When footage emerged of former Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancé unconscious in an elevator, social media went berserk, shining a spotlight on domestic violence.
One of the questions raised was why a woman who appeared capable of leaving after such an assault would choose not to.
Advocates of domestic violence prevention in New Mexico, as well as an Albuquerque woman who got caught up in the cycle, say reasons battered spouses remain range from economic or emotional dependence to perceptions that they lack choices or resources.
Some victims still love the abuser and believe promises of change, or they fear repercussions, including public shaming or not being believed, according to domestic violence experts interviewed by the Journal.
In New Mexico, between 2006 and 2010, 77 homicides related to domestic violence occurred, which explains why the state is usually ranked second or third highest in deaths from domestic violence.
Victims who stay with their batterers often face repeated violence, sometimes leaving after an assault only to later return. Experts estimate the leave/return door revolves as many as eight times before a victim leaves for good.
“Leaving is a process, not an event,” said Michele Fuller, executive director of Albuquerque-based S.A.F.E. House, which opened in 1976, making it one of the first shelters in New Mexico.
It was a process for now-57-year-old Roxanne Holloway, a retired human resources executive who lives in Executive Hills, near Four Hills in Southeast Albuquerque. Forty years ago, she was living in Albuquerque when she met a man with whom she would soon fall in love.
The second oldest of five who came from a family where there was no violence, Holloway married him in a Baptist church in front of 100 guests when she was 19 and he was 22. She did clerical work in a bank; he was a mechanic.
One night, he didn’t come home. She suspected he’d cheated, and when he finally did show up, she got on his case.
As Holloway recalled that night four decades ago, her hands clutched and squeezed a tissue, her eyes welled up with tears, and her voice shook as she described the shock of suddenly being grabbed by her arms, shaken and thrown against a wall. “I thought I had provoked it because of him not coming home, so I felt it was my fault … I would just try not to make him mad. You’re walking on eggshells.”
S.A.F.E. House’s Fuller says those being battered often believe a change in behavior – not complaining about the spouse staying out all night, for example – will stop the abuse, a common and false rationale for not leaving.
“She’s making every effort to eliminate whatever he identified as the cause of the violence, but it never works,” Fuller said.
Holloway didn’t tell anyone what happened. “I was embarrassed. He told me not to tell anyone: ‘This is just between us.’ I was scared of him.”
She left him that night, but he eventually persuaded her to get back together. “He was going to be totally wonderful and all that baloney,” she recalled.
It’s another common reason victims don’t leave. “The batterer’s promises of change may be easy to believe because he sounds so sincere, swearing that he will never … hit the victim again. In part because she wants so desperately to give credence to such assertions, the victim may give him another chance, even if such promises have been made repeatedly in the past,” wrote Sarah M. Buel in “Fifty Obstacles to Leaving,” an article about why domestic violence victims stay, published in the Colorado Lawyer.
One night after Holloway and her husband reconciled, they went to a bar with his longtime friend, with whom she danced while her husband was chatting with another patron.
Once the couple got home, he got mad about her dancing with his friend, and a physical assault ensued.
After Holloway was grabbed around the throat so hard she couldn’t breathe, banged against the door, knocked against the fridge and kicked and punched for hours, she remembers, even four decades later, him saying to her: “Are you thinking you’re going to leave? I’ll scar up your face so bad no man will ever look at you.”
“Absolutely classic,” said Fuller of S.A.F.E. House. “I have heard that statement from women thousands of times … ‘I am going to leave you so ugly that no other man is going to want you.’ The other part of that sentence is: ‘You’re going to stay here and let me pound on you, and you’ll never have a life.'”
Threats, as well as a range of fears connected to dependency, are all common reasons some clients give for not leaving, said Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, executive director of Enlace Comunitario, an Albuquerque nonprofit organization serving mainly Spanish-speaking immigrant women victims of domestic violence.
“They can’t leave because they have financial needs; they are scared because they don’t speak English,” she said. “Some have been raised in environments where that’s the norm, so they are so isolated they don’t know what they would do. Or, they need to be there to protect their children. The barriers women have to their self-autonomy (are) mind-blowing … all of them are very legitimate reasons from their perspective.”
Sometimes, women who leave their abusers and return repeatedly finally break the cycle. “I’ve had women come in and say, ‘I’m scared and it’s hard,'” Fuller said. “But they finally get it.”
For Holloway, the cycle finally ended after a physical assault that left her with a concussion and partial hearing loss.
She went to counseling, and came away telling herself, “I’m not going to take it anymore.” She eventually told her boss about the abuse. She stayed with her boss until she got her own place – the address of which she kept secret for a long time. The divorce took two months. “He doesn’t have any control over me,” she said. “It felt really good to stand up to him.”
Roxanne remarried at 24, then got divorced nine years later. She married again and was widowed after a dozen years of happiness. Her first husband, who pleaded not guilty in another domestic violence battery case in 1989 that was dismissed, court records show, has also since passed away.
Advocates for domestic victims, including Sedillo Lopez, Fuller, and others interviewed were quick to say that asking why a woman would choose to stay is the wrong question, anyway.
“It’s almost victim-blaming,” said Lynn GentryWood, executive director of the Domestic Violence Resource Center of New Mexico, which sees 2,500 victims every year. Whether the conversation is about local victims, or the now-wife of Rice, the former Baltimore Raven, and why they stayed, it needs to go another way, she said. “We’re very adamant about changing the conversation in our community from: ‘Why do victims stay?’ to: ‘Why do abusers abuse?'”