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Content Warning: description of both physical and verbal domestic abuse

According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly one in four adult women and approximately one in seven men in the U.S. report having experienced severe physical violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. The often-silent scourge of domestic violence invades all walks of life and, although the poor are disproportionately affected, no one is immune.

The protagonist in my new novel Wild Horses on the Salt is a young woman fleeing an abusive husband. The life of Rebecca Quinn seems idyllic from the outside. She is a smart attorney with a handsome, successful spouse. She comes from wealth and privilege. And yet, Becca is repeatedly brutalized by her husband.

Often, when talking about domestic violence, people say, “Just leave! Get away!” And with someone like Becca, who is both financially well-off and has a successful career—both of which would afford an escape route—there is an underlying assumption that perhaps the victim is to blame. But leaving an abusive relationship is not that easy.

There are numerous life situations that can lead to becoming a victim of domestic violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sites factors such as stress, anxiety, and antisocial personality traits, belief in strict gender roles, and other behavioral risk factors such as prior perpetration and victimization, such as peer violence, a history of substance abuse, a history of delinquency, and hostile communication styles.

The CDC also points out that children who witness domestic violence at home are much more likely to seek out companions who behave that way. “Childhood history factors such as exposure to violence between parents, experiencing poor parenting, and experiencing child abuse and neglect, including sexual violence,” their site states. All can lead to the cycle of violence being passed between generations.

The often-silent scourge of domestic violence invades all walks of life and, although the poor are disproportionately affected, no one is immune.

Becca is one such victim. She has spent her life watching her mother be abused by her father. As is often the case in real life, she is informed by her battered mother that this behavior is to be kept private to protect the family’s reputation. Abuse is something one must endure in silence.

I have spent the last two decades as a teacher in a Title I high school, a designation denoting that most of my students live in poverty, with many being victims of abuse and neglect.

“My boyfriend beats me,” one child shared.

“You can’t permit that,” I responded.

She shrugged her shoulders. “But he loves me.”

I wanted to say I didn’t understand, but I did. Twice in my life, I suffered abuse at the hands of a partner. Like Becca, I had a college education and came from relative affluence. And yet I stayed for long periods of time in these relationships, the reality of which I sometimes shared with my students.

“You, Ms. Montgomery?” They would scoff at the notion that I could have been a victim of abuse.

“Yes, it can happen to anyone,” I explained. “The question is why do we allow it?”

It’s not easy to stand up and say no more, but we must.

In my case, insecurity played a part. I was obese as a child and was sometimes bullied, even by family members. “It’s not my fault,” my mother would say to strangers she felt were staring at me. “I feed her fish and salad with no dressing!”

Though I wanted to respond, “I’m fat, not deaf,” I never did.

The fact that I grew out of my obesity and would be successful in high school and college did not eliminate the anxiety I felt about my body. I was also a low-level dyslexic. One day, my mother spat out, “You have the lowest IQ of all my children!” The fact that I struggled with reading and math lead to my brother making me a wager. “You’ll never make it through freshman year in college,” he said. “You’re too stupid.”

My siblings and I were beaten with belts, kitchen utensils, and shoes, and periodically witnessed harrowing verbal confrontations between our parents. One fight involving a butcher knife terrified me to such an extent that I ran away from home.

I’m not saying that everyone who struggles as a child will become a victim of domestic violence; I am suggesting that our life experiences can nudge us one way or the other.

When I was 24, my parents traveled to Washington DC and took me out to lunch, an intervention that, in retrospect, I should have seen coming.

“We don’t know what to say when friends ask us what you’re doing,” my mother said.

“Tell them I’m a sports official on my way to becoming a sports reporter.”

“You’re a waitress!” My mother pursed her lips in disgust. “That is not what we sent you to college for!”

“I have a plan. I will learn the sports by officiating, so I can be a competent sports journalist,” I said. “My bosses at the restaurant understand and schedule around my games. I know somewhere there is a news director who will give me a chance.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” My mother crossed her arms. “Your father and I are willing to send you back to college. You could be a teacher.”

“I don’t want to be a teacher. I want to be a sportscaster.”

My parents left that day, and I would not see or speak to them for several years. Around that time, I became involved with a wealthy man, and when he began putting me down, telling me I was “nothing but a waitress”, it should not be surprising that I believed him. He didn’t want me to work and gradually cut me off from others. His verbal abuse soon bloomed into physical violence and threats: “I’d rather see you dead than with another man!” “Look at the trees,” he’d point through the kitchen window at the backyard. “I could bury your body out there and no one would ever find you.”

I had no money and nowhere to go. My friends thought he was wonderful and would have been stunned by the reality of the existence I was too embarrassed to share. On the few occasions I tried to leave, he terrified me into staying, one time with a gun perched menacingly on his lap. At one point, I admitted to myself that the last thing I would see was him barricading the doorway.

I’m not saying that everyone who struggles as a child will become a victim of domestic violence; I am suggesting that our life experiences can nudge us one way or the other.

So, what changed? I was able to get a job as a sportscaster, which afforded me a paycheck and a place of my own. Astonishingly, the end came simply. He’d traveled to my home for a visit.

“I’m afraid of you. I don’t know how not to be.” I covered my face with my hands and waited. I was stunned when he left without a word. I never saw him again.

A few years later, I found myself in another long-term relationship and was again a victim of abuse. This time, I was the breadwinner, a SportsCenter anchor at ESPN. But when that job ended and my income dried up, I became a “useless f-ing loser.” It would be years before I extracted myself from that relationship.

Here’s what I now know. I will never again allow anyone to put me down or lay their hands on me in anger. It’s not easy to stand up and say no more, but we must. The only way that can happen is education. We need to stop this cyclical horror at the root, which means adults must stop showing their children that abuse is OK.

“When was the first time you ever hit someone?” a student asked me recently.

“Never,” I said.

Several children laughed.

“No one should ever strike another person unless it’s in defense of yourself or another,” I explained.

Eyes around the classroom questioned me, children who probably witnessed domestic violence on a regular basis.

I can’t help but worry about them.