A binge of insomniac googling led to the 2 a.m. discovery that my abusive ex-husband was dead. According to the obituary, Bill* died five months earlier at his Pennsylvania home, with his “loving” wife of 33 years at his side. Mourners included three stepchildren. No cause of death was mentioned.
Bill and I hadn’t inhaled the same air since a rain-spattered morning in March, 1981 when we rode down together in a claustrophobic Manhattan elevator with the grizzled Rabbi who had just performed our Jewish divorce ceremony. Called a “Get,” the ceremony involved Bill dropping a “bill of divorce” stating his intention to sever all ties between us into my cupped hands while proclaiming “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you.” I then placed the Get under my armpit, walked across the room and back before transferring custody of the document to the Rabbi, who tore it.
“Better luck next time,” the Rabbi said.
As the elevator reached the ground floor Rabbi Grizzled mumbled cheerily to the pair he had just torn asunder: “Better luck next time” and the three of us parted.
Bill had used my desperation for a Get (under Jewish Law a couple with only a civil divorce remain married) as leverage to pressure me into signing a settlement agreement sans lawyer. Basically, the sole thing I retained custody of was the sole thing I wanted—Thor, our three-year-old cat. We’d had a German Shepherd puppy we named Ulysses, but Bill grew jealous of my attention toward the dog. The evening Ulysses left chew marks on the bathroom vanity, Bill smacked him and threw him out of the apartment. I found the puppy a good home and heard he was doing well except sometimes cowering around men.
Since I’d kept my earnings as editorial assistant separate, I felt protected from the towering debt Bill accrued during our marriage. Until he filed for bankruptcy and his creditors came after me. A few months later in a Brooklyn courtroom, my parents, both Holocaust survivors who’d accompanied me to lend emotional support, witnessed their daughter declaring insolvency.
Attached to the fridge in the Long Island City condo I now share with my partner Paul and terrier Shea is a much happier memory of my parents, despite it being taken at my October 22, 1977 wedding. They are on Temple Torah’s dance floor—mom, Clairol blonde hair teased into a helmet, rocking her beige chiffon gown; dad dapper and dear in a beige tux. Whenever I need nourishment, I am greeted by my parents in their prime, strutting their stuff to The Bee Gees’ You Should Be Dancing.
In typical child of survivor fashion, my mission was to never, ever let them down.
I grew up imprinted with their traumas: mom, at age 13, escaping from Nazi clutches, recaptured, ultimately spending four years in a labor camp; dad at Auschwitz watching his parents and youngest sister be marched to the gas chambers.
In typical child of survivor fashion, my mission was to never, ever let them down. After my first love crushed my 17-year-old heart easily as a child’s fist mushing a Playdoh ball, mom walked in on me bawling. She walked out, too stricken by my agony to offer comfort. I vowed whenever possible to keep private the big hurts—those she couldn’t heal with a kiss or homemade gefilte fish.
The Thief and the Hitman
My first date with Bill was at a claustrophobic wine and cheese place featuring a Cat Stevens wanna-be. Bill, a spindly, chain-smoking, lush-haired 23-year-old living with his parents and three siblings in a cramped Bronx apartment, told this gullible Queens College junior he was the president of Robert Hall, a large men’s clothing chain. He preyed on my glaring need to help others, confessing his “emotional brokenness.” The kill shot: crumpling his half-filled pack of Marlboros and stating, “You make me want to be a better person.”
If I made noises to leave, he threatened to kill himself or send a hitman after my family.
I was easy pickings for a pathological liar. Bill wrote love poems: I treasured lines like, “it is at moments after I have dreamed of the rare entertainment of your eyes,” until my literature professor read aloud from ee cummings. Bill claimed he somehow channeled the eminent poet, sticking to the story even after I found I Carry Your Heart With Me on his nightstand.
If I made noises to leave, he threatened to kill himself or send a hitman after my family. In classic abuser fashion, Bill emotionally isolated me by insinuating that my parents favored my sister.
On two occasions the abuse turned physical—the second time occurring after I returned home from volunteering at a battered women’s shelter. My life felt over. No possibility for joy, but no way out.
Until in early December 1980, Bill said he was done. The door swung open, but I remained Krazy-Glued to invisible bars. New Year’s Eve morning, after harangue number who knows, I dumped a few toiletries into a plastic bag and walked out of our high rise to the bus stop on the corner. Bill trailed in his Chevy, screaming out the window until the bus arrived.
Our final indirect contact occurred three years later. I was an editor at Woman Magazine, red pencil poised over “8 Signs He’s a Keeper” when the office phone rang. An unfamiliar voice identified herself as Bill’s lawyer for a dispute with his recently deceased wife’s parents over custody of the dead woman’s children. Would I testify on Bill’s behalf? Quaking but resolute, I responded: “Someone who abuses a dog should not be responsible for children.”
When I finally leapt from the torpedoed ship that was my marriage, I began to understand life could be more than keeping my finger in the dyke.
I wrote experiential pieces about exploits including being onstage at Radio City marching with the Rockettes in Parade of the Wooden Soldiers and performing as a comedic foil for a clown with the Moscow Circus.
I was lucky to have a supportive family and no children binding me to an abuser.
My Woman perch led to talk show appearances as a “Relationship Expert,” followed by self-help book contracts. But I felt inauthentic, worthless, lost. I started long-overdue therapy and enrolled in social work school.
In my psychotherapy practice today, I help people unlock the ability to leap from their torpedoed ships. When a man raises his voice to me, I often experience a PTSD flash. I tell the patient, “Yelling is not ok. Either respect my boundaries or I’ll help you find another therapist.”
About one in four women in the U.S. experience domestic violence and 55 percent of female homicide victims are killed by a current or past intimate partner. I was lucky to have a supportive family and no children binding me to an abuser.
When I came across my ex’s obit, I scrutinized it: At 67, a bald and cuddly Bill less resembled Hannibal Lector (as I envisioned him in my mind’s eye) than a Jewish Santa Claus. On Facebook, his widow posted photos of the two of them through the years, his arm always slung around her shoulders. She looked happy, but in public so had I.
People can change but it’s a self-selecting group who opt for treatment, and as a mental health clinician, I admit that some things are unfixable. A recent study of over 1,200 family members, partners and friends of those over 50 who exhibit psychopathic traits (lack of guilt, lack of empathy, superficial charm) showed that 93 percent of the abusers’ behavior worsened over time.
Like Dorothy in Oz
At daybreak my terrier and I left a slumbering Paul (the kindest man in the galaxy, a.k.a, the anti-Bill) and walked out onto the pier overlooking the East River and Manhattan skyline—forever scarred by the loss of the Twin Towers, but rebuilt. Now I’d never get an apology from Bill, but that probably wasn’t ever happening anyway. I felt no anger but also no sadness.
I felt no anger but also no sadness.
If I were granted a do-over, I’d have said to my parents as they walked me down the aisle, “Let’s blow this joint!” But the five years I spent under Bill’s thrall taught me that I am a survivor. Facing the worst thing I could imagine early in life was a gift.
I learned that I am both limited (no one’s savior) and limitless (I can be a 5’1” non-dancer, yet perform with the Rockettes). Instead of breaking me, persevering through trauma armored me to comprehend my own resources. Like Dorothy in Oz, all along I had the power to whisk myself home.