I don’t know how she could put up with that for so long. A common thought, to those who haven’t been there, been through that, indicates there must be a certain quality, superhuman or fatally flawed, to account for lingering inside an abusive relationship. Author Shari Howerton admits as she worked through the pages of her second book, “Breaking the Chains,” and through the details of 27 years of abuse from an angry ex-husband, she sounded crazy to herself.
“I begged this guy not to be mad at me. I wrote honestly about that, as hard as it was.” Howerton says she was compelled to share her private story for the benefit of others who are still stuck in their dark chapters.
Following her ex-husband’s death, Howerton felt free to tell what she’d been through within the context of the cult-like environment experienced by both of them in their inherited affiliations with the William Sowders fellowship of Gospel Assembly churches.
“I made my bed and now I have to lie in it,” was a pill Howerton explains her former religion disbursed liberally. To her, it provided the perfect breeding ground for a life of being controlled and exploited.
Heaven help us, as the saying goes. In Howerton’s world, heaven was deaf to her. “In my old church, there was a lot of twisting of Scripture and a controlling leader who made a lot of demands. You felt like you had to follow their rules to be saved,” she stated. Not only did Howerton feel inadequate to progress along an impossible path toward perfection, she was taught if she didn’t achieve enough of it inside her own flesh, she would never see heaven.
“There was no hell. There was no Satan. Your carnal nature was Satan, and when you looked in the mirror, you were seeing the devil. That’s who you were. That’s what we were taught.”
Aside from the restrictive, perfectionist theology touted by church leaders and upheld by parishioners, the beliefs and culture there led Howerton to agree to marriage at age 16 — to a 23-year-old who was also part of the church. It wasn’t an arranged marriage, she emphasizes, just a highly encouraged one. What most of modern society would consider sanctioned child abuse, to Howerton was “the only way I was allowed to date, to have freedom. In my world, it was not unusual.”
But marriage didn’t add freedom; it equated nearly three decades of physical and emotional violence. The threats and intimidation began within one week of Howerton’s wedding — a diabolical sort of honeymoon. “He didn’t hit me that first time, but he backed me against the wall and held his fist up to my face and threatened me.” “He,” the father to her only child, was 6 feet 4 inches and 300-plus pounds of control. Howerton’s diminutive frame and her accepting constitution provided the ideal path of least resistance where his angry rapids rolled. “I can only say that it’s the DNA God gave me. I’m a very forgiving, very trusting, very loving person and this makes me more exploitable to people who would want to hurt me. But I don’t want to change those things. I just have to be more careful.”
The process of reliving the details of her premature and abusive marriage through her second book and working through a lifetime of spiritual abuse in her first, “Through My Eyes,” has been in many ways cathartic. As Howerton remembered, she also cleansed — until there came a point when the tears stopped and what remained was peace.
There are no fairytale endings in abuse, but Howerton finds happiness in sharing her experiences with others and in her life with husband John. She returned to college in her 40s at Lipscomb University, Nashville, Tenn. In Nashville, she and John met, fell in love and married. Now, her journey is transparent, inspiring those who may on some level believe they’ll never break their invisible chains and impossible bonds.
Today, she submits an alternative job title for happiness; although her cheerful demeanor confirms she’s achieved it in ample measure, Howerton doesn’t see happiness as CEO of Living, Inc. Contrary to popular opinion, “I think God gives us experiences for reasons. Yes, there has been suffering; that’s how we grow. I wouldn’t now have the capacity to help others if I hadn’t suffered.”
Her books “Through My Eyes” and “Breaking the Chains” are available at www.sharihowerton.com, www.amazon.com and www.barnesandnoble.com.
Howerton is one of several sponsored models at an event that spans the species to bring awareness to abuse, the Fun and Fur Fashion Show to benefit Women’s Resource Center and Operation Underdog.
The event scheduled for Friday, April 25, at the John Eye Conference Center, Beckley, is to feature Howerton along with other community models wearing clothing sponsored by retailers to be auctioned for the benefit of both charities. A cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m., followed by a fashion show and auction at 7 p.m. Pasquale’s Italian Restaurant will provide dinner. Howerton will also sell her books on site, splitting profits between Women’s Resource Center and Operation Underdog.
Dana Shammaa, owner of Indie Sparrow Boutique and sponsor of two models — Howerton and Lewis Automotive’s Sarah Abrams — is a woman who is passionate about fashion and animals, making Fun & Fur an obvious choice for giving back to the community.
“My husband, Tariq, and I love animals. We fostered rescue animals from Hurricane Katrina and we still do transports,” she said. Her latest transport, incidentally in a car bumper-stickered “Who Rescued Who,” was to Wytheville and came through a plea made by Operation Underdog for someone to get a pet to a pick-up point, where the animal would be taken to a new home. Organizations that encourage transport of animals, like Operation Underdog, are vastly reducing the number of animals euthanized.
Shammaa says upon hearing about Fun & Fur it was a perfect fit for someone steeped in fashion and championing the cause of animal rights. “All of our animals are like family to us — they’re all rescues.”
A sad connection exists between those who are in physically and emotionally abusive relationships and family pets. According to the American Humane Association, 71 percent of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported their batterer had also injured, maimed, killed or threatened the family pet.
Renee Pannell, WRC fundraising committee member and event chair, decided to bring both to the forefront with Fun & Fur, an idea she borrowed from a fundraiser she attended in Park City, Utah. “We started discussing how abuse goes hand-in-hand with people and family pets. We brought the idea to Operation Underdog and they were on board.”
Sparkle Girl Fashions, another model sponsor, is creating tutus and outfits for the adoptable animals to wear as they parade the runway. Says Operation Underdog’s Erica Stock, “We are really excited about this event. We’ve never done anything like this before.” One of Stock’s anticipated extras is when interior designer Margaret Rader will model an original jumpsuit designed by daughter Ripley Rader. “Ripley is known in Los Angeles as a jumpsuit designer to celebrities. She’s become very successful in the fashion industry,” Stock states.
Shoppers browsing the latest trends and fashions to purchase at the event may also feel a tug in their heart to adopt one of the primped pooches. The process toward adoption can be started at the event, but Stock reminds that Operation Underdog does thorough background checks and conducts home visits to ensure a proper match and a happy, safe environment for the dogs they’ve rescued.
“Unfortunately, we see animals battered and abused. Their hearts have been broken by humans. It takes a long time to rehabilitate them before we can get them adopted. They haven’t been shown a kind hand before.”
But restoration can happen — an important message for any victim — animal or person. “My last foster dog would lie in the corner of the house and shake when I first picked her up. Within the first week, she slowly came out of her shell to run and play,” Stock remembers. Likewise, says Stock, whenever people arrive at the WRC, they are often broken down and hurt. “It’s like a stepping stone for them. Like we do with Operation Underdog, they are brought in and shown what love is.”
— E-mail: email@example.com
Fun & Fur Fashion Show
Event to benefit Women’s Resource Center and Operation Underdog
When: April 25. Cocktail hour at 6 p.m., dinner and fashion show at 7 p.m.
Where: John Eye Conference Center on the campus of UC-Beckley, 500 S. Kanawha St.
COST: Sponsorship tables are $500 for 10 seats, and include a bottle of wine with dinner by Pasquale’s
Individual tickets for show and dinner: $45