CN: mention of suicide, domestic violence, emotional abuse, financial abuse, mention of sexual abuse, poverty, overall disturbing content.
“When I say, “Good girl,” I want you to say, “Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I handed him the yellow check. When the bank-clerk originally asked me what color I wanted my checks in, I picked gold, but it turned out that gold just meant a different shade of yellow. It was written out to my boyfriend Julian, for $300-- all I had left in my bank account.
My boss was pressuring me to quit and I wasn’t sure I would be able to find another job. My parents found me this one, and I didn’t have that networking source anymore. I was living by myself for the first time, I had no computer, no savings, no one to call for help.
I texted Julian. “I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid I might hurt myself.”
Julian replied, “I look forward to a time when you are whole again and I can support you through times like this.”
I flipped through the phone book I happened to bring with me when I moved out, found a suicide hotline number, and called.
Julian offered me a proposal. For every hour I worked for him, he would pay me $10 of my money.
This idea wasn’t unprecedented. Previously, whenever I made him mad, I’d make it up to him by cooking special meals, baking him a cake. But then as I ran out of ways to atone for my wrong-doing, it expanded to chores: I washed his dishes, cleaned his counters, did his laundry.
Julian said the work was because I was constantly costing him energy. My anxiety was like poison to him, he had invested so much in me, I had done nothing but take. He called this problem, “the debt.” He said using this system would help me pay back the debt and give structure to my empty life.
He said if I could earn back the full $300 twice over, I would pay the debt off.
I came to work at his house 3-4 times a week. Sometimes I’d get the text at 2 am that it was time. I’d slip on a tight dress, nylons, and heels, and walk the 7 blocks to his apartment.
I washed his dishes, cleaned every inch of his counters, scrubbed the inside of his fridge, removing a moldy mess in one of the drawers. I cleaned everything I could find in his tiny bathroom. I snuck into my cleaning clothes when he left the house and I returned to my good-girl clothes before he got home. I did his laundry once a week at the laundromat across the street. It cost $1.50 before 11 am on Tuesdays.
I scratched a record of all my hours on a little yellow notepad with a broken pencil.
I cooked. I bought him presents and wore special outfits. I mended his clothes. I gave him massages. I held on for dear life to the secret ball of peace and safety inside myself during violent sex.
Instead of a steady $10/hour, Julian decided that he would adjust my payment rate according to the quality of my work. When I was enthusiastic and well behaved, he bumped me up to $20/hr. But when I was anxious and struggling to hide it, he slashed my rate down to $5.
I discovered the hard way that if I made Julian angry, he would void out my previous work and I’d start again from zero.
My memory is hazy on what sort of behaviors usually triggered a reset. Julian was one with my thoughts to the point that I was unsure of which ones were his and which ones were mine. Sometimes I’m unsure if my memories are ones he put there, not what happened.
One morning, we were sharing a rare intimate moment when Julian pulled away a bit and said, “What’s wrong?” Confused, I told him nothing was wrong. He said, “You were fine and then suddenly you stiffened. You were thinking something that was making you anxious. What was it?”
My brain had already erased whatever it was that made me anxious. I still had a slight impression that a piece of information was missing, but I had no idea what it was. We went back and forth, I insisted it was nothing, Julian insisted I was lying. I finally came up with some excuse, but by that time the damage was done. I lost all my recorded hours.
I struggled to find a new job. I had no resume writing abilities whatsoever and no skillset to focus on. With no computer, I had to make trips on weekdays to the campus library, where my university email still worked, despite dropping out the term before. My anxiety was severe, so working up the energy to leave the house on my non-Julian days, just to apply for jobs that I knew I wouldn’t get, proved difficult. I rarely got interviews.
I didn’t know I qualified for food stamps, so I ate little, and once a month took an hour-long bus ride to a wholesale store, where I loaded up as many bags as I could carry with cheap food. To bring in a little extra money, I taught voice lessons to some high schoolers and volunteered for psychology experiments. The experiments just required a school ID, not to be currently enrolled in classes, so if the leader of the experiment asked me about my major, I’d mumble something about taking a few terms off. My income was about $100 per month.
Even on the days I didn’t see Julian, my time was devoted to him.
To rack up additional hours, I sewed him a patchwork quilt by hand. I had no money for fabric, so I pawed through bags of old clothes and craft projects that I had saved up seemingly for this very reason. At one point I ran out of thread and spent several days agonizing over the decision to spend a dollar or two on a new spool.
The quilt was beautiful. I laid out the squares of fabric, carefully choosing a place for each one so that the colors complimented each other: pieces of my mother’s dresses, fabric I bought when I was 9, pieces of a friend’s sewing collection. The rows of squares were crooked, but they were vibrant and painfully cheerful. I poured my heart into the quilt, as well as my time. Making it was slow grueling work.
I kept careful track of my hours and the amount of money I had earned, separately from the yellow notepad and crumbling pencil stub Julian gave me. Between my side projects and work for him, at the end of the month, I had earned enough to pay my rent.
First, I needed to get the money back from Julian.
I texted him, using my most careful and submissive language, to ask if it would be okay if he could pay me back the amount I had earned so far pretty soon so that I could pay my rent by the 1st. He owed me about $170. Julian responded that he would be happy to pay me what I had earned, however, according to his records, he only owed me $80.
Panicking, I tried to convince him that his numbers were wrong. I talked him through my records, how much I had earned and when, but he picked up on my panic. After some arguing, he said, “I can’t speak to you when you’re like this.” He refused to pay me any of what he owed and ignored my texts.
I paced back and forth across my apartment, frantically reviewing my options. I needed that money. I had no other way of paying my rent. I had no safety net, no credit, no income. I would have to try to apologize to Julian and behave so perfectly, do my work so enthusiastically, that he’d forgive me, listen, and give the money back. I would have no room for error.
I can’t. I can’t do it.
I knew there was no way I could hide this level of anxiety from him. I knew I could not grovel low enough to please him and get the money back while holding all this anger and panic inside. I had tried so hard to disconnect, to let go of myself through the worst moments so that I could selflessly and unconsciously do everything needed of me. But no matter how I tried, my sense of self remained. I could not make myself small enough to do this.
I stared at my list of phone contacts, all the people I couldn’t call for help. My eyes fell on a name: Cameron.
Cameron was a family friend that I had known since I was very small. Her siblings and parents had been a surrogate extended family for me. She had also been the only one who instantly understood my motivations when I cut off contact with my parents at age 19. She was a counselor and a friend, and I trusted her with my past and current self in a way I didn’t trust anyone else.
I called. Cameron listened carefully. Unlike every other person who had talked to me about Julian, Cameron didn’t try to convince me to leave him.
“I can lend you the money. That’s no problem,” she said, “But I’m concerned about you and the power dynamics and relationship patterns you’re learning and how they could affect future relationships that you’re in. Can you tell me, what are you wanting in all of this?”
Stunned, I became aware that I was having thoughts and feelings and they were rapidly becoming larger than I was. Something started to shift
After taking a few weeks to myself, I convinced Julian that he was mistaken about the money he owed me. “I won’t apologize,” he said. “I made a mistake. I’m only human.”
He never apologized for what he’d done.
Cameron sent me a check, enabling me to pay rent. A few weeks later, I left Julian.
I didn’t actually plan to leave. One night, he was yelling at me, and I found myself halfway out the door with my coat in my hand.
He blocked my path and I stared at the floor waiting for his lecture. He suddenly became quiet.
“You really want to be free?” he said. I nodded.
Julian breathed deeply and with a gesture, he said, “I release you of your debt.”
Halfway home, I remembered the other half of the $300. I texted Julian, to ask about it. He said if I wanted I could come back another time to collect it, or, I could leave it with him as a thank you for all he’d done for me. I did not return for the check.
Financial vulnerability makes women less likely to leave their abusive relationships. My escape can be directly attributed to having access to financial assistance, somewhere safe to go, and affordable therapy to recover from the trauma.
Through it’s strange to say, I got lucky, in that the physical abuse I experienced was minimal, and not central to Julian’s control over me. Had the physical danger been more severe, or had I needed to take care of children in addition to myself, leaving would have been much harder.
I spent the next several months staying with friends because I was lucky enough to have a social network who made sure I was never homeless. I found out there was a new gluten-free bakery in the area-- my specialty. I reached out to the owner and got myself a job. I found a local organization that provided therapy to people with low-incomes, and I was able to make healing a priority. It took me years to establish stable housing and finances, and much longer to process the trauma.
But my story is part of a much larger problem.
A staggering 25% of women report experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime, and 3 women per day are killed by their romantic partners in the U.S. African-American women experience domestic violence at a rate 35% higher than white women, and two and a half times the rate of other women of color. I personally know two people who were killed in connection with intimate partner violence.
Unexpectedly, 99% of domestic violence abuse victims experience financial abuse, a form of manipulation in which the abuser controls their victim through money. My experience was particularly nightmarish, but financial abuse can also include behaviors such as limiting access to bank accounts, creating obstacles to looking for or acquiring a job, or requiring documentation of the victim’s spending.
Financial independence is crucial to escaping an abusive situation and having access to the resources needed to get out doesn’t have to depend on luck.There are specific actions you can take to help someone else out of a situation like mine.
The Purple Purse Allstate Foundation works to help survivors of domestic abuse by giving back the autonomy their abusers took from them.
They specialize in helping women achieve financial independence through increasing their access to credit rebuilding loans, child care, transportation, food, and counseling. They offer educational material on how to handle finances while leaving an abusive partner, managing a budget, job searching, and pursuing a career. All these materials are available online, for free, in English and Spanish.
Donations from you to them mean women like me don’t have to rely on luck to get out.
I never gave Julian the quilt I made for him. I finished stitching it in the weeks after I left and decided to keep it for myself, as an act of self-love. Its beauty defies the environment in which it was made. Its hand-stitched details signal the resilience of the person who created it.
This post was originally published in the blog of Ms. Magazine.