Shelter from the Storm
Rev. Kathleen Ellis
First Unitarian Universalist Church
March 23, 2014
Today’s topic may be challenging to you. It is for me. But I begin with these words of hope from Iain Thomas [frequently attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in error]:
“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
For my whole life I have lived in a house or a trailer or an apartment—I’ve been lucky that way. My parents did all the work of moving when I was a kid—first when I was less than a year old, and again after 2nd grade when we moved into a big 2-story house for our family of six. That’s where we stayed until I left to go to college. As an adult, every time I move it takes a while to unpack boxes and get used to the new space. One of the best parts is to decide where to hang favorite pictures. THEN it feels more like home.
Home is a place to relax and recuperate from the stress of work and school. We can offer hospitality to invited guests; we can fill it with good food, art, music, laughter, and tears. We can raise children and pets in a safe environment. As long as we have four walls and a roof, we’ll have shelter from wind and rain, heat and cold.
Many of us enjoy the image of home as described by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—“Our house is a very, very, very fine house, with two cats in the yard. Life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” Or the one sung by Madness: “Our house, in the middle of our street . . .” I hope you have wonderful memories of home and a comfortable place to call home today.
However, for this sermon I want to touch on a painful subject—the times when home is not safe for one or more of the residents. Every family is a little bit dysfunctional, I guess, since families are made of real people who get tired and cranky and take it out on the ones we love.
Some homes … are downright dangerous. When a family member is abusive, the rest of the family experiences trauma. I lived in such a home as a child. Even though we had a lot of good times, there was a secret trauma eating away at our innocence.
I am a survivor. I escaped the worst of the abuse, but all of us kids grew up terrified of our father. By the time I was a year old, he had begun molesting my eldest sister Madeleine, who was 9 years old. Two years later, he started in on our sister Jean, when she was 8.
When I was 8 years old, he made me touch him and I remember how scared I was. He must have seen the terrified look on my face. Nothing more happened after that, probably because the only way to get to my bedroom was by passing through another sister’s bedroom.
All four of us were subject to emotional abuse. His nicknames for us were degrading: Moldy, Mildew, Fungus, and Rancid. I was Fungus. Our little brother Hall, otherwise known as Rancid, was physically abused. I watched when Daddy threw him against the wall, just like he kicked my purse across the room when it was in his way, and just like his cruelty to the family dog.
We coped. Madeleine became the perfect child who excelled at everything. Jean became the defiant child who resisted every rule in the house. I learned to disappear and escape notice. Hall became paranoid schizophrenic. Our mother was probably afraid of Daddy’s anger, too. At any rate, she was unable to protect us from his wrath.
How could she not know what was going on? Well, WE didn’t tell anyone because Daddy said if we told, something bad would happen. He never said what that would be, but to a kid, it means that someone will die. So we didn’t tell her. We didn’t tell any trusted adults. We were afraid of the unknown, and filled with shame and embarrassment. In the usual scheme of things, when we got in trouble with our mother and she would tell our dad, he would dish out more punishment, so why make it worse?
Instead, we focused on the good times, especially when Daddy was at work or out of town. Other relatives were patient with us and loved us to pieces. We joined the church choir, and Scout troops, and learned that even school and homework provided an outlet. For years I was in denial of my own trauma. “It wasn’t that bad,” I told myself and others. No bones were broken, no dishes were thrown, and I didn’t know how bad it was for my sisters until I was almost 30 years old.
When we left home we were safe. It took time and effort to live into Iaian Thomas’s words: “Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.”
Establishing safety is the first step toward recovery from trauma. My sisters and I all had good therapy. We had friends who helped us draw on our strengths to overcome fear and anxiety. When we married and started raising children we were determined not to tolerate an abusive environment.
To teach my sons how to manage anger when they were young, I stuffed an old sock full of old socks, knotted the end and let them use that to beat the tar out of the bed or the floor. Our younger son liked to kick the floor, so his dad made a padded stool covered in Naugahyde. Then when the boys were old enough we taught them to chop wood. It is so satisfying to swing an axe and hear the wood split. And we collected plenty of wood for the fireplace. We taught them from early on that “people are not for hitting.”
With my experience of childhood abuse and my experience in raising children without it, I took a job with the Montgomery County, TX, Women’s Center Shelter as a Resident Advocate. The work was all-encompassing. We fielded phone calls from frightened women, met them at a restaurant, brought them and their children to the shelter, and did the intake interviews and oversaw their progress toward an independent living situation.
We taught parenting skills like how to discipline children without hitting, because that was against shelter rules. We built partnerships with other community organizations and referred residents to them. We taught children how to play cooperative games. We established a support group for former residents. All of us learned about the Cycle of Violence.
At the first stage of a simple 4-part Cycle of Violence, all is calm. No abuse is taking place. It’s like a honeymoon of delight.
Second stage, stress enters the home. Tensions rise and communication is sharper and meaner. The victim becomes fearful and tries to placate the abuser.
Third stage, there’s an explosive incident. It may involve verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. There are threats and intimidation, anger, blaming, and argument. That may sound like a fairly normal day! The difference is that in an abusive situation, the explosion is way out of proportion to any incident that triggered it.
Fourth stage, after the blowup, the abuser apologizes and gives excuses. There are escalating defense mechanisms:
- It never happened.
- The victim lied.
- The victim exaggerated.
- The victim brought it on.
- It will never happen again.
- It’s time to forget the past and move on.
Typically, the family does move on, right back to the stage of calm equilibrium, unless there is a major intervention.
A bystander is at a huge disadvantage, especially if she or he knows both the victim and the perpetrator. Given their different stories, it’s hard to know who to believe. It’s easier to look the other way—it’s not our business and things are going smoothly now. The victim may also participate in the denial, often out of fear, so how could we argue with that?
The perpetrator depends on bystanders. The victim hopes that things will be better … THIS time. Instead, it usually escalates and gets worse the next time unless there is significant intervention.
My work at the shelter taught me a lot about the dynamics of domestic violence. For one thing, it really does cross boundaries of income level, ethnic background, and sexual orientation. Statistics tell us that
- 70% of batterers also abuse their children
- 75% of batterers witnessed abuse between their parents
- 50% of batterers experienced abuse themselves as children
Domestic violence is carried out predominantly by men, but I personally know two women who use violence against their partners. Men tend to underreport because they don’t want to be seen as weak and vulnerable. As a result 90% of battering is ascribed to men, who are strong and powerful in society and in the home.
Sometimes people are so vulnerable that they make poor choices and become re-victimized. Some people move happily into new relationships and discover too late that the partner is gradually becoming more and more oppressive.
According to Jeff Temple in the Houston Chronicle, “Last year and the year before, the Harris County District Attorney’s office filed more than 10,500 cases of domestic violence.”[i]
Not only that, in every church I’ve served, including this one, there have been cases of domestic violence that were reported directly to me in confidence. And even though these men and women have experienced physical or sexual violence, it is the emotional abuse that has the most devastating impact. It boils down to power and control.
Abusers might say that you can never do anything right; discourage you from seeing friends or family members; control every penny, take your money or refuse to give you money for expenses; control who you see, where you go, or what you do; intimidate you with fist, knife, gun, or other weapons; or cause actual physical injury. The list goes on. Why don’t they just leave? Here’s what a survivor posted on her blog:
“Why don’t we just leave? Because we’re afraid of the perpetrator’s cruelty, violence, and punishments, and because we feel defeated.
. . . “Why don’t we just leave? It’s because our batterers are cruel and will punish us and our kids, and because we’re afraid. They’ve made us feel helpless and worthless, and we believe them. I used to believe what he told me: that everything was my fault, that I was disgusting and nobody would ever want me, that I would lose my children and become penniless if I left him, that I was stupid and crazy and pathetic and worse. But he was wrong!
“For those women who are still living with your abuser, start thinking “Liar!” every time he insults or blames you. The truth is that you deserve a better life! If I could change my life and transform myself from victim to victor, you can, too!”[ii]
What can a congregation do? You have already been reminded of the problem, its pervasive nature in our own communities and churches, and the cycle of violence. You may know that we provide space at the Museum District Campus for a Batterers Intervention & Prevention Program.
Our teachers know about mandatory reporting of any suspected child abuse. Some of you are engaged in Growth Groups and other small groups in which you can share the stress of your lives. You have a resource list inside your order of service. You may choose to consult with a minister who can guide you to resources that you or a friend may need.
Judith Herman, who wrote Trauma and Recovery, says that multiple populations suffer post-traumatic stress. These include rape survivors, combat veterans, political prisoners, survivors of vast concentration camps created by tyrants, and survivors of private concentration camps created by tyrants in their own homes.
Recovery takes time for survivors. They need to find safety first. They need to reconstruct their story bit by bit as they begin to reconnect fragments of memories. They need to restore connections to their community and feel as though they belong. They need, finally, to restore their faith in life’s purpose and meaning. Often they find meaning in working to help other survivors. When I hear stories of abuse and trauma, I can understand some of the factors that come to bear. I know that recovery is possible.
The hardships of your life may leave you stronger but they may also leave scars and hollow places. These may be the very reason that you can listen to difficult stories and help one another restore connections.
“A house is a home when it shelters the body and comforts the soul,” said Phillip Moffitt. May the interior of your home be a shelter from the storm.
[i] Jeff Temple, “Violence against women hurts us all,” Houston Chronicle, March 9, 2014, http://www.chron.com/opinion/outlook/article/Violence-against-women-hurts-us-all-5301980.php
[ii] Lisa Moss, “Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?” The National Domestic Violence Hotline Blog, March 3, 2011, http://www.thehotline.org/2011/03/why-doesnt-she-just-leave/
Domestic Violence: Help Is Near!
National Hotline: thehotline.org or 800-799-7233
Houston Area Women’s Center: hawc.org / 713-528-2121
Ft. Bend County Women’s Center: fortbendwomenscenter.org / 281-344-5750
How to Stay Safe in an Abusive Environment
- Computer use and cell phone use can be monitored; try the public library.
- Find Home Page of thehotline.org, click on Get Help, then click on Path to Safety.
- Look for the Escape Key on each hotline page to exit immediately. Find and test it first.
- Memorize the hotline number; don’t leave it lying around on paper.
- Leave a small bag of essentials at the friend’s home, such as
o copies of important documents
o prepaid cell phone
In the event of escape, turn your regular cell phone off and travel in a friend’s car.
How Some Abusers Learn to Handle Anger
- Tell yourself to calm down. Slowly repeat gentle phrases to yourself like “take it easy,” “cool off,” or whatever works for you.
- Force yourself to leave the situation. Take a time out, walk away, and avoid coming back too soon. Take a walk or go for a run.
- Use visualization to calm down. Close your eyes and picture yourself in your favorite place.
- Count to 10 (or 50… or 100) if you feel like you’re about to do or say something harmful.
- Splash some cold water on your face.
- Slow down and focus on your breathing. Inhale slowly through your nose and slowly out through your mouth.
- Phone a friend or family member who can lend an ear and calm you down.Replace negative, angry thoughts with positive, rational ones. Getting angry won’t fix the way that you’re feeling.
- Learn to communicate with others in a healthy way.
- Enter a Battering Intervention and Prevention Program (BIPP)