One Survivor’s Story

An attendee wears a purple ribbon in honor of domestic violence awareness in Magnolia, Miss. (AP Photo/The Enterprise-Journal, Philip Hall)

A vigil against domestic violence in Pittsburg, Kan. (AP Photo/The Morning Sun, Andrew D. Brosig)

November 23, 2013

What is it like when your abuser worked in law-enforcement? Here, one woman shares what happened to her and how she escaped. FRONTLINE contacted her through a domestic-violence advocacy group, and she agreed to speak with us on the condition that we withhold her name and identifying details in order to protect her identity from her abuser.

It started a few years ago. I had gotten to the point where I was mid-career. I was single and really enjoying life. I had a great apartment, a good job, and I had always put on the back burner the idea of starting a family.

So I decided I was going to start dating online. I didn’t really have a lack of having people who wanted to date me, but I didn’t find anyone who was really matching up. Then, all of a sudden I got a communication from a new guy.

He was so witty and charming, and he really picked up on things in my profile. He was attractive, educated, employed. I found out he’s an ex-cop, and so of course, you assume there’s a certain amount of integrity involved with a cop.

We talked about backgrounds and how you trust people you met online. He said to me, “You don’t have to worry about my background. I’m an ex-cop.”

At first, he was absolutely amazing. He opened doors for me, bought flowers every time he saw me. He’d cook me dinner, give me massages. He would go shopping with me for clothes — there wasn’t anything he wasn’t willing to do. We talked about dreams and built this beautiful picture of the future.

We moved in together a few months after we started dating. Within two weeks, I knew that something was wrong. Things had changed.

“He said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry about my background. I’m an ex-cop.'”

It started with verbal insults. He started telling me that I had no sense of humor, that I was too smart, that my vocabulary was not normal. In everything we did, he wanted me to know he was right.

He started to tell me about what he did when he was a cop, where he’d beat up people for fun. He talked about his ex-girlfriend and how, when he was through with her, he just cast her aside. He told me he knows people, and can find anyone he wants at any time.

He was controlling, wanting to know where am I going, where am I at that minute, how long will it take me to go somewhere. There were multiple phone calls when he knows I’m at work. When he calls, he asks where I am. He questioned how long it took me to drive in-between places.

He didn’t want me talking on the phone to my friends. He wanted to see what I was doing on my phone at all times.

We got to the point where, sexually, he could only get aroused during an argument.

After several months, I could feel a rising tension. One day he turned around and had this rage on his face. It was just an argument about food — something wasn’t put in the fridge the right way. He was so enraged.

We live in a metropolitan area, and we had an alarm system. You had to be worried about your personal possessions on a regular basis. I came home a few times to find the security alarm was not turned on. I thought it was a mistake, and I let it go.

Then one day I got home early and the alarm was off and the back door was open. We had a whole bunch of guns throughout the house. There’s a loaded gun within three feet of every doorway into the house. In that moment of clarity, it occurred to me that he was setting it up for someone to come in and kill me.

What I realized is that based on his career and experience he knew better than to do anything himself. But he had assured me that he knew questionable people. I’m in shock. You feel like everything is out of control.

I’m thinking I need to make plans to leave. The question is, how do you leave safely? The solution everybody has is that you should go live with your family and friends. You’re talking about somebody who would be happier with you being dead then being alive. If you go live with your family and friends they’re going to go after them too.

So I sent all my family and my friends an email from my work email address that said in case of an emergency to provide this letter to the police. I believed that he was crazy, that I was earnestly trying to end my relationship with him, that I’d put in place a variety of measures — finding movers, laying a financial trail that somebody could use if they had to prosecute. I listed all of the unregistered guns in the house so that if any one of them were missing, they’d know.

“When you leave, you just become a target that doesn’t see anything coming.”

Everyone’s solution was for me to leave right away. What nobody understands is that the risk is so great that once you make that step, it’s like setting off dynamite. You’re going to take whatever you’re experiencing and you’re going to throw gasoline on the fire.

As weird as it may sound, if you’re in that situation, you at least have an idea of how crazy they are, and you have a much better feeling of what level of crazy they are at today. If you have to, you can control that. You can modify your behavior, you can do whatever you need to do to calm that situation down.

When you leave, you just become a target that doesn’t see anything coming.

He sent me an email that he wanted to talk about how things weren’t working. And the email is very passive aggressive. He talks about me being too smart, and how I think I’m too smart to focus on my relationship over my job, and how I love my job more than I love him.  He said in the email that maybe we’ve just gone our separate ways and we should break up. I had this crazy hope that that could be the case.

We sit down and have this discussion. I tell him I agree, that I do think we should break up.

He was in an absolute rage. He turned completely red. Veins were bulging in his neck and forehead. He was spitting at me, he was so mad. He was telling me, how could I have done this how could I just walk away.

For the next two weeks, from the minute I woke up to the minute I went to bed, I would be badgered. It was common to get 60 texts a day. He would burst into my room at night, even though I’d asked him not to sleep in the bedroom. In those two weeks, that mental abuse was so constant and so intense I actually agreed to consider dating him after I left. Because it’s that difficult to just have that barrage, time after time after time.

So I moved out. And I think to myself, well, I’m free at last, I did it. I made it where he didn’t know I was living. I had a PO box that wasn’t in an area where I lived. I had no utilities in my name, because those are traceable.

Still I got flowers at work, phone calls, emails — my personal email and work email. Text messages. He showed up at a work event and wouldn’t leave. He had a confrontation with me in front of people I worked with.

To get a restraining order, I’d have to go to court with him there. And I’d just gone through all this effort to fall off the face of the earth as much as I possibly could. Let me tell you: The cops aren’t going to escort me in and out, and they’re not going to escort me home. I’ve tried to do everything I can so he doesn’t know where I’m at, and you’re going to give him a point in time where he knows where I am?

I contacted a lawyer and they said, “It is not illegal to ruin your life in the U.S. It’s just illegal to take your life. Until he tries to take your life there is nothing we can do for you.”

“Cops know the law better than the lawyers do…”

Our legal system can’t even protect you from someone who wants to destroy your life and ruin your career and make your life a living hell every day.  Cops know the law better than the lawyers do, and they’re smarter than them.

So I packed up everything that remained of my life in two days, and I fled. I hid for a year. I chose not to work because that’s traceable. You ever try to hide nowadays, with social networks, Google? It’s horrible.  To remove myself from search engines — I had to research that for months, and then to put it in place and monitor it all the time. I’m monitoring myself, every day.

How do you do that if you have a career? Who in a prominent position does not have a LinkedIn profile?

The economic impact of domestic violence is a lot more than what you give it credit for. I was making a very high five-figure salary and I walked away from everything. I no longer contribute to society because there’s no safety there.

At some point, they did say I probably had enough information to get him for stalking, but I’d have to go in front of a judge.

He wants to see me. He wants to be in a place where he knows he can get that access. And that’s so scary to even voluntarily walk into that situation, I can’t even describe it.

The thing with domestic violence is people think that they have to physically abuse you to fall into this category, and they don’t. Mental abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, they are all forms of domestic violence. Stalking is an abuser’s way of making sure you know they can find you. It’s so easy for them to continue to prey on you.

Today I still get anonymous phone calls. People say, you don’t know it’s him. I say you’re right — but I don’t know it isn’t him. I don’t know many people who need to call me from an anonymous number and not leave a message.

Being a domestic violence and stalking survivor shatters your life in a way you can’t even articulate. It’s so devastating to your core being. It’s why people don’t really want to talk about it.

Society doesn’t want to deal with the issue at hand. It’s actually the guy in front of you at Starbucks who’s doing this. But that makes people uncomfortable, so they would rather blame the women.

I’m a very educated woman who’s had high-level jobs. I made a large salary. I did not grow up in a home with violence, ever. How do I fit that mold?

Now, I am judged by the fact that I’m a survivor. Society wants to know the answers to all the questions. How could someone like you end up in a relationship like that? What did you do that made him so mad at you? Trust me: I didn’t do anything to make anyone so mad that I feared for my life.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE



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