She knows now it sounds crazy, but Susie Wicks-Cooley is quite clear on why she stayed so long with the man who frequently beat and abused her.
“I always figured he would not kill me — because he enjoyed it too much. But I figured if I left him, the next one surely would kill me,” she told a group of women who each seemed to have their own story to tell at one of the breakout sessions of the Women’s Wellness Forum, which drew 240 women to Payson High School on Saturday.
Wicks-Cooley also remembers the night she did decide to leave, after years of terror and pain. She was sitting in a darkened room watching a documentary on family violence on television. The show included an interview with a teenage boy who shot and killed his parents as they slept. The boy explained that he killed his father to bring an end to the years of brutal beatings and constant, debilitating fear.
“But why did you kill your mother?” asked the interviewer.
“Because she didn’t do anything,” said the boy.
Wicks-Cooley sat up with a shiver. “That’s when it clicked in my mind. I had to protect my children.”
So she left, found refuge at a battered women’s shelter and made it her purpose to help other women escape from the cruel, intimate, contradictory confines of violent relationships. For several years, she has worked as a counselor at the Time Out Shelter in Payson and on Saturday she and Jean Oliver, also a victim of family violence, ran one of the breakout sessions.
Rim Country women rotated through the hour-long seminars after hearing the keynote speech by former Phoenix Police Officer Jason Schechterle, who survived burns that should have killed him and now offers inspirational lectures on how hope and courage can vanquish even terrible loss.
After a morning Zumba session and Schechterle’s uplifting keynote address, participants chose among sessions on yoga, skin care, domestic violence, automotive maintenance, hormones, scrapbooking, diet, diabetes, accessorizing and living a sustainable lifestyle. (For a feature on the session on living an environmentally friendly life, see Friday’s Roundup).
The domestic violence session seemed torn straight from the headlines, with the release last week of Payson’s annual crime reports showing a 10 percent increase in domestic violence calls and a 20 percent increase in domestic violence arrest in 2011.
Family violence generates more calls in Payson than any other category. Nationally, more police officers are killed or injured responding to domestic violence call than any other type of incident.
The presenters both agreed that the Payson Police have made huge improvements in handling domestic violence calls, although officers still need more training and the support of people like those employed by Scottsdale Police who often come on domestic violence calls and connect families to support, counseling and social services.
In addition, current policies that require police to make an arrest when there’s evidence of violence can create fresh problems. “They get there and the man is all calm and the woman is hysterical and they end up arresting the woman,” said Oliver.
But the larger problem remains the seeming reluctance of Gila County prosecutors to file the cases submitted by police, resulting in officers returning to the same address over and over again, said the presenters.
Wicks-Cooley, Oliver and the women in the audience all offered up their stories, brimming with tragedy, confusion and the failure of the system to offer help when many most needed it.
Wicks-Cooley said she helped her own sister escape a violent relationship that persisted for a decade, by providing a hiding place. “She wasn’t allowed to talk to anybody in the family for 10 years although we lived right in town,” recalled Wicks-Cooley.
When her sister’s husband reported her missing, police came to Wicks-Cooley.
“The officer just came to me and said ‘if you don’t know where she is or you think she’s in danger right now, then tell me — otherwise, don’t say anything.’
“Even the cops knew that her husband would freak out and kill her if he could find her,” said Wicks-Cooley.
When asked for their stories, several women in the audience offered their own harrowing accounts.
One woman recalled that her husband was a kind, “loveable guy” when he wasn’t drinking. “But once he started drinking, he would beat me and molest me and abuse the children when no one was around. People thought it was my fault because he was such a nice, loving guy and a deacon in the church. There was a lot of stuff going on,” she said, her voice dropping to a whisper, “but I don’t like to talk about that.”
Oliver quickly reassured her. “So many of my experiences are locked so far back in my mind I couldn’t pull them up if I wanted to — and I don’t want to.”
Wicks-Cooley said that often people trapped in abusive relationships don’t have any standard of comparison and so don’t know they have a right to escape the abuse. “Children don’t know they’re in anything bad — that’s just life as they know it,” she said.
She recalled the case of a little boy who ran away from home. When police asked why, the boy explained “my dad forgot to chain me to the bed last night.”
Repeatedly, the women agreed that most family violence stems not from uncontrolled rage but a twisted need the abusers feel to control others.
“They used to put batterers in anger management classes,” said Oliver. “But it’s not anger — it’s power and control. They want to control you: That’s their primary goal. You are a possession.”
Oliver recalled the origins of the cliché about a “rule of thumb,” which meant “you couldn’t beat your wife with a stick bigger around than your thumb,” she said.
Wicks-Cooley said “if they didn’t have control over their anger, then you’d be getting beat up around other people. But it’s always when you’re alone.”
Again and again, the women in the session said they absorbed the abuse themselves for years but finally left when the abuses threatened their children.
One woman recalled the day her young son interrupted her beating by her husband by rushing up to his father and kicking him in the shin.
Her husband “picked him up by the head,” she said with a quiver in her voice, holding out her arms with her fingers spread as though holding the head of a 7-year-old, “and just slammed him into a wall and then threw him down and screamed in his face.” She stopped, shaken by the recollection. “Who does that?” she asked. “Who does that?”
Oliver said despite all the years she suffered abuse and all the years since that she has helped abused women, she has never understood why it happens with such tragic frequency. “How can human beings treat people the way they do?” she mused, “Especially when it’s someone you love. We treat our family worse than our friends — worse than strangers.”
But Wicks-Cooley did recount a strangely satisfying post-script to her relationship with a man who beat her for years.
“I used to say to him, ‘how can you do this when you say you love me?’”
After she finally left him, he got into another relationship. One day, he showed up on her doorstep battered and bruised — with a broken elbow.
“He said ‘I finally understand what you were talking about.
“My (new) wife and her daughter were whacking me with a baseball bat,’” recalled Wicks-Cooley. “And I said ‘Goodness: Karma.’
“It was very awesome for me that happened,” she concluded.