Asia Key, The Black Bear – A 15-year-old girl volunteers with her mother at Harmony House, a home for battered women. She sees the people there: the women with the far-away eyes and the children playing out back, and silently promises herself to never end up like them.
A 30-year-old woman calls in to the Harmony House for the 50th time today. After four days of asking, “Do you have a bed open?” They finally tell her that they do.
She remembers when she was just a child, before she had five of her own, and reflects on the vow she made herself all those years ago.
She reflects on how easily it was broken.
Rosanna Holt, 32, is a survivor of domestic violence. She is doing what she can to create a better environment for herself and her children.
She stands at the corner of her front yard, where the kids have just gotten off the school bus. They all look guardedly at the stranger who approaches. Holt tells them to take their backpacks off in the house, get a snack and to go outside. Silently, they follow in a line to the white door with the metal screen.
The room has a brown couch, an olive green chair and a floral love seat. An old television plays a VCR tape of “I Am Legend.”
Holt sits in the green chair with her legs crossed. She is visibly uncomfortable as she prepares to recount the story, her story.
“It’s just weird” Holt says. Though she has recently told it to potential investors for the new Harmony House facility.
She was 18 when she started dating the father of her five children, and still a senior in high school. It wasn’t long before they were spending all of their time together.
After three weeks, his parents wanted her to start paying rent. He suggested that she move in and she did.
“I was being really dumb,” Holt says. “You think completely differently when you’re that age. You think that’s pretty exciting. Like, I don’t know. It’s weird, but I just moved in after three weeks.”
After about 10 months, things began to change.
“I found out I was pregnant,” Holt says. “His family, my family, my mom, they all just wanted me to have an abortion because I was too young,” Holt says.
“I thought about all the options a pregnant girl has and I made the decision that I was gonna keep the baby regardless of what everyone else says. And if no one was going to help me that’s fine, but I wanted to. I felt like I put myself in that position, and I was gonna have a baby for a reason. So that was it.
“He said he wanted to make it work.”
The first abuse she suffered was verbal and mental, when he began to call her names. It escalated to physical violence while she was still pregnant.
“I would say pushing. And then choking. And then there was — there was too many fights. I should’ve left then. I should’ve left before that, but I tried to make it –”
Holt pauses as her second oldest daughter bursts through the front door. The past and the heat of regret burn like a low flame in her red-rimmed eyes. She gives her the look.
The girl whispers sorry. A shy, hiding smile plays on her mouth as she turns to the screen door and runs out again. She resumes.
She still remembers the first time he was violent. They were arguing because she suspected he was cheating.
“He was driving,” Holt says. “I don’t remember what exactly he did, but I was saying that I was getting out of the car and I was done and I wasn’t going to go through this anymore and he was like, trying to keep me in the car. Grabbing me, twisting my arm, grabbing me by my hair.”
The children yell playfully from the side of the house. Holt’s gaze is drawn to the window, where she sees the tops of her eldest two daughters’ heads run past.
“Holding me down so I couldn’t get out of the car. That was the first time.”
After, she went and stayed with her mom for awhile. She was adamant about not going back, until she did. Things began to look up for a short time after the baby was born. He had found a job and he was “acting right.”
“He makes it seem like everything’s gonna be fine,” Holt says. “That he just seriously lost his mind for a minute and it wasn’t gonna happen again.
“And then, seven weeks later, I went to the doctor for the regular check up and I found out I was already pregnant with my second.”
Holt says this is when things got really bad. She says she tried to justify it because they were young and didn’t know any better.
“There’s girls who go through so much worse than I did,” Holt says. “For the longest time, I really feel like I didn’t think it was an abusive relationship. (It was) just a part of who he was, how he was raised.
From then on, the violence increased and diversified.
“If I was just to list them off – punching, choking, kicking, slapping, dragging me by the hair,” Holt says. “He used to twist my arm all the time. It was always to keep me from leaving.”
“I’ve ran from him and he’s chased me down and tackled me. He’s stabbed me with a key before.
“One time I had a razor blade in my hand in case he tried anything I was actually gonna try to protect myself. He ended up kicking me and kicked my hand, and I ended up getting cut.”
Paul Deal, head of the Psychology Department at Missouri State University, thinks that the reasons people abuse are complicated.
“There are a lot of different variables that contribute to someone’s behavior,” Deal says. “Substance abuse is definitely one. Someone may be inclined to express violent or aggressive behavior, but never does it when sober.
“It’s a predisposition to do that. (When) you factor in drugs and alcohol, the combination of those two make it far more likely that you’re going to see violent behavior.
“It’s a lot of things, it’s not just one thing.”
According to Deal, a history of violence in the family is another variable that determines an abuser.
“If you think about how people learn to do what they do every day, you grow up with your role models being the people in your family,” Deal says. “If an abuser grew up in a home that had
violence, even if he doesn’t remember it, then that’s the model of behavior that he sees. He’s likelier to do that.
“He’s got this genetic tendency, his role models were engaged in violent behavior growing up, he grew up in an environment where communication is characterized by violent acts, his friends are violent with one another, and he abuses substances.
“If you look at all those things together, they can all contribute to this violent behavior.”
She left once, after discovering he was taking drugs.
“I found out he was using needles and doing heroin and so I thought, at that point, he’s never gonna grow up,” Holt says. “He’s never gonna change.”
After five years and four children, Holt moved to Kansas City. She had a steady job and a five-bedroom house downtown. She worked a lot but was still able to care for her kids.
One year later, his probation officer and his counselor persuaded her that things were changing. They asked her to give him another chance.
“He told me that he had gotten clean, that he had gotten sober and he wanted to have a relationship with his kids,” Holt says.
So she gave up her job, her home, her car and dropped everything to move back here and be with him.
“I never had a relationship with my dad, so I always felt like it was really important for them to have that,” Holt says. “They do need their father around, but not if he’s not gonna be a good role model.”
It wasn’t their biggest fight that finally prompted her to go to the Harmony House. Rather, Rosanna Holt had finally just had enough.
She remembers the cold morning in mid-November that prompted her to leave.
They were living with his mother at the time. Her oldest daughter was home with a cold and fighting her younger brother for the TV remote. When she told them to be quiet, her daughter said something so disrespectful that it shocked her.
“I said, ‘you are not gonna sit here and speak to me like your father does,’” Holt says. “‘Just because he says certain things to me does not make it OK. You are not going to speak to me like that, and he shouldn’t speak to me like that either.’”
Hearing Holt say this angered him enough to get out of bed and attack her in front of their children and his own mother.
“He came flying out of his room and started trying to throw me down and twisting my arm,” Holt says. “He was always, always, always grabbing my arms and twisting them. My wrists still have problems all the time from him trying to make me do what he wanted me to do.
“He got me on the floor and I kept telling him to get off of me. I told him I was leaving. His mom had come out at this point and said, ‘leave her alone, you’re not gonna do that.’
I had gotten my kids bundled up, the two I had, and I said we’re walking to the store. I was gonna go to the store, call someone, figure something out, because I wasn’t gonna be there anymore.”
She left in pajamas, sandals and no coat. After chasing her down and snatching her son from her arms, he begged her to stay.
She decided to leave their kids with him while she arranged for them all to get away.
“They brought me my girls when they got out of school, but he still had my son,” Holt says. “He had him for five months and I had to take him to court to get him back.
“That was the worst part of everything, not having my son for those five and a half months.”
Six years ago, Deborah Holt and her three children fled from abuse and became residents. A year after she left the Harmony House she became a volunteer, doing small projects outside of the house. She was offered the donations coordinator position, of which she currently serves.
To her, domestic violence is a tricky thing to label.
“It’s different for everyone,” Holt says. “It can be either physical, verbal, emotional or financial. Some who don’t have the physical part of it don’t feel like they’re in an abusive relationship because they’re not being hit. Emotional and verbal is sometimes worse.
“In my version of financial abuse, he was not paying the rent with the money that I gave him, which ultimately made me lose the place where we were living.”
Deborah Holt found solace at Harmony House, where Rosanna Holt was seeking the same.
After calling in for days and checking for an opening, she finally got a yes.
“You have to be super lucky to get in, because it’s a small facility,” Holt says. “You have to keep trying everyday, a hundred times a day. You never know when somebody could get up and leave.
“You can be there for three months.. I had to call everyday, probably 50 times a day for four days before I finally got in.
“You get yourself there, you show them your ID, you tell them why you need a shelter, why you need to be protected, and they decide if they’re gonna let you in. I’ve never seen them turn anyone away.
“I stayed there for a long time. If … they feel like you’re making progress and you’re not there just to crash, you meet with a counselor and you meet with a caseworker at least once a week. You tell them what you’re gonna do.
“You make these goals that you try to meet, you do things that are productive with your life.”
Here, Rosanna Holt finally felt safe.
“Most of the time you’re living with this person, you can’t even sleep at night,” Holt says. “You can’t do anything, you’re walking around on eggshells. You cannot say the wrong thing, you cannot look at them the wrong way.
“When you get to the Harmony House, you do feel a sense of safety. You get to sleep and not stress or worry, or have to look over your shoulder to check who’s behind you.
“We can finally breathe.”
Deborah Holt says they take security seriously at the Harmony House.
“You basically have to have a code to get anywhere in the building,” Holt says. “We have cameras inside the building and around the building. Residents have to be buzzed, even the parking lot has a locked gate.”
Her time at the Harmony House was a helpful transition, but Rosanna Holt is still trying to get her life back on track so she can do better for her children.
“We hopped from friend’s to friend’s house until I finally got this place,” Holt says. “We’ve been here a year and a half now. It’s nothing fancy, it’s nothing great.”
But it’s theirs.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
Holt maintains a relationship with the father of her children. She feels that she has to.
“It’s still hard for me to keep him away, especially now that he’s been two months clean,” Holt says. “He is constantly here. He’s homeless. He has nowhere to go. He has stuff all over the place.
“I still struggle with my abuser. Some people can get away, break clean and finally be done. I have to worry about (him) every day, because as long as I live in this town I’ll have to worry.”
Her eyes flicker to the bin full of clothes in the corner behind the door. There are some pants thrown over the top of them and a pair of muddy boots off to the side. She takes a deep breath and expels it.
Her story isn’t just a story, it’s the reality she is living. It unfolds as she continues to tell it. The end is still unclear.
“If I can move away I won’t have to deal with him that much, but because we have five kids together, you have to speak,” Holt says. “He’s at a point where he thinks he can win me back, so he’s trying to do everything he can.
“I’m just trying to stay strong.”
Though she is still trying to escape this situation, she offers advice to someone who may be in a similar position.
“I would say you need to leave,” Holt says. “You need to get out and get away, far away. And just let it go and get over it. It’s gonna take some time, but you can do it. You’ll be so much happier.”
Deborah Holt also offers some advice to women who are living the life she once knew.
“Make sure you love yourself and know that you deserve better,” Holt says. “Know that love does not make you cry, and love does not make you bleed.”