A wake-up call

I rarely make it to bed early, but on the night of Nov. 20, 2008, I went to sleep at 10 p.m., wanting to be well-rested for a presentation I was giving at a diversity conference the next day. Around midnight, however, a young woman’s screams woke me up. Through the window, I could see the headlights of three cars down on the road.

Assuming that a dog had been hit by a car (not unusual on my busy road), I put on some shoes, grabbed an old blanket and rushed outside in my red-and-pink checkered pajamas, planning to use the blanket to wrap up the dog I figured had been hit by one of the cars.

Instead, however, I found a half-naked woman screaming, “Help me! Please help me! He’s going to kill me!” while a man in a white Buick yelled obscenities at her. The other two people merely sat in their cars, watching.

The young woman was frantically trying to get into one of the cars, but they’d locked their doors. I grabbed her arm and told her to come with me.

Before we could get off the road, though, the man in the Buick backed up and almost knocked us both into a drainage ditch, causing the barefoot woman to jump the 3-foot-wide ditch. Panicked, I started screaming at the man, telling him I’d already called the police and he’d better get the *&#% out of there before they arrived. Fortunately he didn’t call my bluff but sped away.

I got the woman up to my house and called 911. While I was on the phone, we heard screeching tires outside: He’d come back. I quickly locked the doors and told the woman to stay away from the windows while I scrambled to find my boyfriend’s shotgun (which I’ve fired exactly once). While searching for it, I tried to remember how he’d taught me to load it. Thankfully, the man left before I found the gun (perhaps sparing me from shooting myself in the foot); soon after, the deputies arrived.

The woman explained that the man was her boyfriend and that when she’d tried to break up with him that night, he’d attacked her. After taking her pants and shoes to keep her from running away, the man tried to rape her. He then tried to choke her by shoving his fingers down her throat, but she fended him off. He was taking her back to his house when she jumped out of the car in front of my home.

I gave her some clothes to wear while the deputies questioned her. They were in and out of my kitchen for nearly two hours, and I was asked to write a statement. Apparently accustomed to receiving such calls, they eventually took the woman to Mission Hospital for a rape kit.

A deadly epidemic

— Valerie Collins, executive director, Helpmate

Unfortunately, the commentary writer is not exaggerating either the dynamics, severity or frequency of domestic violence.

This plague hurts all of us: family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and colleagues. It takes an incalculable toll on our community, including our financial resources (considering the cost of medical care and lost work hours). The American Psychological Association estimates that one in three adult women will experience domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner at some point in her life. In Buncombe County alone, we can extrapolate that more than 30,000 women will be victimized.

Increasingly, people are realizing that domestic violence is a shared community problem—and are willing to get involved in supporting its victims. We at Helpmate hope the actions of the writer and police described above demonstrated to the victim that our community does care, and she is not alone.

We also hope readers will understand that the primary victims of domestic violence aren’t the only ones at risk. Many of the homicides listed on the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence Web site involved secondary victims—innocent bystanders, concerned family members or friends. Because we cannot know whether intervening during a crisis will escalate the perpetrator’s violence, we must leave that role to professional peacekeepers.

What the rest of us can do is try to anticipate a crisis. If you know or suspect that someone is a victim, be prepared to point them toward locally available services. Helpmate can be reached 24 hours a day at 254-0516 or 211; we provide a sympathetic ear, information about legal options and advice on safety, as well as counseling and emergency shelter for those seeking asylum.

We are thankful for those who seek justice and healing for victims, and for those who hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.

The last of the five responding deputies left my home at 2 a.m. without having found the woman’s boyfriend (who was driving her car). I spent the remainder of the night sitting up in bed, startled by every suspicious noise I heard or thought I heard outside.

Always an independent woman, I’ve hiked literally thousands of miles alone in the woods (including through-hiking the Appalachian Trail) without ever having felt unsafe. Yet here I was in my own home, sitting up in bed with a steak knife and two of my boyfriend’s pit bulls, wide awake until sunrise.

I believe this woman’s boyfriend was planning to kill her. She had bruises all over her neck where he’d tried to strangle her, and bruises on her legs from the struggle.

Too many women in North Carolina have similar stories. In 2008 alone, domestic violence took the lives of dozens of women in the state, according to the North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence. And this despite a 2004 state law making assault involving strangulation a felony, requiring those convicted of domestic violence to receive counseling, and mandating training for police officers on how to respond to domestic-violence calls.

So what can we, as private citizens, do about it? First, realize that domestic violence leading to homicide doesn’t come out of the blue. Many perpetrators have a track record of violence documented by law enforcement.

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, the worst thing you can do is fail to take immediate action. All too often, women choose to drop or not press charges against their abusers, allowing the cycle to continue. Too many people still view domestic violence as a private matter rather than a criminal offense, ignoring signs of abuse and/or failing to seek help.

If you hear a violent fight in your neighborhood, call the police. If you’re a teacher, watch for signs that children have witnessed or been the victims of violence at home. Medical professionals who treat domestic-violence victims need to ask them about the abuse in private.

Domestic-violence cases are often hard to prosecute, because victims fear for their lives if they call the police or press charges. But silence is the abuser’s best friend: We need to put an end to it. I believe the state should always press charges against abusers: Leaving it up to the victims increases the risk of retaliation.

In the past, we simply told battered spouses to go home and make it work. Today we need to let women in violent relationships know there are other options for them and their children. Silence is deadly: Please speak up against domestic violence!

[Joanna Cahill is studying environmental science at UNCA.]

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