Defying the Rule of Thumb: A Domestic Violence Survivor’s Story

by Alexandra McCabe
USA

I should know what an abuser looks like. After all, I was working for then Senator Joseph Biden, who sponsored the Violence Against Women Act. But domestic violence is an equal opportunity offender. It was something I read about and discussed with colleagues, never knowing I would one day walk into a marriage filled with abuse and pain.

As the plane descended into Washington D. C., my Siamese cat, Cleo, meowed loudly from under my seat. Cleo had been through all my many moves, men, and a couple of Los Angeles earthquakes. As the lights of Washington D.C. reflected through the plane’s windows, the excitement of my new job as a Senate staffer lay ahead of me.

Bill Clinton had just blasted into the presidency. I made my way every morning to work on the underground Senate subway, relishing my new life. I breakfasted to the New York Times, dining at the hip Adams Morgan neighborhood restaurants.

In the spring, my friend Stephanie insisted I go with her to a birthday party. As I walked out of my Dupont circle apartment, I had no idea that this would be the night that would forever change my life. At the party, music blared as a crowd of 20-somethings gyrated, drinking beer from plastic cups. I felt a trickle from a water gun hit my face and looked for the culprit. I found a smiling 6’4” blonde Nordic-looking man. I grabbed the nearest water gun and fired back.

The next time I saw Tate, it was a crisp Spring day and the cherry blossoms were about to bloom. As he slid up to me smiling, I stopped, startled. “Hi there! I was hoping to catch up with you,” Tate said, handing me a slightly wilted rose.

At first, Tate’s attention was peripheral to my life. But he had a job with a Congressman and understood life on the Hill. He was doing all the right things, and eventually, I found myself in a relationship with him. Often, I would seek solace from the demands of my job at the Folger Shakespeare Library across from the Supreme Court. Tate did not like Shakespeare or the theater and would snicker at my ability to quote sonnets. Later, his aversion to the arts would surface as disdain.

Tate soon invited me to take a weekend trip and as I discussed the prospect with Stephanie I was hesitant. “I don’t know, maybe it’s too soon,” I said somberly. “What could possibly be holding you back?” she asked. “You are single and he adores you and it’s your first real trip. Just let go!”

My misgivings, unbeknownst to Stephanie, stemmed from a recent blow-up with Tate after I showed up late to one of our dates. Anger flashed across his face as he shouted at me, “Were you with someone else? Tell me now!” I had gotten lost on the freeway, I tried to explain. After shoving me, he apologized.

As the sun descended warmly on the Potomac, I sat in a rented convertible while we drove towards a Virginia cabin. That night, he fixed me dinner and served me champagne. The next day, the sun was warm as I rested on the deck. Tate brought over a perfect yellow swallowtail butterfly and gently placed it on my knee, careful not to rub the powder from its wings. The irony of his gentleness struck me later as I learned of his horrific brutality to me, Molly and others.

Later that spring, a friend told me they could use some volunteers at the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial event at Arlington Cemetery. Excited, I accepted – Robert Kennedy was my hero I asked Tate to accompany me but he emphatically refused to undergo the compulsory three-day FBI background check.

The day of the memorial, I worked with Kennedy staffers in the VIP tent where the family was sitting. A handsomely chiseled JFK Jr. breezed by with Daryl Hannah. It was a somber but elegant event and I felt sad Tate had missed it. Later, at the request of Ethel Kennedy, a few of us scraped candle wax that had dripped on the graves. My friend Shea scraped hard at the tombstone as she said, “Break up with this loser. He wouldn’t do the background check. Forget him.” I shook my head, silent.

When I saw Tate later that night, I found myself unable to confront him. It was then that I felt the first real glimmer of unease. Three days later, I received a hand written thank you note from Ethel Kennedy, but I tucked it away, choosing not to show Tate.

Soon I received an offer to work on a Governor’s race in California and I almost accepted. Tate kept me up that night, pleading with me to go with him while he managed the Congressman’s campaign. I agreed and we moved to the frozen tundra of the Midwest. I would not even last a full winter.

The first time he hit me, we had lived in the Midwest all of two months. The subject of the fight was unremarkable – the damage to my nose and jaw was not. But I was pregnant, we were about to marry and had just gotten a puppy.

There are always red flags when you’re in a relationship with a batterer. I managed to miss every red flag and probably a few flares. I thought I could make it better – I could be on time instead of always late. I could be more open emotionally, more organized, more of what Tate wanted. I began losing myself in his constant criticisms. Then, when the days of flowers, kindness and intimacy followed, the bad days faded away.

But the unease lingered, and soon shifted to panic. One day I found Tate huddled, upset and looking dangerously unstable. “Take the puppy away now and find it a home or I will kill it.” I scooped up the shivering puppy, asking what had happened. He stared at me blankly. “Don’t you understand? I will kill it!” he enunciated, his voice rising. “And please have an abortion. I can’t stand things that are helpless. I can’t be a father, I would just want to kill it.”

I felt nauseous. I closed the door and my heart, staying away from him the rest of the day. It would not be until later that year that I would find out he had killed the cat of a previous girlfriend and committed other unspeakable monstrosities.

The next day, I found a home for the puppy and booked a flight home to California. Months later, Tate was fired from his job at a retail company (where he worked after the Congressman’s campaign ended) for moral misconduct. Getting me back became his new project. Showering me with flowers, cards and endless phone calls as my pregnancy advanced, I finally accepted him back into my life, wanting our child to have a father.

The birth of my daughter Molly stands out as the best day of my life. Nothing could trump looking into her ocean-blue eyes for the first time. Tate also seemed enamored with her. However, within the next three years, Tate would beat her, threaten her, and commit incredible horrors against both of us.

Our quiet routine was shattered when Tate lost yet another job and was unable to find work. I immediately took a job with a California Senator, but dreaded being away from Molly. One day while I was taking a shower, I heard Molly’s piercing scream. When I ran into the room, Tate handed her to me roughly and sneered, “I shook her – she would not shut up while I was trying to watch TV.” I clung to Molly, comforting her while I checked for injuries.

In the coming weeks, Tate threatened to kill himself, Molly, and me if I left. Then, one night in February, he almost succeeded. Another inconsequential fight escalated and he slammed me against the wall repeatedly. I saw blackness and slid to the floor as he squeezed the air from me, the wood of the futon splintering under his rage. He screamed that he had killed the cat and then I heard Molly’s toddler voice screaming, “Daddy noooo!” before I faded into unconsciousness.

The next morning, the red marks on my body had become bruises. I went to work hoping the cover-up and scarf would conceal Tate’s handprint outlined clearly on my neck. My coworker, Blanca, looked up at me, her eyes registering the source of my pain. I hurried away not wanting attention or a possible scandal. Blanca came to my desk and said, “Let’s go for a cup of coffee.”

We never made it to Starbucks. Instead she walked me into the victim/witness program at the District Attorney’s office. Our freedom began with pictures of my face, neck, back and a restraining order. The divorce began and a custody battle ensued. Tate pled guilty to assault.

Tate’s late night stalking became so bad we had to leave the state. His parental rights were terminated in court. I received news that Tate’s DNA was collected by the FBI for two missing women’s cases because he was a “person of interest” – Tate’s profile was that of a sociopath. With the help of battered women’s advocates and law enforcement, as well as new identities for both of us, Molly and I made our escape to the cleansing rains of the Pacific Northwest to start anew.

Years later as I accept my diploma from law school, I look into my daughter’s jubilant face in the audience as she yells my new name. I am free. That night, Molly and I celebrate our good fortune. Cleo curls around us, purring. The rain gently mists over the Seattle skyline and we are finally, no longer afraid.

- For centuries, in our nation and abroad “wife beating” was, and still is, an accepted practice. The long-standing legal concept of “rule of thumb” allowed a husband to beat his wife with an instrument no thicker than his thumb. The Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, provides survivors of domestic violence with the legal protection they need and deserve to escape the cycle of abuse. If you or someone you know needs resources for victims of domestic violence, visit National Domestic Violence Hotline for a directory of support services in your area – Ed.

About the Author
After surviving domestic violence, Alexandra McCabe worked as a victim advocate for several years before going to law school and receiving her degree from the Seattle University School of Law in 2004. She then went on to campaign for domestic violence prevention for several years at both the state and national level. Currently, Alexandra works as the Executive Director of Animal Friends Rescue Project and lives in California with her daughter, three rescue cats and three rescue dogs. (Author photograph by Scott Broecker)

Posted in The World
2 comments on “Defying the Rule of Thumb: A Domestic Violence Survivor’s Story
  1. RoseA says:

    Thank you for this. What a painful story but ultimately a survivor’s tale.

  2. Tim says:

    I appreciate this poignant, powerful story of survival in the face of abuse. Sometimes I think we underestimate the importance of the role men play in eliminating violence within relationships. We need to educate our sons, brothers, and male friends to show strength through their willingness to empathize with others, not their ability to impose their will upon another. Thank you for sharing this.

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