I recently interviewed a woman who wanted to share her story of domestic abuse. It presented a number of ethical questions.
Before we started to talk in “Jane’s” kitchen, I asked if we could use her name in the story. While she initially consented, it became apparent that it might not be wise, for her or the newspaper.
Identities of abuse victims are often kept secret for the victim’s safety. Also, without charges being filed that document the abuse, it is her word against his, and a possible defamation suit could arise if her real name is used.
Using an alias for Jane also would not work. Newspaper journalism frowns on anonymous sources. While it would seem the veil of anonymity would encourage honesty, it can also encourage dishonesty.
Despite the quagmire, I decided to proceed with the interview. I found her believable and felt that her story deserved attention and might help others like Jane. I had no idea the interview would last almost four hours.
Jane is what I would describe as a pretty woman who looks younger than her 60-plus years. As her story unfolded, she became more animated. She talked faster, and her decibel level climbed as she reminded me of an overly-excited kid.
She shouted and cursed, imitating her husband shouting and cursing at her. She showed me how he would grab her by the front of her shirt and twist it to secure her chest with one hand and would grab her hair with his other hand to secure her head, she said.
“The refrigerator door handles were his favorite,” she said, slamming her arched back against the handles. With Jane cornered, she said he would stand over her, shouting her into submission.
Incident after incident poured forth from her decades-long relationship, as if it was her first and only chance to download an adult lifetime of grief.
According to Jane, her husband controlled every aspect of her life. She was relegated to the confines of their home and was only allowed to use the car to grocery shop with his permission. He would routinely check the hood of the car for a warm engine to confirm whether or not she had driven. Her spending money came in the form of payment for sex, she said.
The couple never had children. After getting married, Jane recalls that her husband told her that they were not going to have children and threatened to divorce her if she didn’t have her tubes tied. So she did. Though she said she wanted children, she knows it would have been a terrible mistake to bring them into such an abusive situation.
In the 1990s, Jane experienced physical ailments such as fatigue and body aches. Stress contributed to her symptoms, and she began losing patches of hair. She was diagnosed with fibromylgia and, as her symptoms worsened, she qualified for disability.
As the years ticked by, her husband became more abusive, according to Jane. He told family members she was crazy, to cover any claims she might make of abuse, she said. He constantly threatened to have her committed to a mental institution with the refrain, “Two signatures. That’s all I need,” snarled Jane, imitating him.
Knowing he had infiltrated her family with stories about her insanity, Jane feared his refrain could come to fruition. Her husband never left bruises or marks on her face or exposed areas for others to see. Of all the things he did to her, she said turning her family against her was the cruelest.
This also had the effect of isolating Jane. In the last few years of their marriage, not allowed to drive, Jane would go for walks to get out of the house and stave off boredom. Her husband would call the police to report that his wife was mentally ill and wandering about on the highway, she said. Jane noticed police cars often on her walks, but only later did she discover that there were police records that confirmed his phone calls.
Living in fear and isolation with no money, Jane obediently conformed to her husband’s every demand. “Fear weighs more heavy than your freedom,” said Jane. “The fear is so strong you do not leave.”
The situation deteriorated as he allegedly got more vicious, and as Jane’s contempt for him grew. By 2010, Jane said her husband sensed that she had told others what was happening, and he filed for divorce.
“His verbal threats were so bad,” said Jane. “He told me repeatedly he would throw me down the basement steps and bash my head in.” She filed four no contact orders against him but never filed charges.
Jane now leads a quiet and peaceful life by herself. Though she said that she would still be with her husband today had he not filed for divorce, she is extremely glad he did. She gets by on a disability check and part of her ex-husband’s pension. She has a boyfriend but says she will never marry again. Most importantly, she has peace of mind.
Since she gained her independence, Jane has journaled about her experience, and plans to write a book. As with a news story, she struggles with using a pen name and changing the names in the story, or keeping her name and calling it a work of fiction.
As I left the interview that day, I felt as though I had witnessed a woman whose growth had been stunted and whose life had just recently begun. I also felt exhausted by the trauma of her story.
It is Jane’s greatest hope that other abused women will read about her and find strength to seek help. “I would like to see more victims come forward to expose their story,” she said. “More awareness needs to be brought to the community.”