Excerpts from “A Letter From a Battered Wife” by Del Martin. From Battered Wives, Pocket Books, 1983.
A friend of mine received the following letter after discussing wife-beating at a public meeting.
I am in my thirties and so is my husband. I have a high school diploma and am presently attending a local college, trying to obtain the additional education I need. My husband is a college graduate and a professional in his field. We are both attractive and, for the most part, respected and well-like. We have four children and live in a middle-class home with all the comforts we could possibly want.
I have everything, except a life without fear.
For most of my married life I have been periodically beaten by my husband. What do I mean by “beaten”? I mean that parts of my body have been hit violently and repeatedly, and that painful bruises, swelling, bleeding wounds, unconsciousness, and combinations of these things have resulted.
Beating should be distinguished from all other kinds of physical abuse – including being hit and shoved around. When I say my husband threatens me with abuse I do not mean he warns me that he may lose control. I mean that he shakes a fist against my face or nose, makes punching-bag jabs at my shoulder, or makes similar gestures which may quickly turn into a full-fledged beating.
I have had glasses thrown at me. I have been kicked in the abdomen when I was visibly pregnant. I have been kicked off the bed and hit while lying on the floor – again, while I was pregnant. I have been whipped, kicked and thrown, picked up again and thrown down again. I have been punched and kicked in the head, chest, face, and abdomen more times than I can count.
I have been slapped for saying something about politics, for having a different view about religion, for swearing, for crying, for wanting to have intercourse. I have been threatened when I wouldn’t do something he told me to do. I have been threatened when he’s had a bad day and when he’s had a good day.
I have been threatened, slapped, and beaten after stating bitterly that I didn’t like what he was doing with another woman.
After each beating my husband has left the house and remained away for a few days.
Few people have ever seen my black and blue face or swollen lips because I have always stayed indoors afterwards, feeling ashamed. I was never able to drive following one of these beatings, so I could not get myself to a hospital for care. I could never have left my young children alone, even if I could have driven a car.
Hysteria inevitably sets in after a beating. This hysteria – the shaking and crying and mumbling – is not accepted by anyone, so there has never been anyone to call.
My husband on a few occasions did phone a day or so later so we could agree on an excuse I would use for returning to work, the grocery store, the dentist appointment, and so on. I used the excuses – a car accident, oral surgery, things like that.
Now, the first response to this story, which I myself think of, will be “Why didn’t you seek help?”
I did. Early on in our marriage I went to a clergyman who, after a few visits, told me that my husband meant no real harm, that he was just confused and felt insecure. I was encouraged to be more tolerant and understanding. Most important, I was told to forgive him the beatings just as Christ had forgiven me from the cross. I did that, too.
Things continued. Next time I turned to the doctor. I was given little pills to relax me and told to take things a little easier. I was just too nervous.
I turned to a friend, and when her husband found out, he accused me of either making things up or exaggerating the situation. She didn’t, but she could no longer really help me. Just by believing me she was made to feel disloyal.
I turned to a professional family guidance agency. I was told there that my husband needed help and that I should find a way to control the incidents. I couldn’t control the beatings – that was the whole point of my seeking help. At the agency I found I had to defend myself against the suspicion that I wanted to be hit, that I invited the beatings. Good God! Did the Jews invite themselves to be slaughtered in Germany?
I did go to two more doctors. One asked me what I had done to provoke my husband. The other asked me if we had made up yet.
I called the police one time. They not only did not respond to the call, they called several hours later to ask if things had “settled down.” I could have been dead by then!
I have nowhere to go if it happens again. No one wants to take in a woman with four children. Even if there were someone kind enough to care, no one wants to become involved in what is commonly referred to as a “domestic situation.”
Everyone I have gone to for help has somehow wanted to blame me and vindicate my husband. I can see it lying there between their words and at the end of their sentences. The clergyman, the doctor, the counselor, my friend’s husband, the police – all of them have found a way to vindicate my husband.
No one has to “provoke” a wife-beater. He will strike out when he’s ready and for whatever reason he has at the moment.
I may be his excuse, but I have never been the reason.
I know that I do not want to be hit. I know, too, that I will be beaten again unless I can find a way out for myself and my children. I am terrified for them also.
As a married woman I have no recourse but to remain in the situation which is causing me to be painfully abused. I have suffered physical and emotional battering and spiritual rape because the social structure of my world says I cannot do anything about a man who wants to beat me … But staying with my husband means that my children must be subjected to the emotional battering caused when they see their mother’s beaten face or hear her screams in the middle of the night.
I know that I have to get out. But when you have nowhere to go, you know that you must go on your own and expect no support. I have to be ready for that. I have to be ready to support myself and the children completely, and still provide a decent environment for them. I pray that I can do that before I am murdered in my own home.
I have learned that no one believes me and that I cannot depend upon any outside help. All I have left is the hope that I can get away before it is too late.
I have learned also that the doctors, the police, the clergy, and my friends will excuse my husband for distorting my face, but won’t forgive me for looking bruised and broken. The greatest tragedy is that I am still praying, and there is not a human person to listen.
Being beaten is a terrible thing; it is most terrible of all if you are not equipped to fight back. I recall an occasion when I tried to defend myself and actually tore my husband’s shirt. Later, he showed it to a relative as proof that I had done something terribly wrong. The fact that at that moment I had several raised spots on my head hidden by my hair, a swollen lip that was bleeding, and a severely damaged cheek with a blood clot that caused a permanent dimple didn’t matter to him. What mattered was that I tore his shirt! That I tore it in self-defense didn’t mean anything to him.
My situation is so untenable I would guess that anyone who has not experienced one like it would find it incomprehensible. I find it difficult to believe myself.
It must be pointed out that while a husband can beat, slap, or threaten his wife, there are “good days.” These days tend to wear away the effects of the beating. They tend to cause the wife to put aside the traumas and look to the good – first, because there is nothing else to do; second, because there is nowhere and no one to turn to; and third, because the defeat is the beating and the hope is that it will not happen again. A loving woman like myself always hopes that it will not happen again. When it does, she simply hopes again, until it becomes obvious after a third beating that there is no hope. That is when she turns outward for help to find an answer. When that help is denied, she either resigns herself to the situation she is in or pulls herself together and starts making plans for a future life that includes only herself and her children.
For many the third beating may be too late. Several of the times I have been abused I have been amazed that I have remained alive. Imagine that I have been thrown to a very hard slate floor several times, kicked in the abdomen, the head, and the chest, and still remained alive!
What determines who is lucky and who isn’t? I could have been dead a long time ago had I been hit the wrong way. My baby could have been killed or deformed had I been kicked the wrong way. What saved me?
I don’t know. I only know that it has happened and that each night I dread the final blow that will kill me and leave my children motherless. I hope I can hang on until I complete my education, get a good job, and become self-sufficient enough to care for my children on my own.
Biography/Obituary by William Grimes, NY Times, Aug 27, 2008
Del Martin, who married her partner of 55 years, Phyllis Lyon, on June 16 in the first legal gay union in California and who helped found the pioneering lesbian-rights group the Daughters of Bilitis, died Wednesday in San Francisco. She was 87.
The cause was a broken arm that exacerbated her existing health problems, Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told The Associated Press.
The June wedding was not the couple’s first effort at legalizing their union. In February 2004, Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco challenged California’s marriage laws by announcing that the city would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples who requested them. Of the more than 4,000 couples who married before the California Supreme Court intervened a month later, Ms. Martin and Ms. Lyon may have been the oldest, and were certainly first and the most celebrated.
That summer, though, the California Supreme Court invalidated all licenses for same-sex marriages, arguing that the mayor had exceeded his legal authority. Ms. Martin and Ms. Lyon were among the original plaintiffs in a series of lawsuits that led to the court’s declaring same-sex marriages legal this year.
Mr. Newsom invited the couple to be the first couple to marry under the new ruling. This they did, in San Francisco’s City Hall, after living together as a couple for more than half a century.
On Wednesday, Ms. Lyon, 83, said in a statement, “I am devastated, but I take some solace in knowing we were able to enjoy the ultimate rite of love and commitment before she passed.”
Ms. Martin was born Dorothy L. Taliaferro on May 5, 1921, in San Francisco. She studied journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Francisco State College. At 19 she married James Martin, but the marriage ended in divorce four years later. Their daughter, Kendra Mon, survives, as do two grandchildren and Ms. Lyon.
While working for a construction trade journal in Seattle, Ms. Martin met Ms. Lyon, an employee at the same firm, and the two became romantically involved and entered into a permanent relationship in 1953. In 1955, having moved to San Francisco, they joined with six other women to found the Daughters of Bilitis, the first social and political organization for lesbians in the United States, which soon established branches around the country. The name was taken from “Songs of Bilitis,” a collection of lesbian love poems by Pierre Louys.
Ms. Martin was the organization’s first president, and from 1960 to 1962 she edited its newsletter, The Ladder, which Ms. Lyon had edited from its inception in 1956. The organization disbanded in 1970 as more radical lesbian groups came to the fore.
In 1964 Ms. Martin helped found the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, which lobbied city government to end police harassment of gay men and lesbians and change discriminatory laws.
Ms. Martin is believed to have been the first openly gay woman to be elected to the board of directors of the National Organization for Women, where she agitated to put lesbian issues on the table. She was also an active member of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, which was founded in 1972 to support gay candidates in San Francisco.
In her later years, she was a member of Old Lesbians Organizing for Change. In 1987 she earned a degree from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality.
She wrote a book, “Battered Wives” (1976), and two others with Ms. Lyon, “Lesbian/Woman” (1972) and “Lesbian Love and Liberation” (1973).