Latter-day Jane

A happy diversion of life, love and sisterly advice for Jane Austen fans everywhere. [There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart. -Jane Austen]


Leave a comment

Four Empty Stockings

Jennifer was bright; her inner light glowed in an excited, hungry-for-life kind of way. She was kind, she was earnest, and she was honest. You always knew where you stood with Jenn on any given day, and it sometimes varied. Her fair, pink-hued skin, naturally blonde hair, and light blue eyes would’ve made her a natural stand-in for a townsperson in Disney’s Frozen. She talked loudly and laughed loudly, and she demanded that life be fair and just, despite behind-the-scenes circumstances in her own life that were anything but fair. We didn’t agree on everything, but our friendship respected those differences.

Jennifer circle.png

Jennifer in high school.

 

For all the things Jenn was and would become, there was one thing she would not be.

Jenn would not be a domestic violence survivor.

[A caution for those who have experienced domestic abuse in any of its many forms – the story that follows may be a trigger.]

The news of Jenn’s death reached me on Christmas Eve day in 2007. I had finished my early morning shift at the news station where I reported, followed by a late lunch with my mom and younger sisters. Christmas Day would be filled with love, warmth, and board and card game challenges, all with the people I loved best. There would be a fire crackling in the farm house where I grew up, and I’d spend most of the day there relaxing, soaking up the memories of the past, while hoping the new chapters I’d planned would take root in the coming year.

But as I stood against my kitchen counter opening the mail late that afternoon, my growing baby bump starting to get in the way, all of those hopes and thoughts were traded in for a single, overwhelming emotion:

grief.

In that day’s mail was a Christmas card I had mailed to Jenn two weeks prior. It had been returned unopened, with a bright yellow sticker that read “not deliverable as addressed.”

That’s strange, I thought, reviewing the marks I had made on the front. She said that was her new address.

In the same stack, there was a manila envelope with a return address label bearing the name of Jenn’s mom.

Oh, I reasoned as I eagerly opened it. Plans must have changed. Maybe she’s still staying with her mom for the time being.

There were two things inside that manila envelope that would dash all hope of that: an unopened envelope with a Christmassy border, addressed to me in Jenn’s own hand, and a single sheet of white paper – a letter. The writing seemed cramped, and as I read, I could feel the intense pain behind each word. It was from Jenn’s mother; her signature stood alone at the bottom, bearing witness of something too terrible to fully comprehend:

Sarah,

I don’t know if you heard or not, but Jennifer, Olivia and Magnus were killed last Friday by Jenn’s ex-husband and the kids’ father. In the process of cleaning her apartment we came across some Christmas cards that she was getting ready to mail. I don’t know if you will want to keep this but I thought I would go ahead and send it to you. Jenn talked about you often. I know that your friendship meant a great deal to her. Thank you for being her friend.

I gripped the kitchen counter, blinded by tears as I choked out unintelligible sobs.

Jenn had been killed?

JenniferBernsdorff 1

Jennifer with Magnus and Olivia.

 

Her children had been killed?

Why?

What happened?

As I continued to process this information, my mind sifted through the previous months. That summer, Jenn had included me on a friends and family email, explaining that she was gay, and would be leaving her husband. What she left unsaid was that her husband was becoming increasingly abusive, and she was desperate to escape. Their marriage had not been the rosy picture their personal and family websites painted to the outside world. Behind the excited announcements of vacations, home births in water pools, mindful mothering, midwifery, and community involvement, there was turmoil.

There was a hidden fissure deep below the surface that threatened to tremble and quake with a magnitude that would break that carefully crafted façade into a million tiny, jagged pieces.

At first, Jenn took refuge with her mom. She said she’d have unlimited visits with her children while they continued to reside with their father in their family home, as Jenn got on her feet and figured out a way forward. I didn’t know at the time that his custody had more to do with her feeling that she didn’t have the strength to fight him. That would take time. As time went on and in subsequent emails, Jenn explained she’d fallen in love with a woman — someone much older — someone with whom I presume she felt safe. She then moved in with her girlfriend, and those close to her would later say she was putting a plan in place to get custody of her children.

As I sorted through these thoughts, I went in search of news coverage from Florida, where Jenn had resided ever since moving halfway through high school. With police and family members providing the missing pieces, reporters there developed a clearer picture of the events on the day Jenn died, December 14, 2007.

Jenn had become increasingly afraid of her ex-husband, going so far as to speak with a domestic violence specialist with the local police department, in an effort to form a safety plan. Her family described a marriage that had become more and more violent – one that left her afraid and desperate to escape. They described physical violence after the divorce that caused Jenn to fear for her personal safety.

I never knew.

For as much as Jenn did share, there was so much she didn’t.

20151214_114816-1

Celebrating with Jenn during happier times, mid 90s.

 

It appeared her ex-husband had been something of a dreamer and a big spender, without the necessary career path to keep up with the mounting debt. During and after the divorce, his anger towards Jenn blossomed into hatred and instability. He seemed intent to fixate on what he perceived as a rotten hand of cards he’d been dealt, believing that fate, along with the actions of others, had backed him into a corner with no real way out.

So he sat down and devised a way. That deranged way out would ultimately end five lives: that of Jennifer, their two young children, and Jennifer’s girlfriend. Each was shot more than once. A determined killer, he took no chances. The fifth life he ended would be his own, to avoid facing the consequences for the atrocities he had committed.

Miraculously, the 4-year-old daughter of Jennifer’s girlfriend was unharmed during the killing spree. That’s in sharp contrast to Jenn’s children, Olivia and Magnus. Their calculating father placed a phone call cancelling their school pick-up that morning, claiming he’d be keeping them home to “do something fun.” He didn’t want his horrific crimes to be discovered before he had finished the entire string of them.

In the days and weeks that followed the murders, police sifted through the home Jenn had once shared with her ex-husband (though I know his name, I choose not to write it – nor did Jennifer’s mom in the letter she sent me). Along with the child pornography hiding away on his personal computer, authorities found a rambling manifesto in which he talked angrily of Jenn’s supposed psychological shortcomings, as well as those of his children, who he labeled “future time bombs” due to the influence of Jenn. That, he reasoned, would justify ending their lives.

The result of these carefully planned pre-Christmas killings is this:

  • Jenn’s children are gone – their lives snuffed out not long after they began.
  • Jenn and her partner, who worked to help others as employees of the local Hospice chapter – are gone.
  • Somewhere out there, a 12-year-old girl has likely endured years of pain and emotional trauma – a result of being present as her mother’s life was extinguished.
  • The lives of loved ones have been ripped apart and reshaped again, as a result of this heavy burden.

Why do I share this?

I share this because Jenn’s story matters. Her life mattered. Her children’s lives mattered, as did the life of her girlfriend.  Her ex-husband’s life mattered, though I struggle mightily to understand the path he chose and the evil he embraced.

20151214_202957-1

Another day at school, mid-90s. Jenn is on the right.

 

Sometimes, we compartmentalize abuse and all its forms — physical, emotional, psychological, and so on — into a specific week or month of awareness. We talk about it when someone famous behaves reprehensibly, or when someone famous is on the receiving end of that reprehensible behavior.

We talk about it less when it resides next door, or across the street — when we suspect that someone in our extended family or at work is in trouble. And unimaginable as we might wish it to be, we have a hard time talking about it when it remains carefully masked in a church pew next to ours. It’s a delicate subject, after all, and we don’t want to embarrass, make things awkward, or cause undue pain.

But then?

Then before we know it, the pain, the ugly, and the unthinkable are all clawing their way to the surface, and suddenly, the thing – domestic violence – is threatening to beat the door down for want of recognition.

It’s especially unpleasant to give it thought during the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s – it’s so easy to become wrapped up in the reverie, or just as easily the stress, to see that there are people who are experiencing intense grief and pain. Among those, there are people whose fears are mounting, because those they fear are expressing anger, hatred, or increased bouts of delusion. It’s not an altogether new phenomenon.

My grandfather saw it back in the 50s and 60s, as he served as an assistant police chief in our hometown. On his rounds one day, he found a man inside a local watering hole, gripping the sides of a juke box, tears streaming down his face. The mournful sound of Blue Christmas came out through the speakers; that was the song the man had wanted to play after killing his wife in a holiday rage. Even now, when my mom hears that song, she says that haunting story is the first thing that comes to mind.

The holidays can be difficult. As much as they remind so many of life’s goodness and bounty, they also serve to remind others of life’s deepest forms of despair.

There are people you know who are silently suffering this holiday season. They may be looking for support or help. Maybe they haven’t gotten out yet. Maybe they’re like Jenn – out, but facing real and immediate danger.  Or perhaps they’re dealing with the painful ghosts of the past that can visit unbidden in thoughts and in nightmares, creeping in after years of struggle.

My hope is that we can stop for a moment and look around us –- that we can see those who are in need of help — and that we can find the strength to offer that help, even in the smallest of ways.

Jenn would’ve done it for someone else. She wouldn’t have hesitated. Although I hadn’t seen her in person since we were teenagers, that’s the kind of person she was then, and I like to think that’s the person she became as an adult. Maybe in some way, our noticing of others can honor her memory, and the memories of so many others like her.

Merry Christmas, Jenn. You are missed, but your memory lives on.


To read more about what happened on December 14, 2007, I suggest the following article at tampabay.com, published some months after the tragedy.


Sarah Elizabeth resides in a small Southern town with her husband, son, and their not-quite-therapy comfort dogs, a miniature Schnoodle and Goldendoodle. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning reporter, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about life observations, experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane and Sweeten the Lemons are her thinking places. Click here to follow on Facebook. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements


1 Comment

We’re either helping to STOP or ENABLE domestic violence. How will we use our voices?

Seven weeks ago, I shared a very personal experience involving domestic violence. Hours after posting it, I felt consumed with REGRET. It felt as though I had emotionally stripped down in front of everyone. When I went to bed that evening, the flood gates opened and the tears poured out. I felt raw and exposed, and I wanted to hide my feelings from everyone, including myself. My husband was there to help me through it. I know it is difficult for him when this ghost of the past unexpectedly resurfaces. It doesn’t come back often these days. But when we write and recall, a part of us re-lives what we’re writing, and that’s what I experienced. [Here’s the original post: “I can understand why some men abuse their wives…”]

break the silence

I’m posting this again as we close out Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I hadn’t planned to say anything. All month long, I have avoided acknowledging it, hoping I could slip quietly into November. But here we are at the end of the month, and I’m realizing that I’ve been trying to spread the rug over the mess rather than spreading awareness, and that’s exactly what we have to STOP DOING. 

So today, I remember, and I hope that you will also remember. There are women (and men) out there who need us. Today, I also give thanks. I give thanks for a kind husband with a generous spirit. He loves me, he believes in me, and we do our best to lift each other up. He opens my eyes to things I might not otherwise notice — including an awesome Taylor Swift song with a powerful message that I hadn’t considered. And comic relief in the form of a Spanish-language variety show called Sabado Gigante. He is a beautiful man and I know that I am a lucky woman.

I also give thanks for incredibly supportive parents. They were there to help carry me through when I needed help standing. They still do. My husband and parents, along with my siblings and their families, aunt and uncle, cousins, and a handful of best friends, formed a team of support that proved essential.

Never doubt the difference you might make in the life of another person. If you know someone who may need a listening ear, or a word of encouragement, don’t let this moment slip by. Do something.

Sometimes, it’s enough to say “I’m here.” 


21 Comments

I can understand why some men abuse their wives – my thoughts on Ray Rice

I can understand why some men abuse their wives.

These aren’t the words of dismissed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. These words were spoken by another one-time football player who also happened to have a penchant for violence. They were spoken slowly, surely, with jaw set, and eyes fixed on some invisible point ahead. They were spoken in my bedroom, and the man who uttered them was my husband. Those simple words strung together in calculated succession were a warning.

I can understand why some men abuse their wives.

That memory has been following me around this week like an unnerving shadow, flitting in and out. Because when I saw the video of Janay Rice getting mercilessly knocked unconscious by the man who would soon become her husband, that innate sense of fear surfaced again. Bits and pieces of my own story started waving arms at me from the far corners of my mind, where I have them safely tucked away. I’m still here, they say. I still remember.

Janay Palmer (AP)

Janay Palmer (AP)

Some news writers and columnists have pointed out that Janay Rice was not only violated by her husband during the assault, and by the NFL in the way they initially doled out a slap-on-the-wrist punishment for Ray Rice, but also by news figures, sports commentators, and sports fans who have gone far beyond giving him the benefit of the doubt, and blatantly transferred blame to his victim.

Baltimore Ravens deleted tweet

Still others have suggested that news outlets chose poorly when they decided to broadcast the surveillance footage of the attack without the victim’s permission. I tend to agree. Sadly, without that video, we wouldn’t be having this national discussion about domestic violence right now.

Without hard proof, we tend to second guess women (perhaps even men) who are victims of domestic violence. For some reason, we needed to see Ray Rice towering over his fiancée in that hotel elevator as the altercation started, to believe it. We needed to see her hand go out. We needed to witness him deliver the one-and-done punch that knocked her to the floor and rendered her unconscious, and we needed to see the minutes that followed in which he couldn’t be bothered to assess her injuries, let alone fully drag her ragdoll form out of the elevator. It appeared that a hotel employee, not her fiancée, intervened to hold the doors open, so her legs, and then her head, wouldn’t accidentally get crushed.

We thought we needed to see all of these things to believe them. Witnessing was some sort of unspoken requirement before we dared feel any outrage towards Ray Rice, towards the Baltimore Ravens, or the NFL for their lack of action early on.

The truly tragic thing is that even with this evidence in hand, so many are still making statements and asking questions that launch blame at the victim.

How did she provoke him?

She made the mistake of marrying him even after he attacked her?! 

If she stays, it’s her own fault.

She’s just in it for the money.

I would never stand for something like that.

Didn’t she know better?

It’s as if we’re saying: It’s her own fault that she got punched in the face, and because she couldn’t find a way out of this dangerous situation, she deserves what she gets from this point forward. Is this really where we are as a society? When this is our dialogue, we are perpetuating the problem.

[Culture of blaming the victim is root cause of failure for NFL, Ravens in Ray Rice case]

Unlike Ray Rice, my husband wasn’t famous. Yes, he often talked about his one year as a walk-on for our college football team. He proudly showed off his jewel-studded championship bowl ring for a bowl game he wasn’t permitted to attend, after refusing to follow instructions and getting in trouble with one of the coaches. He didn’t make millions of dollars. He had a hard time keeping a job at all. He was charming, and women sometimes swooned over him, but once people got past the facade, they often found it difficult to get along with him.

We married as university students, after an all-too-brief courtship. I was only 20. I was naive. I thought since we had been raised in the same religious faith, we would automatically have similar experiences and values. I could not have been more wrong.

I saw some serious warning signs within the first few months of our marriage. He’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I thought in disbelief. So volatile, so unpredictable. But he was also young. He would grow out of it, surely. Perhaps he hadn’t been taught how to deal with his anger. Perhaps he had endured poor treatment. Perhaps the skeleton of addiction that kept slipping out of the closet was part of the problem. Surely the violent outbursts were a symptom of these inward problems. We could work on it together. We could tackle it as a couple. After all, we had made promises to each other. We had made commitments to God to see this thing through. So for more than a decade, I stayed.

Unlike Janay Palmer Rice, I was never knocked to the ground, nor rendered unconscious. My husband didn’t lay a hand on me. He terrorized me without touching me. He towered over me, as I crouched or recoiled or looked on in disgust, depending upon my level of daily fortitude. He yelled. Sometimes, I yelled back. He flew into rages with unpredictable physical movements, flailing his arms, banging his fists, and stomping around. He punched holes in walls and holes in doors. He beat lamps against walls, shattering their light bulbs, and threw glasses down to watch their spectacular explosion on the kitchen floor. He broke things on purpose. He snapped a computer keyboard over his thigh in one fast, fluid movement. He demolished our dishwasher — ripping it out from its place amongst kitchen cabinets, kicking and beating it as part of a tirade that had me utterly terrified, and afraid for my life.

He issued direct and implied threats. Even still, he didn’t lay a hand on me. In fact, he found a clever loophole in that regard. He hurt me with things. More specifically, he threw things at me. So his hands touched the things that hurt me. Sometimes, the things he threw hurt me physically, but most often, they hurt my soul far more than they hurt my body. The most degrading thing he threw at me was a bottle of milk. He was feeding our baby boy, and he got angry. So he jerked the bottle right out of his mouth, and in full view of our startled little one, he hurled it at me from across the room. By then, I had accumulated years of practice. I instinctively knew to throw up my hands and duck a little. It hit me, but not as directly as it might have otherwise. There were other times when the throwing hurt. Or left a painful red mark. This time, it simply left another mark on my spirit.

None of this qualifies as abuse, he insisted. But I knew better. My mind was often a rapid-fire war-zone, trying to assess the stakes, the outcomes, the consequences. I needed to run. But I couldn’t. What was he thinking? What would his next move be? Would tomorrow be safe? What kind of mood would he be in? Am I the next thing he will break? Is our son safe?

In the beginning, I cried. A lot. Eventually, I learned to cry inside, because he would mock me every time he saw a tear. From each drop, he seemed to derive a twisted sense of satisfaction. So I stopped crying. When the tears dried up, the inside of my body started shutting down, quite literally. I held the stress, misery, and emotion inside until a life-threatening diagnosis became a game-changer for me.

During all of that time, I never filed police reports. I put on a brave front to almost everyone around me. People at work would ask me about my husband and I would have no idea what to say. So I’d mumble a noncommittal something-or-other, or brush past the question altogether. A few close family members and friends knew the truth. But even then, it took months — years for some of them — to truly see the depth of what I faced. Each time I told someone part of my story, each time I even thought of filing an Emergency Protective Order, I feared the repercussions of my actions.

I wondered what I had done to provoke him. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t. I wondered if it was really that bad. Because in the days or weeks between rages, job losses, or addictive tendencies, it was good. Would this affect my career? End it? Bring embarrassment to my employer? My family? My sense of pride? People would know. What would they think of me? What if my husband was going to change, and I simply needed to wait a bit longer? I was terrified of having children with him, but once we finally did have a child, I wondered if my leaving would mean our son might suffer more. Wouldn’t he need to visit his father? What would happen when I wasn’t there during those visits, to act as a buffer of protection? Couldn’t God change my husband? Did he even want help? Could I make enough personal improvements to make his violent streak disappear? I was forever reading books on being a better wife, being a better woman, and building a stronger marriage. You name it, I read it.

All of these things found a place on the stage of my internal struggle. Over the course of our eleven-plus-year marriage, I separated from him three times, seeking refuge with family. It was only on the third try that my leaving proved successful.

When I did finally leave, I hardly recognized myself, not just on the outside, but on the inside. I was horribly ill, physically and emotionally. It took a lot of time and support to begin the process of digging myself out and building a new life.

This may be what Janay Rice is facing.

When we blame victims for “their role” in the domestic violence they experience, as the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL attempted to do, we are telling them they aren’t safe. Not at home, and certainly not with us. We are telling them we’re willing to sweep domestic violence under a rug so large it extends far past the 50-yard-line. We’re telling them to stay, rather than lending a hand to empower them to let go.

It not only adds to the stigma, it adds to the environment of fear and mistrust that abused women are desperately trying to untangle. In essence, when we blame victims, we are part of the problem.

 

Update (10/30/2014): Seven weeks ago, I shared a very personal experience involving domestic abuse. Hours after posting it, I felt consumed with REGRET. It felt as though I had emotionally stripped down in front of everyone. When I went to bed that evening, the flood gates opened and the tears poured out. I felt raw and exposed, and I wanted to hide my feelings from everyone, including myself. My husband was there to help me through it. I know it is difficult for him when this ghost of the past unexpectedly resurfaces. It doesn’t come back often these days. But when we write and recall, a part of us re-lives what we’re writing, and that’s what I experienced.

I’m posting this again as we close out Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I hadn’t planned to say anything. All month long, I avoided acknowledging it, hoping I could slip quietly into November. But here we are at the end of the month, and I’m realizing that I’ve been trying to spread the rug over the mess rather than spreading awareness, and that’s exactly what we have to STOP DOING. 

So today, I remember, and I hope that you will also remember. There are women (and men) out there who need our helping hands and understanding shoulders. Today, I also give thanks. I give thanks for a kind husband with a generous spirit. He loves me, he believes in me, and we do our best to lift each other up. He opens my eyes to things to things I might not otherwise notice — including an awesome Taylor Swift song with a powerful message that I hadn’t considered. And comic relief in the form of a Spanish-language variety show called Sabado Gigante. He is a beautiful man and I know that I am a lucky woman.

I also give thanks for incredibly supportive parents. They were there to help carry me through when I needed help standing. My parents, along with my siblings and their families, aunt and uncle, cousins, and a handful of best friends who I’ve adopted as extended family, formed a team of support that proved essential to me.

Never doubt the difference you might make in the life of another person. If you know someone who may need a listening ear, or a word of encouragement, don’t let this moment slip by. Do something.

Sometimes, it’s enough to say “I’m here.” 


Sarah Elizabeth is happily remarried to a childhood friend, and enjoys being a wife and mother. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she now resides in a small town filled with rolling green hills and hospitable people. She once enjoyed a life with a slightly faster pace as an award-winning television journalist, and marketing professional, but these days, her life is much more quiet. She writes about her experiences with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, chronic illness, and occasionally, her love of Jane Austen. Latter-day Jane is her blog. 


In the United States, one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. When it happens, she may not know how to tell you. You may have to dig a little deeper. Will you be ready?

For more information, visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.