I am a retired professor and an avid gardener. I sing a little, write a little, and I am a faithful attender at our local Friends meeting. My children think of me as an affectionate and devoted mother and grandmother. I am also a former battered wife. Are you surprised? Most people are. Despite years of women’s rights advocates saying that battering occurs at all socioeconomic levels of society, people expect battered women to be a certain sort of woman, which is a misleading stereotype. They also don’t expect us to be a part of their social milieu: in their schools, workplaces, or faith communities. But we are, which is why I want to write this personal account of how and with what means Friends meetings can help individual battered women recover from their abuse.
Of course, I have spent a long time examining my life and have developed my explanations as to how I came to be abused. The only love I witnessed growing up was the love of my father, a lifelong alcoholic, for the six of us children and my mother. He was deeply affectionate, devoted, and incredibly dynamic and then occasionally, when he had been drinking, horribly and sometimes dangerously violent. The other five children in my family mimicked my dad’s life by becoming alcoholics, although some have now stopped drinking. I didn’t have a drinking problem; I just seemed to have a penchant for men who could hurt me. I suppose this explains why I chose for my first real relationship a man who could have been cookie-pressed out of my father’s mold.
I did eventually leave this guy on my own, but on my fourth attempt. Every man I was with after that was an improvement on the previous one, for each hurt me a little less. I wasn’t beaten any more. But I was drawn with an inevitability that I could not relinquish to those men who would love me deeply, but with an abusiveness that manifested itself in other, less obvious ways.
But now I am healed, or at least have been given a reprieve, from this lifelong addiction. My husband is loving, gentle, and kind. These last ten years with him have been the happiest in my life. However, I wouldn’t have been able to allow him near me without the healing that I found within my meeting.
Quaker meetings can help battered women in three ways: first, by offering us a chance to examine our actions in the nonjudgmental silence of meeting for worship; second, by offering help as a corporate body; and third, by providing opportunities for friendships that allow us to feel valued and liked for ourselves, not as someone who is to be helped and pitied. Mt. Toby Meeting in Leverett, Massachusetts, provided all these things for me.
The silence, coupled with a safe environment in which to speak, was extremely important. It allowed me to sort through my actions during the week and to begin to understand my part in the cycle that kept being repeated in my life—and my responsibility for it. Self-knowledge comes slowly when it is shrouded in learned behavior. Being able to think in the loving, shared atmosphere of meeting for worship, being able to voice the truth of my life out loud to people who would hold me kindly in spiritual communion, mitigated my shame and distress and allowed me slowly to stop my harmful actions. I was able to turn towards a more positive love.
Mt. Toby Friends reached out as a corporate body in many ways. The meeting came up with emergency funds to help me through a financial crisis that my divorce caused. Various members volunteered as moving crews. Our divorce clearness committee worked better than marriage counseling to help my former husband and me reach decisions. Several members stayed on as a support committee for me through frightening and messy divorce proceedings.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this sort of corporate care is the spreading of the healing responsibility. It didn’t take too much for individual people to talk to me, to join with me in spirit. I was allowed to walk away from a business meeting where I had revealed my identity as a battered woman, without the questions and accusations that would have thrown me back into the cycle of despair and self-loathing. I didn’t have to feel greatly beholden to one or two people, a burden many abused women carry that can cause us to give up our attempts to remedy our situations. After all, it’s bad enough that we got ourselves into our problems; dragging anybody else in feels almost irresponsible! Friends at Mt. Toby seemed both non- judgmental and encouraging as they helped. Being helped can bring some insidious psychological consequences that are not always known by the helper.
This brings me to that last way Mt. Toby Friends aided recovery from my own private hell: friendship. This was epitomized in my buddy Ken, although I certainly found enough other friends at Mt. Toby to give me a newly found confidence in my ability to be normal. Ken was like the old Quaker farmer who took troubled kids out to his farm every summer. The farmer didn’t do therapy with these adolescents, he just treated them like ordinary kids, allowing them to soak up the rhythms of the farm and nature. Ken did this for me.
He seemed to like me, to really enjoy being with me, not just want to help me, which would have contributed to my feeling of powerlessness. He brought me to his garden and on walks and hikes, both with me and my kids, pointing out plants and insects. I remember one walk Ken took with me the day my sister died (probably from complications arising from her alcoholism) allowing me to dissipate my grief in the clean, cold air of the outdoors. Ken also did more esoteric things for me, like tutoring me in mathematics for an essential course in my doctoral program. He listened carefully and calmly to me one morning as I described a frightening, emotional reaction I’d had upon seeing one of the men from whom I was trying to break away. His attitude and the questions he asked offered me a perspective that helped keep me from the spiral of self-disgust that was the difference for me between health and sickness.
During one meeting for worship, a Friend defined love as helping someone to grow and change. This the Friends of Mt. Toby have done for me. Probably other meetings have done it for other battered women, perhaps unwittingly. Helping a woman out of the cycle of abuse could mean keeping her children from beginning their own cycle, which in turn has an impact on their children. Helping one woman may seem to be a small act, but it has ramifications that last generations in exponential numbers. We Quakers have so many large causes that we undertake (and sometimes despair of) that it is important to keep in perspective the smaller, perhaps unseen victories that meetings gain—like me, able now to say that I am a former battered woman.