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Home / Articles / Your Voice / Nobody Would Have Been Surprised If I Had Died

Nobody Would Have Been Surprised If I Had Died

She says everyone knew she was living with an abuser growing up. No one intervened

  • By Katherine Fugate
  • May 30, 2018
Nobody Would Have Been Surprised If I Had Died

It starts somewhere. It starts in the home. I know what a mass shooter can look like.

First time I saw him, I was 13. The sun wasn’t even up yet and I was wearing my track uniform. I poured myself a bowl of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, turned and there he was, sitting at the round pale-blue Formica table reading the newspaper and drinking a cup of coffee.

He was a large man. Wavy hair and beard intertwined with strands of black and white. Blue-blue eyes. A department store Santa. He smiled at me. Introduced himself. I was late for practice. So I told him to wash his dishes before he left.

My mother met him the night before. The bowling alley was the place-to-be in our small town, with a crowded bar, nightly bowling leagues, giant trophies and a video game arcade. Normally we went with her, gorging on pizza and Dr. Pepper, but my youngest sister was sick. So my mom went alone, met him and brought him home.

She’d been looking for a man for a while. She was a mother with three little girls. She did not have a job. That was a lot to take on for anyone. Her second marriage had ended a year earlier. He started sleeping in her bedroom every night after they met. A few weeks later, I woke up to find them both gone. It was Christmas Eve morning. She’d left a note. They had gone to Vegas, a four-hour drive. Watch your two younger sisters, please. They’d be back that night.

I wasn’t mad. I was hopeful. She was lonely, she was drinking more and the laundry was piling up in the garage. He lifted her up, easily, and swung her around the room, happily, and he bought all three of us brand new bicycles. I wanted it to work out for her this time. We all did.

I woke up before dawn on Christmas morning and they still hadn’t come home. The Christmas tree was decorated and the red and green lights were blinking expectantly, but the cookies and milk were untouched. I ate the cookies, drank the milk, and then stole her money from the cigar box.

I rode my new banana seat bike that he bought me in the dark to the 7-Eleven on Grand Avenue, where I bought presents on behalf of Santa. I bought records for my two sisters. The 45’s of I Think I Love You by The Partridge Family and I Don’t Like Spiders and Snakes by Jim Stafford. The three of us had a band called “Wonder.” I played the drums on the back of a set of silver pots, while they played the tambourine and maracas. Our mother was our best and only audience. At the store, I bought as much candy, soapy bubbles and plastic toys as I could afford. Then, I bought one more thing. A gift for my mother. The .45 record of You and Me Against the World by Helen Reddy.

“When all the others turn their backs and walk away
You can count on me to stay…”

I wanted her to know I would stay.

“And when one of us is gone
And one of us is left to carry on
Remembering will have to do…”

I wanted her to know I would remember her.

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I rode my bike home as the sun rose. I wrapped the Christmas presents and put them under the tree. I quickly made pancakes, which my mother had always done for us on Christmas morning. My sisters woke up shortly after and opened their gifts. If they were disappointed in the small bounty, they didn’t say. We got out the silver pots, played the records and sang the songs. It was a happy Christmas morning. The only thing missing was our audience.

My mother called hours later. They were driving back from Vegas. Would I find a restaurant open for Christmas dinner? Scouring the Yellow Pages, I made a reservation at a Chinese restaurant in the next town, and it was there my mother showed us her diamond ring and told us they were getting married. From that day forward, he lived with us. The changes happened rather fast.

I never liked meat. Even as a very small child, my mother told me I would spit out beef. For dinner, my mother made meatloaf, his favorite. She gave me the side dishes: mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese. He insisted I eat the meatloaf. I wouldn’t. My mother defended me. But he was the man of the house now. I could not leave the kitchen table until I ate the meatloaf. My mother shook me awake the next morning. I had fallen asleep. She had a black eye. I never saw him hit her. But I didn’t have to eat the meatloaf.

He bought her a red Lotus, an expensive sports car with a stick shift. Then, they took another trip to Vegas and left us alone. I stole my mother’s car keys and drove my sisters to school in the brand new Lotus. I taught myself how to drive her stick shift, but not very well, because I hit a tree in the school parking lot. Students stared. Teachers stared. The car was towed.

I was 14 and didn’t have a driver’s license. They called my mother in Vegas. She returned with a black eye, a split lip and a badly bruised arm hanging limply by her side. He walked right past me into the house without saying a word. She looked right at me and said, quietly, “I took it for you.”

It was my fault I wrecked the car. It was my fault he beat her.

My mother started drinking more. He started drinking more. The fights happened more. A passion play and we were the audience. Parenting became an afterthought. When the food in the house ran out, my sisters and I would take a taxi and my mother’s checkbook to the grocery store. We’d load up the shopping cart and not with very good choices. In front of the cashier, I’d carefully fill out the dollar amount on the check, and then forge my mother’s signature. It was a small town.

Everybody knew why. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

Life became a routine. When the fighting started downstairs, my younger sisters left their bedrooms and showed up in mine. The record player went on. The record collection grew. I learned which chair to wedge under the doorknob to keep my bedroom door shut. I learned which concealer worked best to hide her bruises the next morning. Sometimes, the ambulance would come. Sometimes, she’d wear dark sunglasses, a loose sweatshirt and a big floppy hat when she walked the dogs.

Everybody knew. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

There were moments of hope. Because nobody is angry and violent all day, every day. They just have to be angry and violent one day. My mother would wake us up in the middle of the night, and tell us to pack a suitcase. We’d hole up in a hotel. We were underworld spies, prisoners from a jailbreak. We’d order food, watch Charlie’s Angels, hope to never to be found. But we were never really lost, because a day or two later, he’d knock on the hotel door, carrying flowers. And it was over. Because who doesn’t want to go to Disneyland? Who doesn’t want to be the first house on the block to have a swimming pool?

My mother hated guns, so there were no guns in our house. I slept with a butcher knife under my pillow. I used it once. I was 16. The fighting downstairs stopped, abruptly, in the middle of my mother’s scream. I called 911 and then I crept downstairs. He was hunched over her body. She was on the floor in a pool of her own blood. I put the knife to the back of his neck to stop him from killing my mother. The ambulance came and took her away. The police came and took him away. We snuck into a next door neighbor’s backyard and slept on their lawn furniture. We woke up with blankets. Of course, they knew.

Everybody knew. But nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

Weeks later, I was called out of my high school English class. My mother was at the school and wanted to talk to me. It was Halloween. I was a vampire, my long black cape flapping in the wind. She, newly released from the hospital, looked like a mummy, with her hollow eyes, her head shaved and her 32 stitches wrapped in white bandages. School was in session, so we were alone. She’d paid his bail. He was sorry. He was waiting at the house. Would I give him another chance, please?

My mother came to my school, begging me not to break up with her.

“When all the others turn their backs and walk away
You can count on me to stay…”

I broke my own heart when I did not come home from school that day. My mother could “take it” for me, but I couldn’t “take it” anymore. My middle sister, 13, ran away. Our father, remarried with two new small children, put her into a boarding school. My youngest sister, who had a different father from my mother’s second marriage, was only 6, so she cried herself to sleep at night. Our family was torn apart. So they moved to a new house on the outskirts of our small town on a secluded dirt road.

Last time I saw him, I was 16. When I pulled up to the new house to get my things, he stepped outside to meet me. The beard was gone. He’d lost weight. He was calm. He held a shotgun in his hand. It was pointed down, non-threatening. There was finality in the moment. I was leaving home for good. There was finality in the presence of a weapon. If I was willing to use a knife, he was willing to use a gun.

My sister was still in that house. My mother was still in that house.

Everybody knew.

Neighbors, coaches, grocery store cashiers, elementary, junior and high school teachers, school principals, classmates. Her parents knew, my father knew.

Everybody knew. Nobody said a thing.

What we allow will continue. What continues will escalate.

I never saw my stepfather again. There is no big turning point moment here, where I confronted him about the abuse. Where I asked him, point blank, why did you beat my mother? Where I told him, point blank, the pain he caused my sisters and me could be forgiven, but it could never be undone. My mother left him a few years later. She died a few years after that.

My stepfather did not murder my mother. My stepfather did not murder me.

But had my stepfather picked up a gun and killed us all, nobody would have been surprised. He was a violent guy, they’d tell the news cameras. Everybody knew that.

But nobody got involved. Because we somehow believe that we are safe from a guy who “only” beats his wife. We’re not a member of that family, so it doesn’t really affect us.

Had my stepfather picked up a semi-automatic weapon and killed scores of strangers in a public place, nobody would have been surprised by that either. He was a violent guy, they’d tell the news cameras. Everybody knew that.

But now everybody’s involved. Because innocent people have been killed in a church, in a nightclub, at a concert or a cafe, and in an elementary school.

Domestic violence no longer lives inside that one house on the block. Domestic violence lives in the public now.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, the majority of all mass shooters in the United States killed an intimate partner or family member during the massacre or had a history of domestic violence.

Somebody out there, right now, knows the next big mass shooter. Somebody out there is getting blamed, screamed at, beaten up.

Somebody out there wants to believe that he’s sorry, that he’s changed and that love means giving him a second chance. Even if that second chance means giving him another bullet because he missed the first time.

Somebody out there, right now, needs our help.

Once, you could feel sorry for the three little girls from the violent home forging a check at the grocery store. Once, you could smile softly, avert your eyes and do nothing. Not anymore.

The facts show that domestic violence is a very clear warning sign that people outside of the family might also be hurt in the future.

Violent men don’t just drop out of the sky with guns and start shooting up people in public places. There are warning signs.

Abused women and children are the canary in the coal mine.

It starts somewhere. It starts in the home.

Nobody would have been surprised if I had died.

“And when one of us is gone
And one of us is left to carry on
Then remembering will have to do
Our memories alone will get us through
Think about the days of me and you
Of you and me against the world
I love you, Mommy
I love you, baby…”

Editor's Note: This article is part of #YourVoice, an ongoing column published on this website by individual contributors in their own personal capacity and that involves the opinions, recollections and/or information provided by such contributors, and which does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of this website. Katherine Fugate is an activist, mom, survivor and the creator and executive producer of Army Wives, and the screenwriter of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. This article was originally published on