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Confronting Domestic Violence: The covert abuser takes away her power

Following is the third in a four-part series on coercive control.

For a time, she finds solace in gardening, planting a bed full of roses that have recently burst into full bloom.

She smiles to herself as she prunes and waters.

Here is a bed that still brings her joy.

Here is a bed that still has some life in it.

Then one evening he hands her the tax return. She pauses to read it before signing – no more than a second or two, but that small act of defiance is enough. Anything having to do with money is a minefield. He takes the pen out of her hand and waves her away.

The next morning, he is polite but distant. She knows there is no point trying to start a conversation. Anything she says will get twisted. The silence hurts. But breaking it will hurt more.

Later that day, after the laundry, after the bed is made to his specifications, the vacuuming finished so the lines show clearly, the dishes done and put away, she goes out to the backyard to her roses – and finds ruin.

Every bloom has been ripped out, strewn across the garden – all but one.

Was it a raccoon?

Years ago, she would have thought so, still wanted desperately to believe so. But too many things like this have happened. Too many roses, torn and scattered.

Breaking her spirit

There was the night she finished the book she had been working on for the past three years. The last word of the last chapter. File saved.

Dinner was at 6:30 that night, not 6, a half-hour late. She had been swept away by that final burst that took her over the finish line. It was the best and hardest thing she had ever written. And now there was a new feeling inside her – of hope, of promise, of new life, of new purpose – and perhaps even a little income. And with that – could she dare to dream again – of a life outside?

She apologized to him as he waited in the home office off the kitchen, in the dark. Surely, he would understand. She was beaming, radiant that night. That feeling of accomplishment, of meaning – she couldn’t help basking in it.

“I finished it! Do you see?”

She had printed out the manuscript – just to have the feel of it in her hands.

“Good,” was all he said.

They ate in silence. Instead of having her clear the dishes, very purposefully, he took his plate over to the sink. Very purposely, he washed it. Very purposefully, he put it away.

So cold he was, she felt a chill run through her. But she would not let him spoil this feeling, not tonight. She refused to let him puncture these tiny bubbles of pleasure verging almost on joy, a feeling so foreign to her that it was hard to put words around it.

In the morning when she woke up, she was still basking. This feeling was separate from him, in spite of him, something she had done to declare her own independence, her own life, her own mind, her own soul. This feeling – it was almost triumphant. There was still some part of her he could not touch, could not control, could not erase.

She went out to the kitchen, mildly surprised that he had already left for work. He had first made his own breakfast, done his own dishes, put them all away – except for one left behind for her to take care of.

A little more surprised.

What was the message here?

The bubbles, the bubbles of joy were so fragile.

She went to her desk.

Her manuscript was gone – all but the title page that had on it, scrawled across the title, in black Sharpie, capital letters: “YOU DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS.”

She turned on her computer.

The desktop was empty.

Her hard drive had been reformatted.

She sank to the floor, crumpling the one remaining page in her hand.

It was so hard to love anything. Hard to do anything.

Hard to be anything, anymore.

Now today, the roses.

Was it a raccoon – or a monster?

Was it, please, a raccoon?

That night in the bedroom, he turns toward her and she turns away, hollow.

And now he has one more deficiency to add to the list. She feels her spirit slipping out of her with no idea how to stop the hemorrhaging. She is in danger of giving up altogether.

Empty.

Reformatted.

And then one day she hears the term “covert abuser.”

Part 4 in the series will detail how she begins to take back her power.
Ruthven Darlene, M.A.,
is founder and director of the nonprofit WomenSV, which provides a range of services for women – and some men – experiencing domestic violence. For more information, call 996-2200, email [email protected] or visit
womensv.org.

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