Heather’s high school hell

Or, why state budgets should not be balanced by broken bones

He blacked my eye, I couldn’t see,
Then he pawned the things he gave to me.
But outside of that, he’s all right with me!

Bessie Smith, 1923

He gave her something to cry about
Some kind of pain she thinks that she can’t live without
Her face is broken and her eyes are burning red
and last night’s go around’s still banging in her head

Donna Colton, “Black and Blue Elaine,” 1996

I’m upset, and you’re going to have to hear about it. Once you hear about it, you’ll probably be upset, too. If you’re not upset by the time you finish reading this piece, then I will have done a poor job of writing it.

Or you might be the kind of jerk we all too often elect to public office, people who try to balance budgets on the bodies of battered women, like the politicians who recently voted to cut funding for all domestic-violence programs in California. Those politicians included Arnold Schwarzenegger, action-figure film-star badass, and a governor tough enough to sign a bill eliminating the money that provides refuge for people who are largely defenseless against abuse.

In a rare fit of conscience—or embarrassed acquiescence to public outrage—state lawmakers reversed themselves on cutting funds for battered women. They’d cut that funding to precisely nothing—zero. The news of the utter callousness of those cuts hit the public consciousness early in October, which just happens to be national Domestic Violence Awareness month.

Domestic violence increases when times are hard, a fact well known to cops and social workers. Unemployed men all too often take out their frustration on the women who share their lives—and their miseries. And, as the economy creates more violence toward women, the well of support services that offer help and protection for battered wives and girlfriends starts drying up. The tradition is, and has been, that those with the least power take the first and hardest hits. Pun intended.

Inevitably, women are likely to pay the price for economies in the state budget that often turn out to be false, with ancillary costs to the state accruing precisely because of the cuts intended to save money. Cut funding to protect the vulnerable, and the next thing you know you’ve got spikes in health-care costs and bumps in costs to the legal system, not to mention lost work, lost wages, lost taxes, and yet another generation of lost children marred for a lifetime by formative years lived out in hellish environments.

That’s all theoretical stuff, the kinds of things studied in sociology classes or argued in the abstract by politicians in the halls of government.

But if you want to see how the sociology plays out in the lives of real people, come with me to meet Heather, a 20-year-old woman who just might be your neighbor. Or your daughter.

Heather is not her real name. There are reasons why she prefers not to have her picture taken, or her identity made plain. Not the least of those reasons is the danger still posed by a former boyfriend who is, without doubt, a ticking time bomb, the kind of guy likely to turn up on the nightly news, doing a perp walk into jail or into a courtroom because he’s just done someone grievous bodily harm. Or worse.

I heard her story at a coffee shop in Paradise. She sat across from me in a booth, shredding a napkin as she told me about her life as a victim of abuse in a relationship that began when she was 14 years old and still a Girl Scout. It had been two years since she managed to extricate herself from that abusive relationship with her boyfriend.

He was Heather’s first love, her first kiss, her initiation into sexuality. He was two years older, a football player, and the attention she got from him was salve to her pubescent insecurities.

But it didn’t take long before the abuse began. The star athlete turned out to be a boy in a man’s body, with insecurities of his own, a massive ego besieged by jealousies, and a background that had taught him he could deal with his problems with force. It was social and personal pathology that turned puppy love into a dog fight between a pit bull and a chihuahua, that turned the word “love” sour, and gave the word “terrorism” the most intimate of meanings.

It began with almost daily attempts to belittle her. She wasn’t allowed to talk to other boys in her classes, or he’d be angry for reasons she couldn’t fathom.

“He’s a very intimidating person,” Heather told me, on that beautiful October morning. She’s a pretty girl with a wide-eyed countenance bespeaking an innocence no longer hers. She told her tale in matter-of-fact tones, a story she’s told before as a volunteer worker for Catalyst, the agency for battered women that just may have saved her life. Certainly it gave her a place to turn when she was terrified and bereft of any notion of what to do.

“By May of 2006, it had gotten pretty bad,” she said. “I never knew what I’d done to make him mad, and he was almost always mad. He was taking steroids, and steroids amplify control issues. And anger.”

She got a job at a local supermarket, and her boyfriend didn’t like that at all, didn’t like her proximity to male co-workers or flirtatious customers. He didn’t like her not being available to him during her working hours.

And so he came to her workplace one day, told her boss that he’d beat him up if he didn’t let her off work early.

“The boss said ‘OK, no problem,’ and I was dragged out of the store by my hair,” she said, with a look of puzzlement on her face at the indifference of her boss and her co-workers. “No one said anything. No one called the cops. He took me over to a playground at Mountain Ridge School and said he was going to kill me. ‘I almost killed someone here before,’ he told me, ‘and I’m not afraid to do it again.’ ”

She is still puzzled about why it took her so long to realize that what she was experiencing wasn’t acceptable. “You have to remember,” she said, “this was my first relationship. I didn’t know what was normal. My parents didn’t behave that way, but for all I knew it was their relationship that was unusual, not mine.”

Why didn’t she tell her parents about the growing threat she faced?

“I was very young, and very naïve. Plus, I had gradually evolved into a person I hated. My self-esteem was so low, I didn’t think I deserved to be treated well. And I didn’t know how to get away. He said that if he couldn’t have me, he’d make sure I was damaged goods, or he’d kill me. I began to think I’d rather have him kill me than be with him another day.”

“Besides,” she continued, “for a long time, I thought I could change him. He just needed love, was all. He’d had a tough home life. And he always told me he’d change after every abusive episode. He’d be really sorry, and I’d forgive him.”

When she did confide in a few of her fellow high-school students about how badly she was being treated, they didn’t believe her. “Instead of him being alienated,” she said, “I was the one alienated. Everyone was intimidated by him.

“He’s a pervert,” she told me, in the same matter-of-fact tone that has characterized the entire interview. “He forced sex on me repeatedly, and he got me to do things I didn’t want to do.”

She didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask.

“People don’t think it’s rape when you’re in a relationship, but he raped me several times. I think he thought he loved me when he was doing these things. It was just such a distorted view of what love is.”

He expected her to do his homework for him, and she did. He demanded she lose weight, and she did. “I lost 45 pounds in three months, but then I started getting more attention from other guys, and that increased his jealousy … and his anger. Even his mother warned me to break up with him. ‘He’ll kill you,’ she told me, and I think she was afraid of him, too.”

After she’d broken up with him, he immediately began stalking her. “I was 17 by then,” she said, “and I was cleaning houses that summer. I left one job and he chased me, nearly ran me off the road, then boxed in my car so I couldn’t get away. I was screaming and crying, and he was telling me that if he couldn’t have me, no one else would, either.”

She got away, and she sought a restraining order to keep him away from her, but restraining orders are only as good as the enforcement that gives them the power of law. In Heather’s experience, the enforcement wasn’t always good.

Since the O.J. Simpson trial 13 years ago, says Anastacia Snyder, director of Catalyst Domestic Violence services, California has made consistent progress in protecting battered women—until this year, when it cut all funding to shelters like hers.

Photo By meredith J. Cooper

“I didn’t have good experiences with the Paradise police,” she said, “and I sometimes felt like I’d been re-victimized. They didn’t want to believe me, seemed to be suggesting I was imagining things, or simply being a drama queen. And then nothing would happen. I did have some good experiences with the Butte County sheriff’s deputies, though, but after I turned 18 I was no longer a minor, and the law became even less protective.

“There’s just so much unspoken acceptance of violence toward women,” she said. “The whole idea from kids at school was that you’re supposed to respect your man. That was the attitude I got from the police, too: ‘Do what he tells you.’ I believe in traditional values, but batterers need to be put in their place. And I’ve definitely come to believe that women have to set boundaries.”

Her real breakthrough came when she got frightened enough to tell her story to her parents. The impetus for those confessions came when her ex-boyfriend threatened her family. For the first time in the interview, tears welled up in her eyes as she described the conversation with her mother that started her on the road to finding safety and regaining her self-esteem.

“My immune system was so compromised I got the worst case of mono ever seen, but I healed the most when I was finally able to talk about it,” she said. “Now, when I tell my story and someone benefits from it, I just feel that much closer to being well. I see so many young girls who go to parties, get drunk, lead guys on, and then feel obliged to have sex with them. They can’t say no, but then they wind up feeling like sluts, and the whole cycle of declining self-esteem just continues. One thing I hope I can teach young women is that they can say no.”

Heather’s victimization didn’t end with the break-up, didn’t end with the restraining orders, didn’t end with the counseling that followed all of the pain. There’s a good chance some part of her will remain victimized for as long as she lives, her youth blighted, her future relationships with men made wary, her view of human beings darkened prematurely.

“It embarrasses me that I waited so long,” she said. “I didn’t get help until a year after I broke it off with him and he was still stalking me, and threatening my family. I have no idea how women can go to court by themselves. Without Catalyst, I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

Catalyst is the Butte County organization dedicated to helping women like Heather. Anastacia Snyder heads that program, and she is a woman dedicated to the work she does.

“It’s been 13 years since the state created the funding stream that makes our work possible,” she told me in an interview that followed my meeting with Heather, but preceded the passage of legislation that returned the funding for battered women to the state budget.

“The O.J. Simpson trial created an awareness that batterers weren’t being held accountable,” she told me. “We saw pictures of how battered Nicole Simpson was, and we saw how ineffectual the system had been in protecting her from such dramatic abuse. Those pictures and that testimony demonstrated what a hell she was living in, largely by herself. It was a lesson to the state that we had to do something.

“Now we’re 13 years down the road, and we’ve created alliances with law enforcement, and built an education program on teen violence. All this awareness has been created, and now the state is telling us we’re going backwards in giant leaps to times when these services didn’t exist.”

There was exasperation in her voice as she spoke, puzzled by the priorities of politicians.

“Budget cuts to the domestic-violence field are devastating,” she continued. “When you cut domestic violence out of your budget by 100 percent, you’re sending a message about the value of life. The person who doesn’t get services may wind up a homicide victim. Talk to law enforcement, they’ll tell you. A third of emergency medical services are caused by domestic violence. We’ve had to cut our counseling programs drastically. If our clients don’t feel supported, then their ability to function in their jobs is affected. So it affects the business community as well. Repercussions spiral out in all directions.”

At this point in the interview, she began to tear up.

“I have a real emotional reaction to loss of that funding,” she said, “because I know what it means when abused women, often without any resources at their disposal, have to find a way down from Paradise to get a needed service.”

Snyder and the workers and volunteers at Catalyst have managed to survive on other revenue sources that include the California Emergency Management Agency, which is primarily funded by federal pass-through dollars. Catalyst also receives foundation grants, United Way and FEMA dollars, as well as money from the city of Chico. The town of Paradise, Butte County and Glenn County also fund the program with grants. Private donations make up the rest of the agency’s operating budget.

When I summarized Heather’s story, Snyder was impressed.

“She’s incredibly brave,” she said. “And she was fortunate in getting out of that relationship. She’s channeled her hurt in a way that’s incredibly positive. I had a 17-year-old in my office just last week, and I was literally afraid for her life.”

Asked if Heather’s story seemed typical, Snyder answered:

“There is no ‘typical’ category for abusive relationships. You can come from a happy, healthy home, with loving parents, and still find yourself in a relationship that is just the opposite of what you’ve known growing up. But one in four relationships will be marked by violence and abuse, and teens are not exempt from that. It’s tough enough to be a young person without this kind of trauma.”

Lest there be readers who think men are exclusively the bad guys, it’s worth remembering that domestic violence is also directed toward them, though men are less commonly the victims of abuse.

It’s also worth remembering that guys like state Sen. Leland Yee were instrumental in restoring the funding cuts Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law just a few months ago. On Oct. 14, the Legislature unanimously approved a bill to restore $16.3 million in funding to save the state’s domestic-violence shelters. The emergency legislation restores state funding for 94 domestic violence shelters and centers throughout California.

By that time, six shelters had shut down altogether.

In a press release, Sen. Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, said: “Governor Schwarzenegger has put women and children at risk; he will now have a second chance to do the right thing.”

The cuts might have been sustained had it not been for people like Moby, of pop-music fame, who donated proceeds from all the concerts of his California tour to benefit battered-women’s shelters. Moby led a nationwide media campaign that drew enough attention to embarrass the more callous California politicians.

As Moby wrote in his online journal entry for Oct. 15: “Yesterday the state legislature voted in emergency session to reinstate all funding to domestic violence programs! and arnie said he’d sign the bill! we spent 2 weeks working really hard and talking to cnn and ap, cbs and npr, and apparently the media pressure had its desired effect.”

When girls like Heather are abused, their fathers also become victims.

I called Heather’s dad because I wanted a father’s perspective, wanted to know how he kept from becoming violent himself.

“We had problems with our daughter getting involved with this kid right from the start,” he told me, “but what can you do? The more you disapprove, the less it works. When I finally learned about how bad things had gotten—the threats and the abuse—my first instinct was to grab this kid and beat the hell out of him, but I was persuaded to believe that having her dad in jail wouldn’t help my daughter. So I turned to the courts and the police—the proper channels.

“This kid grew up in a violent environment,” he said, “and I knew that if I got into it with him, the violence would escalate. He was a true bully. And I thought he’d learn a greater lesson through the court system than getting beat up, because he was used to the idea of settling things with violence. He was an athlete, after all, and these guys are given the idea that if you’re bigger, stronger, or special, you just take the things you want.”

Though Heather’s dad sought out the authorities rather than attempting to take matters into his own hands, obstacles remained.

“Going through the proper channels is very difficult,” he told me. “When you get to the court, they give you a rough idea of what to do, and then you get to the police, and there’s more paperwork. I’m not a dumb guy; I deal with contracts all the time, but if you do one thing wrong, they kick it all out and you have to start all over again. A woman from Catalyst—Julie was her name. She was beyond helpful. She probably saved us a half-day of going over the papers to get the “I”s dotted and the “T”s crossed.”

He exhaled, an exasperated sigh. Without support, without a patient and knowledgeable advocate, many women would no doubt simply walk away in frustration. No guess is possible about how many do, or the consequences suffered because of it.

“I pity an uneducated woman trying to figure out this paperwork on her own. It would be impossible, I would imagine.”