FEATURE: It Happens Here

By on October 18, 2016

The untold effects of domestic violence on a small Western town.

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – Emmy* will never forget the day after she said, “I do.” Her excitement and dreams of married life ended abruptly when her new husband wrapped his hands around her neck.

“You’re my wife now,” he hissed menacingly. “I expect dinner ready when I get home.”

After leaving her family behind on the East Coast to pursue her passions for sports and the outdoors, after they had paid for a beautiful wedding celebration only hours before, she was mortified. She was too embarrassed to leave.

As the months wore on, she didn’t tell many people about the way her husband called her names or made open threats of hurting her. The folks she did confide in expressed disbelief, or even scorn. “He wouldn’t do that,” said one friend. “People won’t believe you that he would do something like that.”

So she hid the truth. It wasn’t hard to blame the bruises on her work as a rafting guide, or on a rough soccer game. “As an active person, it was easy to make up excuses,” Emmy said. On the river, on the field, or out with friends, she made sure that she seemed fine. But every night when she went home, she lived in fear.

Across the nation, the single most dangerous place for women is their own home. Recent headline-grabbing cases from the area demonstrate this: both Jennifer Nalley of Driggs, Idaho, and Dubois resident Laurie Thompson were gunned down by romantic partners in their homes. These murders illustrate the frightening and real potential of escalated domestic violence, as thousands more abusers continually terrorize and harm their victims every day. While domestic violence can and does happen to men and those in same-sex relationships, the vast majority of victims are women abused by male partners.

The stereotypical image of a battered woman is often depicted with black eyes and broken bones, but the truth of domestic violence is significantly more complex. Though it frequently does take the form of physical battery, it also assumes more insidious and manipulative forms. This complexity not only contributes to the difficulty many victims face in escaping abusive homes, but also ripples out to touch the rest of the community, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Some wounds can’t be seen

An abusive person doesn’t punch or kick on a first date; in fact, their behavior is frequently the opposite of violent. Often, they are quick to intensify a romantic relationship, flattering their partner with reassurances that nobody could possibly understand or love them in the same way. Frequently, as in Emmy’s case, they propose marriage after very little time. What seems like quick, consuming romance on the surface, however, can be sinister underneath.

Many abusers go to great lengths to isolate their victims, both physically and emotionally, from their social and familial networks.

“The rural nature of Wyoming can significantly contribute to a victim’s isolation,” said Sharel Love, executive director of Community Safety Network. Vast mileage between homes and communities can exacerbate a victim’s sense of isolation, and when she doesn’t encounter friends or family frequently, behavioral and emotional changes can go unnoticed. “When you’re in an abusive relationship and changing your behavior to manage your own safety, you often don’t see your own changes,” Sharel said. “If you aren’t interacting with a social circle often, there aren’t other people taking note and getting concerned.”

Many women like Emmy move to the valley, leaving family and friends far behind. Without close friendships with individuals who notice changes or physical remnants of violence, or without nearby neighbors to overhear an incident and call for help, victims can feel entirely alone outside of their relationship.

It didn’t take long for Emmy’s husband to start emotionally abusing and manipulating her. Within six months, she recalled, he was telling her what clothes to wear outside of the house. He would call her names, make demands on her behavior, tell her that she was fat and lazy. “Even though I worked up to six different jobs at one point, he would often berate me and tell me that since I didn’t work a ‘real job’ I wasn’t contributing,” Emmy remembered. “It made me feel so small. Like I needed him.”

After an injury at work, his cruelty intensified. Emmy told herself that he was coping with trauma; he needed her unconditional love to fully recover. Instead, his anger turned towards her, and he began to threaten her in more frightening ways.

“He would often talk about hurting other people or animals,” she said. “When people would walk their dogs past our house, he would watch them go by and talk about shooting the dogs in the head.”

Emmy understood his comments were thinly veiled warnings aimed at her. “Do as I say, or else.” So she walked on eggshells to avoid triggering an outburst from her husband, modifying her behavior and tolerating his cruelty out of self-preservation.

“People think that domestic violence has to be a black eye or being chased around with a baseball bat,” Emmy said. “But it’s not always like that. It can be as simple as repeating terrible things to someone to keep them down. Constantly hearing it is like being trained; you start to believe it.”

Vicious name calling, belittling, veiled threats, isolating a partner from family and friends, controlling her bank accounts or credit cards: all are tactics frequently employed by abusers, and yet not a single one of them is against the law or leaves a bruise. But that doesn’t mean the damage isn’t significant.

Lasting consequences

For victims of domestic abuse, living in a violent home is physically and emotionally detrimental. The Centers for Disease Control has identified dozens of chronic health conditions that victims are more likely to suffer. From diabetes and high blood pressure to chronic headaches and difficulty sleeping, the physical impacts of ongoing trauma are not yet fully understood, but health professionals widely recognize them as grave. Even after escaping an abusive home, over the course of her lifetime, a survivor of domestic violence is statistically more likely to visit healthcare providers at a higher frequency and have a greater number and longer duration of hospital stays than a non-victim.

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Dr. Jim Little Jr., a family practitioner in Jackson Hole, is no stranger to this phenomenon here in Jackson. “Though a complicated one, there is clearly a relationship between long-term exposure to a high-stress environment and impacts on a person’s metabolism, cortisol levels and other chronic and mental illnesses,” he said.

Indeed, it’s not a difficult link to discern; the human body isn’t designed to live for extended periods in a heightened fight-or-flight state. Stress alone often contributes to victims’ self-medication.

“Whether it’s pills or alcohol,” Little said, “victims abuse substances in an attempt to manage the pain and stress of the situation.” The CDC observes the same trend on a national scale: harmful coping behaviors like smoking, drinking and drug use are common among victims of domestic violence.

Emmy, for one, can attest to this: “I started smoking cigarettes just to get through it. It calmed my nerves, and best of all, he hated when I smoked, so he’d tell me to go outside. That bought me 10 minutes of calm. Ten minutes away from him.”

When you’re not in a safe environment, Little noted, it becomes difficult to take care of yourself. “Things like going to the gym, cooking healthy food and getting outside—those are luxuries that victims trapped in a violent home don’t always have access to,” he said.

When kids try to cope

In a family, the serious physiological and psychological impacts of long-term stress are by no means limited to the abuser’s main target. Witnessing abuse alone can severely impact a child, but emerging evidence indicates a disturbing pattern.

“Ten years ago, we thought that about 20 to 30 percent of children in homes with domestic violence were abused,” said Chris Moll, director of the Hirschfield Center for Children, a branch of Teton Youth and Family Services. “But now, we’re realizing that the number is much closer to 75 percent. In the vast majority of homes where partner abuse is occurring, child abuse is happening, too.”

Moll is quick to point out that there is no “perfect picture” of a child who might be experiencing or witnessing violence at home. “Sometimes they’re the last kid you’d expect,” he said. “The fear they’re living with can manifest as desire for perfection, so they appear very high-achieving.”

Others, however, show different symptoms. In social and classroom settings, they can be very disruptive, and act in a manner that Moll says is similar to the symptoms of ADD. “It’s really distracting to be worrying and focusing on your mom’s safety when you’re in a classroom. It’s burdensome on these kids to feel like they’re constantly keeping this huge family secret,” he said.

As they grow older, children exposed to violence at home tend to abuse substances earlier, as well as engage in risky sexual behavior, Moll explained. “Boys especially are more likely to display delinquent behavior, and pregnancy rates for teenage girls exposed to domestic violence are significantly higher.” In other words, the consequences of violence at home don’t stop at the front door. They intersect and intertwine with other community issues, especially those that pertain to Jackson Hole’s youth.

“If a parent is afraid for their life, they simply are not able to engage in critical bonding activities with their young children,” said CSN’s Love. The severe repercussions of domestic violence for children can have a silver lining, though. Love says that when victims realize the profound impact of abuse on their children, it can be the catalyst they need to leave once and for all. “When people think violence is only impacting them, they can justify martyring through it for the sake of their family. But when they really see and understand how it’s impacting their children, often they’ll have a lightbulb moment. It can be a real wakeup call.”

Why does she stay?

It’s a question that many outside observers have asked. Why would someone—intelligent, strong and kind—stay with a partner who emotionally and physically causes her harm? The answers are as complex and unique as the women in these situations, but some common themes emerge among victims.

Some turn to their faith communities for guidance, and are sometimes met with little support or even hostility. Raised in a religious family, Emmy approached her pastor when she realized the situation with her husband was out of control.

“He wouldn’t do that,” the pastor flatly told her.

He’d known Emmy’s husband for years, and simply refused to believe that he was capable of violence.

Emmy remembered: “He told me, ‘You shouldn’t come back here with stories like that.’”

Dedication to ideals of family and community influence others’ decisions to stay as well. “Frequently, victims of domestic violence are some of the kindest and nicest people you will ever meet,” Love said. “From everything I’ve heard about Jennifer Nalley, she was a deeply nurturing person, frequently putting her own needs second to someone else’s.”

Friends and teammates remember Nalley as loving and enthusiastic about an eclectic array of things; her energetic passion for roller derby, physics and music shines brightly in many people’s memories. Nalley had come to Teton Valley from Austin, Texas, a little less than a year ago to care for her aging grandparents, both in their 90s.

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Friends also recall the troubling nature of her relationship with Eric Ohlson of Jackson. Ohlson now faces charges for her murder. After disclosing to him that she was pregnant with his child, his emotionally abusive behavior escalated. The police affidavit indicates that Ohlson had a track record of verbally abusing Nalley, including sending her angry and aggressive text messages. While he denies any physical abuse, it’s difficult to know whether he had hurt her previously. The night of the incident, he claims, he had gone to Nalley’s home with a loaded gun with the intent of frightening her. The following morning, members of her family found her body with eight gunshot wounds. While some were aware that Nalley and Ohlson had a somewhat rocky relationship, many were shocked at the serious nature of the dynamic. How, they wondered, could someone so strong, brilliant and energetic fall victim to such an awful fate in her own home? At the hands of someone who claimed to love her?

Many women in abusive relationships genuinely love their partner, and believe that their kindness and compassion can help change their abuser. Moreover, they can be motivated by a desire to keep or build a family together.

This becomes more complex for community members whose abusers are not in the United States legally, says Mary Erickson, executive director of One22. “Reporting domestic violence and involving law enforcement could lead to the abuser’s deportation. If a family depends on that person’s income to make ends meet, losing that income can be extremely problematic,” she said. Undocumented victims are also frequently hesitant to take legal action for fear of exposing their own immigration status, and this can lead to further isolation and a sense of being trapped in a violent home.

Tracey Trefren is the coordinator of Teton County Victim Services. She noted that law enforcement in Teton County is dedicated to providing assistance to victims of crime no matter what the immigration status of the victim. “Local law enforcement does not report, investigate, or consider the documentation status of victims of crime,” she said. Hence, a victim’s immediate safety and that of their family supersedes their status as an undocumented immigrant.

For all citizens, however, the housing crisis in Jackson heaps yet another unique challenge onto the plate of those seeking to flee an abusive relationship. With almost no affordable housing available in the valley, the prospect of heading out on one’s own can be financially daunting or even impossible.

“Because housing options are so limited, people are afraid to leave a violent situation, and they just don’t see any options,” Erickson said. “Those who are able to leave can find themselves in a really tough situation with a sense of ‘Now what?’ and ‘How do I survive?’ It’s not easy suddenly being a single mom.”

Community Safety Network staffers recognize similar themes when it comes to victims needing a safe place after leaving an abusive relationship. CSN’s shelter provides emergency housing to both male and female victims and their children, offering a secure place to escape an abuser. Additionally, the organization has four transitional housing units—small apartments—that can provide longer-term housing for women and families working to get back on their feet. However, Love noted, these units have been filled since the day they opened. CSN is now building a fifth unit that will likely be occupied upon completion.

Societal costs

While it’s difficult to fully measure the toll that domestic violence takes on an individual or a family, it’s important to recognize that it comes with a cost for the community at large. From medical and counseling costs, to missed work and school, diminished productivity and legal costs, domestic violence also hits the community’s wallet.

The CDC estimated in 2003 that domestic violence cost the nation $8.3 billion dollars. There’s little doubt that the number has grown since then. Though it’s impossible to put a precise dollar amount on how much Teton County or the state of Wyoming has spent over the past year, it’s in the millions. According to the Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), there were 2,513 reported cases of domestic violence across the state in 2015: one every four hours. Given how many victims don’t report abuse, or suffer victimization like name calling or psychological abuse that doesn’t rise to the level of criminal offense, this number is a gross underrepresentation of the issue.

The most recent estimate from the CDC’s report is that Wyoming’s annual number of victims is around 52,000. Based on that count, the Equality State spends more than 12 million dollars annually on the aftermath of relationship violence.

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Nationally, approximately 30 percent of women report experiencing violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Wyoming’s rate is well above this average at nearly 36 percent, while Idaho remains slightly below the national average at 29 percent. A startling number to recognize alongside this statistic is that Wyoming boasts the single highest number of guns per person in the nation. With just shy of 196 guns per thousand residents, Wyomingites easily dwarf the second place slot—the District of Columbia—with just 66 guns per thousand residents.

Of course gun ownership by no means causes domestic violence, but it is a combination that warrants some reflection. In a state with above average rates of household violence, and overwhelmingly more access to firearms, early recognition of abusive relationships could help avert future scenarios like those that ended the promising lives of women like Jennifer Nalley.

‘I’m leaving…’

One day, in a violent rage, Emmy’s husband tried to break a glass on her head. When he failed, he instead shattered it on the ground. “I can’t really put my finger on why,” she said, “but that was the moment for me. I shoved past him, and told him I was leaving.”

He fumed in the doorway and told her that if she left, she had better not come back. So she didn’t.

With the help of friends and the support of family, Emmy divorced her abusive husband and started over. Eight years later, she’s happily remarried, with two children. She says the violent history she endured with her ex-husband has offered her perspective on parenting.

“I’m very cognizant of how I speak to them and treat them,” she said. “I make every effort to let them know that they’re smart, strong and capable. I never want them to let a partner make them feel worthless.”

Experts interviewed for this story all hold the similar belief that, no matter how trapped a victim might feel in Jackson Hole, whether because of finances, housing uncertainty, language barriers, documentation concerns or any number of factors, there is hope, and there is safety. But the first step is seeking help, admitting there is a problem.

It’s also important to remember, for victims and their friends and family, that there is no single profile of a domestic violence victim, especially in Jackson Hole.

“We are unique in that we have a higher level of people who are super wealthy, and many assume that domestic violence doesn’t affect them,” Little noted. “That assumption can multiply the stigma and associated guilt, especially if they’re highly successful individuals. It can be even harder for them to reach out.”

Love agrees. “We live in a community that has so many highly capable, intelligent and athletically excellent individuals. Jennifer Nalley was a great example of that—to an outside observer, she appeared to be the last person anyone would expect to be a victim.”

Many times, these motivated, bright women see themselves as providers and supporters to others in their lives and communities. This can make it difficult for them to recognize and accept that they are in need of help.

That’s where friends and family come in. “The biggest thing for us as a community is to be aware and prepared to offer assistance,” Little said.

Getting help, Love added, “doesn’t take a lot of steps, but it does take more than one. Moral support is a critical element for most people. Someone who can listen, believe them and support them in their decisions is key.”

Ultimately, no demographic remains unaffected by domestic violence. It happens in Jackson Hole every day. The resounding conclusion from professionals here is this: regardless of background, education level, socioeconomic status or ethnicity, it can happen to anyone.

So, in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness month, do more than acknowledge it exists; understand that this isn’t just something that happens elsewhere. Learn more about the resources available locally. Most importantly, make it clear to folks you know, that should they need a safe person to reach out to, you will believe them. PJH

*The person’s name has been changed.

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