“Domestic violence” is such a non-specific, dismissive phrase. It glosses over the atrocity of the action, the awful truth of the cycle of violence. The local news features stories of domestic violence almost every night. “The husband killed his wife and then turned the gun on himself,” the young reporter will say, staring into the camera. “A tragic case of domestic violence.” Well, yes, but it’s also murder. I wish we would call it that.
Back in the early 1990s, I was a contributing writer for Columbus, Ohio’s city magazine, and I was assigned a chilling story. I was asked to interview some of the 25 women Governor Richard Celeste had granted clemency to as his last act in office. These women were murderers, all convicted of killing or assaulting husbands or companions.
At the time, it was the first mass release of “battered women” (the defense phrase used) inmates in this country. The move was praised by women’s rights advocates but condemned by many judges and prosecutors. There was no question these women had killed, of course. And once I had a chance to interview several of them, there was no question in my mind as to why.
These women’s stories stick with me even all these years later. As does the fact that they all were convinced—I knew for a fact—that if they didn’t kill their abusers first, these men would have killed them, and if they were mothers, perhaps their children too.
I’d never met a murderer before I met these women. But I believed each one of them acted in self-defense, no matter how the story unfolded.
One of the most chilling stories was from a young mom who had been living through the cycle of violence with her husband while trying to raise two young daughters. She’d had repeated hospitalizations, teeth knocked out, concussions, and more. When her husband lost his job, things got worse. He’d threatened to kill her before, of course. Choking her, strangling her until she passed out in front of her daughters.
I remember her eyes as she told the story. Shiny with tears, quiet. She’d locked herself and her daughters in her bedroom. After pounding on the door for what seemed like hours, she thought he had given up. Instead, he broke in through the window in a blind rage. She stabbed him in the neck as he climbed through. She saved herself and her young daughters. And then she went to prison for murder.
Another one of the women released shot her husband as he slept. It had been the only option, she explained. I’d never met a murderer before I met these women. But I believed each one of them acted in self-defense, no matter how the story unfolded.
The fact is domestic violence often ends in murder, but most likely for the woman victim. Each day in the United States, three or more women are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. The women I interviewed, like all victims of domestic abuse, were trapped emotionally and physically. They loved these men even though they were beaten by them. They loved them still, even after they killed them. A stunning truth.
Each of the women I interviewed, who ranged in age from mid-20s to 50, had been vetted for years by the governor’s team, verifying their story, pulling medical records, documenting the cycle they were incapable of escaping. These were strong women driven to the worst possible choice. I still think of them often. Ohio had been one of the last states where women were barred from presenting an expert witness about being physically abused, preventing them from bringing a compelling, genuine defense. This clemency was a bold, wonderful move by the governor.
As I interviewed these newly freed women survivors, the women running shelters, and people who work with these male abusers, I learned several things. It’s almost impossible to help these men—almost impossible for them to change. The programs designed to fix them rarely succeed. I’ll never forget the male counselor who ran a program for violent criminals, men who were incarcerated for domestic abuse. His face fell as he admitted the failure rates. I remember him telling me that these men learn this behavior young, usually from an abusive father. They watch it in action, then continue the cycle in their own lives.
Another truth was that while these women’s stories were all different, one thing was eerily the same. They all—each woman I interviewed—mentioned the eyes of their abuser. The eyes are the window to the soul. And each one of these women knew that at the moment she decided to save herself, it was her life or her abuser’s at stake. She saw it in his eyes.
So what do I take away from this unique and chilling experience I had so many years ago? Beyond supporting shelters for women who have fallen into this awful cycle, I try to work strong women into my stories. I had a long and winding career as a journalist, and many stories touched my heart. Not many scared me like this one did. To look in the face of a murderer and want to give her a hug—well, that was something. Oh, and I did.
If you choose to read one of my novels, and I hope you do, you may discover my bad guys have evil eyes. As for Paul Strom, your unreliable narrator in Best Day Ever, I guess you’ll just need to read it and find out.
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Kaira Rouda is the USA Today bestselling author of novels including Here, Home, Hope, The Goodbye Year, In the Mirror and All the Difference. Her stories explore what goes on behind closed doors of seemingly perfect lives. She lives in Southern California with her family and she's at work on her next novel. Visit her website, KairaRouda.com. Connect with her on Facebook.com/KairaRoudaBooks; and on Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter – @KairaRouda.