“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.
True story that very few people know.
I was raised in a house built on violence. From the TV shows and movies I watched late at night to Saturday afternoons filled with Howard Cosell “telling it like it is” while fighters beat each other senseless in boxing rings on Wide World of Sports. For years I played hockey and football, where controlled violence is the foundation of each sport - where success was measured as much by the ferocity of the hits we laid on our opponents as by the goals or touchdowns that were scored. It was part of growing up.
But under the roof of that same house there was a darkness nobody talked about.
Talk to enough people who knew Donald Lee Downing and you would learn that my father was a roguish character with a little bit of a wild side and a wicked sense of humor. A man who never met a practical joke he didn’t like. Someone well-liked by his buddies in the Navy as well as the guys he shared beers with Friday afternoons after work. A man of discipline and charisma. He loved life – with three marriages under his belt and countless dalliances during those same marriages, it was clear he also loved women.
He loved a pretty girl on his arm.
He loved to throw back a couple of drinks and spend the night dancing with whoever would take his hand.
He loved to surround himself with women and be the life of the party.
And he loved to hit them, too.
Donald Lee was an angry, unhappy, and frustrated man who was not able to control his emotions or his fists. I don’t remember much of my few short years under the same roof as him. There are pictures of him as some teenaged James Dean wanna-be who joined the Navy to get out of Missouri minutes after graduating high school. A few random photos of me on his lap, both of us smiling for the camera while my mother stands quietly in the background – sometimes smiling but most times just looking away. And a vague memory of him racing through the kitchen, barely dodging the pots and pans my mother threw at him before he ran out the door and disappeared from my life for fifteen years. She had poor aim but it was enough to keep him away until he showed up at my high school when I was seventeen, with a girl not much older than me on his arm.
I always wondered how many times my father hit her before she finally had enough and hurled those pots and pans. Once? Twice? More than that? Was that time in the kitchen only the first? It was definitely the last time, but how long had it gone on? There were quiet whispers throughout my childhood but any time I brought up that kitchen incident nobody wanted to say anything. The silence was overwhelming.
In many ways I was one of the lucky ones because I didn’t live through the cycles of violence that most domestic violence families have to endure. I never witnessed what so many other kids had to deal with – all I knew was that my father wasn’t around, and that in my small, closed New Jersey community I was the kid without a father. My childhood was filled with loss but it wasn’t a life of fear – at least not the kind of fear that comes from witnessing your father beat on your mother. It took years to get at the truth of what happened that day in the kitchen and I wonder sometimes what would have happened if my father had stayed around. Would my mother have been able to get help if she hadn’t stood up to him and gone Nolan Ryan with those pots and pans – would anyone in my town have helped if they knew what went on inside the house?
Or would they have condoned the abuse by saying things like, “She must have provoked him” or “what did she do to instigate the fight?”
DL Hughley once joked that “it’s never the quiet ones who get hit”, but victims of domestic violence are rarely the women who open their mouths or have the courage to say “No more.” The truth is that my mother – like every other victim of domestic violence – did nothing to deserve the violence and abuse. She didn’t provoke a fight, but even if she had, violence is an unacceptable way of dealing with conflict. It is a choice a man makes – a choice only a man is responsible for, no matter what his reasons.
There is an isolation that comes from living in a home where domestic violence fills the cracks and open spaces – it’s about being alone with no place to turn and no one to hear your pain. It’s a silence victims live with every day and a loneliness that every child who has ever grown up in that kind of house feels, no matter how many years removed from the threats, yelling, and hitting. Survivors struggle to find safety and find help. They struggle to find their own voices to tell their stories, reach out to others, and end the cycle of pain and suffering.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and throughout the next few weeks a great number of voices will be heard. You won’t have to look hard to find stories about another domestic violence incident. This past Sunday Greg Hardy of the Dallas Cowboys played his first game of the season after serving a four game suspension handed down by the NFL. Hardy was convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend. She accused him of strangling her, slamming her body against furniture, then throwing her onto a couch covered with guns. Hardy appealed his original conviction and requested a jury trial, and when the victim didn’t appear to testify against him the prosecutors dropped the case. Probably good for his ex-girlfriend that it didn’t happen in Seminole County, Florida. There, a victim of domestic violence committed by her husband was too terrified to appear in court to testify against him (a man with a prior domestic battery conviction), so the judge sentenced her to 3 days in jail for contempt.
Abused by her husband and then abused by the court system that is supposed to protect her.
It goes that way too often.
Domestic violence touches many of us. It’s in the headlines, on TV, and in the neighborhoods where we live. It is likely that someone you know – a friend, sister, daughter or colleague – is experiencing abuse.
Some basic facts:
- Every 9 seconds in the US, a woman is assaulted or beaten.
- On average, nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men.
- 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have been victims of [some form of] physical violence by an intimate partner within their lifetime.
- 1 in 5 women and 1 in 7 men have been victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
- 1 in 7 women and 1 in 18 men have been stalked by an intimate partner during their lifetime to the point in which they felt very fearful or believed that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.
- On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.
- 19% of domestic violence involves a weapon.
- Domestic victimization is correlated with a higher rate of depression and suicidal behavior.
- Only 34% of people who are injured by intimate partners receive medical care for their injuries
Domestic violence is not a private matter – it never has been, even when it’s been behind closed doors in a small New Jersey town. It has been protected by silence – everyone's silence – too long.
We need to end the silence.