Ten questions that changed a battered woman's life 

By Debra LoGuercio

©Copyright 1999, Debra Lo Guercio, all rights reserved

    Have you ever believed something about someone for years, only to discover that your belief was completely erroneous? It's as if there's a little chalkboard in your head for each of the people in your life, upon which you scribble all sorts of opinions and beliefs about them (or even about yourself) and then the truth comes along and wipes everything away like a big eraser.  

    I had one of my chalkboards wiped clean last week during a surprise visit from my cousin Cathie. Talk about a blast from the past. Aside from a very brief visit several years ago when she was passing through the area with my aunt, with scarcely enough time to say "hello" and "goodbye," I hadn't seen Cathie since I was a chubby little kid in cowboy boots and glasses. She was about 14 and I a was about 11, and I absolutely worshipped the ground she walked on.

    Cathie was everything I wasn't: tall, willowy, graceful, talented, beautiful. She excelled in gymnastics and math, and could sing like an angel -- none of which I'd ever be able to do -- and my mouth hung open in awe as I looked up to her my entire childhood. You might assume someone like that would be a stuck-up little snot, but no, she was kind, sweet and charming, and never seemed to resent her dorky little cousin tagging along behind her.

    All that changed when Cathie and her family moved to Florida. Sure, there were letters here and there for a few years, but they came less and less frequently until finally they stopped altogether. I figured Cathie just forgot about me. And that was what I wrote on that chalkboard in my mind: Cathie doesn't care about me, because I'm a stupid, chubby, klutzy geek. I held that self-image as indisputable truth. If Cathie, the most perfect person on earth, believed this about me, it must be true.

    Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that my conclusion was entirely inaccurate. Like so many things in life, I learned that her disappearance was never "all about me." As we chatted and caught up, Cathie revealed something so shocking, it's taken nearly a week for me to pick my chin up off my collarbone. The reason she'd dropped out of sight all those years was that her life had become a living hell -- she was a battered wife. As she told me about years of beatings, threats and fear, of even being thrown from a moving car, had I not been so stunned I'd have burst into tears. How anyone could mistreat a sweet, beautiful, intelligent woman like this so horribly was incomprehensible, like strangling a graceful swan for no reason.

    Cathie hid her torture very well. Her friends and relatives didn't know. Her own parents and siblings didn't know. Her children knew, though. All too well. Cathie's husband used the kids to control her. If she left him, he said he'd kill them. Terrified for them, she stayed. During one rampage, however, when Cathie's husband held a loaded gun to her head, something in her snapped.

    "I realized I'd rather be dead than live like that any longer," she told me quietly. She knew she'd had enough, but still needed a push. It came in the form of a newspaper column.

    In the column, written by syndicated advice columnist Robert Wallace, was a list of questions. A "yes" answer to one was a warning sign that a relationship may become -- or already is -- abusive. Cathie answered "yes" to all 10. Long story short, Cathie got out. And got her life back.

    Above and beyond my admiration for her courage, it got me thinking. Maybe those questions, in another newspaper column, could help someone else. So, here they are: Are you ever afraid of the person you're going out with? Does he call you names, make you feel stupid or tell you that you can't do anything right? Does he say that no one else would ever go out with you? Does the person you're involved with tell you where you can or can't go, or with whom you can or can't talk? Do you feel cut off from your friends or family? Have you ever felt pushed or forced into sexual activities? Does he hurt you, then say it's your fault? Does he ever shove, grab, hit, pinch, hold you down or kick you? Is the person you're seeing really nice sometimes and really mean at other times (almost like he has two personalities)? Does he make frequent promises to change?

    If you, or someone you know, has some "yes" answers, or if Cathie's story sounds familiar, I implore you to seek help. Life is too short to live in misery. Worse yet, if you tolerate abuse, you teach your sons that it is acceptable to abuse women and your daughters that it is acceptable to tolerate it. When you save your own life, you save your children's as well.

    Is reclaiming your life worth it? Well, despite Cathie's years of suffering, the woman who sat before me last week was not defeated, hopeless and bitter. With her life back and remarried to a kind, wonderful man, Cathie is smiling, laughing and enjoying life now. She is that same beautiful, witty, wonderful person I'd held up on a pedestal. She laughed when I confided this to her and said that surely I didn't view her that way anymore. Wrong, I told her. I still do. Maybe now more than ever.