“No longer a victim, beyond a survivor, she is a “thriver” on the brink of a new life.
She’s a new breed of woman moving on after abuse and she wants her revenge.
Living well is her best revenge. She is pushing through her fears, finding positive energy
in her life and forging a new future for herself and her children.”
— Susan M. Omilian
Del Martin’s ground-breaking book Battered Wives, first published in 1976, sounded the battle cry for a movement to save women who were abused, beaten and violated in their marriages and relationships. The book exposed the “dirty little secret” closely held at that time by women around the world who daily feared for their lives in their own homes. Gathering as many “facts” about wife abuse as she could since little data was known or collected at the time on the topic, Del Martin compelled the world to see that these women, completely isolated, embarrassed and humiliated, needed to get out, go somewhere, have someone believe their story and get help.
With the work of Del Martin and many other pioneers of what was then called the “battered women’s movement,” the goal of getting women out of abuse was set and in forty-six years since, there has been an incredible, worldwide response to save women’s lives. Over these years, shelters and intervention programs for women experiencing “domestic violence” (as it is now more broadly called today) came into operation in countries throughout the world. In addition, laws have been changed, police and court officials trained, judicial decisions overturned and millions of women and girls are now educated about the warning signs of abuse and how to get out of an abusive relationship safely.
The Global Movement Against Gender-Based Violence
While this important work of the early pioneers of the movement clearly needs to continue, there is another cry arising from the millions of women and their children who have been and will be subjected to abuse – sexual assault, domestic violence, sexual harassment, child abuse — and its aftermath in their lifetimes. Some call it the process of healing or recovery after the pain of violence, abuse and trauma. But for many, it is in fact more simply put as the journey from victim to survivor to “thriver.” It is a missing piece for women after crisis intervention services and support groups that will allow them to live healthy, happy lives after experiencing abuse. This critical “next-step” can free women and children from the grip of low self-esteem, emotional fear, shame guilt, and hopelessness that come as the devastating, long-term consequences of abusive, destructive relationships.
Moreover, just as efforts to prevent domestic violence should focus on educating women and young girls so that they can avoid abusive relationships, women who have been abused should also be supported in not returning to abusive relationships. Women who return or stay in abusive relationships often do so because they feel helpless and hopeless or that somehow, they deserved to be abused. Therefore, a viable, heretofore-unexplored strategy to prevent domestic violence is to motivate women, particularly women who have been victimized multiple times, to break permanently out of the cycle of violence in their lives.
Stages of Recovery from Violence, Abuse and Trauma
Is it possible to do this? Dr. Judith Herman believes it is as she described the process in her 1992 book, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. There she wrote that the core experiences of trauma are disempowerment and disconnection with others and recovery therefore is based on the empowerment of the survivor and the creation of new connections.
Personally had I read those words years ago, I don’t think I would have gotten their full meaning. But now I can see how I have experienced both the disconnection and the reconnection on my way to recovery from a very traumatic event in my life. In October, 1999 my nineteen-year-old niece Maggie, was shot and killed on a college campus by her ex-boyfriend who then killed himself. Shocked and outraged by the way Maggie died, I disconnected at first from the world as I knew it. Somehow, I thought that my family, my loved ones, were the “other people” who would never be touched by such violence and tragedy.
But Maggie’s death also moved me to reconnect. Suddenly other people besides myself, including my family and Maggie’s friends, needed my help to deal with this tremendous loss. For almost a year after Maggie’s death, I spent time helping those who knew and loved her as the pain and the agony of her death played itself out every day in every way possible.
A Victim of Dating Violence on a College Campus
Few people on the college campus where Maggie was killed understood that she was a victim of domestic violence and that she was stalked by a former boyfriend who was also a student at the school and lived in the dormitory building next to hers. She tried to solve the problem all by herself, not believing that others would or could help her and she didn’t know how much danger she was in. After all, he had never touched her physically and yet, in retrospect, all the signs of severe emotional and psychological abuse were there. In addition, Maggie didn’t know that he had a gun and he had never spoke of harming Maggie to anyone. So no one saw the danger she was in and no one was there to help her that night.
Even I didn’t see what was happening to Maggie despite my background and training. For years, I had worked as an attorney and advocate for the rights of women and founded a rape crisis center in suburban Detroit in the 1970’s. After graduating from law school, I represented battered women going through divorce at a legal aid program in Michigan before moving to Connecticut in 1982 to work for a women’s public interest law firm where I litigated sex discrimination cases, became an expert in sexual harassment, an area of law in which I was later to publish several non-fiction books, and lobbied for legislation on sexual assault and domestic violence issues.
But with Maggie’s death, suddenly the issues I had worked on in the past became more personal and more immediate. If this could happen to Maggie, our wonderfully talented and beautiful Maggie, it could happen to anyone.
But if Maggie’s death was a sign that I should reconnect on the issues of violence against women, how was I to do that? One day, I woke up one morning thinking about Maggie and how much power there was in the moment when a woman decides to leave her abuser and start a new life. Maggie didn’t have that moment but I wanted to help other women who could move on after abuse as Maggie could not. For it was clear to me now that for people who suffer significant emotional trauma or “life-altering events” such as abuse, death of a loved one, loss of a job or a life-threatening illness, there is either a road to recovery that brings new vigor and purpose to their lives or a spiraling down into a debilitating cycle of anger, depression and hopelessness.
Finding My Personal Road to Recovery
On my road to recovery, I realized that I had to:
- discover opportunity in what felt like loss and chaos,
- find the positive emotions and energy to push myself forward,
- dare to create the life I wanted and desired, and,
- move through my fears to find the “Real You” inside me.
Today, I work with women who have been abused conducting free My Avenging Angel Workshops™, helping them through the process described above inspired by the idea that “living well is the best revenge.” For what woman wouldn’t want to strike back at her abuser and blame him for destroying her life and that of her children? But isn’t living well and getting on with one’s life a more exacting revenge against a man who had tried to dominant, control and bend a woman to his will?
But the work isn’t easy. I have heard stories from so many women of abuse, betrayal and dashed hopes that I wish I had a magic wand to simply wave away their pain and anguish. They have suffered greatly. Their self esteem is low and at times, they aren’t even sure that they deserve a better life or can have one without abuse in it.
But given the choice of reliving the abuse and the pain inflicted on them or reaching deep down inside to uncover their true heart’s desires, time and again I see these women choose the latter. They can feel, as I have, the power of the moment of discovering who and what they are and the sheer magic of living out their wildest dreams. It would be, no doubt, the permanent break from the cycle of abuse for women to not only survive abuse, but thrive after it.
Amazing Thriver Success Stories!
For the hundreds of women I have worked with the My Avenging Angel Workshops™ I conduct, the results they have achieved as thrivers have been nothing short of amazing. Many tell me that for years they have been able to survive almost anything, but few had felt that part of themselves – the “thriver” energy– untouched by the abuse they have experienced. When challenged to go to that positive, thriver place, they have indeed found great jobs, earned college degrees, started their own businesses, became first-time homebuyers and most importantly, none returned to an abusive relationship. They have done so despite facing incredible obstacles, such as lack of financial resources and on-going legal battles for child custody and child support with their abusive ex-partners. Restoring positive energy in the lives of these women gives them hope that they can and will find new vigor and purpose in their lives after experiencing abuse.
The Critical “Next-Step” to Thriving for the Movement
What would it mean to move these singular success stories that I have witnessed into a larger context for the battered women’s movement as a whole? First, I believe it would mean that the movement would have a new goal and a new set of outcomes would be sought for women once they have left an abusive relationship. These outcomes would not only make it less likely that they would return to another abusive relationship but also that they can affect real and lasting change and personal growth in their lives.
These outcomes and a proven blueprint for making them happen would include:
- More positive attitude and outlook on life,
- Less focus on past events/abuse in their lives,
- Personal growth and a renewed faith in themselves,
- Less fear of change and more risk-taking with life and career goals,
- Clear, achievable steps that can set a new direction for their lives.
- Feeling supported as part of a community of women with similar experiences who also strive not to return to abusive relationships.
As I speak and provide trainings today about my work to providers of services to domestic violence victims in communities around the world, I always challenge the staff to find a way to incorporate the goal of helping women to thrive in their service delivery model. In such a vision for the future, they tell me they see could see current services being delivered in a very different way as well as new programs being offered in collaboration with others providers they haven’t work with before in the community.
Expanding Programs for Victims of Domestic Violence
For example, few domestic violence crisis intervention programs provide job search or job training to women in their programs or navigate public unemployment/job search services where few people understand how the abuse women experience could impact their ability to get and keep a job. Helping women thrive after abuse as a “third-step” in a domestic violence program after crisis intervention and support groups would mean they’d have a more positive outlook about their lives going forward and be more confident in their ability to get and keep a good job. All this would secure financial independence and well-being for themselves and their children, a key factor in preventing a return to an abusive relationship for economic reasons.
There are many other examples of how infusing the idea that “thriving,” not just surviving is key could make services provided and outcomes achieved very different in the violence against women’s movement. But this transition won’t be easy for programs already underfunded or for the women given what they have experienced in their pasts.
I know from my own experience that a positive outlook on life is always hard for survivors of abuse and loss because it really gets to them sometimes that everyone else seems to have an easier life, a more comfortable journey or a less challenging existence. But as far as I can tell, no one’s life is without pain and suffering and the truest measure of ourselves is not what we have experienced in life but what we have made of our experiences.
Finding positive energy to live in the present moment despite the most horrendous of experiences and moving through our fears to discover who we really are, I believe, is key to recovering from the trauma of abuse and loss. It is what reconnects us, as Dr. Herman suggests, to our inner strengths and reminds us that we are spiritual beings here to have a human experience in which we can learn and grow.
Living Well is the Best Revenge!
If in that rich, fertile ground of the present moment we can plant the idea that living well is the best revenge, our future lives will surely blossom with infinite possibilities. We don’t really know how good it can get and whatever we might have imagined is only a fraction of what we can have when we free ourselves to live well, be happy and create the life we want to have. Then living well is not only the best revenge; it is, in fact, the song of our soul and the fulfillment of all our dreams.
I would like that to be the dream for all women battered and bruised in our society today and for the violence against women’s movement to take up the challenge to make what might seem impossible today become what is possible tomorrow.
[This blog post is excerpted in part from an article entitled “Moving Beyond Abuse in Our Lives,” by Susan M. Omilian in the Fall 2011 edition of The VOICE: Journal of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) ]