When “Sandra” first met her future second husband, she was struck by how much he resembled actor Paul Newman. The two met at a dinnerparty in April, 1985, and that evening was the beginning of what briefly became, in her words, “a champagne tour. ” Now, the 48year-old registered nurse calls what happened later “the nightmare. ” Sandra is not her real name. On condition that she would not be identified because of her continuing fear of her husband, she told the story of her three years of terror in a lengthy interview. Maclean’s Associate Editor Nora Underwood reports-.
Sandra was divorced, a nurse practising in Ottawa. The man was an officer in the military. Only rarely during the three years between their meeting and the marriage that they celebrated in June, 1988, did Sandra see a glimpse of his quick temper. But two months later, she discovered that her husband was having an affair with a coworker. During a conversation in their parked car, Sandra confronted her husband about the infidelity. He responded explosively, pulling Sandra out of the car by her ankles and dragging her onto the gravel shoulder, where he started to beat her. When it was over, he drove Sandra home and immediately left for a new posting. “I thought, ‘He’s going to apologize; he’s a staunch Catholic,’ ” recalled Sandra.
“But that never happened. And the frightening part is, he’s never shown any remorse.”
Excuses: That incident was only the beginning. During the seven months before she finally locked her husband out of their house, she was subjected to seven more brutal assaults—each one, she says, more violent than the last. Throughout their brief time together, Sandra says, she tried to find excuses for her husband’s behavior. His first wife had died of cancer and he was having difficulty coping with his two teenage children. At the same time, he was having trouble with his superior officers at work. And like so many other victims of wife assault, Sandra—who has two children of her own from her first marriage—says that for the longest time she could not contemplate the prospect of leaving him. “I know that I’d say a woman is nuts, she should be running,” said Sandra. “But when it happens to you, you’re so
much in shock. And what’s so difficult is, emotionally, you’re tied up with that person.” She added: “I was really in love with him. And I thought, my God, we had everything to be happy about—good incomes, great kids—and life could have been perfect. Yet it became a living hell.”
For months during their courtship, Sandra acknowledges, her devotion to her future husband blinded her to what she now says were
warning signs. She had always cherished the independence that her first husband had given her before their divorce—she loved to golf, take courses at school and go to the opera. In contrast, her new husband-to-be phoned her every day at work and insisted on picking her up in the evenings. Sandra says that she was initially delighted by how ardent he seemed. “He liked to control,” said Sandra. “In the beginning, I didn’t see it as checking up.” Added Sandra: “Someone later said, ‘You were naïve.’ I said I was naïve in a way, yes. But I was also flattered by the attention.”
Even after their marriage and the first beatings, Sandra says that she felt she would
1 was in love. We had good incomes,
great kids. Life could have been perfect. Yet it became a living hell.’
‘He poured scalding coffee over my head, he tried to drown me in the tub, and five minutes later he would say, “Let’s have breakfast.” ’
‘I thought, “He’s going to apologize.” But the frightening part is, he’s never shown any remorse.’
eventually be able to get through to her husband and help him battle whatever demons were making him so unpredictable. “He poured scalding coffee over my head, he tried to drown me in the tub, and five minutes later he would say, ‘Let’s have breakfast,’ ” Sandra recalled. “The switch would be so quick. One instant he was charming, and the next instant....” But with each additional assault and her husband’s continuing refusal to talk to her about his problems, Sandra finally began to seek help. Said Sandra: “When he kicked me the last time, I thought, ‘I can’t take it anymore.’ ”
But ending the relationship was not a simple process. “The fear of violence is something terrible. Physically, it’s terrible; mentally, it’s terrible,” said Sandra. “However, the stigma and the fear of coming out and the lack of resources are worse than the beatings themselves.” Sandra tried to get help from social workers and her husband’s superiors. She filed a complaint with the police and took her case to several lawyers, none of whom, she said, took her situation seriously enough. “At that time, you were responsible to lay the charges as a wife,” explained Sandra. “That’s a huge responsibility. I knew that when I did that, his career would be on the line.” She added: “My purpose was not to destroy his career, not to destroy a human being. My purpose was to get him to go into psychotherapy. I didn’t care if we got a divorce. I knew that the marriage might never work again.”
Survival: Sandra subsequently found a lawyer who would help her. Although she is now involved in separation proceedings with her husband and has not seen him for a year, she says that she fears every day that he will harm her again. “It makes you feel like a caged animal,” said Sandra. “I feel like a fugitive in my own world. There is a very high price for speaking out.” In retrospect, she says, she can see the toll that the abuse took on her. She lost 25 lb., her health suffered, she began to have nightmares and she withdrew from the world and from her friends. But her unflagging desire to win back her right to a safe existence has clearly given her the strength to continue. “My husband nearly destroyed me, and I don’t know why I’ve survived,” said Sandra. “I must have survived for a purpose.” □
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