“But Ruthie, you have a PhD!”
This was my older sister’s shocked reaction when I spilled my secret over the phone and told her that, due to many years of domestic violence, I was separating from my husband of nearly two decades.
I faced the same sort of disbelief a few days later when I visited the local Domestic Crisis Center requesting temporary housing for myself and my adolescent son and I was asked to complete an application. Among other things, the form asked for my highest level of education. When the administrator saw what I had written, she told me I had come to the wrong place—that I should go to the Women’s Resource Center instead. I explained that they had sent me to her and emphasized that I was a poorly paid adjunct professor and had no place to live while the court heard my plea for separate maintenance.
Yet the Domestic Crisis Center turned its back on my domestic crisis. In the administrator’s eyes, I didn’t look like a financially-strapped battered woman. When we think domestic violence looks a certain way—that it only impacts certain types of people—we make a very grave mistake.
Why I Waited
Why did I wait so long to seek help and why would I approach a crisis center instead of relatives? The fact that my siblings were spread out from Seattle to Rhode Island is only part of the answer. Didn’t I have friends close by and a church home where I could seek help?
For many women, the deep shame of domestic violence never seeps beyond their middle-class closed doors. My son’s safety, however, trumped my shame. And I did seek and receive an offer to stay for a short while with a family in my church.
Still, a fair question arises: Why would an abused mother delay a flight to safety? Here I speak for many women in my circumstances. Shame is a reason, of course, but far more than that is the question of child custody. Women often stay in an effort to protect their children. During the years of abuse, my greatest fear was that my charming husband would be granted joint custody if we were to separate. Once my son reached age thirteen, however, Carlton was permitted to testify before the judge. His testimony clinched the decision to grant me full custody.
Charming? Not only that. My ex-husband was an intelligent, articulate, well-educated minister who had served in two Bible churches, taught for six years at a Bible college, and edited books for two Christian publishers.
If we assume we can easily profile a battered wife and her abuser, we are dead wrong. And we’re dead wrong in far too many cases. Consider Carol Irons, a brilliant judge in my hometown of Grand Rapids, who was shot dead in her court chambers in 1988 by her violent husband. Clarence Ratliff, her abuser and killer, was a Grand Rapids police officer.
Why would such a smart woman marry an abusive man like that? Why did I fall in love with and marry my ex-husband? Like the courtship of Carol and Clarence, ours was filled with starry-eyed romance and very few hard questions. For both Carol and me, the path to the altar was indeed lined with red flags.
“Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow,” Scripture tells us. Well it was easy for me to turn those red flags white; after all, aren’t we all sinners? During our courtship, I actually did raise some questions, prompting my fiancé to admit past sins: arrests as a peeping tom and expulsion from two colleges. He said he was sorry, that he had repented, and had gone to counseling. So we married.
Living with Violence and Rage
During our marriage, my ex-husband hit me, squeezed my arms black and blue, yanked me around, threw me on the floor, and kicked me. But it wasn’t until the last few years that his demeanor darkened, terrorizing me with his threats. During the last year of our marriage I truly feared he would kill me and it was then that I began writing a journal. The account that follows is just one incident drawn from those entries.
It was a cold West Michigan evening in March. Spring quarter at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School had begun a week earlier. I recognized my husband’s dark mood before we had even sat down for the evening meal. When we finished eating, I tidied up the kitchen, took my books and notes, and went upstairs while he watched his usual TV programs and Carlton did homework nearby, listening in as he typically did.
Then I heard my husband’s footsteps on the stairs. I stiffened, dreading the worst. He entered our bedroom and demanded to know my interpretation of a particular biblical passage that related to women. I said I was too busy in course preparation to discuss it. He then gave me his interpretation and insisted I agree with him. When I remained silent, he became irate and yanked me from the bed where I was sitting, my papers flying in every direction.
Hearing his father shouting, Carlton was up the stairs two steps at a time. Normally his crying out at his father put an end to violence. But not this time. My husband demanded he leave, while continuing to squeeze my arms and viciously shake me. Carlton raced to his own room and grabbed two knives (one a toy) and returned to attack his father. At twelve, Carlton was tall and lanky, but no match for his six-foot-two, muscular father.
With one hand yanking me, the other knocking Carlton to the floor, my husband had the strength to do great physical harm to us both. And then somehow amid the mayhem it ended. My husband left the room still raging, ordering Carlton to come downstairs with him.
The next afternoon I was in my classroom greeting students and wearing a turtleneck and blazer that conveniently covered the bruises. I had taught the course before and once I was into my rhythm and lively discussion was underway, I was in another world. But after the class ended my real life flooded over me, covering me like a shroud—like a shroud of pitch-black, oily fright. A quick call home to Carlton relieved the tension. But the situation seemed hopeless. Our little family was a complete mess. Where would this all end?
Telling the Truth
Several months later, Carlton and I escaped our home and, soon thereafter, a judge issued a court order giving me temporary child custody, separate maintenance, and sole possession of the home until final details were agreed upon. When I was preparing to testify before the judge, my attorney pushed me to be very detailed about the abuse. I told him that some of the things were too embarrassing to even speak of. He insisted. So there I was in court testifying to horribly shameful episodes, details pulled out of me by my lawyer.
Fortunately the room was empty except for the judge, two attorneys, and a court recorder. My ex-husband, having moved out of state, did not make a showing. With my testimony over, we took a brief recess before Carlton was called in to testify. In the ladies’ room, I came face to face with the court recorder. Perhaps she spoke out of turn. Her words tumbled out. “I’m so sorry about what you’ve endured. In all my years in court I’ve never recorded such disgusting abuse. I hope everything works out.”
I Was Raped
I did not testify in court that my husband had raped me. Some people have argued that it is impossible for a husband to rape a wife because they think she must “submit” to him. Was it rape? After treating me badly and not speaking to me for most of a week, my husband demanded I have sexual intercourse with him before leaving the house and driving to a long-planned, out-of-state conference where I was the featured speaker. Even if he had allowed me to make a phone call, what would I have told the conference organizer? That I was delayed because I was sick? Actually I was. I was sickened by being forced to endure sex with a sick, sick man.
Soon after that incident, I called my attorney whom I had secretly contacted months earlier. I knew for certain my son and I had to escape as soon as the court papers could be drawn up and I could secure temporary housing.
How could a husband justify years of such behavior? I was at fault, he insisted. I had failed to submit to him. I had provoked him. In his mind, submission was absolute. The Bible said so. Submission “from the kitchen to the bedroom”—his very words.
Seeing Past Assumptions
Anyone who imagines that domestic violence is just the stuff of “ghettos” and “trailer parks” is wrong. Anyone who imagines domestic violence is just the stuff of unbelievers—people outside the church—is wrong. Anyone who imagines that the pastor in the pulpit could never be a perpetrator of domestic violence is wrong.
Yes, this crime happens not just “out there” but right in the church. For too long, Christians have been silent or in denial about domestic violence within our communities. For too long, we’ve preferred to assume the best about other Christians rather than pay attention to red flags. For too long we’ve let external appearances, assumptions about socioeconomic status or education levels, or even a “spiritual” veneer and churchy language hide patterns of abuse.
What can we do? We must stand together against this crime. Should we pray? Of course. Should we support victims? Of course. And should we contact law enforcement? Absolutely.
Ruth A. Tucker (PhD, Northern Illinois University) is the author of Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife (Zondervan) as well as dozens of other articles and books, including the award-winning From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya. Ruth has taught mission studies and church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary. Visit her website at www.RuthTucker.com.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more