Jayne O'Donnell

2021

As a Journalist Who Was an Early Domestic Violence Victim, Writing and Teaching Have Been the Best Medicine

Booze fueled my violent marriage and low self-esteem

Real Women, Real Stories

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

He was a lawyer with a red Alfa Romeo, a 7 handicap in golf and a new two-bedroom condo in a leafy Washington, D.C. suburb.

I was a banking and pensions reporter with a spotty driving record, a shopping problem, and a studio apartment in an iffy D.C. neighborhood.

While our differences could have kept us apart, drinking brought us together. It took nearly four years, three violent assaults and a multistate escape before it officially tore us asunder.

Growing up, I didn't think I knew anyone who lived in a violent household. Knowing what I know now — that nearly one in four women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner in their lifetime — it's more than likely I did.

My father, like his dad, was an alcoholic. And although he never hit my mother, he had one of those Irish tempers. Unwittingly, I looked for guys like my dad — or at least ones who would impress him and my smart, athletic brother.

Looking back, my ex only looked the part.

He and I were Insta-ready long before it was a thing. To the pre–social media world, we sure looked like the picture of success. I had a great wardrobe (all on credit), a handsome husband, a country club membership, two convertibles and a budding journalism career in the nation's capital. We would have made quite the Instagram and Facebook couple, him with his tousled dark hair, "popped" golf shirt collars and Italian sports car and me in my favorite hot pink tops, big designer sunglasses and short shorts.

Things went reasonably well until his alcohol-fueled lunches got him fired and he started his own consulting business. He soon learned his pretty young assistant was skimming money, and I became the scapegoat for his mounting money stress.

There were three violent, drunken attacks. In one, I was on the floor and he was kicking me repeatedly with his work boot-clad feet before dragging me by my hair from the den to the living room. In another, he was strangling me on the living room couch as I screamed. Not a peep was heard from any of the neighbors whose doors were just feet away.

The first attack sent me to my office with a poorly concealed black eye. I swore the receptionist saw it when I went to retrieve the dozen long-stemmed red roses he sent to apologize.

The turning point came when I told a friend from junior high about the violence. It's one thing to live in your own chardonnay-soaked dream world, but quite another when you hear yourself describe it.

It was settled. I'd leave, but it wouldn't be easy. I only shared one bank account with my husband and my name wasn't on anything else. It was going to take award-winning acting to cozy up enough to get my names on the accounts, but I did.

I worked with a divorce lawyer, insisting I only wanted half of what was in the now-joint accounts. I would take only a fraction of the (garish, modern) furniture: I just needed a place to sleep.

Leaving someone who works at home — especially when you're taking the bed! — is ... complicated. But we had thankfully planned a trip to Florida to visit my father and stepmother and his mother, who lived on opposite sides of the state. We would stay with my dad for a few days before going to his mother's. There, I'd arranged to get an "emergency" call from an editor who needed me back for an interview about my new syndicated column. If there was anything my husband would support, it was me making more money.

After days of acting like I didn't loathe him, I set out with my spouse across Florida's Alligator Alley to end my marriage near Naples. I can still picture Dad on his Boca Raton balcony, tears in his eyes, waving goodbye.

After the "editor's" call came, my husband drove me to an earlier flight. I felt frozen in a state of frantic, nervous excitement, but had to appear, say, medium bubbly. It was, after all, only an alleged newspaper syndication deal.

Once back, things went like clockwork. I left the signed separation agreement on our black lacquer dining room table, took a last look at the speckled gray couch I could have died on and closed the door.

When I called him at his mother's to say I was leaving, he pleaded, "I'll get help! I'll change!" I told him it was too late, and he hung up.

I got an unlisted phone number and nervously started my new single life. Two weeks later, his lawyer contacted mine: Could I return the cable box? The NCAA finals were on and I had mistakenly packed it, thinking it was the VCR.

The divorce was final right before my 30th birthday in December 1989. I seldom thought about the abuse until I quit drinking in 1992 and saw a therapist specializing in alcoholism. We talked often about how I continued to pay bills late, including hers, and displayed questionable taste in men. As with the 20-pound-lighter body I still felt chunky in, my inner self felt lucky to have any attention I was getting.

"Don't you think you deserve better?" she asked.

It took a while to believe I truly did.

In 1996, six years after my divorce, I was working full-time at USA TODAY, had a successful freelance writing career and a newfound confidence. I married another journalist who quit drinking years before me. Shortly before our wedding, I broke stories of air bags killing children and helped get the laws changed for the warning labels and smart air bags that are now standard in new cars. Taking on federal officials and Fortune 500 company executives was nothing compared to taking on my violent former spouse.

After decades of marriage and work as a journalist, I now have the voice and the means to make a difference in my life and others'. In 2017, I launched the Urban Health Media Project to train diverse high school students to report on the effect that "social determinants" like housing and food insecurity have on their communities' health. But most of the students would rather write about mental health and trauma, including the impact of violence in their homes. Seeing the twinkle of pride in their eyes when it's their names in print or them on stage telling others what must change in their communities makes everything I've been through worth it.

I'm a victim no more. I have savings, investment and retirement accounts in my name, which is also on my husband's accounts. I may still drive too fast and shop too much, but I have the strong sense of self-worth I once lacked and the tools to bolster a sense of self-confidence and agency in others.

That's worth far more to me than any Alfa Romeo.

Resources

National Domestic Violence Hotline 800-799-SAFE/TTY 800-787-3224
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence

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