HANDS OFF MY SISTER
There will be no pictures in this blog post.
I’m nine years older than my sister Charity. I fed her from a bottle and changed her diapers. I put Band-Aids on her knees and made her peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. She was nine when I yanked her from her bed in the middle of the night and carried her outside during a house fire. When she was twelve I took her to her first rock concert – U2 at the New Haven Coliseum in 1987.
I always looked out for her. I showed her how to have fun. I never let anyone hurt her. Then she grew up.
Today Charity is thirty-nine with golden blond hair. She has a Master’s degree and a husband with a PhD. He’s charming and a respected employee of the federal government. They have three children – ages 6, 8, and 10 – and a dog. It looks idyllic. Looks can be deceiving.
One month ago Charity called me from her home in Colorado. She said her husband had threatened to kill her and their three children. Weeks earlier they had agreed to a divorce. He was undoubtedly tired of pretending to be a husband and a father. She was definitely tired of the other women; tired of being told that she was putting on weight; tired of seeing things on his cell phone and his computer that broke her heart and turned her stomach; tired of being hit and choked; tired of being tired.
At first he said it was fine if she took the kids and moved back to Virginia, where they were from. But then he changed his mind, insisting they stay in Colorado or else.
“What do I do?” she said.
It was September 24. I had just finished doing an interview on NPR about Ray Rice and domestic violence. And here was my sister, 2,000 miles away, crying on the phone.
“I’m getting you out of there,” I told her.
“But how? If he finds out he WILL kill me.”
“Trust me,” I told her. “I’ll handle it.”
That afternoon I talked to lawyers and prosecutors I know in Colorado. I also talked to a friend in Los Angeles who is a risk-management expert and a friend on the East Coast who worked under FBI Director Robert Mueller. I called my longtime travel agent in Seattle and told him I needed his help, too. They each dropped everything and went to work.
Within two hours I called my sister back and told her to be ready to go in 48 hours. I had a plan and I had tickets for her and the kids and the dog. Pack fast. Pack light. Don’t tell anyone you are leaving. Act normal.
This was an easy call because it wasn’t the first time that her husband had threatened to kill her. In 2010 he trapped her in their bedroom in McLean, Virginia, and held her at gunpoint while the children cried on the other side of the door. After that incident my wife and I drove to Charity’s home and persuaded her to leave with the children and seek a divorce. We told her that they could come live with us until we figured out the next steps. At least they’d be safe.
But after we left, her husband talked her out of it. Abusers always do. They say they didn’t mean it. They say I love you. They say they won’t do it again.
At that point Charity was too beaten down to break free. Domestic violence destroys a woman’s confidence; saps her self-esteem; and twists victims into a state of self-blame, confusion and anxiety. Besides, she wanted to believe that he loved her and that he didn’t mean it and that he’d never do it again.
I started writing about domestic violence and sexual assault right around the time O.J. Simpson killed his wife in a fit of jealousy. I was in grad school then and I did my thesis on athletes and sexual assault. One of the first things I learned was that physical abuse and sexual abuse often go hand-in-hand. Later, while in law school, I worked in the DA’s office in Boston, where I was assigned to a unit that specialized in domestic violence and child abuse cases. There I learned why violence at home rarely gets reported. It’s terrifying to call the cops on the man you share a bed with. Do you think you could turn out the light and close your eyes after doing that?
Then I wrote a book about the NFL and crime, where I focused on players who abused women and got away with it. That’s when I learned that people have a tendency to question the victim more than the perpetrator when violence happens at home. How come she never filed a police report? What did she do to provoke him? Why didn’t she just leave? Doesn’t she realize this will ruin his career?
Over the past twenty years I’ve been an advocate for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I’ve been an expert witness on behalf of victims, both in court and on television. I’ve written books and countless articles. I’ve even given scores of speeches at law enforcement conferences and on college campuses.
But it’s different when the victim is your little sister.
Two days after my sister called me an SUV pulled into her driveway moments after her husband left for work. Two men emerged and helped Charity hurry her children and the dog and some suitcases into the vehicle. An hour later they crossed the state line into Utah. A state trooper met them on the highway and escorted them to an airport, where my sister and her family boarded a plane. Before her husband got home from work they had landed on the East Coast, where familiar faces were there to greet them. The next morning they arrived at my farm in Virginia. They had nothing but the clothes they had stuffed into their bags. No toys. No electronics. No money.
But they had security. My wife had rooms arranged for them. My children had games and treats. We notified the authorities in Colorado that my sister and the children were safe and sound. No missing persons. No kidnapping.
Two days later Charity registered her children in the local school and she met with a domestic violence outreach center in our county. They provided counseling , food assistance, and other support.
Charity had only been with us for three days when her husband threatened her over the telephone. He said he was coming to Virginia to get the kids. He said he would make her life hell. My sister started shaking and crying right in my living room. She still had the phone in her hand.
There are few things I despise more than a bully, especially the ones who frighten women and children. And I have always believed that if more male bystanders stepped up, fewer men would get away with crimes against women.
The next day we obtained a protective order, barring my sister’s husband from any contact – physical, verbal, electronic or otherwise – with her or the children. A sheriff in Colorado showed up at my brother-in-law’s place of employment and served him notices.
Then my sister filed a criminal complaint with law enforcement officials in Colorado. Over the phone she reported that her husband had struck and choked her earlier in September. For the first time in her marriage she felt safe enough to turn him in. A detective questioned her husband and a report was generated.
That was three weeks ago. Since then we’ve retained lawyers and filed a divorce petition. And earlier this week my sister appeared before a judge in a Virginia courtroom, where she testified under oath to some of the ugly details mentioned here. The judge then extended the protective orders for six months.
Charity gets stronger every day. She is interviewing for jobs. Last weekend she moved into a three-bedroom house. My wife furnished the place with beds and dressers and tables and chairs from our house. Other friends from our church provided linens, toys and food. The bishop of our church paid the rent and the security deposit. The landlord – a local businessman – has people watching the house. It takes a village.
And since you are reading this post, I have a message for you, my soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law. My sister gave you the best years of her life. In return she got infidelity, neglect, and violence. Those days are over. Charity is a beautiful woman and a dedicated mother. Lydia and I will do everything in our power to help Charity and the children thrive. When we run out of money for lawyers, we will call our friends and raise more. We will marshal every resource. We will call in every favor. We will utilize every contact. We’re in it for the long haul.