By Lisa Shrewsberry
Sisters, born seven years apart to the day, should be inseparable. But an intentional act of violence by a boyfriend ended the bond between Tonia Thomas, team toordinator and co-director for the WV Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and her sister Teresa Wilson.
Both shared the same June 15 birthday, both were known as strong-willed, possessing a natural instinct to do the best for themselves. “Other than that, their lives were pretty dissimilar,” says Wilson’s daughter and Thomas’ niece, Erica Hamb. Her mother felt like she needed someone to fill the void left after a painful divorce. A friend introduced her to a man who was incarcerated and Wilson began communicating with him through letters. Once he was released, the two developed a relationship and moved in together. “She was always outspoken and wouldn’t take anything from anyone. But he got her to a place where she was so scared, it just wore her down,” recalls Hamb.
Wilson’s live-in boyfriend, a convicted felon nicknamed “Homicide,” upended celebrations just before her 49th birthday, when he allegedly beat her into a coma inside their Beckley apartment. Wilson was taken off a ventilator June 5, 2012, after extensive brain damage. Everyone, it seemed, Wilson included, saw it coming.
“She kept making excuses,” explains Hamb. “She would say, ‘No! Don’t get involved. It’s only going to make it worse.’ ” Hamb noticed bruising on her mother during her visits to see the grandchildren, and Wilson was forthright with her about what was going on — physical abuse on a routine basis. Hamb and her aunt tried to convince her mother to move in with Hamb, but Wilson feared the consequences, saying her boyfriend had also threatened to harm her family if she told.
Hamb vividly recalls her last conversation with Wilson, as she dropped her off from having lunch and back at the apartment where the perpetrator stood, waiting for her. “I asked her, ‘What do you want me to tell my children when he kills you, because he is going to.’ She said, ‘Just tell them that I love them.’” Hamb had no idea her predication would come true that very day.
Abused women and men, on average, return to their abusers seven times before breaking free from the emotional bonds that bind them, according to experts. Running away isn’t as clear-cut and Hollywood as escaping a cold, dark lair. An escape for the victimized generally means uprooting themselves from their home and belongings, a point that proved difficult for Wilson. Wilson never left, although she had a strong support system. “She just put it off and put it off until it was too late,” says Hamb. “Her strong-willed personality made her think she was tough enough to deal with it until she could find an alternative.”
Having a sibling who is an expert on domestic violence couldn’t coax Wilson away from harm. Surviving sister Tonia Thomas’ life’s work is educating law enforcement officers, health care workers and communities on domestic violence.
“(The abuser) had an extensive criminal record, a history of violence. We were very worried about her, but she was too scared to do anything. It doesn’t matter what your sister does for a living,” states Thomas.
As the Women’s Resource Center in Beckley prepares for its 22nd annual candlelight vigil Saturday, Oct. 13, Hamb and Thomas expect to light a candle together in remembrance of Wilson and to stand as her name is spoken out among the 35 others who lost their lives to domestic violence within the last year in West Virginia.
For their abbreviated family, there is hope of the perpetrator coming to justice this month at trial, but there is no closure. Right now, Wilson’s body is still at the medical examiner’s office, awaiting the release of official autopsy data. Hamb has a special shelf prepared, bordered by pictures of Wilson with her three grandchildren, with a spot in the center reserved for an urn of ashes.
Domestic violence isn’t just a woman’s problem; it’s everyone’s problem, says Ashley White, victim advocate for domestic and sexual violence at the Women’s Resource Center, Beckley Outreach Office.
Abuse does not discriminate. Victims are both women and men, within heterosexual relationships or homosexual relationships, and they are often naïve to the seriousness of their circumstances. “They aren’t aware of the cycle they are trapped inside. They are blinded. (Unlike Wilson), they generally do not have a support system to help get them out. Many times, family has disowned them because of the situation they’ve allowed themselves to remain in.”
While victims may selectively ignore the signs, abusers are calculating in their choice of targets and in covering up the abuse. “They look for characteristics, a spouse or partner who is a nurturer by nature, someone who will do what they say.” The abusers, explains White, are then able to coerce their unwittingly profiled victims into doing their bidding. “They pretty much get into their brains and work them however they want to."
The abuser may, in contrast, have a strong support system, one that will cover up for abusive activities or provide financial resources, heightening the abuser’s power over the victim. “It’s always the other person’s fault: ‘If you had listened to me, I wouldn’t have hit you.’ ” They are blameless in their own sight, explains White, and at times in the sight of enabling family members or friends.
Substance abuse also plays a major role in the escalating pattern of abuse, explains White. “They are already an abuser by nature, but they may be able to control their temper a little more sober. If they have been drinking or consuming drugs, you never know what they are going to do; they are ticking time bombs.”
White emphasizes the “cutting ties” attitude from family frustrated at the repeated return to the abuser only serves to further empower the abuser. “It isn’t helpful at all. Just let the victim know you are there whenever they are ready for help.”
Detective Morgan Bragg of Beckley Police Department was the Domestic Violence Officer involved in Wilson’s case. Bragg reviews domestic violence complaints and arrests on a case-by-case basis, to ensure the department explores every avenue for victim safety and provides direction toward further resources as needed. He works closely and carefully with the Women’s Resource Center and other agencies to maximize opportunities for victims to change their circumstances before it’s too late. Part of Bragg’s responsibility is to not introduce further harm into their lives through his involvement. “Sometimes, I’ll be talking with the victim when the abuser will suddenly come home.” Bragg makes as unobtrusive an exit as possible to ward off further threats to victims while they make their decision to leave.
“A lot of them are scared if they (call Beckley Police Department) on the phone. They’re whispering, trying to leave a message. They’re not allowed to have any life whatsoever, no friends, family, community, nothing…”
Abusers are among the best manipulators, Bragg has learned. Control is the fuel behind acts of violence such as rape and beatings. It is a powerful and all-consuming addiction. “They get excitement from being able to control their victim,” relates Bragg.
Why do victims stay in spite of the pain and overwhelming fear? Why do perpetrators keep abusing against any shred of conscience or humanity? Much of it comes down to what’s remembered from home, a chilling curse playing out generation to generation.
“For so many of them, that’s the environment they were raised in,” explains Bragg. I’ll ask if they realize domestic violence is what’s happening to them. They’ll tell me about things that happened when they were a child, and they are just numb to it.”
For those who believe a loved one is in danger because of domestic violence, Bragg says information may be given to his department anonymously. “A complaint can be forwarded to us without the suspect having knowledge of it. They can call the Beckley Police Department and ask for the Domestic Violence Officer. Victims can also contact Women’s Resource Center if they are seeking to handle the situation anonymously.”
As ancillary support to the law enforcement teams intercepting violence before it ends in tragedy like her sister’s case, Thomas is concerned with what she’s seeing and hearing from the field. “Violence has increased, actual serious physical injuries. It’s observational, but what we understand from law enforcement officers the level of the violence they’re seeing is increasing. I’m not downplaying mental abuse at all, but the increase in violence and physical injury is also scary, and it creates the potential for more homicides.”
For the general public, Thomas says if you know somebody who is being abused: “The best thing is to let that person know you care about them and if there’s anything you can do to help them, you will.”