(ICYMI: Part I)
Robin* met James* when he was technically still married to his first wife (see Part I of this story here). That could have been a red flag, but the way James described Lindsey made her sound “crazy,” says Robin, and she had no reason not to believe this man who came off as charming and chivalrous.
“You’d never think he was a monster on the inside,” Robin remembers. “Then again, he’s had lots of years of practice.”
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Many survivors attest to the fact that abusers often start their abusive behaviors so slowly, so innocuously, that it’s easy to miss the initial red flags. This is how abusers entrap victims, just as James did to Robin and the woman before her.
Robin was in her early 30s, had just gone through a divorce herself and had a 12-year-old son. She knew of James—they grew up in the same small Arkansas town—but they’d never really talked before. As soon as they did, things moved fast— he relied on love-bombing Robin to win her over.
Everything seemed OK until about three weeks after Robin and James said their vows. The couple was grocery shopping together and Robin wanted to buy whipped cream for a pie she was making.
“He didn’t like whipped cream,” Robin says. He was angry she’d even suggest such an idea and yelled at her to “shut her smart mouth” in the middle of the store. Then he pushed her right into the store racks and walked out of the store, driving away in their car.
“He left me there for hours.”
Robin thought maybe it was just PTSD. He had told her he was in the Marines a long time ago, and it was rough on him.
“In reality, I found out he never even deployed,” she says.
James’s physical abuse only escalated from there. Robin internalized all of it. “I went through this phase of, if only I could be a better wife. Then it was, if only I can just get through this week.”
James’s favorite thing to do, says Robin, was to strangle her until she passed out, ominously whispering “night night” as she lost consciousness. He also liked to humiliate her, one time pushing her face-first into a salad she was eating. Another time, he threw her up against the wall so hard he broke her tailbone.
“I had to stand at work all day long for the next six weeks because I couldn’t sit down from the pain,” she remembers. “You start to judge your own sanity and question your every decision. Like, how could I have picked this person to marry?”
James heavily gaslighted Robin throughout their marriage, constantly telling her certain events as she remembered them never happened, or that people said the exact opposite of what they really said, like the time he tried to convince her the marriage counselor they saw together had blamed his abuse on Robin.
“You just get tired of the everyday mind battles. I think it was just as traumatizing as the physical abuse. At least the physical abuse wasn’t all day, every day like the gaslighting.”
Robin grew up in a loving family. She never imagined she would become the target of an abusive husband. She tried desperately to hide what she was going through. Reporting to her job as a Realty Management Coordinator at Wal-Mart’s home office in Rogers, Ark., she layered on the makeup to hide the bruised eyes and split lips.
One day, Robin’s friends showed up at her home with a U-Haul trailer and a shotgun, hoping to get her out. “I still didn’t go,” she says. “I thought, I’m not the one doing anything wrong. He should leave! Looking back, that was idiotic thinking.”
She filed a police report against her husband, but it had little effect. As James’ abuse continued, it dawned on her. “It didn’t matter what I did or didn’t do. It [abuse] was going to happen. When he got to the explosive part of his abusive cycle, he was going to beat me, period.”
She recalls the day she went into work without makeup, the violence of home written all over her face, her last cry for help. Luckily, someone noticed.
“Wal-Mart brought in a domestic violence counselor to help make an escape plan,” she remembers. But the plan was the furthest she could get. It wasn’t as easy to put it into action. Most survivors are trapped by more than one barrier to leaving—they’re being brainwashed, manipulated, threatened into staying. They know their lives are most at risk when they finally break free from the abuser’s control.
She began stashing away money in preparation for leaving, rerouting some of her paycheck into another account. She told her husband she was bringing home less because their health insurance premium had gone up. Her son, now 17, was going to graduate in less than two years, and that’s when they would leave. She would rent the two of them an apartment.
“I felt like I could handle his abuse for two years.”
It was the morning after Thanksgiving, 2013, and Robin was due at work. James was especially heated that day, she remembers. “He had this demeanor that was scary. He was feral.”
She decided to go into work early to get away from him, but as she started heading down the highway, she saw his Jeep driving behind her. She pulled into a parking lot near her office, unsure of what to do. She didn’t want him to follow her to the entrance of her building and cause a scene. She decided to call her boss and say she couldn’t make it in to work. She turned around and headed home.
“He’s calling me nonstop,” she says of her ex-husband, who was still following her. When she looked down at her phone to turn it off, she rear-ended the car in front of her. The damage was minor, but the police came to the scene. Robin knew her husband was nearby.
“I was just shaking. Everything inside of me was screaming out, please! Help me! If there’s anything you can do, help me!” But she was too afraid to say it out loud. There had only been one time previously that she’d called the police on her abusive husband. After filing the report, a detective called James at work and told him what Robin had done.
“I called the detective and said, ‘this beating’s on you,” Robin remembers.
On this day, Robin was especially terrified to go home. She knew James would be waiting. Walking into the house, she ordered her son to go to his room. She went to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet.
“He walked in and hit me in the face,” says Robin. “It was more humiliating than painful.”
Then he picked up his wife and threw her into the bedroom where Robin’s head struck the footboard of the bed. She doesn’t remember if it was a kick or a punch, but she was hit in the stomach so hard she couldn’t breathe. She begged James to give her a second to catch her breath before continuing his beating. She looked over and saw a hatbox underneath her desk nearby.
“That’s the last thing I remember.”
Doctors would tell her later about dissociative amnesia, a type of memory loss that can occur in moments of high-stress or trauma. Sometimes the memories come back, but in pieces. Later, through her husband’s accounts of events and her own memories returning slowly, she’d find out what she did. Hiding in the hatbox that day was her gun. A small .22 pistol she had hidden there months earlier, just in case.
“Apparently, I crawled to the hatbox, got my gun and shot him in the face. I don’t have any visual memory of this. I just remember sitting in the bedroom and thinking, “Why is he talking funny?”
But the bullet didn’t kill him—it went into his jaw and out underneath his ear. And it didn’t stop him—he went for his gun. She screamed for her son to call 911 and to run and get help. Her next memory is of being in the kitchen where her brain told her to do something drastic.
“All he wanted to do for five years,” says Robin of her ex-husband, “was kill me. Every time he threatened it, he would get this wicked smirk of a grin. It was evil. I thought, I’m not going to let him have that final say over how I die. At that moment, I decided that he would never have control over me again.”
So Robin stabbed herself in the neck with a knife.
“I don’t remember feeling anything. I pulled the knife out and just waited.”
She knows it doesn’t make logical sense.
“I think my brain was misfiring and shutting down because of the trauma from that day and the accumulated trauma from years of abuse and strangulations.”
She spent a week in the ICU, then voluntarily checked into the psychiatric ward. “I knew I needed help,” she says. She was diagnosed with PTSD, dissociative amnesia, major depressive disorder and severe panic attack disorder. After she was released from the hospital, she went to a woman’s shelter. Her son was staying with her parents. Her husband, now recovered, had also been released from the hospital.
“I honestly thought that, maybe once this blew over, I could go back to work and start my life over.” She knew that wouldn’t be the case when she spotted herself on TV at the shelter.
“On the news, they said police were looking for me, and that I should be considered armed and dangerous.” Only, Robin was at the women’s shelter police had sent her to.
“Throughout this TV interview with the detective, pictures of our wedding and us at the shooting range were being shown on the screen, pictures provided to the police by James. I knew I was already judged guilty by most of the general public.”
She called a friend who worked as an attorney who notified police that she would turn herself in. The detective who’d informed her husband a month prior that Robin had filed a police report for abuse was now at the shelter, arresting her.
She was taken to jail.
“What was surprising about jail was that about a third of the women there were there for the same thing,” she says. They were survivors who had fought back against an abuser. “There was a girl there with staples down the back of her head and they had arrested her for scratching [her abuser].”
Robin would end up spending three months in jail before her attorney was able to lower her bail from $250,000 to $50,000, allowing her to bond out. After 16 months of court hearings, Robin had run out of money and, frankly, run out of fight. She took a plea deal. Her previous criminal record consisted of two speeding tickets, but now, she was a convicted felon, sentenced to 10 years of probation. It’ll be up in 2025.
James was never arrested.
Today, at 46, she’s still trying to process everything that happened. “I go from upset to angry to depressed. I have a degree in political science that I can’t use. No one’s going to hire a convicted felon. Now, I clean houses.”
She says she’s also grateful because she got out, “and that’s something a lot of women in similar situations never get the chance to say.”
She’s seen her ex-husband once, when he showed up to her parents’ house where she was staying with her son after getting out of jail.
“My heart just stopped. He took one step toward me and I held up my hand for him to stop. I told him, ‘If I ever see you again, I’ll finish what I started that day.’ I’ve never seen him again.”
Her probation officer reminds her to “stay out of trouble,” she says. “Self-defense is not getting into trouble. It’s just another dig. Once you’re a felon, this is how you’re looked at.”
She sees a therapist every month. For a while, she did therapy together with her son. He’s 24 now holds a steady job, but still deals with some “residual emotional scars,” Robin says, which he sees a therapist for. “That’s where my guilt comes in … because of what this did to him.”
Before Robin had even got out of jail, James had moved in with Kristina**, soon to become his third wife. She was pregnant with twins.
Four years later, in 2019, Robin would testify against him on his new wife’s behalf so she could get an order of protection.
“She reached out to me on Facebook,” Robin says of Kristina. “I knew it was only a matter of time before he started abusing her and that knowledge made me sick to my stomach, so I was proud of her when she reached out to me. I was determined to do anything and everything I could possibly do to make sure her story did not end like mine.”
The two women would talk for hours, day and night, which both helped Robin and simultaneously triggered her own terror all over again.
“I was terrified he would take out his anger on me over Kristina filing for divorce.” Robin was convinced he waited around every corner, ready to kill her like he’d promised a hundred times before. She sought therapy to help her process those feelings.
Kristina also reached out to Lindsey, James’s first wife. Lindsey says it felt surreal when she got the message. This is probably crazy, but I just need to know if my babies and I are in danger, Kristina wrote.
Still wracked with guilt that she’d never responded to Robin, Lindsey says she responded now to Kristina. Yes, she says, you’re in danger.
“She [Kristina] sent me this tape of her an audio conversation with him and it was the same circular arguments, the same exploding temper and this victimhood,” says Lindsey. “I thought, wow, this person has not changed at all. He did the same stuff to her he did to me.”
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Through Kristina, all three women finally connected, starting a group text chain, something that still continues today, along with a once-a-month call. Robin and Lindsey say that hearing about the other women’s experiences is retraumatizing to an extent, but also validating. And, in many ways, healing.
“Robin’s fixing up her back yard and has a new spa. I’ve been gardening a lot. This is what we talk about,” says Lindsey with a quiet laugh. “I call them sister wives.”
“We are each other’s support team, confidant, advocate, friend and soul sister,” says Robin.
The three women have never met in person. It’s a club they don’t want any other women to join, for obvious reasons. But Lindsey says she knows James is using a dating app. Sometimes he reaches out to her, pretending like they can chat like old friends. Lindsey doesn’t respond.
* Last names withheld for safety.
** Name changed for safety.
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