Meditation on Domestic Violence Intervention: A Personal Narrative, by Sara Rahnoma-Galindo
(This essay appears in the new issue of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available from AK Press here.)
I come from a family of short, strong, resilient women. My maternal grandmother, Antonina, ground corn in a molino, or mill. She lived on the southern side of town, the poor side of town, and her clients came to her mill not only to grind their corn, but to share with her their happiness, laughter, sorrows, and tears. In this impoverished community—where women would wake up at 3:00am to cook their corn, stand in line by 4:00am to see those same kernels ground into powder, and then take this masa home again to turn it into dough, into tortillas, into the basic caloric morning meal—this was the only place outside their homes where they could share topics they were too ashamed or scared to talk about elsewhere. Most of these talks were about love, betrayal, violence, and rage.
Early on, I learned my Grandma Antonina always stood for the right thing. She was respected, and very generous, though she had little for herself—she was definitely the tough lady you did not mess with. She liked to stop what she was doing to comfort a newly wed wife who was starting to see the violent side of her husband. Children from around the town would come knocking on her door late at night so she would go intervene in a domestic violence issue. Often, Grandma Antonina would show up to their door with the excuse that she needed to borrow a cup of sugar or a kilo of corn. In certain instances, it was the drunk husband who greeted her, but once the door was open, Grandma Antonina would walk inside and find the battered wife on the floor, or hiding, and would shame the husband or kick him out of the house.
At times, the survivors of domestic violence were her own sisters. Grandma Antonina retells the story of how one night she returned to her house with her five nieces and nephews under her wing, and had them stay with her for three weeks. Grandpa Candido, her husband, said nothing against this. His response was something like, “If the seven people in my family can be fed in this house, certainly my five nieces and nephews can, too!”
My mother, an independent young woman, was the first woman to ride the bus alone, the first woman to go to high school, and the first one to go to medical school. In secret, she was a battered wife as well, along with her children. She kept this secret from my grandmother for almost ten years, and twenty years later, my sister, Annie, would experience the same. Coming from a strict, reserved, religious family that migrated to the United States in the early 1990’s, my sister’s upbringing was that of an oldest child having to set an example for my younger brother and I.
Amidst the domestic violence affecting my mother and the three of us, sexual, physical and verbal abuse against my siblings and me by my father, a terrorized mother who tried to commit suicide, a brother who would leave the house and zone out emotionally, I now realize our coping mechanisms differed. So did our different ways of dealing with violence after we left the household we were raised in.
We did not grow up sharing our fears, though we experienced lots of fears together. One of our fears was to never be able to leave home. As soon as I had a chance, I left home to reside on the university campus. My sister lived at home while going to school. For about six years, she dated the guy she would later marry. Her method of leaving home without upsetting anyone, without disappointing my parents by moving in with her boyfriend, was marrying the man who promised to take her out of that household of misery.
The guy, Patrick, seemed nice to my parents: the hard-working son of a Christian missionary. We knew, though, he had a bad temper and big pride. A month after they married, he showed up at my parents’ front door to “return” my sister to them. She had tried to strangle him; he showed them the bruises on his neck. Annie did not counter his whining, but she made it very clear it was in self-defense. Sadly, the people present to deal with this were my parents alone, my mother—the survivor of domestic violence, who reprimanded my sister for “hurting” her husband and my father—the one who convinced them that despite “little problems” like this one, they must stay together and fight for their marriage. My parents separated soon after that. We cut all ties with my father and finally told my mother about the sexual abuse my sister and I had endured for years. My sister and her husband, on the other hand, stayed together, and in four years, had their first baby. They had their second four years later, and the stress of raising them while working full time definitely kept my sister even busier than usual.
We did, however, notice that Annie had become more isolated and that we could not visit freely, but had to schedule seeing her weeks in advance. The way she talked to us on the phone was superficial and short. Her husband lost his job last spring, and that caused for a lot more stress and conflict in my sister’s routine. They were about to lose their home due to the loss of income, so Patrick decided to take a drastic measure and proposed to move to Colorado, where his family lives. My sister accepted, and for the next six months, they packed, sold the house in California, and prepared everything to move out of state.
Three days before the moving truck arrived, my sister contacted my mother and I to tell us she really did not want to move, that Patrick finding work in Colorado would be difficult, and that she was afraid to be that far away. My mother pushed for answers that would help her find out if there was abuse contributing to my sister’s anxiety. Annie broke down in tears to tell us he had been beating her for eight years, even while pregnant and while nursing her baby boy. She showed us pictures of her bruises and scars, dates and times she noted down whenever he threatened to kill her, and it all made sense at that moment. She was out of contact not because she was busy; she was bruised and did not want anyone to see it. He had thrown a hammer at her once, hitting her ankle, and instead of crying, she held it in so her five year old would not notice what had happened, and she limped for two weeks. People at worked asked if she was ok, and she grinned and said she was. The comments from my five year old niece about her daddy not liking mommy’s sandwiches referred to the time he threw the food she had cooked for him against her face, and the time she said he was mean to her tried to portray how he had cursed at her for having no hot food on the table when he got home from work.
Annie notarized a letter giving me custody of her children if anything bad happened to her. And with this, she agreed to give us—my mother and me—permission to plan an exit strategy for her and the children.
At this point, Annie had openly reached out to my mother and me for help. She was not entirely sure what things would look like step by step, but she understood there would be conflict and that, perhaps with our help, nobody would be harmed. I felt an immediate responsibility to assure the safety and well being of the five year old and the year old baby, as well as that of my sister. During a visit to my mother’s house, Annie had stopped at a police station to report the last time Patrick had hit her, but they turned her away and said she should go to the station closest to her house, so she just went back home instead.
Being the child who is “all over the place and into political stuff,” my mother asked me if I knew any domestic violence resources, and all those I could think of, I contacted immediately. My sense of urgency was extreme: this was not a person I had signed a petition for, or gone to a rally for. This was my sister! I called my anarchist doctor friend to be on stand-by in case Annie or the kids needed attention. I called my radical social worker friend for advice, and she passed on a couple of numbers to have handy. I called my anarchist attorney friend and got a family law attorney’s number. I wanted every front to be covered because I am used to making sure there is infrastructure that can sustain a favorable outcome. I was in organizer mode. I was under the impression my timeline was seventy-two hours. We were going to help my sister stay, not get in that truck with Patrick and continue living in hell at home—in Colorado, far from the rest of her family.
Then I stopped myself to reflect on what she really wanted. This took me back to the time I first reached out to someone to discuss the sexual violence I had suppressed. I did not want my father to be arrested, to be sent to jail, or be killed; I wanted no more harm to be done. I did not like people suggesting plans on how to get rid of my father, but I did want the silence to end; I wanted exposure instead—no more complicity from those around me, but rather some sort of plan that would involve ways to transform these types of situations and the relationships involved.
So, I consulted with my sister to ask if she would want anyone else in the extended family to know about this. Annie asked me to contact a few close relatives, along with my husband and mother, who, along with myself, were to come up with a plan. We wanted to shine a light on our knowledge of the abuse to Patrick and his father and brother, who were there to help him load furniture onto the moving truck. Annie’s plan was not to divorce him on the spot, nor to beat the living crap out of him; her questions revolved around her extending her hand to him, telling him “No more,” and asking, “Why?”
My extended family wanted to bring the police on board, but my mother, husband, Annie and I resisted external help of that kind. I was delighted to hear that my sister and mother were in agreement that no police should be involved, that their presence would complicate Patrick’s attitude and scare the children, and that the police are counterintuitive to building community and solving domestic violence and family issues. Our plan centered around something my Grandma Antonina used to do: expose, shame, and question. All three were things my sister had requested. Our strategy involved walking in (though Patrick had told Annie he did not want us in the house) to greet them and asking if they needed loading help. Once my sister gave the cue, she would gather us in the living room to thank Patrick’s father and brother for helping, and deliver a list of the reasons why she could not move to Colorado with Patrick. Anything after that was unplanned.
I understood that once the rocks were thrown up in the air, there would be no prediction at how they would land, and that we would have to be ok with that. But I still thought of frameworks I have heard of regarding how to face and interact with a perpetrator and quickly felt like nothing could be applied to this situation. We could not call the cops, we could not use force against Patrick (we’d agreed that we would defend ourselves, only if he tried to get violent with anyone else in the room), we had no mob outside the house to intimidate him. Radical comrades would give recommendations, such as: “Just take her out of there,” not understanding that I was dying to do so but could not stomp on my sister’s self-determination like her husband had for over eight years. Nonchalant comments like, “just call Social Services on him,” could not fix anything either. Something else had to be worked out. This alternative had to be requested by my sister, comfortable for the children, and doable for everyone else.
In our team of five, two people took turns taking care of the babies, and three of us (the immediate family: my mother, my husband, and I) were present next to Annie. We had agreed that at no point would we speak for my sister, and that we would go with whatever she wanted. She was very courageous to speak in front of all of us present. She cried as she said she was tired of being psychologically, emotionally and physically abused by the person she was supposed to be the most intimate with. Patrick’s brother dared question her scars, stating they could have been self-inflicted. Patrick’s father reprimanded her by asking, “You knew he was like this. Why did you choose to marry him?” This made my husband and I cringe, but we did not move or protest as my sister lifted her jeans legs to expose purple bruises. My mother, husband and I stepped in at a few points to clarify the illegitimate excuses Patrick would bring up, justifying why he would fight with Annie; whenever the physical violence would come up, he would say he was “defending” himself. Though the topic was heavy and tiring, we never raised our voices. We mostly gave follow up comments to my sister’s statements.
At some point, Patrick started begging her for another chance. We all stood there, frozen, not sure how she would respond. We wanted her to say, “No, get the fuck out of my life!” But she gave a vague reply over and over again, around the sentiment of betraying her trust and love.
This went on for six long hours as they dialogued about what they would do about what he had done, about his psychological abuse of his five year old, about him keeping it a secret from his father, the Christian minister who is a couples’ counselor at his church. Though it was exhausting to hear the conversation go back and forth, a lot of things were exposed that night. In a very weak, cowardly statement, Patrick shouted out to my mother, “Well, your daughter was not a virgin when I married her anyway!” To which my mom responded in a very calm manner, “That is because she was raped by her father.” The room went silent. Patrick’ brother, Oscar, broke the silence, and said, “Annie, I am so sorry. I take everything I said back. I, too, was a victim of sexual abuse by a family member. I am sorry. I want to see you happy and will respect whatever decision you go with.”
Annie asked everyone to take a break so that she and Patrick could go to the cafe around the corner to have a brief private conversation. I feared he would take her and hurt her, or disappear her, but once again, I had to let her decide. She came back and our party reconvened with Patrick and Annie. He apologized on his knees and asked my mom and me to forgive him for hurting her. Annie then said she had not been able to make up her mind yet, that she wished to keep her family together, but that at that particular moment, she felt it was best to stay behind in California and decide what to do next.
Looking back, my sister facing a perpetrator surrounded by the ones who love her, versus doing so alone, made a huge difference here. I have heard of cases where women have been able to rally other women to confront a perpetrator, and how that has made a strong impression for the survivor and, at times, for the perpetrator. But, to have immediate and extended family present, not only during the incident, but giving her rides, feeding her, babysitting for her, etc., not only felt like a pillar of support to my sister, but she told me that was when she really understood her life was valued by her family. In a culture where gossip is looked down upon, complaining is seen as weakness, and patriarchy is part of the nuclear family, standing one’s ground in support of loved ones counts immensely.
It is very difficult to think and understand pain, abuse, and violence when the perpetrators are your loved ones. As anarchists and as social actors seeking change, it always seems much easier to work outside of what is close to our personal reality. Despite being fully supported by immediate and extended family, as well as by the radical community that my husband and I rallied to be on stand-by, we felt ill-equipped to intervene in my sister’s experience of domestic violence. I felt that we had neither the skills nor the institutions to confront this. It proved to be extremely difficult to speak of “trends,” in the vicious cycle of violence to my sister. She got to make an appointment with a domestic violence counselor, but the only date available was six weeks after her call. We tried our best to speak with the children in vague but truthful ways so they would not be confused about what was happening, but even that proved to be challenging.
My sister and the children stayed with my mother for five weeks. The entire family helped with buying clothes for all of them, making sure there was food, toys, and engagement with the children. My judgment was that it would have been best for Annie to not have any contact with Patrick, but he demanded daily communication with the kids, and by default with her. I admit that he forced communication with her more than we did. Had we been with her all day, maybe she would have had the space and confidence to share more with us. Or, maybe it was not about communicating, but about anticipating a life as a single mother and the fear and challenge of that. My husband and I helped with preparing the older child’s enrollment into a science academy, and had dinner with Annie and the children every night, expecting her and her family to stay in California, but she chose otherwise.
I wanted her to expose the perpetrator, like Grandma Antonina used to do; I wanted the perpetrator to be kicked out of the house, like we kicked our father out of my mother’s house; I wanted the children to have a say, but maybe they were just too young to understand. I wanted all that and more, but Annie wanted something else. It made me think a lot about our view of justice as we do politically, socially, and culturally subversive work. My perspective of the type of justice my sister’s situation required stayed just that: one perspective.
Looking back, I now understand that my branding of justice for this particular survivor of domestic violence had to be held back and in doing so, my sister’s power to decide her own destiny prevailed. Annie chose to move to Colorado with the children, hoping to achieve redemption of her family and hanging on to the realization that she, too, could decide the next steps of achieving her own sense of justice.
As anarchists and people involved in the social justice movements, we often fall into the trap of a timeline similar to that the of traditional punitive justice system. After all, it is easier to come up with an action that can produce immediate visible results where we see the perpetrator suffer and run away. What I learned from this experience is that perhaps Annie’s journey to bring about justice for her situation, for her babies, shows a timeline many of us are just beginning to see. Her journey for justice started that night we confronted Patrick about the harm he had caused. Her understanding of justice was not to take Patrick before a judge and see a jail sentence handed down to him before his entire family, as that does not bring about personal redemption or healing. This experience, while possibly seen as a tiny victory, is therefore the beginning of my family’s long-term project of gazing back at generations of fighters, who hold the constant mending of relationships against the cycle of violence we have inherited, to reach a more complete sense of justice.
Sara Rahnoma-Galindo lives in Los Angeles with her husband, is an office worker, is part of the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory collective and is a member of the L.A. branch of the IWW.