By Mildred D. Muhammad, Award-Winning Global Keynote Speaker, Certified Consultant with the U.S. Dept of Justice/Office for Victims of Crime, Speaker for the U.S. Dept of State, CNN Contributor, Domestic Abuse Survivor, Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, Trainer/Educator, Certified Intuitive Life Coach, 5X-Author
Domestic violence is a worldwide epidemic. It does not have an economic, occupational or educational status, gender, race, creed (a set of beliefs, principles, or opinions that strongly influence the way people live or work) or culture. This social disease has quietly weaved itself into the fabric of our society. Only when abuse has gone beyond our capacity to understand do we listen, read, and watch how the stories unfold on the news. We hold our breath, shake our heads, and wonder how someone could commit such a horrific crime. Even then, we look for excuses that help us make sense of it all and justify why we should not believe the victim.
Consider the recent case of Zach Smith, the former assistant football coach for Ohio State University. His ex-wife, Courtney Smith, made it known that she was a victim of domestic violence. She even had physical evidence to prove her abuse, which many survivors are not able to provide. Despite the evidence, head coach Urban Meyer and athletic director Gene Smith chose to give Zach the benefit of the doubt instead of believing Courtney, and neglected to take action. Like many abusive partners, Zach presented as Mr. Hyde to his colleagues, and Dr. Jekyll to his partner, making it difficult for those who knew him publicly to see him as being capable of abuse. They could not put their personal feelings aside and follow the policy regarding domestic violence set forth by Ohio State University. After details of his mishandling of the case went public, Urban Meyer chose to issue an apology to Buckeye Nation and say he’s “Sorry we’re in this situation,” failing to call out Zach Smith’s behavior or even bring legitimacy to Courtney’s claims.
Unfortunately, stories like these are the norm. Though we express outrage over domestic violence, society tends to take the side of the abuser, especially if they are a public figure, someone well-liked or someone in a position of power.
The wounds from domestic violence are not always physical, and the silent scars sometimes take longest to fade. Shifting the thinking of the world around what domestic violence looks like or “should” look like is necessary. According to the US Dept. of Justice, 80% of victims do not present with physical scars. Despite this, we concentrate on the 20% because we are a visual people—if I don’t see your pain, your pain does not exist. However, if you turn victims inside out, you will see all the hidden scars they carry. Every 9 to 15 seconds a woman is physically assaulted or killed. Unfortunately, we don’t concentrate on the many other abuses happening every 1-8 seconds, before the assault takes place, because we do not see them as warranting intervention or attention. This is why it can be so difficult for victims without physical injuries from abuse to get the help they deserve.
The first assault in an abusive relationship is often verbal. Verbal assault usually involves yelling or aggressively using words to offend or attack someone, as well as threatening physical violence causing fear of imminent danger to the victim. Over time, verbal assaults become part of a larger pattern of psychological (emotional) abuse, subjecting and exposing another person to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Other nonviolent abuses often follow:
- Economic abuse is a form of abuse when one intimate partner has control over the other partner’s access to financial resources, which diminishes the victim’s capacity to support themselves and forces them to depend on the perpetrator financially.
- Spiritual abuse has the capacity of damaging the central core of who you are. It can leave you spiritually discouraged and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.
- Sexual and/or reproductive coercion, where an abuser pressures or forces their partner into sexual and/or reproductive choices they are not comfortable with.
- Stalking is a federal offense, and is defined as any course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to feel fear.
Survivors typically experience these nonviolent forms of abuse long before a physical assault ever occurs. Unfortunately, law enforcement only reacts when abuse turns physical, and survivors are not seen as “real victims” until their situation escalates to violence.
As a result of this, many survivors of nonviolent domestic abuse do not believe they are victims. Everyone comes from a different culture and level of pain. Sometimes children are raised in households of violence, and were never shown the true essence of love or taught what a healthy, equal relationship looks like. They may consider abuse to be normal, or even an action of love, as they become adults. Although this may be the case for many survivors who are in this situation, there is still something within their spirit, gut, intuition that sounds the alarm that something is wrong. The feeling of betrayal comes to the surface because a line of trust was crossed, resulting in feelings of shock, hurt, frustration, shame and guilt.
The abuse I suffered was verbal/psychological (including stalking), spiritual and economic. John was angry because I wanted a divorce. Because I did not have physical scars and everyone liked John, I did not receive the help and support I needed. He said, “You have become my enemy and as my enemy I will kill you.” I feared for my life. (Up to 75% of women who try to leave an abusive relationship are hurt or killed.) I called the police, who gave me the address of the courthouse. I filed for a restraining order.
Based upon my petition, the judge was concerned. He said, “You need to get away from this guy.” I said, “Your honor, I’m trying.” He said, “Ok,” and gave me a lifetime restraining order.
However, visitation was included in the order. The first weekend went fine. The second weekend however, he took our children away, and did not bring them back. The law called it custodial interference because custody had not yet been established, and the law said he had just as much a right to them as I did. So, they did nothing! He took them out of the country to Antigua, and others were helping him by sending him funds to assist him. He convinced our friends that I did not want the children, and that he had taken them for their own good, and of course…they believed him. When I turned to them for help they said, “Why are you speaking so badly about John? At least your children are with their father. Now, you can cook for one. Snap out of it and get back to work.” He was able to convince them to spy on me and report my activity back to him. Not only did he take our children away, he also emptied our bank accounts, leaving me penniless, and informed the landlord that he would no longer pay the rent.
One day, while I was signing for a package, I passed out, and the paramedics were called. When I arrived at the hospital, they ran tests to determine that I had lost three units of blood and needed a blood transfusion—all due to stress over my children. I had to be admitted into the hospital. John called my mother and said he was on his way to kill her daughter. She called the hospital. They put me in a different room and posted a guard outside my door, requiring everyone to be verified before coming into my room. Later that night, a social worker came in and said I could not go home. She said, “You need to do three things: One, change your name to one that when others call you, you will respond. Two, we will bring you different clothing to wear so you can leave the hospital. Three, disconnect from everyone you know, because we need to keep you safe.” After changing my clothes, we left the hospital through the back door where a car was waiting. She asked me to slouch down in the seat, so no one would see me. I looked at the rooftops, expecting a headshot at any moment—John’s motto was one shot, one kill to the head. Never leave an enemy behind. But no shot ever came—I was taken safely to a shelter, the Phoebe House.
In January 2000, I moved from Washington State to Maryland. My children were still missing. I called the FBI to inform them my children were out of the country, which is a federal offense, but since it was an ongoing case originating in Washington State, the agent said I needed to call their office in Seattle. The agent in Seattle offered an unacceptable solution—to put me in the middle of a parking lot and use me as a decoy! He stated that was the only way they could help me. Uncomfortable compromising my physical safety to that degree, I declined. On August 31, 2001, I received a call from the Executive Director of the Phoebe House that my children had been found. On September 5, I returned to Tacoma, WA for an emergency custody hearing. The judge gave me full custody of our children. I left the state that night without being charged with kidnapping, and I did not have to tell John where I was going.
One year later, in September 2002, random sniper shootings began in the DC area. We were told to look for two Caucasians in a white boxed truck. The whole area was on lockdown. Everyone was terrified.
To make a very long story short…my case became a worldwide event. My ex-husband was John Allen Muhammad, the DC Sniper. Law enforcement told me, but not the public, that I was the “intended target.” The prosecutor stated that the working theory for the case was that John was killing innocent people to eventually cover up my murder, so he could come in as the grieving father to gain custody of our children and collect the $100,000 compensation given to victims of the sniper. Prosecutors said this is the worst-case scenario for domestic violence, because unfortunately innocent people were killed in John’s pursuit of power and control over me. However, the judge would not allow domestic violence in the case, and they would not have been able to get the death penalty if they had.
My abuse expanded to the community. And…the community blamed me. They said, had I stayed with him, then he would only have killed me. Had I stayed on the west coast, then the people on the east coast would still be alive. How dare I call myself and my children victims when none of us were hurt or killed. And how dare I bring this drama into their quiet community. Victim blaming occurs when the victim of a crime or any wrongful act is held entirely or partially at fault for the harm that befell them. I experienced the highest level of victim-blaming from those in the community to the media. The community held me and still hold me responsible for his crime.
After years of self-therapy (journaling, praying, fasting, meditating) and assisting my children in understanding and accepting the crime their dad committed, we are doing well. My children, John (28), Salena (26) and Taalibah (25) are doing just fine. Why self-therapy? Unfortunately, I could not find an ethical counselor for me or my children that did not want to be famous because of this high-profile case. I went to the library and got a book on counseling. I learned to counsel my children and myself. My children have successfully attended universities and leading normal productive lives.
Over time, I began to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve become an award-winning global keynote speaker, Certified Consultant with the US Dept. of Justice/Office for Victims of Crime, speaker for the US Dept. of State, CNN contributor, Certified Domestic Violence Advocate, trainer/educator, Certified Intuitive Life Coach, five-time author and TV show host. I continue to teach and spread awareness of topics of domestic violence that have been overlooked, as well as develop programs and companies in our communities. To learn more about my transition from victim, to survivor, to warrior and now thriver, visit my website.
If you are a victim of domestic abuse and violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. They are here to help you, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by phone at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE) or by online chat at www.thehotline.org.
You are not ALONE. Abuse is NEVER your fault. And the abuse you are suffering…it’s not love!