I can admit that while I understood that it was never the domestic abuse victim's fault, for many years I did have trouble understanding why they stayed. I knew the stories about having nowhere to go, about the manipulation, about the danger, but I also knew that I would rather sleep under bridges and get abused by random strangers than let someone I loved hurt me in a vicious, repeating pattern. And with the wonderfully secure, healthy home my parents fostered, it's no wonder I felt that way--that kind of suffering is literally beyond my comprehension.
When I left home, I no longer lived in the environments of my rearing: a white suburban cul-de-sac or a quarter million dollar house in a secluded country idyll. In 2003, I was living in the worst neighborhood I'd ever lived in; I called 911 on a regular basis to stop people from bleeding in the convenience store parking lot outside our front door, and once we came home to the aftermath of a (thankfully ineffectual) shooting aimed at the crack dealers living in the front half of our run-down, rotting duplex.
One night that summer, around ten o'clock, someone knocked at our door. I peered through the window and found a young woman with tortured-straight hair and nice clothes nervously peering around the parking lot. I assumed she had the wrong house, so I opened the inside door without unlocking the screen and asked what she wanted.
She wanted someone to drive her to a cash machine, because her husband had stopped her credit cards. She was hoping her ATM card would still work. It didn't. She'd stayed in a hotel the night before because her husband had hit her, and tonight, without her credit cards, she had nowhere to go. She asked if she could stay at our house. She explained that she didn't have anywhere else to go, and it was just one night, and she could find a friend or a co-worker to stay with tomorrow, please, she'd sleep on the couch, she wouldn't be any trouble. She had a thick French accent, so it was easy to imagine her relatives were all in another country.
Even though I knew my roommates were going to shit square kittens made of fire, I said yes. She called her landlord to let her in while her husband was still gone, since the bastard had the only keys, and we went with her so she could pack what she could and bring it to our house.
I spent hours talking to her that night about her life. She was from a wealthy African family, a politician's daughter who'd fallen in love with an American. I think, ironically, he was in the Peace Corps. He brought her home with him. I didn't doubt her; her wealth showed in her clothes, which easily would have cost my share of our rent for a month, and no one around here has an accent like that. She and her husband fought sometimes, but not like this. I convinced her that it wasn't normal to fight like that, that she should leave him now. She agreed: this was the second time he'd become violent and she'd run away to a hotel, and she was done. She was going to call and get her sister to buy her a plane ticket tomorrow.
(By the way, square kittens were shitted. Kittens of lava. But my roomies are good guys and they know what's right.)
And she slept on our broken couch in our ghetto house that was so much less than she was used to. She was trusting complete strangers not to treat her inappropriately because she didn't have any choice. She was so on edge that when my cat jumped on her in the night, she freaked out. With apologies, I dragged his dumb furry ass into my room so she didn't think she was being attacked when he inevitably made a second attempt to sleep on her.
The next morning, when I woke up at the late o'clock I usually do, she was sitting up all perky on the sofa, her stuff neatly packed again. She looked really happy. I started to ask her what her plan was, and she told me she'd called her husband because she felt sad not saying anything, and he was going to come pick her up. He apologized and they were going to work things out.
It broke something in me, to realize what kind of a situation this was. It wasn't just that her family lived far away and she didn't know her co-workers well enough to carry their phone numbers on her. It wasn't just that she was afraid her husband would come after her. These were all contributing to her situation, but I finally saw a deeper part of the snare, something I'd never understood until I watched it happen.
This intelligent, wealthy woman, who was educated in places that would have escorted me out the gate once their cameras picked up my presence, had pride, and hope, and will to live, qualities that made her human. And he was using those to tether her. If she gave up pride and hope and will, it would be even easier for him to own her. There was no win.
copperwise mentioned "a cold black Thing," and that's the best way to describe an abuser. If the victim is a human, with human emotions and functions, that cold black Thing's every instinct is to find ways to savage them, to knot and cripple what's there into something broken and feeble and dependent. If you think you can fight that, hey, you might be right. But you won't know unless it happens.
Anyway, all we could do was offer to harbor her again if she needed it; even if he knew where we lived, the kitten-shitting roommates were both hairy 200+lb guys, and my crack-dealer neighbors had given me such practice at dialing 911! She kept in touch for a few years, but eventually she moved. I don't know what happened to her. Mostly I hope her husband was hit by a truck and left her a bit fat life insurance policy, which she used to fund women's shelters. :) And even if that unlikely scenario didn't play out, she's a strong woman. I like to think that eventually she made a collection of difficult but necessary choices and is now living happily somewhere near her sister.