Jayne McGowan remembers it all: the good, the bad, and the awful. She was 49, divorced almost 10 years, when she met a new boyfriend, a fellow tenant at her apartment. "He was charming, romantic, left notes in my mailbox, ‘Come hither, I have surprises for you!'" she says, with just the slightest sardonic quirk in her voice.
Her eyes still light up a little when she talks about the movies, hours and hours of movies, they watched together. "It was a year of bliss."
Then she moved in with him, into a rural cabin he acquired through relatives; he was the sole owner. And everything changed.
He quit his job and expected her to pay all the bills. They both had cars, but she was expected to drive him everywhere, including places where he could get hooked up with the pain pills he was addicted to. The verbal abuse began, then the physical. It went on like that for four months; screaming, threats, shoves, disappearances, and money troubles.
Then the really bad day, three years ago. She recites the progression of events as if they happened to someone else. It started on a Saturday in March. His mom had given him some money to pay her back for the groceries she'd bought. They argued because he didn't want to give it to her, even though she needed money for gas to go to work at Food City the following week.
While she was napping, he took her car and didn't come home. She was worried—about him, and about the car. When he did get home, they began to argue again. "He called me vile names. When I tried to defend myself, the punching started."
He beat her from room to room in the three-room cabin, then outside, then back into the house again. "No matter which room I struggled into, it was the wrong room."
He punched her so hard in the side of the ear, it blew her pierced earring right out. She remembers curling into a ball on the floor, and then passing out. When she revived, she says, he started taunting her with the phone, placing it just out of reach, next to a bat and a rifle, saying, "‘Come on, get the phone. Call your kids, tell them all about it.' I couldn't do anything but take it," she says."
He wouldn't let her out. "He kicked my butt so bad he bruised my cervix. I didn't have my period for months," she says.
Sometime Sunday, he decided to go get a quart of beer, and miraculously took his own car. McGowan jumped into her car and the surreal began. She drove by work, with her black eyes and bruises, to explain what had happened. Before she showed them a seeping wound near the scalp, they wanted her to stay and work her shift. Then she took herself to the emergency room, where a nurse alerted the police. That's when she realized she was not going back. "Once they started taking pictures, I realized how bad it was. That sealed the deal in my mind. What was really, really hurtful is I had to come back three days later so they could take pictures again. That's when the bruises on my back showed up, in the perfect shape of his boot."
McGowan had no plans beyond being gone when she encountered the Family Justice Center. Advocates there sent her to a shelter. "My head was beat in, and I was bruised all over, but I didn't feel funny because others were way worse off. I had a bed, a pillow, a blanket, a toothbrush. I didn't have to worry about anything I'd left behind."
She worked with the Justice Center for a few months, and stayed in the emergency shelter for the full time allowed. Then she got a lucky break: a room came open at the YWCA Transitional Housing Program. She took it and stayed the maximum time allowed, two years.
Through the program she attended self-esteem workshops, got hooked up with Al-Anon, learned meditation and exercise techniques for dealing with stress. She took financial management classes and capped off her transition by beginning a cleaning business with herself as sole employee.
McGowan's ex was prosecuted for assault and false imprisonment, pleaded guilty, and received probation along with an order of protection disallowing contact of any sort with her. "That was sad," she says, but she doesn't cry until she gets to the part about her dog. "I heard he'd shot my dog some time after I left," she says, tearing up, hunching over, taking short breaths. "I, I didn't know. I found out later that someone would have gone back out to rescue my dog, that they do that. I would have done that if I'd known."
She shakes her head, remembering. "That hurt. The dog was a gift from him to me, and he took it away viciously. Because I left. An innocent animal shouldn't have suffered because of that."
Originally from Pittsburgh, Penn., McGowan was one of six children, and grew up with an alcoholic father, who worked as a Union carpenter, and a nurse mom. She describes herself as "way too smart for her britches," a girl who left high school to join the Navy, then married and had two kids of her own—a son who's now 29 and a daughter who's 32.
That marriage lasted 22 years, and McGowan said though the parting was amicable, some somewhat abusive interactions were part of the relationship. "My husband was very controlling, and things got physical every once in a while. And I'm sure I was pretty darn mouthy in my own way."
She informed her kids from that marriage immediately after she moved out of the cabin and into the shelter. It still weighs on her mind that her daughter was "disgusted," she says. "She was upset with me for being stupid. It's hard to explain to her how this happened to me. And looking back on her childhood, I was complacent, I faked it out, like everything was perfect. I hope I haven't—I worry I have inadvertently taught her these behaviors are okay."
Today, McGowan shares an apartment downtown, and she keeps her eyes peeled for women in abusive relationships. "I keep cards handy that have phone numbers, like for the Family Justice Center, and when I hear girls talking I have them ready," she says.
She still attends support-group meetings at the Y. "I owe them, even though they say I don't. I got off pretty easy, some of these girls are really hurt bad. There are girls in there so close to the edge I was on. It's very, very hard, I know that feeling, ‘It'd be much easier if I left this Earth and left this all behind.'"
Over and over, she shares her story, reminds other victims: "I didn't ask for it. This is what they do."
She also recommends Al-Anon. "It helped me understand the insanity. You think you can save them, but you really can't. You've got to save yourself."
She spoke at length to Bill Haslam during a community visit downtown in his stump to become Tennessee governor, and one of the things she mentioned was a need for more shelters for victims seeking asylum. "I was very lucky they could squeeze me in at all, and lots of these women have children with them," she says. "And there's no place for gay men who are abused to go for shelter—that I will advocate for."
She'd like to become more of an advocate, but right now, says she simply doesn't have the strength. Post-traumatic stress still takes its toll with sleep disturbances, nightmares, anxiety, and depression. "A loud argument really makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up," she says.
An angry outburst from a police officer about a year ago had her envisioning her abuser's face in place of the officer's. Closed spaces still freak her out. "Mostly I just have a hard time understanding how people can be so mean to other people," she says.
She's working on all of it, mostly with counseling and exercise and meditation, but doesn't want to risk a setback by becoming a public speaker, not yet.
As for her abuser, since the order of protection wore off after a year, he's now able to contact her and does, occasionally. Would she ever go back to him?
"No," she says. "Absolutely not. Once was enough."
But she still has feelings. "Alcohol and pills didn't make him an abuser; he was one already. They just enhanced the abuse. But I know how desperately he wanted to change. I hope he'll be able to see how his type of behavior is wrong. He's not an idiot. He's smart. He never had a chance.
"He's just a human being suffering a demise from alcohol and pills. I still care for him."
Do You Need Help?
According to the YWCA's Victim Advocacy Program, here is a list of common abusive behaviors—though they also caution that each situation is individual and unique:
Pressing for quick involvement
Unrealistic expectations—of their mate, a child, or an animal
Attempts to isolate a person from friends and family
Blaming others for problems and stress
Blaming others for his/her own feelings
Hypersensitivity (Victims may feel like they have to "walk on eggshells")
Cruelty to animals or children
"Playful" use of force in sex
Sudden mood changes
If you or someone you know needs help with domestic violence issues, call the YWCA Victim's Advocacy Program
865-215-6383 services in English
865-257-6785 o 865-257-6786 servicios en Espanol (services in Spanish)
865-521-6336 24-hour local crisis line
865-523-6126 YWCA Knoxville