I met Laura for the first time at the Department of Human Services. The police picked me up from the domestic-violence-intervention agency where I was working and brought me to the squat cinder-block DHS building. Rain poured steadily from the gutters onto the cracked concrete sidewalk. Inside, cubicles flanked a fluorescent-lit corridor that opened onto the main office. A blond woman sat in an orange plastic seat in the corner, a little boy in her lap, his face pressed to her neck. One of the officers nodded toward her.
“There she is,” he said to me.
They had caught Laura’s husband, Mark, that morning, after he’d thrown her down a flight of stairs and kicked her repeatedly in front of the children. He was being held on bail, but without Laura’s testimony they wouldn’t be able to keep him long. They’d brought me here to convince Laura to testify against him in court. This was the first time they’d arrested Mark. “He’s scrappy and fast,” the officer told me. “He rides a bike around and jumps into the bushes.” The police profile listed Mark as five foot nine with long red hair and riding a black mountain bike. “We know he should be locked up,” the officer said. “We just haven’t been able to pin him down.”
In the corner Laura’s son rubbed a handful of her hair against his cheek. Her three older children were feeding quarters into a vending machine. I sat beside her in one of the molded plastic seats.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they want you to testify.”
Her little boy wound his hands in the fabric of her shirt, pulling it up, and I saw her bruised hip, the color of a late-summer plum. She brushed the boy’s hair out of his eyes.
“Laura,” I said, “do you think you could?”
She looked past me and out the wire-reinforced window, toward the gray street and all that rain.
Before I started working in domestic-violence intervention, I was a cocktail waitress at a country-and-western bar. I wore a cowboy hat and served drinks called the “Saddle Up” and the “Get ’Er Done.” Business was slow. The only regular customer was a man named Earl who came in every night in a T-shirt that said, “It Ain’t Gonna Lick Itself,” and danced alone to the jukebox. I’d been drawn to the job by an aching desire to witness what I thought of, at twenty-three, as “Real Life.” But Real Life at the saloon had turned out to be crushed peanut shells on the floor, slurred demands, and men who told me I needed a pair of Wranglers if I wanted to make good use of my ass. I served drinks to people who didn’t need them and watched how liquor turned minor sorrows into profound regrets. I needed to find new employment.
My only real qualification for a job in domestic-violence intervention was that I badly wanted to get to know people, to help them. I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired, but a week after I applied, the position was mine. Later I understood that my combination of desire and lack of experience had made me an attractive candidate: I would be starting from scratch, with the agency’s ethos held squarely in my green hands. My training was a feverish month of reading books about the field and accompanying the more seasoned advocates on home visits and to court dates and support groups. The car rides were full of war stories that would have scared me had I not been so eager to get into the trenches myself.
I was one of three women whose job it was to manage immediate crises. The nonprofit intervention agency worked with survivors who were ill-suited for traditional battered-women’s shelters: addicts, the mentally ill, anyone with a lot of children, anyone with a disability, and, most of all, women who were classified as having a “high risk of lethality” — the ones whose abusers were terrifying, relentless, and always one step behind; the women who were likely to be killed. I taxied these clients, and sometimes their children, to motels around the city, booked them rooms under fake names, and then drove out to meet them periodically over the next few weeks to help them find a new apartment, file a restraining order, enroll their children in new schools, and change phone numbers or clothes or cars — all the many ways of erasing one life and starting another. The crisis line took about twenty-five calls a day, and at any given time we had four or five women and their children in motels. Most of them stayed for between a week and a month. We wheedled like used-car salesmen, lobbying for spare beds and rent-controlled apartments. I spent half my time answering crisis calls and the other half driving around the city with bags of food and tampons, going from motels to interim apartments to the courthouse.
The agency’s office was in an unmarked building whose windows were rattled by passing trucks on the highway. My desk was on the top floor. Pigeons warbled on the ledge, and in the winter the wind screamed through the cracked sill, blowing papers off the desk. All around me were the various tools for piecing a life back together. I had lists of items for women to pack before they fled and instructions for how to replace birth certificates and Social Security cards if they were destroyed. Besides the traditional shelters there was a nationwide network of underground safe houses for abuse survivors. There were organizations that specialized in dental work if your teeth had been knocked out, and volunteers who would temporarily take care of a pet. Ideally women got help and returned to their normal lives with only slight adjustments: a restraining order, a new apartment. But it didn’t always work out that way. Abusers resurfaced, or survivors found it hard to live in the devastation left behind: drugs and alcohol, debt, lost careers, physical scars or handicaps, unrelenting depression, a new abuser. It was the long-term damage that began to scare me, the realization that over time one’s life might become indiscernible from the abuse, that a woman might live the rest of her days running from a shadow.
When I visited the women in motels, the rooms were always the same: One lamp turned on. A pressboard desk covered with paperwork, coupons, ramen noodles, cereal. Two beds with the blankets thrown back, one of them covered in open suitcases and black trash bags of clothes. A television turned up too loud. Sour air. A bright scattering of coins across a torn upholstered chair. Even now I think of domestic violence as a cheap motel.
Laura declined to testify against Mark for the assault, and he was released after a few days. She filed a restraining order, and, as far as we knew, Mark went to stay with his mother. I thought of Laura’s case as a simple success, an instance when the system had worked the way it was supposed to. And then one day Laura came home from taking the kids to school, and Mark was standing in the kitchen. He beat her until she lost consciousness, then he slipped out the back door. Her thirteen-year-old son, the first to arrive home that afternoon, found her lying on the floor, incoherent.
The police searched the city for Mark but couldn’t find him. Laura was released from the hospital a week later. There’d been trauma to her brain, but a string of tests were all inconclusive. She retrieved the children from a friend’s house, and I moved them all to a motel on the north side of the city, far from their old home. We colored her hair in the motel sink. She’d always been a blonde.
“Mark loves blond hair,” she said. “I used to promise him I would never dye it.”
They’d met in college, she told me. For their first date Mark picked her up at her house and took her for a picnic in the park. She kissed him once that night. When she got back from classes the next day, there was a single lily on her kitchen table, bowing in a tall vase. She had no idea how he’d gotten inside, but it didn’t matter. They were married at the courthouse the following spring.
The brunette dye washed down the drain in purple-brown waves and left stains on the threadbare towels. When we were done, Laura stood in front of the mirror brushing her hair out. At first glance she looked like a different person. She pulled it back with both hands, looked at herself for a moment, and then began to cry.
“I could do mine, too,” I said. I wanted to make it easier for her somehow.
She smiled and blew her nose in a wad of toilet paper. Then her daughter called from the other room because the youngest was crying, and the hair was forgotten. As I drove away from the motel, I wondered what I had been thinking when I’d made that offer. What would I have told my boss, my co-workers: that I didn’t know where the client ended and I began? And what difference would my gesture have made? I looked at my sandy hair in the rearview mirror. The idea was ridiculous, I thought. But still.
Despite all the training we were given, the agency offered employees little advice on how to navigate relationships with clients, leaving the process mostly to instinct. We were supposed to be caring without getting too close — a timid, arm’s-length affection. We were pseudoprofessionals providing a temporary safety net. We weren’t protected from subpoena the way that licensed counselors were, and our opinions were arbitrarily sought or disregarded by the authorities. Often, if a woman was in danger of losing her children to the state for “failure to protect” — which usually meant she’d been assaulted in front of them — we would be asked to testify on her behalf. “Do you think,” the lawyer would often ask, “that your client will know better next time?”
We had a staff of fifteen or twenty: survivors, allies, activists; women who had been in the feminist movement since the seventies and women who just needed to pay their rent; some who were all of the above. Regardless of what had brought us to the work, we all relied on frazzled hope, as though repairing the damage were just a matter of working hard enough. It shouldn’t be us doing this, I thought. No one should have to do this. We were nervous and exhausted, trying to remain untouched by sorrow while tragedy rose up around us with no indication of when or where it might stop.
I believed in the work, but there was something else I was trying to understand, about how people come to know and love each other. Visiting the dusky, smoke-smelling motel rooms or listening to a crying voice on the crisis line, I was seeing into the dark corners of women’s lives. No one falls in love with an abuser. I’d said it on the crisis line over and over: “If someone were to hit you on the first date, you’d call the police.” But weeks or months or years later, steeped in doubts, misunderstanding, and hurt, it’s hard to say clearly what has happened. We fall in love with a person believing we know who he or she is. How terrible it must be to be proven so wrong.
For the first year that I was an advocate, I was able to see things in black and white: battered and batterer; someone fleeing and someone pursuing. But as time wore on, it became more difficult. I never doubted that there is no excuse for violence. I never doubted that abusers make a choice to abuse. But slowly shades of gray crept in. The things a client wanted one day were different the next. Her story turned out to be a lie. The car was stolen. She never really cut off contact. And who was to say when it was or wasn’t worth trying again? When we love someone, isn’t it natural to want to give him or her a second chance?
The state offered grants to women with children who were fleeing domestic violence, and Laura used the money to put a deposit on a two-bedroom apartment with a month-to-month lease — just until she could find a bigger place and her temporary-disability payments began. Her brain injury made everything difficult for her; she drifted off in conversation, groping for words. She would be lucid for hours and then lose track of her thoughts. Together we made a giant calendar that took up half of one wall. “GO TO DR.,” I wrote in red marker. “BRING: PHYSICAL-THERAPY PLAN. HEALTH CARD. DRIVER’S LICENSE.” Laura’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Lisa, directed the household, herding her brothers and sister onto the bus to the Transitional School, a local community-education project for displaced kids.
They had been in the new apartment for three weeks when I next drove out to visit. The calendar was still on the wall. The youngest child had drawn clusters of trees along the bottom, and my own notes were overlaid with Laura’s shaky script. We sat at the table and talked about her doctor’s appointments, the ongoing police search for Mark, and whether Laura should take Lisa, who had a new boyfriend, to the clinic for birth control. Laura stood up to get a pen and make a list of things to do: follow up with the welfare office; find a more permanent house; sell the rattling van and get a car that Mark wouldn’t recognize. She froze in the middle of the room, staring at the opposite wall.
“That picture’s been moved,” she said.
On the wall was a watercolor of amber hills under a cobalt sky. I’d hung it there on the day they’d moved in, hammered a thin nail into the plaster myself.
“Laura,” I said carefully, “I think you’re confused.”
She appeared to concentrate, the way she had to now to retrieve names and dates, squinting as if she were in pain. I imagined her dragging the dark recesses of her mind, searching for the glint of something recognizable.
“No,” she said, “it’s been moved.”
I stood and took her arm to guide her back to the table. Then I saw it: the tiny nail hole I’d made, now to the left of the painting. Someone had moved the picture six inches to the right. My heart dropped.
A neighbor verified that she had seen Mark in the yard a few days earlier.
I’d had clients before whose abusers were what we called “crazy-makers”: the man who drove the car to the other side of the lot while his wife was in the supermarket, then asked if she was feeling all right when she stood where the car had been, confused; the spouses who retold events differently, then said, Don’t you remember? I’m worried about you. I hadn’t realized until then that Mark was the worst type of batterer — calculating, meticulous: the kind of man who would ride his bike several miles to move a painting six inches, then thrill at the thought of his ex standing in the kitchen and wondering if she was losing her mind.
I moved Laura and the kids back to the motel. It took another month for her to find a new place to live. Meanwhile the police resumed the search for Mark with renewed vigor and found him, by chance, changing a flat tire on his bike in the same city park where he’d taken Laura on their first date. He was sentenced to a year in jail with the possibility of early release.
Laura’s injuries started to heal, and she took a part-time job in her son’s elementary school. When I didn’t hear from her for a few weeks, I didn’t think much of it. I had a full caseload, and I’d been subpoenaed for a major court case. For every hour spent with a client, I had to do fifteen minutes of paperwork. I kept painstaking files, careful to say only just enough, no more. Even within the walls of the agency we tried to erase our tracks, always fearful that information would fall into the wrong hands. I moved Laura’s file to the bottom of my stack, along with the files of other clients who seemed to have escaped, who seemed — though I would never have said it aloud — safe.
Laura called on a Friday afternoon as I was getting ready to go home. “I have to tell you something,” she said. The injuries were still plaguing her, and she’d needed someone to talk to, someone who could help her reconstruct old memories. She’d had to contact Mark to get some information about their daughter’s immunizations. They’d started talking again.
“It’s not that I’m forgetting everything that’s happened,” she said. “It’s just that he sounds different now — and we have the kids. We’re just talking again, is all.”
I had trouble swallowing. Mark was still in jail but would be up for release in a matter of months.
“Laura,” I said, “tell me he doesn’t know where the new house is.”
She said nothing.
“Laura, please,” I said. “Tell me he doesn’t know.”
I had a tight sensation around my chest. The new house. We’d carefully mapped out the neighborhoods in which he was least likely to look for her. Lisa had arranged their few pieces of furniture in the living room. Laura had stood in the light-filled kitchen and smiled while her little boy had slid across the linoleum in his socks.
Until then the anger that I’d felt at work had been vague, directed at the evil of abuse, the ugly batterers’ faces that I’d conjured in my mind, or the loopholes in the system. (The courts sometimes mandated that abusers enroll in Batterer’s Intervention, a twenty-five-week class that held them to strict accountability and made them hash out the various abuses they’d inflicted on their partners. But often those classes just gave abusers a stamp that they’d been “cured,” so they could run into the arms of their next victim.) I had worked with at least a hundred women that year, and only two of them were living the lives they wanted. Some had gone back to their abusers. Others were still running. Most had settled somewhere in between, in crooked approximations of the lives they would never quite get back. The problem was so big, so simultaneously pervasive and diffuse, that I couldn’t even put a face to it anymore. The anger I felt was toward an unjust, heartbreaking world.
But when Laura told me what she’d done, my anger wasn’t at the world anymore. It was at her. She’d broken the terms of the plan we’d made and thus disqualified herself from in-person services. It isn’t safe now for me to be there, I was supposed to say, and I said it, even as I felt sick to my stomach. The feelings I had for Laura were no longer professional or arm’s-length; I didn’t know if they ever had been. I thought of how I’d offered to dye my own hair, how I’d imagined that what happened to her somehow depended on me. I wasn’t just angry that she’d broken our careful plan by letting Mark into the immaculate new life we’d created for her. I was angry because she’d chosen him over me. Because it had all been for nothing. Because I’d failed. I had not been able to keep her safe.
I can’t explain why, out of all the women I worked with, it is Laura who moved me most. Perhaps it’s because her case was one of my first and longest and in some ways a perfect microcosm of why the job became too much for me. She wanted not just bus tickets or bags of food but to know that I was going through this with her, that she was not the only one tormented by Mark. But the more tormented I felt, the blurrier the line between work and personal life became. I knew that I needed to separate the two, but I couldn’t. The only time I felt I was really making a difference was when I put myself close enough to the client that her life became tied to mine, and that was exactly what made it impossible to continue.
The last I heard about Mark was that he’d shown up at the new house just three days after being released on probation. He accused Laura of not loving him enough and threatened to kill himself. Then he jumped through the plate-glass window and barreled down to the creek. When she didn’t follow, he came back up, dripping blood and water. One of the kids called the police, and Mark was returned to jail for violating both the terms of his probation and the restraining order. Laura told me it took her days to wash the blood from the living-room walls.
After that I talked to her almost every day on the crisis line, but I didn’t drive out to see her. Then our calls became less frequent. My caseload increased. I caught myself getting distracted while talking on the crisis line, saying the same thing twice. At times I found myself thinking of the women on the other end as reflections of one inconsolable grief. I made excuses to avoid visiting them in person at the motels. When I did go, I couldn’t stand the thick, close air; the terrible, aching stories. It had been only three years since I’d left the country-and-western bar, and already I had trouble remembering that world. What had I thought about then: cowboy hats and swizzle sticks?
My boss scheduled a meeting with me. She was concerned that I wasn’t doing well.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
She was sixty-five, grandmotherly, warm. The kind way she looked at me made me want to cry. How can you keep doing this, I wanted to ask her, when the problem is so big? “I feel burnt out,” I said. It was a phrase we all used — the social worker’s curse. When my co-workers had claimed to suffer from burnout, I’d secretly dismissed them as weak or lazy. Now I pictured a gaping hole somewhere in my chest, like the damage from a fire.
“Let me see what I can do,” she said.
She gave some of my clients, including Laura, to advocates with lighter caseloads. I called Laura to tell her about her new case manager. When she didn’t pick up the phone, I left a message. “Take care,” I said, feeling both sad and relieved.
I thought the lighter caseload would help, but instead I drank more and smoked cigarettes to calm my nerves. I was unbearably thin-skinned. Even mild noises were too loud. I interpreted innocent questions as attacks. Almost every day the newspaper had a story of another failure, another person we hadn’t helped. Two weeks later I quit.
For a few days I felt a kind of breathless reprieve. Where there had been the endless ringing of the phone, now there was only dull silence. The motels I drove past were full of strangers. I’d done what so few of the clients I’d worked with could do: I’d walked away, and no one had followed me. But I could feel a fracture, a hairline crack between my life before and my life now. My map of the city was filled with dim motel lights, like constellations in a night sky. I was disgusted by how easily I could slip back into the waiting world, but, at the same time, I hated that I couldn’t; everything was changed, like shapes that were benign in the daylight but grew teeth in the dark.
That spring, three months after I left the agency, a woman’s children were killed in front of her. She’d been trying to get help, and when her husband found out that she’d been talking to one of the local shelters, he locked the doors and shot her children while she tried to shield them with her body. That night I lay in the dark, my chest tight and aching. I wondered how many times she had tried to leave, how many times he’d convinced her to stay, or threatened her into staying. If she had left a week earlier, would it have made any difference? A month earlier? A year? If she’d loved him, and he’d told her with certainty that he was going to change, could she be blamed for believing him? I wondered about the social workers who’d helped her, imagined them in their own dim rooms, reviewing the advice they’d given, what they had or hadn’t done to help. It was the first time I understood that to love anyone is to believe in them. I felt the tightness begin to lift then, just a little.
On a Monday evening I went out for a walk. It was growing dark. I don’t usually walk alone, but the streets were quiet, and it felt good to be outside, breathing the scents of cut grass and rain. I passed the blue-lit sign of the motel where Laura had once spent a week. I looked at the rows of doors and windows with curtains drawn tight across them. I remembered her dark hair falling into her eyes. The perfect nail hole in the wall. A lily in a glass vase. I refused — I still refuse — to believe that she might be dead.
I stopped to light a cigarette. Far ahead a woman was walking, pulling her coat tight around her. The smoke from my cigarette drifted slowly up. The woman faded into the gray evening. All around me were the lights of the city.