Beverly Gooden stayed because her pastor told her that God hates divorce – and because her abusive husband slept by the front door, barricading her in the house. Isolated from her family, she stayed for months more as she planned her escape, including saving up for the bus ticket.
"You think you know but you have no idea," the Cleveland writer tweeted last night before unwittingly launching #WhyIStayed, a hashtag that has since grown into a massive digital confessional for women who have faced domestic violence.
Here, thousands of women of all stripes have been unburdening themselves about why they stayed – for a time – in abusive relationships. Their stories run the gamut: They stayed out of fear, coerced with threats of violence; they stayed because they were isolated from family and friends; they stayed out of financial dependence; they stayed out of humiliation after expensive weddings; they stayed out of blind faith, hoping to end the violence by becoming "better" wives or girlfriends. A second hashtag, #WhyILeft, is shedding light on what finally propels the women who escape to do so – usually fear of death at the hands of their spouses.
The hashtags are providing a collective rejoinder to those incredulous that Janay Rice is standing by her husband Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens' running back who knocked her unconscious in an elevator in February, and whom she married a month later. In May, Rice joined her husband at a press conference where she expressed "regret" for her "role" in the incident. After TMZ released graphic video footage of the attack and the NFL suspended the player indefinitely Monday, his wife continued on the defensive.
"I woke up this morning feeling like I had a horrible nightmare, feeling like I'm mourning the death of my closest friend," Rice wrote in an Instagram post Tuesday. "To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE!"
Warning: The video shows graphic violence.
The lens has now turned from him to her, with many having a hard time relating to Rice's fierce loyalty, especially as they can freely play and replay the footage of her attack.
"The internet exploded with questions about her," wrote Gooden, who saw parallels to her own marriage in Rice's, and the hashtag as a way into discussing the complexities of domestic violence. "Leaving was a process, not an event," Gooden explained. "And sometimes it takes a while to navigate through the process."
Paulette Senior, chief executive officer of YWCA Canada, the country's largest provider of shelter to women and children fleeing violence, says the voices emerging through #WhyIStayed reveal that leaving abusers is a process for women, not a snap decision. "It is really about their lives, to the core. It is not simplistic. With every woman, her reasons will not be the same. It's her process of getting to where she needs to get to so that she values herself much more than she values this person that she has welcomed in her life."
Amanda Dale, executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, a Toronto organization for women facing violence, says that "when women make choices about staying, it's seldom done frivolously," pointing out that these are often women in long-term committed relationships, with families.
"We want to make the abuser an uncomplicated villain. But the truth is that all abusers, someone loves them," said Dale. "She wants him to stop abusing her. She doesn't want him to go away, she wants him to change his behaviour. "
Heavy emotional manipulation also happens in between abusive episodes: "I can assure you that in the cycle of what they're going through he's told her he will stop, probably many times," says Dale. "The cycle can be long between an event and the next event. And the time between can feel really special. He can be telling her all kinds of things that she wants to hear and he may even mean them in the moment. But he hasn't done anything to be accountable to that behaviour or grapple with it."
Advocates suggest that another factor in women choosing to stay is that statistically, the most dangerous time for victims is the point at which they're trying to leave, as well as during separation agreements and child-custody arrangements. "These are all times when we consider risk factors to be higher in our work, based on research and the experience of women," says Dale.
She sees the hashtag as an empowering social-media conversation: "The things that you've struggled with in the privacy of your own home, that were weighing on you about how limited your choices were, those are not things that you have to be alone in thinking about or solving."
In her work at the YWCA, Senior says she sees women trying to leave an average of five times before they are able to leave for good.
"Fear and control happen in different ways for different people," said Senior. "[Janay Rice] knows herself and what it is that she's dealing with. She needs to find her own path to understand it for herself. The real issue is not about blaming her. It is about supporting her in a way that she is able to accept it."