything was great till they got married or bought a house or had a baby. When that triggering event happens--now you're trapped. Now the batterer has control. And the game then becomes to convince you that what's happening isn't--that it's all caused by external stress, that everything will be OK when we're married or when law school is over or when something else happens."
Everything won't be OK, Weldon says. "I thought that if I tried harder, if I made our lives as stress free as possible, if I loved him and forgave him, this aberration would magically go away. It doesn't work. Battering is learned behavior--although I have no idea where my husband got it--and it is hopeless. Forgiveness perpetuates the cycle."
Escaping the cycle can be terribly difficult, in part because of the enduring myth that domestic violence doesn't happen among middle-class people like Weldon. Still, she believes that in writing her book she has accomplished her goal "of helping other women erode the shame of being battered.
"Look, I still get tired of standing up and saying this," she says. "I'm not crazy about having this on my name tag for the rest of my life. I just wish no one else would ever go through it again."
Weldon will autograph copies of I Closed My Eyes at 7:30 Tuesday at Barnes & Noble, 1441 W. Webster (773-871-3610). Sales will benefit Sarah's Inn, an Oak Park shelter for battered women. She also will appear at a vigil recognizing October's designation as Domestic Violence Awareness Month; it's Thursday at 6 at Scoville Park, Lake and Oak Park Avenue in Oak Park. Call 708-386-3305. --Susan Figliulo
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.