Time and again, my conversations with Mainers teach me not to judge by appearances. There is always more than meets the eye. Though many people’s unexpected stories delight the soul, some of them reveal the darker side of human nature.
There is a degree of hopeful triumph in today’s story of a young woman from Maine. Unfortunately, the fact that I could not meet with her in a public place or use her real name is an indication of the freedoms still denied her. She spoke with me, nonetheless, in the hopes that it might help someone else. Because of her courage and compassion in sharing her story, I will call her Grace.
Staff members at Spruce Run helped arrange our meeting at one of their outreach offices. Spruce Run is a service organization that works to end domestic violence. Sitting in the living room, Grace noticed a floral couch across the room and smiled.
“I remember coming to my first meeting. I sat in that very couch.” She experienced a revelation that day. As she listened to other women’s stories, she became fully aware for the first time that she was a victim of abuse.
Grace had an idyllic childhood in Maine. Her father was a pastor, her mother was loving and giving, and she was close to her siblings. “It was a peaceful home. I feel like my parents gave me a gift.”
When she was a teenager, Grace’s mother died unexpectedly of heart failure. The family suffered terribly in their grief. “My relationship with the Lord helped me survive that time,” she said.
After high school, Grace attended a small Bible college with the hope of doing mission work or teaching. Her first job took her out of state, where she met her future husband. He was from a religious family, and he made her laugh. She later learned that his jokes covered up deep emotional scars, but things happened too fast for her to realize how deep they ran.
Grace’s future father-in-law was a charismatic, domineering church leader. He also ran a business and was his son’s boss. He resented his son’s relationship with Grace and his growing independence, so he fired his son and kicked him out of the house.
In despair, Grace’s boyfriend intimated that she was responsible for his homelessness and begged her to marry him. After seven months of dating, she agreed to elope.
Within days of the marriage, things began to change. Grace’s husband wanted to control everything she did and everywhere she went. He had fits of desperation and said he wanted to die. “He was just falling apart,” she said.
Gradually he imposed increasing isolation on his new wife. “We moved to a dead-end street. He took the car away.” Grace stopped working because her husband convinced her that the pastor she worked for and the students she taught were only interested in her looks. “He made me feel so insecure.”
Grace was home alone all day, except for calls from her husband checking on her. Once, he called when her pastor and his wife had come to introduce their new baby. Her husband rushed home and made them leave. “That was the first time he slapped my face hard.”
He also interrogated her about past relationships and accused her of trying to attract men. “I stopped wearing makeup and bought masculine clothing. I was afraid to look at people when we were out, in case he might get mad.”
Over time, Grace learned more about the abuse her husband had suffered as a child. She had seen her father-in-law scream and shove his wife, and began to see similar behavior in her own husband. He pushed her down, covered her mouth and pinched her nose shut. After their baby was born, she had hoped things might improve, but he threatened to kill her, the baby, and himself. Then he would show remorse, change his mind again, and blame her for his guilt.
“I know it says in Corinthians that love bears all things and endures all things,” she said with emotion, “but that’s NOT what it means!”
Grace described becoming numb to all of it, thinking that if she prayed and worked hard, she could make the marriage work. But one day, the numbness turned to fear.
Grace got a phone call — her father-in-law had beaten his wife bloody. “I’ve never seen a face look like that. You couldn’t see her eyes.” Even worse, perhaps, was the response. Grace’s husband cleaned up the blood mechanically. Her in-laws’ church told them to hide it. Go on vacation. Wear dark glasses.
The fear of leaving is often more terrifying than the fear of staying. Grace wonders even now if she might still be with her husband if not for her desperation to protect her son, because her husband’s violence did not stop with his wife.
“He dehumanized our baby. He would scream ‘Shut the f—- up!’ in his face, and say ‘Get it away from me’ when he was mad.” One day her husband knocked her down while she held their baby in her arms.
That was the turning point. Grace called her family for help. Even then, it took six months to file all of the necessary legal paperwork to keep her son safe if she left her husband. Finally, she was able to make her escape. Her local pastor helped her hide overnight while she waited to take her son back to Maine. That’s when Spruce Run came in.
Of all of the support organizations that she had found, none surpassed the responsiveness and compassion of Spruce Run. “There are no steeples on any of their buildings, but they have all been like angels to me,” Grace said. Spruce Run’s crisis intervention, emergency housing, child care help, legal representation, support groups — all have been indispensable to Grace.
Today, Grace has a job, a home, a supportive church, and her family nearby. Fear hasn’t disappeared, but she faced it head on and took control. Tears welled up in Grace’s eyes as she told her story, but she never wavered. “I don’t get into this very often. It feels good to talk about it,” she said. Her hope is that it also might do some good for someone to hear it.
Grace’s is only one story. Spruce Run helps almost 1,300 people every year, most of whom have to keep their stories quiet, for their safety. Many of Spruce Run’s traditional funding sources are diminishing. Their biggest annual fundraiser is on April 2, a gala event. Please attend or contribute if you can. If you or someone you know needs help, call their 24-hour hotline: 800-863-9909.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org