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'I loved him so much': Why one woman stayed with her abusive husband
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Credit:Karen Klassen

It's not the three decades of abuse she suffered at the hands of her late first husband that still haunts 79-year-old Bea Christensen. What pains her now, so many years later, is what happened to her children.

"The part that makes me feel bad is not my getting hit, but their getting hit," she says tearfully. "It makes me remember when they were little and they had their little white Jockey pants, and they had been spanked so hard on the bottom that his hand print was visible in - the bruises. And I was too afraid to walk away."

Sitting before a roaring fire inside her affluent Madison-area home, Christensen rarely pauses as she recounts those days filled with humiliation and fear.

"He might not like the food that I cooked, and he would push it into my face," she recalls. "I guess I was always afraid of him, in one way or another, but I loved him so much that I didn't leave him."

Her story of abuse begins 62 years ago, when she married her high school sweetheart at just 17. He was set to attend college on an athletic scholarship, dreaming of becoming a professional golfer, and she was going to be a teacher. Then, at 18, she had the couple's first son. And the violence started. She remembers the first time her husband hit her.

"This one day I got in the car and my father looked down at me and he said, 'Beatrice, why do you have that black-and-blue eye? And why have you taped your glasses?' I go, 'I walked into the wall, Daddy.' But I hadn't walked into the wall. I'd been hit and broke my glasses and bruised my face."

Christensen doesn't recall exactly what led to her husband's first violent outburst.

"Probably for sticking up for myself in some way," she says. "I learned starting with that time not to do that - not to stick up for myself, not to speak up for myself, always to say, 'Okay, whatever.'"

On the table next to Christensen sit letters from her two oldest sons - letters of support for her decision to tell the family's story publicly for the first time. But also in those letters are memories long buried. Her oldest boy, now in his 60s, recounts one horrifying night when he was in the bathtub with his little brother.

And you came into the bathroom crying and shrieking and got two razorblades out of the medicine cabinet and stood with your back to the wall with those blades outstretched, as if that was going to stop him. He just came in, pulled you by the hair, out of that bathroom and into the bedroom. [My brother] and I would just retreat into our own little world.

Her younger son remembers a childhood filled with physical and emotional pain.

We lived under a constant fear that he would be in a bad mood. When we heard his car pull up in the gravel driveway, we hid.... He did not disguise his resentment for you and your kids for preventing him from realizing his aspirations. He taught this abusive behavior to his oldest son, who then behaved the same way to the little brother, who then did the same to his little sister.

Today, more than 30 years after her first husband's death, Christensen is happily remarried - those dark, isolated days long behind her. But they are not forgotten. Christensen says she and her current husband are "philanthropists by heart," who spend time and money supporting various local charities. And when she found out that the Dane County nonprofit group Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) was trying to raise $7 million to build a new shelter in Madison, she knew she needed to give more than money. She needed to give all those silent victims a voice.

"I could speak. I knew that I could speak up and say things," she says, pointing out that in her day, there was no place for battered women to turn. There was no DAIS.

"Church was our salvation. No one there knew that we had been battered. That was our refuge. That was our DAIS," says Christensen, adding that although her husband made a good living, she and the children saw little of it. "Church was free. So I taught Christian education. I taught the high school group. I sang in the choir."

Christensen admits that, even if there had been a women's shelter, she's not sure she ever would have been able to leave.

"I was not strong enough to do that. I bare my soul to tell you what I'm telling you because I wish that I had been strong."

She says sometimes that's the hardest thing for outsiders to understand - why victims stay with their abusers.

"I could have gone back to my parents, but that would've made them not like him. And I wanted people to like him. I wanted the boys to like him," she says. "There are good times. There are times when he would say, 'I love you, I love you so much. You're a good mother.'"

Christensen hopes that sharing her story will give other victims the strength to leave their abusers and turn to DAIS for help, if not for themselves, for their children.

"I would hope that if there's a battered woman that reads this, she'll know she's not the only one. And I don't want her to someday read letters from her children that let her know how bad it was at the time, and they've not forgotten it in 60 years."

A cramped, chaotic place

The statistics are alarming. According to DAIS executive director Shannon Barry, one in four women and about one in 10 men will be the victim of a physical or sexual assault at the hands of an intimate partner. Law enforcement officials in Dane County refer 3,000 domestic violence cases to the District Attorney's Office every year. But Barry says less than a quarter of domestic violence ever gets reported to law enforcement.

"There are a lot more people out there like Bea who don't know where to turn, who may be living and surviving the abuse without reaching out for help."

For victims in Dane County who do reach out for help, their safe haven is a six-bedroom, two-bath single-family home in an undisclosed location - the current domestic violence shelter run by Domestic Abuse Intervention Services.

"It's full 100% of the time," Barry says.

DAIS routinely buys hotel vouchers for victims who can't get into the shelter, but even the vouchers are limited, so there's also a wait list.

"Some days [there are] up to 50 on the wait list, along with people in hotels and the shelter," Barry says. "Even to get on the wait list, somebody has to be in significant and immediate danger. Somebody has to be in serious danger and at risk of being murdered."

And for those victims who do get into the shelter, it can be a cramped, chaotic place where families share bedrooms, bathrooms and one small kitchen.

"We have people coming to us literally after dealing with the worst thing that has ever happened to them. And then we're expecting them to deal with a very communal and chaotic living environment," Barry says. "That's not the kind of service we want to offer."

What the group wants to offer victims is the refuge it hopes to build in the old Sears small-machine shop at 2012 Fordem Ave. If it reaches its fundraising goal, the building will be transformed into a highly secure 56-bed shelter, as well as administrative offices, counseling and meeting rooms, a crisis line office with space for three volunteers (the current office has space for just one), and three secure garden zones.

Christensen and others like her have helped DAIS raise half of the $7 million needed to construct the new shelter. For Christensen, it's about building a warm, welcoming sanctuary that will give victims the strength to leave their abusers.

"I don't want these women to put up with it," she says.

One of the changes Barry is most excited about will be the four rooms dedicated to children's programs. In the current shelter, the programs are in the basement.

"About half the people that we shelter every year are children, most of them under the age of 6," she says. "I think a couple of weeks ago we had 22 kids, varying in ages from birth to about 14 years old in one very small space."

Barry says it's often children who motivate their parents to seek help in the first place.

"From a lot of women it was, 'He went after my kids,'" she says. But Barry warns that abuse affects children even when they're not the targets.

"Domestic violence victims are very cognizant of physical abuse, but I don't know if there is as much of a recognition of how damaging it can be to a child emotionally and psychologically to watch their parent being abused."

'Why don't people just leave?'

Two brutal domestic violence homicides involving children have made headlines in Dane County recently. In June, 29-year-old David Hoem was convicted of strangling his girlfriend's two young sons in the back of a car in July 2011. Police say the mother of the boys had contacted authorities shortly before her sons were killed because she was afraid of Hoem and wanted to end the relationship. And in July, 30-year-old Jesus A. Castillo-Dimas was charged with first-degree intentional homicide. He's accused of running over his 2-year-old son with an SUV after an argument with the boy's mother, who had ended her relationship with Castillo-Dimas and begun dating someone else.

Barry says for every high-profile homicide, there are thousands of women who do achieve safety through their program.

"We know that the services we provide are effective. We just have to ensure that we have the capacity to meet the need."

But taking that first step to reach out for help is often the hardest part.

"The biggest question I hear in my role as executive director of DAIS is, 'Why don't people just leave? If it was really that bad they would just leave,'" Barry says.

According to Barry, abusive relationships usually start with a honeymoon stage, just like many other relationships. And many victims are already committed emotionally - in love with their partners - when the first instance of violence happens.

"When that first physical assault or sexual assault happens, it doesn't match the schema that person has about their partner. People really start believing, 'Well if I just love him or her enough, or if I just do x, y and z, they'll go back to being that person I first fell in love with.'"

That's certainly the experience Christensen recalls, which is why she wants to share her story with other victims.

"Women like the ones I want to raise money for are so vulnerable because they don't have a place to go," she says. "They are so vulnerable because they still love this person. Why else would battered women stay?"

Barry stresses that abusers are not always violent - that there are seemingly happy and loving moments in the relationship.

"The victim might think, 'If I can just figure out the rules, then they won't be that other person.' The trap with that, though, is that the rules never stay the same," Barry says.

Devoted until the end

For Bea Christensen, the nightmare of abuse finally ended 30 years ago, when her first husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She remembers something he told her shortly before he underwent surgery to remove it.

"I went up to him and I gave him a kiss and he looked up at me. All these years I didn't think he knew that he was mean. I didn't think he knew what he was doing, that he was behaving the way he was," she recalls. "He said, 'I want to tell you that if I make it through this, I'm gonna be nice to you.' That told me that he knew he was bad to us."

Her husband did make it through, but surgeons weren't able to remove the entire tumor. So Christensen took care of him at home during his last days.

"He was in bed and I went in to check on him, and he said, 'Come sit beside me.' And I sat beside him. And he proceeded to turn me over and start choking me. And he pushed and pushed and pushed, and all I could do was look up and say [whispering], 'Don't do it, don't do it, don't do it.' He could have killed me. He didn't."

And still, she remained devoted to him until the end.

"I sat by him. I slept with him up until he died, every night until he died. And I loved him all that time, even though I knew what he had done was wrong. And you'll ask me, 'Why did I do that?' Because I loved him."

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