Jen Smith and Janay Rice have almost nothing in common with each other except for one big thing: They both stayed with a man who abused them. And Jen wants to make sure that Janay (and anyone else in an abusive relationship) hears her story about #whyshestayed.
"What was the argument about?" I asked.
"I don't remember," she says again. Jen isn't being coy as she hazily recounts her eight-year abusive relationship — she actually suffers hearing loss in her right ear and memory impairment from having her head slammed into things so often. She remembers hitting the wall that first night. She doesn't remember the time he kicked her in the head. But thanks to the stack of medical files in front of her she knows that he kicked her so hard he fractured her skull, leaving her with a permanent indent instead of a memory. Jen was three months pregnant when it happened.
Jen met Brian her freshman year in college. That's the first thing she wants you to know about her: that she's smart and accomplished. She holds an advanced degree and is widely respected in her field. "I'm not the stereotype of a battered wife," she insists. Pause. "But maybe there isn't one."
Unfortunately Jen is right. With one in five women experiencing some form of domestic assault in their lifetime, victims span all ages, ethnicities and social tiers. If the Ray Rice incident has taught us anything it's that so many things happen behind closed doors. As the media tears Janay Rice apart, wondering why she went on to marry the guy who knocked her unconscious and then dragged her body out of an elevator, Jen doesn't wonder. She knows.
After dating Brian for a year, Jen became pregnant. It was an accident and neither of them were quite prepared to become parents but they decided to do "the right thing" and get married. Jen moved in with Brian and that's when things really started going downhill. She says he became really jealous of anyone she spent time with, no matter their gender or relationship to her, so she started cancelling plans just to keep the peace. But nothing she did satisfied him and their arguments quickly turned to yelling. Soon she barely recognized the girl in the mirror. He told her she was ugly and stupid, that he was the only person who would ever love her.
"It sounds so cliche, so typical, that I'm embarrassed to even say it out loud," Jen sighs. She says she recognized even as it was happening that it wasn't right but she also says she believed him on some level. Part of why she was always such an overachiever was that she never believed she was good enough and that no one would ever love her unless she was perfect — so he was just confirming what she already knew. Plus, she loved him.
"I know this sounds crazy but I really loved him. His dad used to beat him and I was the only person he ever told about it. I mean, he cried in my lap telling me. And I just thought, 'I can help you get past this. If I love you enough, it will heal whatever that broken part is inside.'"
Their daughter was born and they got married but while everything was picture-perfect in their wedding photos the verbal abuse had escalated to the point where Jen says she barely recognized herself. Gone was the sassy, happy girl who wouldn't let anyone tell her what to do. Now she walked on eggshells, trying to avoid triggering another attack. This was why, she says, it really didn't faze her the first time he laid his hands on her.
"People don't understand the mental mind-f*ckery that goes on. I felt like it was just inevitable. I mean, I didn't want it to happen but I wasn't surprised when it did. I felt like I had it coming to me and ... it did."
Indeed. Within two years Jen was pregnant with their second child and that was when he used her head like a soccer ball, sending her to the E.R. As I flip through her immense medical file, what amazes me is not the years of documented abuse and injury nor the completeness of the notes. Rather, I'm floored by what isn't in there: help. No one offered her any aid beyond a cursory visit with a social worker whom she dismissed by telling her "I'm fine" as she slipped back into her business suit and tried to dab concealer over her two black eyes. She wanted to believe it so badly that perhaps she was able to make others believe it too?
It's at this point I ask the question on everyone's mind, the question people keeping asking Janay, the question people ask every survivor of domestic violence: "So why did you stay with him?"
"I don't remember," she says automatically. When I clarify that I don't necessarily mean that particular day but rather at all her face crumples. "I shouldn't have, I know that now. I should have left."
She says that she just felt "so screwed up" and that she knew she really was what he said she was. She says she was pregnant and afraid to lose his support. She says her parents were divorced and she didn't want that. She says she remembered the tender man she'd first met and still loved him. She says she had to protect her baby, that Brian was a good dad but he had little experience caring for their daughter and she was nervous about a typical toddler tantrum provoking a rage.
She says she was the only one that could hold everything together. She says she'd done such a good job of convincing people she was superwoman that she wouldn't have even known how to tell them the truth without it all sounding like a lie. She says she thought he would be sorry — and he was — and they could start a new normal.
She says so many things so sadly that I'm deeply sorry I asked. But when I ask her what made her finally decide to leave him, she's very clear on that answer.
One night, when her son was just a few months old, Brian started in on her again. He'd bought a new, expensive TV and she'd criticized him in front of his buddies for spending too much money when they were already deeply in debt. He had yelled and reached to grab her but this time she ran. She was clutching her baby to her chest and was terrified that Brian would miss and hit him instead. So she barricaded herself and the baby inside the bathroom, only realizing she'd forgotten her daughter when she heard the child's tiny voice pleading with her father to let mommy out. "Don't hurt mommy, please don't hurt my mommy."
Jen doesn't remember screaming but apparently she did it long enough and loud enough that a neighbor called the police. When the cops opened the door, she recognized one of the officers as the father of an old friend. His eyes filled with tears when he saw her. She says she probably wouldn't have listened to anyone else, but this man knew her family, had known her for years, had known the old Jen. So when he sat her down in the squad car and said, "He's going to kill you. You have to leave," it finally clicked.
As she didn't have any injuries at that time, the police only made Brian leave but early the next morning she gathered her kids and a few bags and went to her mom's house.
It's been two years and the divorce proceedings still aren't complete. Brian has fought her every step of the way, even trying to gain sole custody of their children and using evidence of her memory problems and depression — issues she only has thanks to him — as proof that she's an unfit mother. Thankfully the judge saw through that and granted her a restraining order. The stress has made her even sicker so now her mother mostly takes care of her kids. She's lost her job. Still though, she's terrified he will find her and make good on his promise to kill her — a valid fear, as a woman is 75 percent more likely to be killed after leaving her abuser.
That's the last thing she wants you to know about her: Her name really isn't Jen. While she says she isn't ashamed to talk about her experience — in fact, she agreed to this interview hoping to help others in her situation — she insisted we change the names and identifying details. Because in the end, even though this is her life now, she still has to live it on his terms.
"I don't know Janay and maybe I don't know exactly why she stayed, although I think I get it," she says, "But I do know one thing: He's going to do it again."
For more information on abuse or how to get help, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
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