'It's all around us:' Survivors of domestic violence share their experiences
Editor's note: This article is the first in a three-part series. October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
As her boyfriend screamed at her to leave his house, Barb Mourglia searched the faces of everyone in the adjacent room for help. All her friends were there. They could hear Mourglia's abusive boyfriend berating her, but they did nothing.
"They were supposed to be my friends. And the look on their faces -- they were so uncomfortable, but not in a way that made them say something or speak up," Mourglia said.
This wasn't the first time her abuser publicly scolded her. In fact, he was infamous for this kind of behavior. Mourglia remembered how often he humiliated her with others nearby, saying he would loudly ask for her phone or car keys as if the items belonged to him. Though she experienced many types of abuse, Mourglia said this particular behavior haunts her most.
"It's the one thing that stands out in my mind that will never go away," Mourglia said.
According to Dr. Cheri Yarborough, Mourglia's abuser publicly insulted her to feel in control of the situation. Yarborough, who has worked with victims of domestic violence for years, explained how abusers desperately need to control others. The need for control, Yarborough said, often results from childhood trauma.
"It's a knee-jerk reaction to prove that they can be in control now. The whole issue of control is really what is behind almost all abuse," Yarborough said.
Yarborough described how abuse starts, saying abusers aren't usually physically violent at the beginning of a relationship. Sometimes, she said, abusers never hit their victims.
"Belittling turns into emotional abuse and often escalates. The moment you don't do exactly what they want, that's the moment you see a glimmer of what's to come," Yarborough said.
During this glimmer, she explained, an abuser will often express anger sarcastically. Yarborough said victims don't quite catch on at first because of the way abusers present themselves at the beginning of the relationship. Abusers are narcissists, a trait Yarborough said relates directly to their need for control and helps lure in victims.
"Usually abusers are very charismatic individuals. They're very suave. They're very complimentary. They try to woo you into thinking they're the greatest thing since sliced bread. That wooing seduces you into thinking they can do no wrong," Yarborough said.
Mourglia remembered how her abuser treated her in the beginning, saying he fulfilled Yarborough's description in every way. Everyone seemed to like him, Mourglia said, and he could talk his way out of any situation.
"I really thought I had something special. A lot of people thought he was special. I always said to myself, 'This guy could run for president and he'd probably win.' He was just so likable," Mourglia said.
Leslie Johnson, too, characterized her abusive ex-husband as a narcissist. Her abuser was in law enforcement, Johnson said, and got along well with co-workers and civilians alike. Johnson remembered the way her abuser told stories, saying he could captivate almost any audience.
"He was everybody's best bud. He had great stories and you loved to sit down and just listen to him," Johnson said. "But at the same time, he had his own demons and his own demons played with me, and that was so very wrong."
For Johnson, the physical abuse didn't begin until two or three years into her marriage. She recalled how her abuser put her in the hospital after physically abusing her for the first time, saying she returned when he threatened to take her kids away. Despite his promise not to hit her again, Johnson said her abuser became physical violent sporadically throughout the marriage.
It isn't uncommon for victims to return to their abuser the way Johnson did. Often, Yarborough explained, abusers assure victims that the abuse will stop. Yarborough said other factors, such as children, financial concerns and an intertwined social circle come into play as well.
"When one abusive act happens, often women think it was an aberration. They think it was just this one time, so they forgive him for it. But statistics show that if he did it once he'll do it again," Yarborough said.
Not all abusive relationships are physically violent, Yarborough noted. Mourglia confirmed this, saying she experienced controlling and manipulative behavior but was not physically abused. She described how her abuser practiced "gaslighting" on her. Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which abusers twist information or present false information to their victim.
"It forced me to question my own sanity and worth, and to this day it affects how I am able to communicate with people," Mourglia said.
After three years of abuse, Mourglia left her abuser. She returned to him a year later and left again six months after that. Johnson reported an even longer period of abuse, saying she stayed with her abuser for 19 years because of their children.
"I walked out with the clothes on my back and the car on my bottom and that was it. I had no money. I had nothing," Johnson said.
Both women remembered being stalked for years after ending their respective relationships; Johnson said her abuser stalked her for five years, and Mourglia recalled being stalked in the years leading up to her marriage.
"My husband told him, 'Leave my wife alone.' That did it. Now I've been free and clear for seven years," Mourglia said.
Because she hadn't been educated about domestic violence, Mourglia said she didn't realize her ex-boyfriend was abusive until the murder of Laura Aceves on New Year's Eve 2012 in Eureka Springs. She began researching domestic violence at that time, Mourglia remembered, and discovered that she, too, had been a victim of domestic violence.
"While in the relationship, I knew it wasn't right but I was never able to think clearly enough to understand what was going on. Once I looked it in the face, I realized all these other instances where I'd been face-to-face with domestic violence. I just realized it's all around us. It's everywhere," Mourglia said.
Unlike Mourglia, Johnson knew she was in an abusive relationship. For many reasons, Johnson said, she didn't leave her abuser when the abuse became obvious. She described how her abuser isolated her from others, moving the family around for years to prevent any close relationships outside the home. Johnson said she couldn't even visit her mother after a few years.
"I stayed because I had kids. I stayed because I didn't know what else do. I stayed because I remembered what he was and I just wanted that back," Johnson said.
Since leaving their abusers, Mourglia and Johnson have married other men. Johnson explained how difficult it is to move on from an abusive relationship, saying she didn't know what it meant to be in a relationship based on romantic love. Since remarrying, she said she has found that type of love.
"Now I understand what love is all about. It's terrible when you say you're 50 years old when you finally figure it out, but that's the deal," Johnson said.
Mourglia agreed. Her marriage, she said, has redefined the way she expects romantic relationships to function.
"Now to be with a guy who respects me and really values me, I wish I could've told myself then, 'Don't waste your time with this. It's not worth all the heartache and the fear and the drama,'" Mourglia said.
She's speaking out about her experience now, Mourglia said, to break the silence many current and former victims of domestic violence live in. Mourglia called for more education across-the-board about abusive relationships.
"I think had I known more about it, I would've felt more equipped to lay down the law and walk away from it rather than it dragging on for years," Mourglia said.
Johnson challenged people to be more aware of what others are experiencing, saying a little empathy would go a long way to combat domestic violence. Sometimes, she said, victims don't feel ready to leave an abusive relationship and feel too ashamed to ask for help.
"There are people who need to have power over someone else. There will always be jerks in the world. All we can do is be there for the victim when they decide to move on," Johnson said.
"One of the things we all say when we're kids is, 'Oh, I'll never put up with that.' You have no idea what you'll put up with," she continued. "You have no idea until you're walking in those shoes."
Though Mourglia and Johnson experienced man-on-woman relationship abuse, Yarborough said abusers aren't always men and abusive relationships aren't always romantic. Sometimes, Yarborough noted, abusers are female. Sometimes, she said, a family member abuses another family member.
"It has nothing to do with gender. It has everything to do with personality," Yarborough said. "It's a universal problem."
Yarborough reiterated how rampant domestic violence is, saying everyone probably knows someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence. She asked people to open their eyes and see what's happening around them; awareness, Yarborough said, is half the battle.
"Pay attention, because if you're really observant you'll realize, 'Oh, there's something not quite right with the kids down the block. Oh, there's something not quite right at my neighbor's house,'" Yarborough said.
Part two will focus on law enforcement's role in domestic violence cases. It will run in the Midweek edition Tuesday, Oct. 13.