Nine years ago, around 8:00 on the night of June 14th, 2009, I fled my home on my little Vespa scooter hoping that my husband would cool off from his rage, not knowing that it would be my last evening in my home, or that by the end of the night, I’d be the one in jail.
This is part two of a post about the details of the domestic violence and related church abuse I experienced while involved with Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia. It is adapted from a series of statuses I originally published on Facebook in June 2016. This post contains graphic, potentially upsetting descriptions of domestic violence.
My husband J., observing and enjoying that I was hamstrung between him and Faith PCA– the church was treating his controlling behavior as my responsibility and a black mark on my job performance– had begun to set up a narrative in which I was abusing him. He suggested it to our friends and his family. I believe that for many months, he looked for an opportunity to set me up as a domestic violence victim-defendant, i.e. injure himself in a way that he could fraudulently attribute to me, or provoke me into fighting back in some way that he could play up, so that he could call the cops, have me thrown in jail, and paint me as the abuser. (I have subsequently learned that this is surprisingly common in abusive relationships.)
For example: on April 15th, 2009, I had had scooter trouble at my second job at a nature preserve, and had to call J. to come pick me up in my truck. (My car had been totaled by a falling tree, and J. insisted I use the insurance money and additional money from both sets of parents to buy the pickup truck he wanted. He rarely let me drive it.) It was tax day. On the way home, I needed to print out our tax forms at the church, fill them out, and take them to the post office. We swung by the church for the forms, but my insistence on needing the truck to get to the post office that evening would interfere with J.’s plans to go to a party. For inconveniencing him in this way, I got yelled at for hours into the night. When J. paused to go to the bathroom, I grabbed the keys and the tax forms, sprinted out to the truck, and started driving away. J. ran outside, chased me down the driveway, made an unsuccessful attempt to jump onto the tailgate, and stood in the road shouting at me as I fled. When I returned later that evening, he accused me of having “run him over and left him bleeding in the street” and said that he had had to talk our neighbors out of calling the police on me. This incident was predictive of what would happen two months later, on June 14th.
I had recently purchased sturdy hasp locks for the guest room door for nights like this, but hadn’t installed them yet. I had been shopping online for cheap camping equipment that I could hide somewhere and go crash in the woods and still make it to work the next day. I couldn’t afford to get a hotel room every time J. went on one of his tirades. I thought that he was closer than I was to our non-church friends, and that he’d turn them against me if I asked them for help. I thought that if I reached out to church friends and they found out we were having “marital problems,” as I thought of the abuse at the time, I would lose my job at Faith Presbyterian. This would mean bankruptcy and homelessness unless I left the state to live with extended family. I was carrying five figures of mostly coerced debt in my name only. I had good credit, I cared about being responsible, and I was trying desperately to be financially free to do the things that I felt called to in life, so this was all excellent leverage for J.
My nearest family was four hours away. I strongly considered riding my scooter to stay with friends 45 minutes away, but was between two 70 hour work weeks, was exhausted, and already had to be up at 6:00. And I loved my husband. At the time, I had come to believe he was a good man struggling with mental illnesses and substance abuse. We were in counseling. I was paying for it. I was going to stand by J. and help him get the help he needed, and then he’d be the man I fell in love with– this is what I so wanted to believe. If I ratted him out to others at that moment, our whole life together would fall apart. I would have to ride it out.
I went to the drugstore and killed time for about an hour. It was dark now. I hadn’t eaten, and had a long, early day the next morning. I tentatively rode back to the house. When I got inside, J.’s screed continued– I was a self absorbed bitch. I was not having enough sex with him. I was too dumb to understand how much all of our friends were really looking down on me. I only cared about work and not about him. I hadn’t planned anything for his dinner.
I took my purse and my scooter keys and locked myself in the bathroom. I would fix my face and go out by myself to get something to eat until he cooled down. While I was in the bathroom, J. hid my scooter helmet and the keys to my truck. Then he picked the lock and broke into the bathroom, accusing me of getting ready to go out and cheat on him because I had put on some makeup to cover the fact that I’d been crying. He wrestled my scooter keys and cell phone out of my hands, screaming.
I grabbed the spare house key off the rack in the hall and fled on foot, walking up our street in a bad part of town in the dark. J. chased me in my pickup truck, window down, yelling at me. I darted through neighbors’ yards and eventually managed to lose him. I hid behind a hedge in a little park for about an hour.
I decided to try going home again. Maybe he had had enough time to calm down now. When I got home, J. was on the phone talking with someone excitedly about his latest grandiose idea, grinning and pacing. He waved at me. He had had some marijuana and brandy and had calmed down. I put a frozen pizza in the oven. J. finished his call and tenderly apologized to me for earlier. I poured myself a drink, served dinner, and we watched a TV show together. I absolutely had to get some sleep before my long day the next day, had only slept a couple hours the night before, but J. wanted to stay up. I kissed him goodnight and told him I loved him. I took the brandy bottle away so he wouldn’t drink any more. I went to bed in the guest room so he could go to bed whenever he wanted without waking me up. It was the last time I’d ever fall asleep in that house.
It was after 1 a.m. and I was dead asleep when J. threw the door open, screaming, and turned on all the lights. I startled awake and lay there stunned. I couldn’t pull myself out of bed or formulate a response. He walked down the hall and then came back, still screaming at me. He couldn’t sleep, and it was all my fault because I did not have sex with him and I took the brandy bottle away. I’d damned well better get up right that second and pour him a drink. I got up and brought the bottle. I went into the kitchen and took a small shot glass out of the cabinet– one with a narrow, heavy base and a wide, flimsy rim, like a miniature stemless martini glass. I turned around and stood in the doorway between the kitchen, partially lit by the low light over the stove, and the living room, where J. had been watching movies on the computer with the lights off. He had gone to sit on the far end of the couch, which was perpendicular to the doorway, facing to my right. I stood there exhausted and furious, holding the shot glass and the brandy bottle. I said, “you know, I’m sorry that you can’t sleep. But I am the one working two jobs to support us, and you can take a nap any time you want– this is my only chance to get any rest.” Nope: I was horrible, crazy, bad, and wrong. He said, menacingly, “I’m calling the wrath of God down on you, bitch.” At that moment, over five hours into this, I just lost it. I screamed at him to stop, and threw the shot glass and the brandy bottle over his head at the wall. (It wasn’t my finest moment, and I’m not defending it.)
What happened next was so fast, confusing, and traumatic that it took me several weeks and going back over the physical evidence to even figure out exactly what happened. There are still some parts I’m not completely sure about, nine years later. At that moment, there was peripheral light from the bedroom down the hall to my left, and from the dim night light in the kitchen behind me, but the corner of the living room where my husband was sitting was almost totally dark– the computer had gone to sleep while we were fighting. There was an extended, sick moment of suspense when the bottle should have made a loud noise crashing into the wall, but didn’t. It was silent. J. shrieked and turned on the light. The bottle was intact, sitting upright on its base on the floor next to the sofa. I would find fragments of the shot glass embedded in the opposite wall several feet forward and higher from where J. was sitting when I was finally allowed to return to the house, weeks later. There would be a knot on the back of J.’s head that he would claim was from the brandy bottle, and broken glass in the radial (thumb) side of his index finger on his dominant left hand that I could only surmise was from swinging as hard as he could for the glass, arm and hand fully extended, trying to make contact, and succeeding. J. jumped up from the couch with a bleeding finger and excitedly said he was calling his parents and the police and that I was going to jail.
J. ran back to the bedroom and called his father and hysterically cried, “Jessica attacked me and bludgeoned me in the head and I’m bleeding…” His dad dialed 911 and sent the police and an ambulance to the house with lights and sirens blazing. J. ran down to the street and hopped into the back of the ambulance. The cops came up to the house, questioned me, and questioned him. “Have you been using any substances? Has he been using any substances?” I could have turned him in for dealing pot but I didn’t. I was in shock– it didn’t even occur to me to talk about anything that had happened earlier in the evening before going to bed. It certainly didn’t occur to me to talk about any other abusive incidents– the threat I’d recorded on my cell phone of him screaming that I would disappear if I went to the police about him, the picture of a bruise he had put on my knee when he shoved me out of a room and slammed the door on my leg– I didn’t think of these things, and the police didn’t ask. An officer slowly shined a flashlight in my face and up and down my arms. I didn’t have any bruises. The police conferred. They seemed embarrassed, looking at me versus a 175 pound guy who had just springily put himself in an ambulance for a bleeding finger. They told me, “nobody thinks you should be in trouble, and you’ll get bonded out in the morning, but because he has an injury we’re required to make an arrest and take you in.” Lamely, I offered something about J. being verbally abusive. The officer wrote in the report that I said J. was “very verbal.”
It used to be that when police were called for a domestic violence situation, it was up to the victim to press charges or not, and that made it very difficult to prosecute DV. Victims are commonly reluctant to report and tend to cover for their abuser. (Often this is due to a realistic assessment on the victim’s part that they are safer, at least in the short term, if the cops don’t get involved, and if the abuser doesn’t think the victim is turning him in.) So a number of years ago, Georgia and many other states enacted “primary aggressor” statutes that say the cops have to arrest the most significant physical aggressor in a DV incident, which in real life can get dumbed down to “whoever’s bleeding less.” This is intended to make it easier to prosecute abusers whose victims won’t press charges, but a significant side effect has been the rise of DV “victim-defendants”– victims of domestic violence who are set up, retaliate, or defend themselves against their abuser, who then calls the cops and uses the legal system as leverage for further coercive control. He can get restraining orders against the victim to control where she can and can’t go. He can have her fired from jobs. He can seize control of her home and property. He can use it as leverage in a child custody battle. There are some men who are genuine victims of DV, but it’s an overwhelmingly male on female crime most of the time. I don’t have statistics for Georgia, but in Seattle, Washington, when they enacted similar laws, DV arrests of men went up 9%. DV arrests of women went up 81%.
Jail was kind of a relief after all of that, to be honest. The other lady jailbirds were quite kind to me. It could have been a church retreat or a tea party. I spent most of the night alone in a holding cell. Early in the morning, I was finally transferred, crying, into a cell with four other women who immediately wrapped me in a group hug. One of them was a sweet, 100 pound mom-type reading an Upper Room devotional. Her live-in boyfriend had attacked her and she had fought back. Her fingernails left scratches on him that were visible when the police came, but her bruises showed up later. She had no local family, no other address she could be bonded out to, so she had been sitting in jail for two weeks.
I was taken to the basement of the county courthouse in shackles, handcuffs, and chains, and was brought up in the elevator at least three times over the course of the day, every time the court convened for a bond hearing. My father in law had called my parents, and the judge was waiting for them to arrive from Tennessee. (The jail only allowed local calls, so I had not been able to call them.) When I was led into the courtroom, before the judge even entered the room, I was handed a standard slip of paper given to everyone that said I was not to tell the judge “what happened.” The judge didn’t want to hear it.
The last time I stepped out of the elevator, my father was on the phone in the courthouse lobby. He stood up, caught my eye and smiled, with a twinkle in his eye. He was getting me a lawyer. My mother was there and the judge allowed us to go into a side room and talk. God bless my incredible parents for standing by me through this whole mess. They are amazing.
I was bonded out on my own recognizance. As the “victim,” my husband got a no-contact order against me, which meant if he showed up anywhere I was (including Faith Presbyterian) I had to leave immediately or he could have me thrown in jail again. He used this to stalk and threaten me with impunity for months. The court let him decide which of us could stay in the house, and he had me removed from our home, seizing control of all of our belongings. I had to be bonded out to a permanent address, so the only thing I could do from a practical and safety standpoint was move to Tennessee with my parents overnight. I was not allowed to return home at all– my parents could go and collect some clothes and personal items, and I could have my scooter picked up later by a friend, but that was it. J. got to our house ahead of my parents and hid anything he knew was particularly important to me– favorite dresses, jewelry, etc. Over the next month, while I was banned from that address, he abandoned the house and defaulted on rent, removed my passport, financial records, years of personal journals, CD masters, CD inventory, our wedding gifts, my wedding dress, pictures, books, and mementos I had kept since childhood– anything that would be especially hurtful to me, or that I would need to be able to get back on my feet. Then he filed a fraudulent burglary report implicating my family, accusing my mother and me of violating the bond order, and falsely naming church members as witnesses (the members repudiated his statements.) I ended up getting some of the items back months later when his mother found them where he hid them, unbeknownst to her, buried in her attic insulation 75 miles away near Atlanta.
The night I was bonded out, J. came to the hotel where my parents had taken me and anonymously left a dozen roses for me at the front desk. The hotel workers described him. At my next court hearing, the courthouse employees were abuzz because J. had shown up asking to extend the no contact order against me with roses in hand to try to give me at the courthouse. Court employees told him those things were contradictory.
As soon as I got out of jail, I emailed Bob McAndrew, the senior pastor at Faith Presbyterian, trying to get an appointment to see him before my parents and I left town. He was out of state for PCA General Assembly and I couldn’t reach him. I absolutely expected to get fired from my job; I had said so in court when the judge asked about my employment. When Bob finally called me, I was already in Tennessee with my parents. Bob had learned of my arrest from an elder from Faith, who had been contacted by J., who said that I had attacked him and knocked him unconscious. They didn’t believe it. Bob wanted to know what had happened. I spoke freely and told him everything I could think to tell him. He said the church Session (the governing board of elders) would meet and decide how to respond, but that he had known these guys a long time, and that his sense was they would want to bring me back– to have me return to my job. The Session met and decided to put me on a two month leave of absence at half pay to give them time to gather evidence and decide how to respond.
I either gave Bob the audio files I had of J. threatening me along with the picture of the bruise J. had put on my knee, or told him I had those files and he didn’t want them- I can’t quite remember which (I still have the files, as do various parties to my case– they’re backed up on multiple email accounts, but the secret account I first set up for those files hasn’t saved my sent messages from that long ago.) I had a court ordered domestic violence evaluation with a licensed psychologist who reported that my responses were consistent with someone who was exceptionally truthful and was being abused, and gave a copy of that to the church. The court put my charges on track to be dismissed and expunged, and they subsequently were. Close friends from Faith reached out to me, visited me in Tennessee, invited me to stay with them in Georgia as needed, and helped me move and set up my own apartment. I resumed work at the nature preserve.
The saga was only beginning.