Women and Children First held its Vegas on the Rocks fundraiser earlier this month. In honor of that fundraiser, we’re sharing this story from the December 2010 issue of AY Magazine.
By Angela E. Thomas // Photography by Chach Bursey, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Media Relations and the Williams family
18. That’s the number of females — in Arkansas — who were murdered as a result of domestic violence last year. This is the story of a woman who escaped her partner … barely … and began life anew in the Natural State.
Vicky Williams married her high school sweetheart, a man she’d known since grade school. For years, the two were friends. They dated others and even double dated, but eventually they fell for each other. As a biracial couple in the South in the late 70s, they encountered obstacles, but they seemed to only make the couple stronger.
“We were each others’ best friends,” Williams said. “For 10 years, everything was very good. We had a nice house, good jobs, wonderful kids … and just when everything was really good, my husband suffered two tragedies. He lost two family members.”
The losses threw her husband into a tail spin, a depression so deep, they sought counseling and found he had a chemical imbalance, was bipolar and suffered from manic depression. He began to drink and use drugs. In turn, he became emotionally and physically abusive toward Williams.
“Initially, when his behavior changed, I thought ‘we just need to fix him.’ Once he’s taking his medication, he’ll get better,” Williams said. “Things didn’t go from bad to worse overnight. Slowly, things change, and before you know it, you’re in an unhealthy relationship … you don’t know how to deal with the situation. When the drug and alcohol abuse came into the picture, the atmosphere in our home changed. Take away the drugs and alcohol, and things were better.”
The abuse escalated. “He didn’t hit the children, so I’d excuse it. As long as it was only me, I thought I could deal with it,” Williams said. But she walked on eggshells, terrorized. “I remember, one time he hit me so hard that my head went through the window of the car. I’d try to cover my bruises with makeup.” After a time, she learned to recognize the signs of an abusive episode. “I could predict when he was going to blow up.”
When her youngest child was just 2, Williams realized she and the three children had to get away. So they moved to Colorado. William’s husband stopped drinking and seemed to have recovered. “He went to rehab. And, I know you won’t believe this, but we actually got back together. I thought, ‘OK, everything is going to be better.’ He’d become himself again,” she said. “I thought the change of atmosphere would help, but things actually got worse because of the isolation.” The abuse began again. “I told him ‘I cannot take it anymore. I’m taking the kids, and I’m leaving.’”
Williams’ husband became enraged. He beat her, escalating in him hitting her over the head with a cast iron skillet. The impact caused the skillet to break in half. Williams raised her hands above her head to protect herself — doctors said this probably saved her life. She sustained several injuries and required surgery.
“When I was released from the hospital, the children and I moved back to Texas. I got a job and got us settled, and I filed for divorce,” Williams said. Time passed, and after several years, she and her ex-husband began to communicate again. “My oldest daughter remembers the good times as well as the bad. She knows the times when her dad was wonderful. She missed him. They began to talk, and he was better. I’m from a very religious background. I was raised to believe that once you’re married, you’re married. Understand, we could go years without an abusive episode. But just when it seemed things were at their best, something would trigger him. We’d been apart for years, and he was better. We got back together again … but eventually the abuse began again.”
Williams left a total of three times.
The final split came one evening when she said she knew, without a doubt, that she was in a critical — life or death — situation. “I knew it. The [violence] had escalated to that point. I sat the children down (her oldest was an adult) and asked if they wanted to leave. I asked if they wanted to take anything with them.”
Williams’ youngest daughter ran to her room and grabbed a suitcase she’d kept packed and hidden beneath her bed. Her son, who had recently celebrated a birthday, said he wanted to take nothing … nothing. Williams and her children fled to a shelter in Dallas. “When we drove up to the shelter, I thought and said, ‘Oh, my God. What have I done?’ But the children just said ‘Mom, it’s OK.’”
Within 24 hours, her ex-husband had shot and killed someone. The staff at the shelter advised Williams to flee. “They said ‘It’s not safe to stay in Texas.’”
“I started to cry. I had no idea where to go. I pulled out a map. My son said ‘Mom, don’t worry. This is where we’re going,’ and he pointed to Little Rock.” Williams and her children soon arrived at the Women and Children First (WCF) shelter.
Established in 1978, WCF is the “first and foremost domestic violence social service agency in central Arkansas.” It’s headed by Gigi Peters, executive director.
“In addition to the 47 individual adults we can shelter, we also have a transitional housing program. For up to two years, we help with rent, providing household goods, educational needs … we also provide in-house programs, such as classes in conflict resolution, parenting and financial management. We have a full-time licensed clinical social worker on staff, provide full-time childcare to any of our participants who are job seeking or furthering their education and other programs,” Peters said.
WCF also has a full-time court advocate. “Many women may not need shelter, but need an order of protection. The red tape involved can be confusing,” Peters said, especially in times of stress and fear.
Other advocates assist with medical care, transportation, resume preparation and more. As one can imagine, many residents come to the shelter with just the clothes on their backs; WCF provides food, clothing, linens and hygiene items. Their crisis line — (800) 332-4443 — is open 24 hours/day, 365 days/year.
This past year, WCF also provided services for two men. “We are large enough to segregate for privacy and safety reasons. The male victim — who may be in a same-sex or opposite-sex relationship — is often overlooked,” Peters said. “Abuse can happen to anyone … it crosses all barriers, including religion, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic classes. It’s an insidious process, and it’s overwhelming to realize you are in an abusive situation.”
“A lot of women are judged. People ask ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ But most abusive relationships don’t start out that way. You have to get to the point where you realize that you have to protect yourself and your children. I wanted a two-parent family unit so badly for my children,” Williams said. “The material things that I thought were so important — a nice house, nice car — having a mom and a dad … I found, were not important. I didn’t think I could make it without him, but I actually did better without [my ex-husband].”
“I thought ‘If I leave, I’m leaving my job, my mother and father, my house … I have three children … I’m basically making them homeless. I can’t keep my car, if I can’t make the payments. I didn’t know what the shelter could do for me,” she said, expressing the desperation so many women feel when they contemplate leaving an abusive relationship. “Something I didn’t know at the time was that I did no favors for my ex-husband by staying. I enabled him. You must put yourself first … it’s like the instructions they give you on an airplane — you cannot take care of your children if you don’t first take care of yourself.”
Williams has indeed taken care of herself and her children. Today, she is happy and gainfully employed. She is active in her church and with WCF. Her children are now adults. Her eldest daughter vividly remembers the abuse.
“When Dad was sober, he was a good, loving father. I remember the good times; we were a typical household: everyone off to work and school and in the evenings, coming home … kids doing homework, parents cooking … but the severity of the bad times and the abuse overshadows those positive times,” she said. While she and her siblings never felt threatened by their father, it angered her to see her mother victimized. “I remember him pulling Mom by her hair and him breaking the skillet in half over her head. Colorado was really, really bad.” Guns were ever present in their home, and at one time, she remembers her father threatened Williams with a shotgun, a pistol and a sledgehammer. She once decided to ask a neighbor for help, but became paralyzed with fear … she felt her father would take his anger out on her mother.
“I remember the first time we left. I thought ‘thank you, Jesus,’ and when Mom told me we were going back, I asked her ‘why?’” The violence caused her to act out. “I was a rebellious teen; I did whatever I wanted to do … I got pregnant at 14 — I moved out of the house. I had to get away. I was emotionally unstable, and I was angry. I had to really work through those issues, learn how to trust and learn how to resolve conflict. I grew up watching conflict being solved by violence. I now have a relationship with God. I’m also a strong person.”
Her younger daughter remembers the fear that permeated their home. At one time, she hated her mother for not leaving; however, she understands the utter fear her mother felt. “It’s not a good way to live. We survived, but that’s only because of God.” She also remembers the relief she felt when they finally left. “The Women & Children First Shelter was nice. I liked the atmosphere, and I felt safe. The counselor was so nice; I felt I could finally open up and talk. It was good to know there were others in our situation, because you think you are the only one.”
She said the abuse she witnessed as a child resulted in her having trust issues; however, it also helped her to be intolerant of abuse and has helped her speak to others and work to support others who are working to escape abusive situations.
As the youngest, Williams’ son, for a time, didn’t fully understand what was going on. He did, however, sense the tension and fear. “I always had the feeling something was wrong,” he said. In time, he witnessed the abuse. “I remember the really bad times, they were some of the worst. I remember wanting so badly to do something. It was difficult to watch this horrible event unfold before you and be helpless to do anything.”
Williams was separated from her ex-husband for several years, during which he became sober; her son remembers these years as well. “I remember, after we’d been away for awhile, my parents got back together, and we had good times. When my dad was sober, he was a good father. We went fishing and camping … there were rays of light in the darkness.” His father also instilled in him a love for sports. “He pushed me — at times too hard. Sometimes, I didn’t want to be involved in athletics anymore. But ultimately, I learned from him a good work ethic.”
He, of course, remembers the move to Little Rock, living in the shelter and how the move caused the family to become closely knit. “We were all we had. We depended on each other to keep moving forward.”
Williams’ eldest daughter was an adult when her mother and siblings moved to Arkansas and chose to stay in Texas; however, the two younger children adjusted well to their new lives in Arkansas. They enrolled in school, which was a bit trying initially.
“My son was so shy. He never smiled. His dad was hard on him; from the time he could walk, he put a basketball in his hand. They had to wear, you know, clothes that were given to us. I found out years later that kids teased my son. They called him ‘gas station boy,’ because he had to be picked up and dropped off for school at a gas station,”
Williams said, smiling. “It’s ironic. He said to me one day, ‘Now, stadiums full of people, up to 80,000 people, cheer for me.’” You see Williams’ children are: Valerie, a loving and devoted wife and mother; Vanessa, a graduate student; and the celebrated D.J. Williams, senior and starting tight end for the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville Razorbacks.
Each of the children is proud of their mother. Valerie said, “My father took everything from Mom. Now, she’s a different person. She’s blossomed. She goes out with friends, to the movies, out to eat. She laughs now … she’s good.”
“My mom is awesome. She’s my best friend. She’s a strong woman, and I’m proud of her. Of course, she worries too much,” D.J. said, laughing.
Valerie, D.J. and Vanessa offer advice to children who are witnessing abuse in their families: speak up, tell someone. “I know it’s hard to even think about saying something,” D.J. said. “It’s embarrassing to say, ‘my dad is beating up my mom,’ but you have to get past the embarrassment. Remaining silent is worse. You have to step up for your family.”
Vanessa recommends telling the abused parent how you feel.
“Often, mothers stay because of their children. My mother did. I wish I’d told her how I felt. I hated to see her hurt. There were times I was so miserable, I just wanted out. I thought of running away, but where would I go? I thought of killing myself, but I didn’t want to die — I wanted to live. I just didn’t want to live like that. The mother-child bond is so strong, I believe Mom would have done anything for us. I think, if she’d known how I felt she may have left earlier.”
Valerie also advises children living in abusive homes: “find your joy. Find something that makes you smile. Her advice to mothers: “Think about your children and their quality of life. You are strong enough to leave and get through the abuse. By staying you are teaching your children, exposing them to a life without love and joy … a life with no sunshine.”
Williams offers her story in the hope that she can help make a difference in the lives of other abuse victims. “I recently spoke with two ladies who are trying to get the courage to leave abusive situations. I shared my story with them and encouraged them to use the services WCF offers. Coming to WCF is a new start on life.”
WCF operates largely due to public support. The organization benefits from organizations’ efforts throughout the year; however, their largest fundraiser is the Woman of the Year Gala, their signature event. The 2011 event will be held Jan. 15 at the Peabody Grand Ballroom in Little Rock, Arkansas. This year’s honoree is Arkansas First Lady Ginger Beebe.
“Mrs. Beebe is a member of our advisory board and has been a long-time supporter. As our First Lady, she has championed volunteerism and for years has worked as a volunteer on women’s and children’s issues,” Peters said.