By Jueseppi B.
It was the phone call that I had been dreading.
“Your mom is in the hospital. John* shot her,” said my Aunt Lauren*.
I felt like someone had slugged me in the gut. The questions poured out of me along with the tears: How bad was it? What condition was she in?
Some part of me, the part that prefers optimistic naivety over hard truths, had been hoping that I’d never have to take this call. The rational part had been expecting it. I’d become adept at picking out certain parts of a pattern over the years, and this was the next piece that makes up the ugly fabric of domestic violence.
My aunt handed the phone to my mother, who talked in the sugary, soothing voice she uses whenever she reassures me that she is “fine.” I’ve always known that she’s lying when she uses that tone.
“I’m fine, sweetie! It could have been so much worse. I just wanted to wait until I was stable enough to tell you so you didn’t have to worry. Everything is going to be just fine. It’s just my foot.” I soon learned that it actually had been days since she arrived at the hospital.
I wanted to hold her hand, to hug her. Instead, I sobbed as she quickly came up with an excuse to hang up the phone. She had been dreading this phone call as much as I had.
Our previous conversation hadn’t ended well. A year before, I’d learned that her husband had been arrested for strangling her and threatening her with guns. They had since reconciled and were living together. I’d yelled at my mom, told her that she was being stupid and reckless. I’d pleaded with her and threatened to stop speaking to her. Nothing worked. She’d spent their entire 20-year marriage defending my stepfather, while my brother and I had spent most of our childhood resenting her for it. It was a bitterness that seemed to taint even the sweetest moments.
And now my mother had become the victim of a crime that is the leading cause of injury to women. While mass shootings garner headlines, paralyze us with fear, and fuel debate on gun issues, many more people are likely to be affected by domestic violence. Statistics show that one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.
Between January 1, 1997, and June 30, 2010, in Washington state alone, there were 463 homicides committed by domestic-violence abusers, with more than half of the victims killed with firearms, according to the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV). In the cases where the victim had children, 55 percent were present at the scene of the homicide; 16 children were killed.
Domestic violence also plays a role in mass shootings. A study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns of every identifiable mass shooting (shootings in which four or more people are murdered) between January 2009 and January 2013 found that 57 percent of the incidents involved the killing of a family member, or a current or former intimate partner, of the shooter.
What if my own young children had been near my mother when John shot her? What if the damage had been even worse?
Instead, for us, my mother’s gun attack was both the culmination of years of fear and denial and the beginning of a powerful transformation for our family.
‘Normal’ from the outside
I was 7 when my mom began dating John. After a brief courtship, they were married. Suddenly, our home felt like a strange dictatorship. The rules were unpredictable and changed with John’s whims. My brother was nicknamed LB, short for “lead butt,” and I became “the ’tard,” short for “the retard.” If we didn’t wake up before 6:30 a.m. each morning, he sprayed us with a water cannon. If our showers took longer than three minutes, he shut off the water to the entire house and we were left with soapy hair and burning eyes. I found myself sometimes using the garden hose to wash my hair.
A common myth about domestic violence is that it’s only prevalent among those who are uneducated and living in poverty. John was extremely intelligent: He read books on abstract mathematics and had a master’s degree in engineering. My mom held an MBA and earned two more masters’ degrees during their marriage. From the outside, we probably seemed perfectly normal. We lived in an upscale neighborhood. We attended church.
John collected guns. They were laid out meticulously in rows on the floor of the living room, boxes of ammunition stacked nearby. Dozens of “sharp shooter” trophies, from his time as a police reserve officer, were displayed on a shelf. There was a scar from a bullet on his ankle. When I asked about it he grew quiet and sulky, so I learned to avoid the question. Years later, I found out he had shot himself accidentally.
He liked to conduct target practice on the television with the laser sights on his gun. A Republican, he would pull out his gun when President Bill Clinton was on, cursing as he fired his unloaded weapon, the sight on Clinton’s head. The “click, click, click” of the gun was always a warning that he was in a bad mood.
Through the years, John became more controlling and violent. We all learned to tiptoe around him, to try our best to go unseen and unnoticed. My brother and I cleaned the house frantically when we knew he was on his way home, desperate to mitigate anything that would trigger his anger.
He found ways of justifying any physical abuse. “I wasn’t pulling your hair, that’s called a hair hold. It’s what we’d use on criminals when we’d arrest them,” he’d say, referencing his officer experience.
Years of abuse warps people. Abusers know this. They start off charming and loving, but slowly peel away the self-worth of their victims like the layers of an onion. That’s how they get them to stay. Sometimes, my mother will sigh to herself and say wistfully, “I used to be funny. I could tell good jokes and make people laugh. I feel like I’ve lost that.” I long to tell her that she didn’t lose it, it was taken from her.
My mother’s experience isn’t uncommon, and the toxic mixture of domestic violence and firearms made her particularly vulnerable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.3 million women in the U.S. are victims of a physical assault by a partner each year. When guns are a part of the equation, the risk of homicide skyrockets to more than five times higher than in instances where there are no weapons.
The WSCADV put together a list of 11 recommendations after reviewing 13 years of domestic-violence fatalities. One of those recommendations is to “maximize the use of existing legal means to restrict abusers’ access to firearms,” citing numerous cases where the state’s failure to do this resulted in homicide.
A hard recovery
I would learn that my mother nearly bled to death after John shot her through the foot with a .45-caliber bullet, blowing off some of her heel and leaving her with a permanent limp. They were struggling over the gun when it went off. According to my mom, he attacked her, punched her, choked her and pinned her to the ground, then reached for the gun. She tried to knock it out of his hand when it went off. He’d left her bleeding on the ground while she begged for him to dial 911. John paced the house following the shooting. She doesn’t know how long it finally took him to phone for an ambulance because she was in and out of consciousness.
Police charged the house, weapons ready, and took him into custody. As the medics tended to my mother, the police drilled her with questions that she couldn’t answer because she was too disoriented. They wrote that she was “uncooperative” on the police report. Later, they would use her case as an example for training officers on how not to handle a domestic-violence incident. She was taken by Life Flight to a nearby city.
Months of surgeries followed. She was in and out of the hospital. We set up a bunk bed in my son’s room for my two older kids and moved my mom into my daughter’s room. Hospice care nurses were in and out, dressing her wounds and checking her vitals. She wore a wound pump on her foot, which made a strange gurgling noise as it kept fluid from pooling in the hole in her foot. Recent MRI scans have revealed that she has some brain damage, likely from lack of oxygen to the brain due to traumatic blood loss. The brain damage has affected her ability to effectively do her job and to remember things.
Her wound eventually became septic. She looked so frail and pale, I worried she was dying slowly. When I visited her at the hospital, they made me wear a mask, gloves and a gown. I wanted to hug her and hold her hand, but it felt alien through latex gloves and papery robes.
She asked me to wash her hair once while I visited. She had always been one of those put-together ladies — coiffed hair, perfect makeup, trendy outfits. I thought of all the ways that her pride had been stolen from her as the nurse and I lathered her hair with soap and water that we squirted from plastic squeeze tubes, letting it drip into a garbage can beneath her head.
Police seized 24 guns and hundreds of rounds of ammo from my mom and John’s home after the shooting. Unless new legislation passes in our state, my mother may have no legal recourse for ensuring that John doesn’t get his guns back.
From pain to power
Her voice shakes and she looks fragile, but I can see the fierce determination in her eyes. It’s the same stubbornness that I faced when I told her I wanted to drop out of voice lessons as a teenager.
“Hello Chairman Patten and members of this committee. My name is Jodie Marsh*, and I am here to testify in support of Substitute House Bill 1840 …”
It’s a strange meeting in our statehouse on this March day in 2013, filled mostly with monotone legislator speeches on something so profoundly sad and painful that it feels awkward. Substitute House Bill 1840 deals with two issues that, statistically, go hand-in-hand: Protection orders and gun violence. When protection orders are issued, it is a dangerous time for those seeking them. SHB 1840 would ban people under full protection orders from buying or owning weapons while that order is in place.
A New York Times investigation by Michael Luo on protection orders, gun rights and state laws includes compelling data that illustrates why this legislation is sorely needed in Washington state:
“By analyzing a number of Washington databases, The New York Times identified scores of gun-related crimes committed by people subject to recently issued civil protection orders, including murder, attempted murder and kidnapping. In at least five instances over the last decade, women were shot to death less than a month after obtaining protection orders. . . . There were dozens of gun-related assaults.”
My mother stands before the committee, under the dome of the capital building, looking small while trying to do a very large and important thing. She was released recently from a month-long hospitalization due to a septic MRSA infection in her gunshot wound.
“Mom, just stay home and rest. You need your strength,” I had told her, exasperated.
She set her jaw and, with that familiar fierceness, said, “Sweetheart, the only thing that will keep me from speaking at this is death. I want something good to come of this mess.” With that, she ceased taking her pain medications so that she could drive herself hours to Olympia.
Rory Graves is a mother to three young children and ParentMap’s social media coordinator. She lives in the Seattle area with her husband and kids.
(*Some names have been changed to protect those affected by domestic violence).
One Year Later: No More Silence
Published on Dec 16, 2013
Shannon Watts, Executive Director of Moms Demand Action, tells the story of how the gun violence prevention movement has grown in the one year since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now moms across the country have built a grassroots movement from the ground up and have become a national organization with chapters in all 50 states.
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