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Home Articles Survivor: Joanne

Survivor: Joanne

Young, alone and far from home, she fought immigration issues to break free

Survivor: Joanne

I moved to America from Malta in 1988, when I was 19, to be with my high school sweetheart. He had moved there two years earlier, and we had been sending love letters across the ocean. I missed him. When I arrived, I noticed that his personality had changed, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was bothering me. I didn’t want to worry my parents, and I felt pressured to decide about marriage—that was the reason I had come to America. In just a few months we were married.

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I knew within a month I had made a mistake. He was mentally and emotionally abusive from the beginning. He had to be in charge. He would say my sweater was cut too low or my skirt was too short. I thought, “What the hell did I get myself into?” But I loved him, and I wanted to try to make it work. I wanted to be a good wife.

Immigration Status Becomes a Barrier

We both overstayed our tourist visas, so we couldn’t go back to Malta; if we left we might not be allowed back into the U.S. My husband got his green card, so he had stability here. I kept asking him when we were going to get mine, but he always had an excuse. I thought I should trust him, for better or for worse. Now, I see I trusted him too much. Being in this country without papers, you can’t get a credit card. You can’t even get a library card. There were times when we had a big fight and I tried to stay out of the house. I couldn’t get a hotel room, even with cash. For 18 years I was persona non-existent, and that’s how he wanted it. 

A year and a half into our marriage I discovered that he had a relationship with another woman when I was still living in Malta. It was like somebody pulled the rug out from under me. Soon after that, I got pregnant with our first baby. I think he got me pregnant on purpose to keep me from leaving him.

He alienated my friends and family. But when we did see people, we seemed like the perfect couple. I didn’t want to air my dirty laundry—if I did there would be hell to pay when I got home.

He controlled the finances. He wanted to make sure I had no means to leave. Our property and bank accounts were all in his name. When we bought a home in the suburbs he refused to put my name on the contract. 

It was hard for me to admit that verbal and emotional abuse were abuse. I didn’t accept that I was abused until it became physical. When I was eight months pregnant with my second child, we had a heatwave. I was hot and uncomfortable, and I wasn’t going anywhere, so I stayed in my pajamas all day. He got so upset he grabbed me by the neck and hung me up against the wall. I was afraid for my life.

He told me if I ever tried to leave he would have me deported and I would never see the kids again. All he would have to do was make an anonymous call. I knew the threat was real. 

My parents said they could tell from photos that I didn’t look happy. They were concerned, but I never told them what was going on. I didn’t want to worry them. I stopped sending photos of myself, and just sent photos of the kids. My parents came to visit every six years or so, and every time they did, my ex made it miserable, so much so that the last time they visited I decided they shouldn’t stay with us. 

My husband kept saying, “I want to change, you have to help me, you have to love me more.” I loved him so much I lost myself.

Connecting with a Cousin

I grew up with a cousin—she and I were like sisters—and when she moved to America we reconnected instantly. I felt that I had someone to confide in. The minute she came to this country she reminded me of the girl I once was. She helped build me up and she never told me what to do, she just said, “Whatever you need, I’m here for you.”

She and I talked a lot at my house, and one day my husband used a word that was in my cousin’s vocabulary, not his. It struck me as odd and I suspected he was recording our conversations. When he was at work I accessed his tool room—it took me more than three hours to open the five locks on it. I discovered a tape recorder connected to our phone line. After I confronted him he admitted that he had been recording my calls for the entire seven years of our marriage. 

But I couldn’t leave without risking deportation. If I was deported I might never see my sons again. 

My husband found new ways to abuse me. He banned my access to the washer and dryer, forcing me to hand-wash and hang-dry the laundry.  

He made me question my sanity. When I took a shower, the water would go cold and he insisted nothing was wrong. I discovered he put a switch in his closet, so he could turn off the hot water every time I showered.

I developed a rash and one day I noticed light green specks in my ground coffee. It dawned on me that I was the only one drinking coffee. I switched to single-serving packs and the rash went away. (Years later I found rat poison in the basement that looked like the specks I saw in my coffee.)

Still, I wanted to make our marriage work. I begged my ex to go for counseling, and he finally agreed. After a few sessions the therapist asked to meet alone with each of us. My ex refused until I threatened to leave him. In my one-on-one session the therapist said, “From what I can see your husband has the worst narcissistic personality I have ever seen, and he’s also a sociopath.” But without my immigration issues resolved, I was trapped.

Fighting Back 

I started to stand up to him and that’s when the physical abuse escalated. I wanted to tell him how I felt, and I decided to record the conversation because he tended to turn fights around and make them my fault. In the middle of the fight he noticed that I had a recorder, and he lost his temper. He didn’t want the vile things that he was saying to be on record. Trying to take the recorder from me, he punched me in the face and knocked me out. When I came to, he was strangling me. I realized he might kill me. My kids would grow up with this monster. 

Somehow, I was able to get out from under him. I flew down the stairs, grabbed the cordless phone and called 911. I ran out to the street, bleeding, with a broken nose, a broken mouth, cuts and bruises. The phone lost reception, but the call had gone through. When I heard sirens, I ran toward the noise. The police took me home and took my ex to jail. I refused to go to the hospital because I didn’t want to wake up the kids and take them to a shelter. 

The next day I was so swollen I looked deformed—no amount of makeup could have covered my injuries. I visited my cousin so she could take pictures to document my injuries. I felt so embarrassed riding on the bus, with people staring at me, thinking, “Oh boy, she sure got a beating last night.” I wanted the earth to swallow me.

I didn’t press charges. It was the biggest mistake of my life. 

Searching for a Way Out

A string of divorce attorneys refused my case because of my immigration status. I finally found an immigration lawyer who said I could get a green card if I could prove I was an abused spouse. I could—I had been keeping a journal for 10 years, and I had recordings, police reports and photographs. Once I got my green card I filed for divorce. 

My husband came home livid after being served divorce papers, and I saw him for what he was—nothing but a bully. Bullies are stopped when you push back, but it can be very dangerous to push back. 

In the divorce, he expected me to be submissive and to give him everything. I didn’t ask for much, but he wanted to destroy me. He wanted me living on the street. He made my life a living hell. If I moved out I couldn’t take the kids, so I had to make him leave. I recorded him threatening me, and I was able to get an order of protection and remove him from the house. That was my victory day. 

When the police came to take him away I said I needed access to the basement, which was his private space, locked with seven padlocks. Down there, I discovered tape recorders and microphones recording every room of my house. I was up until three in the morning uncovering cassette tapes that were hidden in the ceiling. He had been recording my every word for the duration of our marriage. 

A Brighter Future

In 2010 our divorce was final. I was in therapy for six years, coming to terms with my abuse and its aftermath. Now, I have a backbone. I speak my mind, and people can take it or leave it.

I wasn’t looking for another relationship, but I love to dance so I searched online for a dancing partner. In December 2011 I agreed to meet a man for coffee, and we talked for five hours. We dated, and I finally agreed to marry him. It was the best decision of my life. We’ve been happily married for five years. With him, I can be 100 percent myself, and he accepts me as I am. 

My sons are 26 and 22 now and they love my current husband. He’s been more of a father to them than my ex ever was. He treats them like his own, and they feel like he truly loves them. 

When I share my story, it seems like someone else’s life. It’s so far removed from my life today.

Are you recovering from an abusive partner? Read about healing techniques and self-care in our "Taking Care of You" section.