Why Doesn't She Just Leave?
A special report on domestic violence
Lisa Judd Blanchard
(page 1 of 3)
Women in abusive relationships are far likelier to be killed while attempting to leave their partners—a surpising and frightening fact that Lisa Judd Blanchard, who lost her sister, and Julie Rook Schebig, who nearly lost her life, know all too well.
It’s a Thursday night, and Lisa Judd Blanchard is shampooing the carpets in her Fitchburg home. Survivor flickers across the TV screen in the background, where Monica, furious, is calling John a “Judas,” and Natalie bids $200 on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A Channel 3 weather reporter periodically interrupts the action, updating viewers on the snowstorm outside before cutting back to sunny Samoa. The episode is called “Off With their Heads.” Lisa’s husband, Jimmy, is out driving around in his pickup truck, plowing and looking for anyone who might be stranded in the ditch, because that’s just the kind of guy he is.
Lisa can’t hear her cell phone ringing over the noisy shampooer, and she’s shocked when she suddenly sees twelve missed calls. She dials voice mail. Her twelve-year-old twin nieces are in a panic. They can’t find their mom, Tracy Judd, Lisa’s thirty-three-year-old little sister. The girls’ little sister, Deja, almost two, is nowhere to be found, either. The twins are home alone, and Deja’s dad, Tracy’s live-in boyfriend, Tyrone Adair, has just called them. “Your mom and sister are probably not coming home tonight,” he’d said, just before hanging up. “They’ve been in a bad accident.”
Everything that happens next is a flurry as blinding and numbing as the snow outside. Lisa calls Jimmy and suddenly he’s there, and the two are racing over to Tracy’s house in Middleton, Jimmy’s truck sliding on the fresh snow, Lisa on the phone calling hospitals, Tracy, Tracy’s friends, family, everyone she can think of. They learn from the police that there have been no reported car accidents. A call to Deja’s daycare provider reveals that Tracy never dropped her off that morning. The twins have not seen Tracy or Deja since they left for school, though Tyrone was there briefly when they got home that afternoon. Both Tyrone’s and Tracy’s cars are gone. Even then, Lisa has no reason to suspect what has actually happened.
When they arrive at Tracy’s home, several police officers are already there, interviewing the twins separately. It doesn’t occur to Lisa that this is an unusual response for two recently reported missing people who may have been in a car accident on a snowy night. For her, it’s an appropriate match to her own rising panic as her calls to her sister’s phone continue to go unanswered.
As the night skids on, Tracy’s house sees a constant stream of police officers, and still no sign of Tracy or Deja, or Tyrone. But the police know something that Lisa does not. Across town Tyrone has shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, Amber Weigel, twenty-five, and their two-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, in Amber’s driveway after work this evening. That’s why they’re here; there’s a manhunt on for Tyrone Adair.
Around 9:15 p.m., the bodies of Tracy and Deja are found in the trunk of Tyrone’s car, where they’d been since sometime that morning. The reporters know before Lisa does, even though she’s surrounded by law enforcement. A friend calls and tells Lisa to turn on FOX News at 9, and when she does she sees Tyrone’s face there, and words like “wanted” and “quadruple homicide,” and that is how Lisa learns that Tracy and Deja are dead. Although the police will not confirm this to her for another hour yet, she instantly knows in her bones it is true, though she still cannot begin to fathom why. And the world, as she knows it, collapses.
Four days from now, after an extensive manhunt and two days before Tracy and Deja are laid to rest in a shared casket, the body of Tyrone Adair will be found in Tracy’s car, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and three overlapping families will be devastated beyond comprehension. In the coming days Lisa, despite being a lifelong resident, will hear only for the first time about Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, a Madison-based resource for victims of domestic violence and home to Dane County’s only domestic violence shelter. Six short weeks from tonight, she and her family will organize and host an awareness benefit that raises $28,000 for DAIS, and the “Traja Benefit” will become an annual event on January 14, Tracy’s birthday. Two years from now Lisa will be known in her community as an outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence and a frequent DAIS volunteer.
In the coming months Lisa will piece together police reports like a puzzle, compiling a thick file detailing Tyrone’s long history of violence against women, much of which appears nowhere online. She will learn that just nine months before this night, Dane County sheriff’s deputies responded to a domestic disturbance at Tracy and Tyrone’s home. She will learn that Tyrone was arrested, but Tracy declined the restraining order, despite her noticeably fat lip. She will come to know that many abused women often stay silent, some for fear of even worse retaliation, others because they’re too ashamed. She will be reminded of her sister’s big heart and her belief that she could handle everything herself, traits Lisa had always judged as positive ones, but that now take on darker meaning.
Lisa will come to know the warning signs of domestic violence like the back of her own hand, and she will recognize those signs in Tracy and Tyrone’s two-and-a-half-year relationship in a way she simply did not see before. She will learn that it isn’t unusual that Tracy kept all of this from her only sister, despite how close they were. She will silently wonder why her sister stayed with Tyrone if he was abusive, and then she will learn that Tracy was indeed trying to end things with Tyrone, and she will come to understand that this is the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship.
But on this night, on December 3, 2009, even as she stares blankly at Tyrone’s face on the nine o’clock news, even as she hears the words “quadruple homicide,” domestic violence does not cross her mind. Because never, never in a million years, could domestic abuse happen in her loving, close-knit family. Never in a million years could anyone convince Lisa that her strong, independent, vibrant, capable, intelligent, beautiful sister Tracy could be a victim of domestic violence.
There was just no way.
This is the thing about domestic violence: we as a community are more skeptical than we’re comfortable admitting. Part of it is protective; if we can keep issues like these at arm’s length, if we can chalk up the headlines detailing the handful of cases that end in murder as a strange, rare sort of “snapping” that happened to somebody who is nothing like us, we can pretend domestic abuse isn’t as prevalent as it is. That it has nothing to do with our own lives, that it’s not our problem.
And from this arm’s-length distance we feel safe to judge. To ask, whether publicly in the comment sections of news articles or privately in whispers among trusted friends, why didn’t she just leave? How did she get into that situation in the first place, and how could she let it get so bad? At the very least, how could she do that to her kids? But what we’re really saying is, that could never happen to me. Except that’s what many victims of domestic violence said once, too, and likely kept saying—in some cases all the way to the grave. Nobody wants to self-identify as a victim. Not you, not me and not them.
The reality is that at least one in four women will be abused in her lifetime, and a third of all referrals to the district attorney’s office by law enforcement are domestic violence-related. Domestic disturbance calls in Madison are, as MPD Lieutenant Mary Lou Ricksecker puts it, “our bread and butter in policing.”
“We get a lot of calls. It’s very, very common,” says Ricksecker. “It’s not that public, it’s not that talked about, and the public often doesn’t hear about it until you have a homicide.”
Here’s something even more staggering: seventy-five percent of all domestic violence incidents go unreported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Dane County District Attorney’s office receives approximately 3,000 domestic violence referrals to their office each year; following this math, it’s likely that 9,000 incidents of domestic violence go unreported in Dane County every single year.
Though there are federal laws meant to protect abuse victims and each state may or may not have its own laws on the books, there is actually no such thing as a “domestic violence” charge in Wisconsin. Perpetrators are generally charged with battery, false imprisonment or disorderly conduct, which is often just a forfeiture. The only time the words “domestic abuse” appear with a charge are on a certain type of restraining order, many times waived by victims for fear of making things worse (particularly because DV restraining orders automatically prohibit firearms, enraging some game hunters). Ricksecker says law enforcement gathers as much evidence as possible while on the scene, knowing full well that victims “might report it today, and recant tomorrow. It’s not unusual.” There are dozens of reasons why, not least of which is that you and I are skeptical and disengaged—and victims know that. They read the news article comments. They hear what their own friends say, what you and I say when we don’t realize who we’re talking to, because we’ve forgotten that one-in-four statistic. It serves to reinforce what their abusers are already telling them: that this is their fault. That no one will believe them anyway. That they are terrible mothers, terrible people. That they have no place to go and no one to go to. And right there in the middle of it all, when they’re worn down, exhausted, operating from a place of desperation and hopelessness not unlike a war refugee, it’s not so hard to believe.
Or maybe there’s a more basic, less philosophical factor at play: Plain old fear, and with good reason. Reporting not only makes it “true,” it often makes it worse. Perpetrators will use what is most important to victims—often pets and children—to emotionally strong-arm them into staying. Domestic abuse is all about power and control, and as the victim starts to shift toward independence, the perpetrator ratchets up the control. Victims are six times likelier to be killed when attempting to separate. That’s why she doesn’t just leave. That’s why she shouldn’t just leave, not without a safety plan, and not without the full awareness of the gravity of her situation by her loved ones and the community they all live in. Not without us.
One of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is the way an abuser isolates a victim, and the way the victim herself may be in denial. Maybe she has “mistaken pity for love,” as Leslie Morgan Steiner puts it in her recent book, Crazy Love. Maybe, like Steiner, our victim is the kind of person who would “never get herself in that situation.” Maybe she sees the best in everyone, and believes in giving until she can give no more. Maybe her perpetrator is quiet, moody and depressed but seems like a harmless, decent guy. Maybe she’s the kind of person who is strong and fiercely independent, and believes she can handle anything on her own. Maybe she’s like Tracy Judd.
Domestic Abuse 24-Hour Help Line: 608-251-4445 (abuseintervention.org)