On one of my first dates with my husband, in the spring of 1982, we went to a pond near Williamsburg, VA, with his chocolate Labrador puppy. He was a hunter, and he was training the dog to retrieve. As we walked along the water, I said, “I thought ducks mated for life.”
“They do,” he answered.
“Well, don’t you feel a little bad when you shoot one, and then its mate is left all by itself?” I asked.
“That’s why you kill ’em both,” he responded.
Twenty-seven years later, in 2009, I told him our marriage was over. He said he loved me too much to live without me. Then he pointed his handgun at me and shot a bullet through my chest. As I ran out, he shot me in the back. Before I finally lost consciousness, my husband of more than two decades turned the gun on himself.
THE LOVE OF MY LIFE
I met my husband when I was 22, at a company in Richmond, VA, where we both worked. He was an executive 13 years my senior. I was bowled over by his charm and good looks, and I thought, Why is this guy giving me, a little blue-collar secretary, all this attention? Over time, I fell head over heels in love with him. Our relationship was stormy—we’d argue about the time I spent away from him with my friends or pursuing my hobbies—but it was passionate. Five years after we met, we moved into a little house together.
My husband stored his hunting rifle and two shotguns against a wall behind the bedroom door. He also owned two handguns, which he said he needed to protect us. After we married in 1988 and the kids came along a few years later, I asked him to lock up the guns. He refused. He told me he didn’t keep them loaded. I didn’t like it, but his attempts to control my social life, how I parented, even what I wore were getting more intense. I had to pick my battles.
It’s hard to explain how a woman gets drawn into, and stays in, an abusive relationship. For me, it started with how deeply I loved him. Early in our marriage, when he’d tell me I looked fat, I’d stand up for myself and tell him I didn’t appreciate his comments. He’d seem contrite, but it would happen again, a little worse each time. He would call me a fat pig, and I’d get angry and we’d fight and I would threaten to leave. Then he’d change his behavior just enough.
Occasionally I thought if I simply explained to him how much his words and actions hurt me, he’d understand. But he never did. He’d turn it around on me, criticizing and picking at me until I lost my temper. He’d just look at me, amused. He’d say, “You’re the one who is screaming. Who’s the abusive one?” He had a way of twisting things around that had me constantly doubting myself.
On occasion, he’d squeeze my arm too hard, pinch me or block my path, but the first time he did something that I recognized as physical abuse was in 2000. We had an argument about which onions I should use for dinner. When I told him I was going to the grocery store, he stood in front of the door, blocking it. So I turned and walked down the hall toward the bathroom to take a few deep breaths. Suddenly he caught my shoulder and shoved me against the wall. He put his hands around my neck and began to squeeze. I was so shocked at first that I didn’t resist.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my daughter, Natalie, who was 3, standing there, staring at me with big, wide eyes. That gave me my fight: I began scratching his arms to get his hands away. When he finally let go, I gasped, “I’m not going to have her watch you kill me!” and ran to call 911. Very calmly, he said, “You would have your children see their father get arrested?” My son, Graham, was an infant. “You realize that no one will believe you, don’t you? Look at my arms,” he said. Blood was dripping down. He was right, I thought.
The next day, I called a highly regarded attorney. He told me that since I had no proof of abuse, I’d have to take my kids, shut down the travel agency I owned and go into hiding. It was terrible advice, but I didn’t know better. It made me even more afraid of what my life would be like without my husband. I feared I would be broke and alone, and my husband swore that I would lose custody of my kids. Still, after I spoke to the attorney, I called my husband and told him that if he ever laid a hand on me again, I would leave. He said, “If you try and mess with my life, I will put a bullet in your head.”
The presence of a gun makes it five times more likely that a victim of domestic violence will be killed.
Later that day, I explained the situation to my best friend Lynne in an email. I asked her to save our correspondence in case anything ever happened to me. Lynne urged me to report him to the police, but I was afraid and didn’t actually think he’d do it. For the next nine years, life alternated between trying to avoid conflict with my husband and enjoying the time I spent raising my children. But the verbal and emotional abuse continued to get worse. By 2009, my depression and anxiety had gotten so bad that I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital for a week. Shortly after I came home, Lynne forwarded me a copy of the email I’d sent her nine years earlier. Seeing it woke something up in me. I realized that I had to get out.
In July 2009, I told my husband that I wanted a divorce, but he refused to move out. He became jealous—he’d read my emails, show up when I was out with friends and accuse me of having affairs. We tried couples therapy, but the sessions were about how everything was my fault. Except I didn’t buy it. My focus was on how I could set up a new life for the children and me. One night later that month, I caught him loading a handgun in the guest room. I screamed, “Get those bullets out of that gun right now!” I thought he was going to kill himself, but he unloaded the gun.
Nearly 60% of mass shootings involve the killing of an intimate partner or other close family member.
On Sunday, October 4, I returned from church expecting my husband to be out, but he was home. Graham, who was 9, and Natalie, then 12, were downstairs playing video games. As I walked down the hall toward the bedroom, I noticed my husband sitting on the bed in the guest room. Quietly, he asked if I would lie down with him. I said, “No, we’re over,” and walked into the bedroom. I was checking email on my laptop when he came in. He had a white towel draped over his right hand, like a scene out of a mobster movie. Then he pulled the towel off, and I saw that it was real. I stood up as he pulled the trigger.
A bullet ripped through the right side of my chest. The wound stung, but I didn’t fully register what had happened as I ran past him out the door. Then I heard another shot and felt a burning sensation in my back. I don’t remember the subsequent shots, only running out of the house, yelling to the kids, “Get out! Call 911!” I could hear Natalie screaming “Mommy, Mommy!” but I couldn’t turn around to see her. There was a final gunshot, and I collapsed in my neighbor’s yard. As I lost consciousness, not knowing if he’d shot my baby was the worst feeling.
Two days later, I woke up in a hospital bed. The surgeon told me that I had lost two liters of blood and had nearly died. My diaphragm was ruptured and a bullet had nicked my heart. Gradually, friends and police officers helped me piece together what happened: After the shooting, Graham flagged down a car and Natalie’s screams captured the attention of one of our neighbors. Several people called 911, and dozens of squad cars showed up at the house because they thought my husband was at large. But that final gunshot I’d heard was my husband killing himself. Thank God it wasn’t one of my children.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it’s illegal for any convicted domestic abuser to own a gun.
Aside from the bullet lodged in my liver, I’ve mostly recovered physically. But I will never get over the shooting, and I doubt my children will, either. They loved their father, but he tore our world apart. Graham considers himself the man of the house. Natalie struggles with depression, but she just graduated high school and she wants to be a forensic psychologist someday.
I have a great deal of joy and purpose in my life now. I’ve worked to help pass a law in Virginia that requires people who have a permanent protective order against them to give up their firearms. The law could have made all the difference in my case.
I also work with victims of domestic violence and trauma. I tell the women I see that my worst day now is better than my best day then. Life can be better, but they have to fight for themselves.