Making Change Winter 2007, Volume 8, Number 1

"Women are often told by friends or family that they should leave the relationship, or get a restraining order, or do this or do that. But that’s not always helpful."—Adrienne LaMar

by Susan Bonne

The Journey Toward Healing:

how we can help survivors of domestic violence



omen suffering at the hands of abusive partners need many things, but first and foremost they need safety: a place where they know they are out of harm’s way; a place to rest and regroup; a place to assess the future.

But while safety is a critical first step, it’s only that: a first step. Healing may take months or more likely, years, and many survivors of intimate violence suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, which can trigger fears and difficult feelings throughout a lifetime. What should women in recovery from abuse do to seek out and facilitate that process? And what can professionals in shelters and battered women’s programs do to help women on their journey?

Consensus points to four crucial components of recovery: connection with other survivors; the support of community; access to professional counseling; and cultural/spiritual context, a faith in something larger than oneself. Each plays a unique role in helping women work through their difficulties both practical and emotional. Shelters and battered women’s programs that wish to provide the groundwork for healing should seek to ensure that they can offer their clients assistance in each of these areas—and educate them as to their importance in the process.

Connection: survivors need to know they’re not alone

As both a survivor and professional in the field, Adrienne LaMar, now associate director of L.A.’s Jenesse Center, knows how important it is for women to tell their story. That’s one of the reasons she facilitated Sister Circles, a healing group for African-American women that encouraged participants to freely talk about their experience among other survivors.

“Women have to have a protective environment where they can be themselves,” she says. “To say, ‘it’s okay to be who I am. I don’t have to lose myself in a relationship because I’m catering to someone else.’”

Perhaps just as important for women in crisis as speaking openly is the right to simply be heard. “Women are often told by friends or family that they should leave the relationship, or get a restraining order, or do this or do that. But that’s not always helpful,” says LaMar. She goes on to explain that empowerment comes when a woman is asked what she wants and needs. “That allows her to begin to take control of her life and situation….if you start there, then you open the person to hear and respond to survival options.” When a woman is asked what she wants, she is able to choose the path that makes the most sense for her, as well as to ask for help as she takes the next steps, whatever they might be.

Vickii Coffey, executive director of the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network, also draws on her experiences as a survivor and practitioner in sharing her views on how women can best be helped. According to Coffey, empowerment comes from respecting the survivor’s intuition and knowledge of the situation, and stresses that shelter workers or advocates should strive to involve women in assessing their own situation, rather than assessing it for them. “She knows the abuser best,” says Coffey. “Instead [of telling someone what to do] I say, here’s what I’ve learned from my experience. How does that relate to you? How can I help you?”

Community: drawing support from others

Community was the cornerstone of Coffey’s healing. It was community that led her to seek help, and community that provided support once she’d left her abuser to begin a new life.

Her survival story began in a hospital emergency room. A chance encounter with a doctor who wouldn’t accept her explanation for her injuries — falling — brought her face to face with denial. Bringing her a mirror, the doctor told her the injuries she had sustained could not have come about through a fall. Recalls Coffey, “I screamed and dropped the mirror…that was the beginning of recognizing that something was terribly wrong.”

That experience enabled her to leave the relationship, which led to the second milestone on her journey to healing: a family member who took her in, believed in her, and instilled in her the idea that she had value. This support gave her the “opportunity to change not only my environment, but internally,” Coffey says. “The more I was away from violence, the stronger I became. I had the space to reflect and be creative…to just be myself for a moment and not be constantly trying to please someone so they wouldn’t hurt me.”

Others in her community stepped up to help as well—an older woman offered daycare to her two children so she could attend school. “I was so motivated by school, by seeing others doing things with their lives. I felt I had no time to waste.”

In Coffey’s view, a caring and supportive community affirms a survivor’s own actions, and by doing so, builds her confidence. “The community believes what happened to [her] and helps in practical ways.” Community is also a resource that is often underutilized, she notes, adding that neighbors, friends, family members can all be called on to help.

Counseling: it’s okay to get help

Adrienne LaMar’s experience with battering was to watch her father abuse her mother throughout her childhood, and she resolved early in life that she would never allow herself to be in the same situation. But repressed anger over what she’d witnessed led to bouts of depression that LaMar couldn’t shake. As a young adult, she sought help from the California Black Women’s Health Project, where she learned “it was okay to be a woman and have any issue you want.” LaMar took ownership of her issues, and began a quest to make herself better, which included starting and facilitating Sister Circles.

Today, LaMar, like most practitioners, encourages women to take advantage of the full range of services available to them, from groups to career workshops to mental health services. Yet many hesitate when it comes to counseling and therapy, seeing it as an admission of some deeper illness. Says LaMar, “There’s this idea that if you go to a psychiatrist or counseling, you’re ‘crazy,’ when the opposite is true. Counseling takes women to another level where we’re learning to fly.”

Counseling also offers the opportunity to reflect on one’s own situation and how it has evolved, which may lead to unexpected insights. One of the many steps in Coffey’s healing process was a recognition of what she’d been through, and of how she’d been helped along the way, by healthcare workers, her family and the extended community. She decided, as many survivors do, to use her experiences, insights and gratitude by coming back to help other women. “Working in the field, I learned about patterns, cycles, dynamics…now I have the opportunity to educate others.”

Cultural context: a source of strength

Atum Azzahir had to go through many phases before she even began to understand what full healing meant. “I had to get on a path where I believed in myself…where I felt I was a person with a purpose on this earth,” she said.

Azzahir’s path started in the precivil rights era south, where she saw her father abused and brutalized by white employers and society at large. Yet her father never retaliated or became angry. Instead, he maintained a calm dignity in the face of disrespect, a demeanor that made a huge impression on Azzahir. “I was so devoted to ending the violence that was perpetrated against my father and my community that I made an absolute commitment to never being a part of anything that would lower the respect and honor of black men,” she recalls.

That attitude and determination carried through to her marriage. Her husband’s rage was a constant in the family, resulting in injuries both to herself and her four young sons, yet she protected her husband. “I kept thinking it would change…this is not who he is. I can change this, I can make him feel better.” That focus on others kept a deeper truth from emerging. “I don’t think I realized that I needed to take care of myself.”

The turning point came when she heard her sons discussing killing their father to end the abuse. A spiritual vision of the situation began to take hold; if this event came to pass, Azzahir felt “it would be a violation of everything I believed in, everything I knew.” She left, but her husband continued to follow her, finally shooting her and committing suicide. She survived, and her true healing began.

“It took me many years to realize that I needed to protect myself, that protecting myself was part of fulfilling my purpose. If you’re going to honor men, you can’t allow yourself to be brutalized; it causes them damage too.”

Azzahir began to work in the battered women’s movement, running the Harriet Tubman Shelter in Minneapolis and eventually starting the Powderhorn Phillips Community Wellness Center, a Minneapolis neighborhood initiative that promotes health and well being within a cultural context.

In working with others, she often pulls from her own story, but she is quick to say that even in the worst moments, she never felt like a victim. “I couldn’t stand the victim stuff; it didn’t fit with me. There’s this thing about the universe: if there’s a victim, then there’s a perpetrator.”

What works better in Azzahir’s view is for those in abusive situations to develop a larger vision, to connect to their own strength and courage, and to use their cultural legacy as a building block. “You can’t deal with healing as an individual. That leads to disconnection. You have to know yourself in the context of a bigger self.”

IDVAAC Steering Committee Member Shelia Hankins, project director of Michigan Domestic Violence Prevention and Treatment Board, also sees cultural context as an important part of healing for African- American women. “The events of your life are one issue,” Hankins says, “and how you see yourself is another.” She explains that women need to put their experience in the larger context of their culture. “The way we respond to what happens in domestic violence is culturally based, and it is different for each culture – African American, Latina, white…it’s how society has defined you. We need to ask, ‘What is it in [our] culture that helps us? And what doesn’t help us?’”

Spirituality: the healing power of faith

One of the things that helps, according to Hankins, is spiritual life. She points out that much of African- American spirituality dates from the slave days, and that this ‘cultural spirituality’ still informs the way most African Americans experience their lives, even though they may not be practicing their religion. “In the African-American community, religion is really a major force in our lives, in terms of leadership, support, hope,” says Hankins. “Healing is somehow being able to recognize pain and see beyond it, and the church is critical to that.”

Many studies support the idea that faith helps women recovering from abuse.

According to a report published in Violence Against Women in March 20061, “Religious involvement appears to promote greater psychological well being for domestic violence survivors, including greater quality of life and decreased depression.” Quoting another study, the authors also note that “Social support from religious institutions…has been found to be a key factor in many women’s abilities to rebuild their lives and family relationships.”**

Currently, many shelters provide a haven for physical safety but fail to provide an environment for spiritual healing. Part of the reason stems from respect for privacy and the wide variety of spiritual paths followed. Publicly funded shelters must also refrain from endorsing specific faith traditions, making discussion a sometimes tricky endeavor. Many find it easier to simply avoid the entire topic.

On the other hand, churches themselves often sidestep domestic abuse. Practitioners note that there is a need for faith communities to address the issue and offer services to members of their congregations and communities who may suffer from abuse. Church leaders are often reluctant to address the fact that male congregants may be abusing their partners, but some are beginning to recognize that faith communities can no longer afford to ignore this reality.

A foundation for hope

Whether or not faith is specifically addressed, one way domestic violence care workers can help their clients explore this pathway, says Hankins, is to work toward identifying where their sense of hope centers. From there, personal empowerment and self-worth can grow. “What gives hope also inspires resiliency,” Hankins says.

Hope doesn’t often come from the social systems women expect to protect them, notes Hankins, but instead re-victimizes them. “The legal justice system often takes children from mothers experiencing violence; landlords evict families where violence occurs. Even though this is not her fault, she’s losing her home, her children; she’s left with these threats, and ‘which one do I fight first?’ There are more crises coming at you than you have the wherewithal to address.”

For some survivors, hope begins with fighting back. In 1999, New Yorker Sharwline Nicholson wound up in the emergency room after an assault by her partner, from whom she was separated. Amidst the trauma, she arranged for a neighbor to look after her two young children, and asked the police who questioned her to contact a close cousin who could come and stay with the children until Nicholson could go home.

Child welfare followed up the next day. Instead of praise for her handling of the situation, she was told that, as someone who was “engaged in domestic violence”, she was an unfit mother. Her children were taken and placed in foster care; it took Nicholson three weeks to get them back.

Scarred by the system, she made changing it her path to healing. First she sued the city and won, and in 2002 led 50 other women in a class action suit against child services, winning again. Today, as board chair of New York’s Child Welfare Organizing Project, she says she continues to stay involved to continue healing. Nicholson is a Susan Schechter fellow and the producer of a film on domestic violence, that will be reviewed in the next issue of this newsletter.

From taking care of the self to reaching out to others, from individual counseling to community action, the paths to healing are many. Those who have been there say while healing takes time, women who can utilize all the resources available, working toward economic and emotional well-being as well as physical health, have the best chance.

Says Azzahir, “To uplift and inspire—that is the feminine in the universe…the healing force. If a woman is strong and in a good place, that is going to bring about amazing healing.”

* “The Importance of Spirituality in the Lives of Domestic Violence Survivors,” by Tameka L. Gillum, Cris M. Sullivan and Deborah I. Bybee, Violence Against Women, Vol. 12, No. 3, March 2006, pp. 240-250.

** Ibid.


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Winter 2007, Volume 8, Number 1

Mobilizing to End Domestic Violence in the African-American Community:

A Contract for Change