Teaching imprisoned women how to avoid domestic violence

Gaze in any direction from inside the grounds of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women (SCCW), and your eyes come to rest on peaceful mountain ridges. As inviting as the mountains are, though, you can’t forget that you’re behind a fence topped with spirals of barbed wire.

My husband, Jim, and I didn’t know what to expect the first time we were buzzed through the single gate. The Chaplain’s Office had invited us to teach an eight-week class on building healthy relationships and preventing domestic violence. But would our skills be tested? Would we be able to identify with personal stories that would surely arise from discussions about abuse? Would the women be reluctant students? Our fears were unfounded. The women were, in fact, more eager to learn than many of the college and seminary students we’ve taught.

Today we finished our second round of eight-week sessions. During that time I have felt privileged to hear . . .

Women’s voices. Honest voices. They told about violence inflicted on them: neglectful parents, drunken husbands who hit them, verbal put-downs, sexual abuse. Rape. Yet class participants did not use abuse as an excuse for their own behavior.

Women’s voices. Wounded voices. A box of tissues handy, we touched on topics that reminded participants of the life they left behind: a controlling partner, ongoing fears for their and their children’s safety. They were reminded of how they tried to ease the pain through alcohol or drugs.

Women’s voices. Angry voices. Many in the class expressed surprise to learn that it’s usually healthier to act out in anger than to become the good girl who represses it. So while anger got some of these women in trouble, and while they work on skills to control it, they have come to understand it as a reflection of their strength and resistance to abuse.

Women’s voices. Hopeful voices. Participants expressed their hopes for healthy relationships. They want to heed the red flags of abuse and not repeat past mistakes. They hope to be a positive presence in their children’s lives.

What an honor it’s been to share with women at SCCW. While my intention was to be of service, I have been blessed by the experience.


April is Child Abuse Prevention Month.

Join the movement to end child abuse: www.1sta...

Join the movement to end child abuse: http://www.1stand.org (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month and Sexual Assault Awareness Month, as well as  National Oral Health Month, March for Babies, National Occupational Therapy Month, Stress Awareness Month, Alcohol Awareness Month. Jazz Appreciation Month, National Car Care Month, Facial Protection Month, Women’s Eye Health and Safety Month, Youth Sports Safety Month, Cancer Control Month, and National Autism Awareness Month.

So many causes. So many people whose lives have been touched in ways that lead them to dedicate their energies and financial resources toward making a difference (though I’m not sure how National Car Care Month fits into this).

Why have I chosen to become involved in the domestic violence movement rather than Stress Awareness Month or Train Safety Month?

I have been influenced by real people, women and men of courage who have shared the pain of having been beaten as children. Women who have been raped, fondled by someone they knew. I have heard women and men speak of the lifelong effects of child sexual abuse, usually by a trusted uncle or priest, a father even. They have pictures of themselves taken before the abuse, their eyes sparkling with energy, smiles wide and engaging; pictures from afterward, eyes lusterless, shoulders slumped. I fear for my grandchildren and every child I meet who still trusts adults and loves life.

In 1999 United Church Press published a book I edited: Victim to Survivor: Women Recovering from Clergy Sexual Abuse. One of the contributors, Marian (Et Al in the book), wrote about having been physically and sexually abused in childhood by her father. She told of the shame she felt, the vulnerability that led her to seek the counsel of her priest, who also abused her sexually. She became dissociative; that is she did not allow herself to feel the pain, the betrayal of trust. Several times she was admitted into psych wards of hospitals, the diagnosis being multiple personality disorder. Her career as a social worker was short-lived because of her fear that she might do harm to others.

Marian and I stayed in touch after the book came out. Six or seven years ago she wrote that her only close friend, Darrell, had died. A year or so after that I was among several people who received a letter from her telling us she planned to take her own life. Without Darrell, she no longer had the energy it took to keep her different personalities under control. She was tired.

Like other friends I tried to offer her reasons to live. But one day a letter was returned to me stamped, “deceased.”

Among my possessions are a small jar of sand Marian sent me from a trip to the Holy Land, a tea cup with the inscribed words, “You never know how strong a woman is until she’s in hot water,” and a photo of her as a little girl, a cheerful looking little girl with energetic eyes. On the back is written, “Before the abuse.”

Marian is one reason why I am committed to the cause of preventing child abuse and the sexual assault of women.