Andrea Oton and A’Lesha Markee have always considered themselves outspoken women – not the kind to be pushed around. But as each woman discovered, anyone can become a victim when attraction and affection are accompanied by control, isolation and abuse.
Their friendship formed from the ruins of such an experience, at the hands of the same man.
Markee dated him first. During a recent interview she described the first time he hit her. After a date, they’d returned to her apartment and began arguing. Like many disagreements, she doesn’t remember how it started. But she recalls the violence vividly. “He grabbed me by the throat and threw me against the wall,” she said. “Then he started punching me in the side of the head full force.”
When the assault was over and her boyfriend had left, Markee said she was stunned. “I couldn’t believe this had just happened. I’d never even had anybody call me a bad name before.”
She immediately broke off the relationship but her boyfriend returned a day later apologetic. Because they’d both been drinking that night, he blamed the alcohol and said she shared responsibility for the fight. Listening to his remorse and promises that it would never happen again, she forgave him.
“It went on for about five years,” she said, shaking her head. “It became a regular occurrence.”
She’s not alone. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one out of four women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes and approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually. In Washington state almost 50,000 cases of domestic violence were reported in 2006.
Markee described a relationship characterized by jealousy and control and peppered with violent fights of increasing frequency. Belittled, threatened and watched closely, she was also kicked, punched, pushed and chased.
Though the police arrested her boyfriend four times, he’d return after 72 hours expressing remorse and the cycle continued. “I’d kick him out and he’d come back. I felt trapped. It was such a shameful thing. I was embarrassed and it kept me quiet.”
According to Grant Stancliff, associate director of education with the YWCA, her reaction is typical. “Victims and survivors are embarrassed …. It’d be nice if friends and family were there earlier – if friends can express concern and be supportive and recognize how hard and complicated it is to leave.”
Like many women in controlling and abusive relationships, Markee became isolated from friends and family. When she went shopping with her mom, for example, in less than an hour he’d call with some reason she needed to go home. “He isolated me from the things that made me who I was.”
After declaring she “was done” and breaking up multiple times, Markee eventually broke free for good, though she continued to receive harassing phone calls and text messages. Where was she? What was she doing? He wanted to kill her.
Meanwhile, Markee’s ex-boyfriend started a relationship with Oton. “He was the perfect gentleman,” she said. When Markee warned her that he was abusive, Oton didn’t believe it, figuring Markee was just a bitter ex. “I thought he was the greatest thing. He treated me good.”
But her relationship followed the same pattern of control, isolation and abuse. “We weren’t getting along,” recalled Oton, describing how he called her a name during an argument, then began hitting her. “From there it went downhill.”
She said their fights over the next few years are a blur, and she didn’t think of herself as an abused woman.
“But my grandma never gave up on me,” said Oton. “That saved my life, but I had to come to it on my own. I was in denial.”
For Oton, the realization that she was abused came after their final fight. She described getting pushed, kicked and hit before her boyfriend grabbed her around the neck. “He had me in a headlock and was punching my face. I went limp and he said he was sorry. I thought I was going to die that night.” Still in pain hours later, Oton managed to sneak away and her grandmother drove her to the hospital where they learned she had several broken ribs.
“My grandma and A’Lesha worked to get him arrested,” Oton said, explaining that with broken bones, the assault was finally a felony.
As witnesses against him in court, the two women became friends.
“Speaking to her, then to domestic violence support groups, opened my eyes,” said Oton. “I’m not alone and I can live after this.”
Now, several years later, the friends are united by a passion to speak out against domestic violence. They want to encourage women to share their stories and get help while educating the public about the controlling signs of an abuser.
“I feel empowered by speaking out,” said Markee. “We have a voice and we want everybody to hear it.”