“Just Leave”

By Gretchen Gibbs

“Why don’t the women just leave?” I meet a man at a party, and this is how he responds when I tell him I do some work at a domestic violence agency.
He goes on, “I know it’s not politically correct to say so, but I don’t get it. Nobody has to stay and be abused. Just get out of there.”

“It’s not easy,” I say, and start citing all the difficulties. Financially, especially if there are children, the woman may not be able to manage on her own. Sometimes it’s dangerous to leave – the man may threaten to pursue and kill her if she goes. Abusive men are usually controlling, and the woman may not have access to any money, or keys to the car. She may not have been allowed to talk to friends, so there’s nobody to run to. And there’s something called learned helplessness. When you’ve been made powerless over and over, you stop feeling that you have any control over your life, you stop trying.

He looks skeptical.

I think of one of the cases I saw, some years ago, a woman I’ll call Rosa and about whom I’ll give only the vaguest real-life details, to protect her identity.

Rosa lived in a remote area of a Latin American country, in the mountains, married to a man who abused her verbally, physically and sexually. He liked to call her all kinds of names till she cried, then rape her.

The worst thing he did, in her mind, was to leave for days at a time, with no food in the house for her and their two small boys. There weren’t any neighbors to beg from. They were literally starving. She was desperate to escape, but she had no place to go. The only possible haven was with her mother, with whom she’d never had a close relationship, and who lived miles away in another remote village. There was no way to get there.

Then Rosa had a third child, Julio.  One evening, soon after Julio was born, her husband was beating her while she held the baby. The child fell from her arms, hitting his head. Julio never recovered consciousness.
Abused women often recount their tales numbly, from some inner place they’ve tried to make an unreal dream world. As Rosa told me about the dead infant, she began to howl, to rock back and forth in her chair, to bite her fingers. Usually I try to stay with the woman’s pain, but Rosa’s was more than I could stand; I asked her if she was able to move on with the story.
Her husband left again, after burying the baby in the yard. Rosa took the two children and whatever food she had and headed out for her mother’s. She could not take the road, as she feared her husband would come looking for her. She struck out over the mountain, carrying the two year old and urging the four year old on. Soon, she had to carry both children. She would haul one thirty feet up the mountain, tell him to stay there, then go back for the other and carry him up. Night came, and they huddled together for warmth. The food was gone quickly, and the streams for water were infrequent. It took two days and two nights to get to her mother’s. Rosa and the boys were covered with filth and scratches and insect bites, so exhausted they could barely stand.

In my office, Rosa began to sob and rock again.  She could not get the words out to tell me. Finally she said, “My mother contacted my husband to come get me. She said it was women’s lot to suffer and endure.”

Eventually Rosa ran away again and this time she did make it, with the children. I contemplate telling the man at the party about her ordeal, but I see it’s pointless to try to sway him. “However it may seem from the outside, leaving is not easy,” I repeat.

Gretchen can be reached at gretchen@zestoforange.com.


2 Responses to ““Just Leave””

  1. Valerie Lucznikowska Says:

    Dear Gretchen – Rosa’s story is heart-wrenching and brought me to tears. Rosa is to be admired for her grit. And you for your work with Rosa and others. But while not all abused women find themselves in that physically dramatic a situation, psychological straightjackets come in different packages, but are not less compelling. Being constantly berated and abused in virtually isolation affects urban and suburban women as well. The man who cannot stretch himself to understand such a circumstance is not aware of the essential world around him.

  2. Anita Page Says:

    A very moving story, Gretchen, and one that clearly needs to be told if there are still people who ask: Why don’t they just leave?
    Thank you,

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