Many domestic violence survivors share their stories, hoping they can make a difference in someone’s life. But most don’t want to address abusers. Not E. Marie Hall. The 52-year-old from Phoenix says, “They’re one of my favorite audiences. I feel like I’m right there at the source. I can say, ‘Look at me. I can tell you about this experience.”
Hall tells them how she lost both her mother and her sister to domestic violence.
The fourth of eight children and the youngest girl in her family, Hall spent her earliest years in Wilmington, NC. She moved to Arizona at age 2 to live with her aunt and uncle, who adopted her.
“When I was younger I felt abandoned. My mother kept everyone else, so I thought, ‘Why not me?’ But when I got older I realized this was the place I was supposed to be. It probably saved my life,” she says.
A Mother’s Murder
Hall stayed connected with her family in North Carolina, returning east to visit every year. In 1975 when she was 12 years old she got news no child should ever hear: her mother had been killed by her husband.
“At 12, I was totally not understanding. I didn’t know what domestic violence was; it was confusing for me. Why would a husband do that?” she says.
Her three younger brothers came to live with Hall and her family in Arizona, throwing the home into chaos. “This was in the ‘70s and none of us had any counseling. We were all going through all these emotions. My youngest brother was actually there when my mother was killed,” she says. “It was hard to go through. I was the type who never talked about it. My brothers acted out, but I internalized it.”
Tragedy Strikes Again
Years passed, and Hall had intermittent contact with her older sister, who was then a married mother of three living in Charlotte, NC. They wrote letters and spoke on the phone occasionally. But when Hall’s letters started getting returned to her, she tried calling, only to find out her sister’s phone number had been changed. “I still have the last letter I got from her,” she says.
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It turns out Hall’s sister was also a victim of domestic violence, and she was killed by her husband in 1989.
“I had no idea either [my mother or my sister] was being abused. But I was much older when my sister was killed, and after she was killed I could see that there were different signs and flags. But then I had no idea. I was not involved with awareness or prevention,” Hall says.
“Now I understand why she moved around so much, why my letters got returned, why her phone number was changed. Even the fact that she moved from Wilmington to another city may have had something to do with it. At the time I thought, ‘What’s wrong with her? She doesn’t keep in contact with me.’ Now I can see it so clearly,” she says.
Living in Fear
With both her mother and sister killed by their husbands, Hall feared that she would be next. “I thought for sure someone was going to kill me. If the slightest thing happened [while I was dating someone] I wanted out of the relationship. The idea that some man was going to kill me was always in the back of my mind, affecting everything I do and everywhere I go,” she says. Hall did end up marrying and becoming a mother to one son.
Then, Hall met a domestic violence advocate at the Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix where she worked. She thought she might like to share her story. But it took her years to build the courage to tell people what had happened in her family and to become involved in domestic violence awareness and prevention.
Since then, Hall has spoken with other domestic violence survivors. She acknowledges that she has a sad history but says she has overcome her past. “I show people how enlightened I’ve become. I’m not my mother. I’m not my sister. What happened to them has not happened to me. I create my own fate. I want people to know there’s hope. They don’t have to be depressed, scared or mistrustful their whole lives because something like this happened to someone close to them,” she says.
As a member of the speakers’ bureau for the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, Hall has spoken to groups of 30 to 40 abusers. She has spoken on behalf of other organizations as well. “My son would say, ‘Do you really want to talk to them?’ But I feel like if I can reach one person that’s good enough for me,” she says. She points out that a lot of people think abusers can’t change, but she doesn’t believe that’s true.
Whether batterers can change their behavior is a hotly debated topic. There are some signs that recovery is possible for abusers who want to change. Abusers may get support through training programs that can teach them how to regulate their emotions and reframe their relationships. But abusers need guidance; simply wanting to change isn’t likely enough to stop the behaviors they have learned.
Hall says, “I had a guy tell me, ‘You have changed the way I think. I appreciate you coming here and sharing that story.’ I want them to look at me. I’m that kid whose mother was killed and who suffered all of those years. I ask them, do they have kids? What do they think this does to a 12-year-old girl? People don’t realize how much this affects children.”
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