A Letter To My Abuser
By Karah Frank
The following letter was delivered in court in the case against Karah’s former abuser. She says it was inspired by the bravery of the Stanford rape victim. Content warning: domestic violence.
In Judith Herman’s now foundational text on trauma, she outlines the process of psychological domination. The final stage in this process is known as total surrender, where the victim becomes utterly complicit in their own abuse. Herman explains the abuser’s mindset, with an Orwellian quote, “We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul.” It is necessary for the abuser to feel justified and for the continuation of the abuse cycle.
During the abuse, I thought of nothing but trying to calm you down and save you from the inevitable consequences of your actions. Calling the police was about the farthest thing from my mind except that you kept repeatedly mocking me, highlighting your knowledge of our shared convictions against the justice system and the prison industrial complex. Instead, I tried begging you to stop, being sweet and soothing, yelling or acting angry, trying to pretend to be asleep, and even playing dead at certain points in the hope, not that I wouldn’t die, but that you would not get into trouble. Back then, my devotion to you was so complete, I would have gladly died if it would lessen your distress. The many times that night that you strangled me to the point of unconsciousness, what kept me alive was knowing how much more trouble you would be in if I died. In the end, instinct and the will to protect you allowed me to fight for my life.
When the police arrived, you politely let them in and surrendered yourself. Reports described you as calm and collected. My memory of those initial moments is fuzzy, but, I clearly remember screaming and crying hysterically, terrified out of my wits of any physical contact with the officers, hiding in a corner of my bed pulling out chunks of my hair that you had ripped out and trying repeatedly to pull my ripped tank top up to avoid being exposed. Decidedly uncollected and not a bit calm. Police snapped photo after photo of my injuries — my face, neck, back and even the inside of my mouth because you had shoved your fingers so far down my throat trying to muffle my screams that it was bleeding. After about 25 minutes, I was finally allowed to put on pants and find my eyeglasses, which, as you know, I am nearly legally blind without, making the experience all the more terrifying as I could not gauge the officers reactions or facial expressions toward me. Through this process, I repeatedly defended you to the officers.
From the moment the police arrived, despite being in a state of shock, and through the days and months that followed, I went around being the rabid, loyal defender I had to become after years of lying for you, hiding and justifying your abuse to myself and others. I truly felt like my life depended on your safety and protection from the consequences of your actions. As a fellow indigenous person, I also believed, like many native women I know, it was my job to protect you from state violence.
Entirely enmeshed, entirely dependent on you for what morsels of emotional validation you allowed me, I did what anyone that far gone would do. The prosecutor can tell you that I aggressively defended you, minimized and omitted many of your actions that night and the many nights that preceded it. I investigated effective defenses, poured out enormous amounts of emotional support and labor on your behalf and even hired someone to be a support person for you since I could not be in the same ways due to the no contact order. I researched and vetted your DV treatment facility and made sure you would be allowed to continue to see your counselor because I believed him to be culturally responsive.
All I could feel was the unnaturally strong attachment which occurs through a process known as “trauma bonding,” which often occurs when a victim is brought to the brink of death through strangulation or other means repeatedly and then at the last moment their abuser allows them to live. The abuser simultaneously becomes assailant, and benevolent savior. Despite seeing a chiropractor 2 to 3 times a week for several months to correct the injuries to my neck and back I sustained when you thrashed me around the bed and dragged me around the apartment by my hair, trauma bonding ensured I could think of only one thing; how to get back to you.
It is difficult to describe the physical pain that a victim, that I, went through when a trauma bond is broken. Physical sensations of unmitigated impending doom, as if I had just slipped off a cliff and was falling to my certain death dominated my days and nights for months. This was, I discovered, only the beginning of my suffering.
After about 5 months, I heard vicariously that you had come back to the top of your abuse cycle, as you had time and time again. You began to blame me for your abusive behavior, paint me as the primary aggressor, exaggerate your injuries, obsess over or completely invent whatever petty offenses you believe I visited on you during the course of our relationship, become self-obsessed, lack empathy and cognitively distort events until they were unrecognizable from the original occurrence — what you had previously so vehemently apologized for had suddenly never occurred, or was my fault anyway. It was the naming and realization of this that allowed the wrongness and severity of what you did to me to sink into my body little by little. That, and the fact that after years, I was finally safe.
For two months now, the full weight of what my body and brain endured that night has hit me full force. I can still feel what you did to me that night; not like it’s emotionally “distressful” but like right now, standing here in my body I can feel the acute sensations of being strangled, drowned and a sharp pain in my neck that never goes away. I never told the police that as you strangled me on the living room floor while you simultaneously poured soda water onto my face; that was the single most terrifying moment for me because, as I discovered, while being strangled slowly to unconsciousness actually isn’t that painful, drowning is incredibly painful.
I am unsure if the police got pictures of the living room that night, but if they had, they would have seen a squished up 42 ounce bottle of Crystal Geyser Berry flavored water at the entrance to the living room — that was why that was there. When I have flashbacks, which are frequent, that is the moment I most often return to. I am not sure how you water board someone in self-defense.
Because my job provides no paid time off or sick leave, I find myself feeling like I am drowning or cannot breathe in the middle of running groups, also going to the gym, seeing friends, or literally whatever I am doing. What you did to me is never not with me. Your hands around my throat are never not with me. The pain from being punched in the vulva and vagina repeatedly while you screamed “this is mine” is never. Not. With me.
Each day I endure the full gambit of trauma symptoms. Hypervigilance, anxiety, agitation, sensations of dread and impending doom, sleep disturbances, lack of a baseline of calm and comfort, tension, neck pain, headaches, flashbacks, nightmares, gastrointestinal disturbances, trust difficulties, fear of betrayal, relational issues, irrational fears and intolerance for change among other things. All of this suffering because in your words to the officers that night, “you needed to prove a point.”
I know this phase won’t last forever, though I am told it can last for many years. But I will never be the same. You have caused me irreparable harm. We are here together today because each of us knows the truth about who you are and what you’ve done, no matter what you claim to the judge. There is another woman, who could not be here today, your ex-wife, who was able to detail her own horrendous story of the physical and emotional abuse she AND your pre-school aged son endured at your hands. You are a serial abuser of women and children. Women are sacred. You have violated and betrayed me, your tribe, and the beliefs of the people. Take responsibility and end your suffering. Find peace in honesty.
All I ever wanted was your healing and happiness. I listened to you, protected you. I thought if I could give you the pure love and kindness you lacked growing up, if I could be good to you long enough, you would stop hurting me and realize that I wasn’t worthless, as you insisted time and time again.
But I am free now. After years of prioritizing your every emotional, spiritual, and physical need, I refuse to give you any more of me. I won’t protect you anymore. I will leave you with some of the words you used to terrorize me the night of your arrest:
“No one is coming to save you, this time.”
This letter originally appeared on Wear Your Voice