[Anna Fields, in her debut memoir, Confessions of a Rebel Debutante, writes of being strong, not following the crowd, and becoming who you really are. In today’s guest post the author shares a fictional piece — based on a novel she’s currently writing — with the hope it might comfort and help those women who have experienced physical/verbal/domestic abuse.]
By Anna Fields
Jenny Thompson was murdered in her driveway. Her husband, Eric, had been drinking all afternoon before loading his gun and shooting her more than a dozen times–first in the back, as she tried to run away, then in the head when she wasn’t fast enough. His motive: He thought she was cheating on him. She wasn’t. Jenny, a 29-year-old homemaker living in the suburbs of Bridgewater, Connecticut, and I had become friends over the past year. Her husband was the brother of my boyfriend, Michael. But suddenly, on that April afternoon in 2008, Jenny was dead, lying facedown in her own blood. When I heard the news, I thought: That could’ve been me.
I first met Michael in college at Brown University in 1999. We shared a few classes and quickly became friends. Seven years later, we both wound up in graduate school at New York University, and we started dating. Michael, a stocky, powerfully built guy, seemed chivalrous and sweet. He was also smart and funny, and knew how to make me laugh – even at myself. He’d grown up in a modest blue-collar family, playing football, working alongside his older brother, Eric, in their father’s machine shop. Michael idolized Eric. Born only two years apart, they looked like twins. They shared certain other traits too, like extreme possessiveness. But I didn’t know that then.
Every day, I’d meet Michael between classes for lunch at a local sports bar. I noticed that he drank a lot–usually two cocktails at lunch–but then, everyone in grad school did. After about three months, I moved in with him in his bachelor-pad apartment. Mostly we wanted to save money on rent, but also I felt comfortable with him; we had a real connection and a shared college experience. His stories about people we both knew and professor we both remembered convinced me that we could have a future together.
Things changed quickly after we started living together. Michael became very interested in knowing where I was at all times. Whenever we were apart, he’d call me repeatedly to “check in.” If I didn’t answer my cell phone, even in the middle of class, he would become upset. Yes, I knew his behavior was possessive, but at the same time, part of me enjoyed the attention; I saw it as a sign of his devotion. So I dutifully answered his calls, and apologized when I couldn’t.
Over the weeks, his possessiveness grew. He’d suggest I wear longer skirts to cover my legs, fuller dresses and loose shirts to hide my curves. He also consumed almost every minute of my day, calling my cell phone nearly every half-hour until I barely called or spoke with anyone but him. Also, when I did speak to others, he didn’t want me talking about our relationship to anyone, not even my parents, or he would accuse me of betraying his privacy. I once told my mother about our relationship and she became worried, calling Michael “controlling” and “abusive.” When he found out, Michael screamed at me and threatened to break up with me if I ever betrayed him again.
I knew these were major red flags, but still, I brushed them aside. I had grown attached to him, and anyway I didn’t want the chaos and drama of moving out; I had papers to write and deadlines to meet, so I just tried to keep the peace. Anyway, I could work these issues out with him, I thought. In a way, he reminded me of my father, another possessive man who had always looked out for me back in my hometown of Burlington, North Carolina–maybe a little too much so. But I knew it was because he loved me.
Michael and I continued to meet for our lunches at the bar, but at night, we mostly stayed home together and studied, or watched TV while he drank from huge, 40 oz. bottle of beer. By the end of the night, he had usually downed about five to six drinks. The more he drank, the angrier and more volatile he would become. He would become agitated at the smallest things – something I said, something I did – even if it happened months ago. Even something on television might set him off and he’d fly into a rage, throwing things and hitting the walls with his fists. By now, I barely had any friends left to talk to, let alone anyone I dared ask for advice. I was too afraid to call my mother again for fear that Michael would dump me and throw me out of his apartment, leaving me homeless and alone.
After we’d been together about five months, Michael took me to meet Eric and Jenny at their home in Massachusetts. When we arrived, they were sitting around in their basement, already drunk, and Eric wanted us to catch up, fast. As he poured me a drink, he asked me–completely out of nowhere–whether I watched porn. When I said no, he looked shocked. “How can you be dating Michael and not like porn?” he asked. Before I could respond, Michael abruptly changed the subject. I thought, I wonder how much I know about this guy after all. When I asked him about what had happened, and told him how awkward and uncomfortable I’d felt at Eric’s house, Michael became angry. He told me I was the real problem, not Eric. End of discussion. I didn’t try to argue, I just accepted his feelings and kept my mouth shut. By now, I’d learned that staying quiet was the only way to keep Michael calm and avoid yet another of his angry outbursts.
Michael and I started spending more time with Eric and Jenny, driving to their place every few weekends. They were the only people Michael wanted us to socialize with. Jenny was always socially awkward and shy on these visits, usually avoiding eye contact when she spoke. Something about her relationship with Eric seemed off-kilter, almost secretive. I could sense his control over her. She would mock him whenever he left the room, calling him “psycho” with a smile, like she was joking. But when he came back, she stopped smiling, and I couldn’t tell if she was really joking or not. When I asked Michael about it, he told me some very private things about the couple: Eric made Jenny perform all kinds of sexual acts, he said, like wearing an anal plug to work or donning bondage gear at night. When I said I was sorry I’d asked, Michael became angry, calling me a “judgmental bitch.” I was shocked and hurt. No one had ever said something like that to me before, and I didn’t know how to respond. I felt vulnerable and helpless, unable to protect or defend myself to the person who was supposed to love me, not call me angry, hurtful names.
I couldn’t bring myself to admit that Michael was exerting his own form of control over me. But I did recognize that after only seven months together, my outgoing personality had all but drained away; I’d become withdrawn, preferring to stay in rather than go out. I walked on eggshells around Michael and tried to avoid arguments. I didn’t think about how to get out of this situation in the long run; I just thought about how to get through each day without a fight.
After all, I had grad school to focus on–I was studying Dramatic Writing–and I wanted to establish job contacts in the entertainment industry. I didn’t have time for a move to a new apartment and a big emotional breakup. So I continued to blow off my problems at home. I would deal with them later, I kept telling myself.
Later came around quickly. One night, after one of many fights about how my outfit was too sexy, meaning I must be cheating on him with another guy, I finally said I wanted to move out. But when Michael threatened to throw away all my stuff if I did, I stayed.
One night, not long after, Michael got dangerously drunk and started criticizing my religion, calling me a “stupid hypocrite.” When I finally defended myself, asking him to stop saying such mean things to me, he got so angry that he punched his fist through our bedroom wall, leaving a giant hole. I’d never seen him this angry. Panicked that he would hit me next, I called Campus Safety at NYU for help, but they said my only option was to file a restraining order with the police. Michael had no idea I’d called authorities for help. I knew, if he found out, my life would be in danger. I feared his anger was totally out of control. After watching him punch a wall, I knew he could do the same to me. When I called the police that same night, they didn’t pay much attention since Michael hadn’t beaten me up–at least, not yet. So, I spent another night with him, telling myself it would be the last. I barely slept a wink. I was paranoid he could somehow read my mind and discover my plans to leave. Every time he moved, I feared he might wake up and throw me out in the middle of the night or punch a hole through my face like he had our wall.
The next morning, after Michael had left for class, I used his laptop to search for moving companies. That’s when I discovered a file marked “Anna,” with several of my school assignments that he had been eyeing–without my knowledge. That wasn’t all I found. Dozens of torture-porn videos were filed alongside my assignments, carefully organized and catalogued. I opened one and saw a video of a screaming Asian girl being electrocuted. I felt shocked, and sick. Eric was right: There was a side to Michael I definitely did not know. Nor did I want to. The video snapped me back into reality. It was time to get out of there.
I stuffed several bags with as many of my belongings as I could, and headed to NYU’s Office of Campus Safety. A counselor there gave me permission to stay at the school’s emergency shelter for five days – if I stayed longer, she said, I’d have to pay a huge fee – the cost of an entire semester in an undergraduate dorm. I couldn’t afford to stay, so about a week later, I rented a tiny room across town–something temporary and safe. Michael called and texted me maniacally, at all hours of the day and night, calling me more nasty names and threatening to show up at my department and “make me sorry,” until I finally changed my number.
A few months later, Jenny’s murder hit the headlines across the country. I read about the horrible shooting, and about Eric’s subsequent arrest. The details made chills run up and down my spine, especially this one: Police
reports showed that Eric had regularly called Jenny dozens of times a day, just like Michael had called me. Eric was always trying to keep tabs on his wife– and was always accusing her of infidelity. It hit me just how naïve I’d been in all those months with Michael. The danger signs were all there, and I’d found an array of reasons to dismiss them.
This past summer, I had a similar sinking feeling when I read about college student Yeardley Love, who was killed by her boyfriend at the University of Virginia. Her friends later said the boyfriend had been possessive, but still, they hadn’t seen a murder coming. Since my experience with Michael, I have learned to get to know someone as much as possible before moving in with him, to trust my instincts and heart if I suspect someone may not be treating me well, and to believe that I am worthy of someone honest, loving and trustworthy. A few months after leaving Michael, I met and fell in love with a man who makes me laugh without making me cry, and have since fulfilled my dreams of becoming a published author and TV writer. I will never let myself fall into the trap of loving an abuser again. I will never repress true feelings and opinions to please a man again. But above all, I will always carry Jenny’s memory with me, urging me to succeed, to thrive and to never take my life and freedom for granted.
Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away two copies of Kristina McMorris’s Letters from Home in a random drawing of comments left only on this specific post, Kristina McMorris and Letters from Home. Comments left on other posts during the week will not be eligible. The deadline is Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 7:00 p.m. EST with the winners to be announced here in Thursday’s post. If you enter, please return Thursday to see if you’re a winner.