Hi, Eliza. How are you?
I’m good. How are you?
I’m good. Thank you so much for talking to us.
So should I just start whenever?
And if you could read the title as well, that would be great.
- eliza rudalevige
“Held by String.” At 11, I was the youngest in the eating disorder program. In her 60s, Shelly was the oldest. Trapped in armchairs that smelled like scrambled eggs, we fiddled with everything — threads, tissues, clothing, beads. When a counselor confiscated my playthings, Shelly intervened: “She’s just a baby.” After a hundred days, I was released. Shelly pressed a bracelet into my palm, tiny opalescent beads strung between two leather cords. Seven years later, my wrist is too big for Shelly’s bracelet. But looking at the beads nestled in the tough leather, I think of the young girl in the veteran’s arms.
Do you remember the first time you saw Shelly or met her?
She was there on my first day. She always sat in the same spot. So when you walked into the room, she was like right on your left.
Were you sitting in a circle?
Yeah, it’s kind of set up so we were just mostly in one room all day, and we weren’t really allowed to move because that burns calories. So we kind of just like parked in one spot. I kind of kept to myself because I was so young and kind of terrified.
Yeah. And what do you think it would have been like at the program without Shelly there?
I definitely would have felt even more alone than I already was. I very much felt like she kind of protected me from the people who ran the program. Because even though they were trying to help me, like, their priority was making me gain weight. And although she didn’t get in the way of that at all, she kind of helped tone down their harshness because they weren’t really used to dealing with children.
Have you been in touch with her at all?
We’re not allowed to have each other’s phone numbers.
What do you think you’d say to Shelly now if you could meet up with her or if you saw her like on the street or something?
I don’t think I ever said thank you to her. So I think I’d say thank you and ask her how she’s doing, if she’s gotten better. She’d been in and out of programs since her 20s, so she didn’t have a lot of hope.
How are you doing after this program?
Well, the program got me to a point where I wasn’t dying. I haven’t ever officially relapsed. I had a little bit of a blip when I went to college. But I have a support system. I have medication. I have therapists. I have friends who check in on me. So I’m doing better than most people who have anorexia I think.
I’m glad to hear that. And thank you again for sharing this piece.
So we start every show with a short love story. They are from our column called “Tiny Love Stories,” which are love stories that are no more than a hundred words. And we loved them so much that we made a book of them. It’s called “Tiny Love Stories: True Tales of Love in 100 Words or Less.” They are some of my and Dan’s favorite tiny love stories. We are so excited for you to read this collection of amazing stories.
And Dan and I are celebrating with a virtual event on December 15. We’ll be live on your screen, and we’ll have video performances by the actors Dianne Wiest, Andrew Rannells, and Marsha Stephanie Blake. We’ll also have screenings of animated shorts and live conversation with the authors of these powerful tiny tales. If you are a New York Times subscriber, you can find out how to register at timesevents.nytimes.com. And don’t worry, we’ll put a link in the show notes as well. We hope you’ll join us.
Today’s essay is “The View from the Victim Room,” published in June 2013. It’s written by Courtney Queeney and read by Julia Whelan. And a warning that this story contains descriptions of domestic violence.
The Domestic Violence Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County is in a surprisingly pretty brick building.
No one there seems to stare much if you sob while you are waiting for your lawyer. The guard who asked me to remove the pen in my ponytail so I would clear the metal detector did so with impressive grace. Everyone is gentle.
The price of admission is abuse.
In this court, your ex is referred to as the respondent. I was there because my ex beat me.
If anyone had asked me before my beating if I would defend myself when attacked, I would have said yes, of course I would.
But I didn’t hit the respondent back. It never occurred to me that someone who claimed to love me would hit me so deliberately and repeatedly. As he hit me, my field of vision shrank to the space inhabited by his swinging fists, and I was too busy shielding my face to do much. It turns out protecting your face takes a great deal of effort when someone is hell-bent on wrecking it.
I remember thinking, getting punched really hurts, as if this were some profound epiphany.
When I found myself cornered by a phone, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up and dial 911. I didn’t think about the legal or personal ramifications. I didn’t think at all. But when I said “help” and started rattling off the address, he wrenched the phone away, which was when I fled out to the elevator and down to the building’s front steps, where I waited, shuddering, for the cops.
In five minutes, they arrived, eight of them. Half went up to talk to him and half stayed with me. They wanted me to press charges. They wanted to take me to the hospital. They were kind and didn’t question my taste in boyfriends. They patted my bruised back and muttered gentle nothings like a posse of protective big brothers. They insisted on idling in their cars until a friend came to fetch me. It was triage at first. Then the people closest to me kicked in. “You should press charges,” they told me.
I went to the hospital the next day, worried because I could not really open my mouth or see well. I needed a written record. The doctor was shocked and impressed that nothing was broken in my face. It felt like a win. “You need to get a restraining order,” my friend said. “You should move home. You should move, period. He has guns.”
I said no to everything, even though I couldn’t eat, sleep or speak to anyone without crumpling. I couldn’t sit or lean against anything comfortably because my head was still a battered crusty mess. I had night terrors, day terrors and panic attacks.
Not even spackling paste would hide the bruises. So after one attempt with concealer, I gave up and wore my battered face out. I told everyone who needed to know, which astounded the respondent.
He called me, offended, and said, “You told your family?” As if this was somehow an affront to him.
I looked up every unpronounceable word on my hospital chart. My injuries included blunt head trauma, burst blood vessels in my eyes, swelling of the brain, bruised jaw, bruised ribs, defensive bruises on both arms, bruises on my back and swelling on the rear of my skull from where his fist sent me flying into various hard surfaces.
In trying to persuade me to file charges, my father said, “What would you tell your little sisters to do?”
I did eventually petition the domestic violence court house for an emergency order of protection, which it granted. This was easy to get after the respondent put into writing details of how he would like to torture, mutilate and kill me and then sent these details to me in the mail. He ended that written missive by reiterating his love.
I read it on a bus and got off several stops early to vomit on the sidewalk.
I wanted a whole room of things to smash. I didn’t have one. Instead, I had scattered bright spots.
One morning, a friend on whose couch I was crashing walked out of his room while I was working my way through one of his overflowing bookshelves. When I finished the paragraph I was reading and looked up, he was standing there, grinning.
“What?” I asked, hand stealing up to my face.
“You’re smiling,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you smile.”
Soon, I was able to find things to laugh about when there didn’t seem to be much to laugh about. I worshipped my lawyer. I idolized her intern. I wanted to take her to lunch, but I had no appetite. I went to see my doctor. He looked at me and said, “You are way too skinny,” which made me burst out crying.
I had to go to court every two weeks to renew my emergency protection order. If the respondent showed up to accept or contest the full order, I would have had to wait in the Victim Room, where you don’t have to see him until your case is called. If this happens, for the rest of your life, you will know you once had to sit in a space called the Victim Room. But he never showed.
After some months, I finally got to the point where I no longer sobbed at court. I made friends with a girl named Caitlyn, who shared my lawyer and therefore my course schedule. We gawked at one male lawyer’s ridiculous Yves Saint Laurent duffel bag.
“What is that?” we asked each other. It was so absurdly out of place in the courtroom, so hilariously garish that we both clung to the image of it, giggling, until we were shushed by the bailiff.
I would listen reverently to other people’s stories as I waited — the woman whose husband gave her car to his mistress, the woman renewing her protection order because as soon as her first one expired, her ex scaled a wall to break into her second floor apartment.
I thought, “Thank God that’s not me.” I thought, “What if that becomes me?”
My lawyer explained that the sheriff couldn’t locate the respondent. He had moved. I understood the logistics, but I still asked every time. I wanted a different answer.
I would never learn why Caitlyn was there or what her guy did. It didn’t matter. And yet it was the most important thing in the world.
On my last day, the judge made me laugh by mocking the respondent’s death-threat love letter for being so terribly written, which was only funny because the respondent called himself a writer. I dated a terrible writer who beat me and sent me death threats that were more terribly written than some child’s diary. I dated a violent substitute yoga teacher. It seemed like a huge joke, except it was my life.
I could laugh by then because my jaw hinged open all the way. It was almost like my old jaw, the same way my face was almost my old face and my ribs were almost my old ribs and my back was almost my old back.
In the respondent’s absence, the judge finally granted me a two-year order of protection. Caitlyn got hers, too. As we said goodbye in the hallway, I added, “I never want to see you here again,” as I gave her a high-five. I always had been the teary one. She’s at least a decade younger but had been stoic throughout. But now her eyes got glassy, and she said, “You’re the only person here who ever even talked to me.”
I walked out of court into so much sunshine, gripping my flimsy piece of paper, which I would add to the inches-thick file I already had amassed on the respondent. I loved everything.
This feeling wouldn’t last. The insomnia would be back, the vomiting, the panic attacks and the night terrors. But right then, I loved the fast food wrappers in the gutter, and the pigeons roosting in the bridge girders, and the river sending shockwaves of sun off its ripples and the creaking rails as a train sped overhead, carrying people to responsible places like jobs. I didn’t flinch when a taxi gunned through an intersection. I didn’t feel my pulse thud louder in my ears when a stranger stood shoulder to shoulder with me at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change.
It sounds so banal, but I loved my life, maybe the most in my 34 years. The respondent could have taken it. He could have snapped my neck. He could have gotten to his guns if he weren’t so busy punching me.
I wanted to weep with joy because he didn’t. And I did weep. And then the light changed, and I crossed.
[LAUGHS] Can you hear me?
I can hear you just fine.
OK, we had some technical difficulties.
That’s what happens in our brave new world.
Well, I am still somebody who writes by hand.
Well, it’s really good to hear your voice and to see you again. So I want to start with how your essay ends, which is you walking out of the court building with this order of protection in your hand. What did that document mean for you legally?
Legally, it meant he was for 18 months not allowed to contact me in any way, shape or form. He couldn’t email me. He couldn’t call me. He couldn’t write me letters. And he couldn’t be physically within I think it was 500 feet of me.
And how did that make you feel?
Frustrated because I knew he was not going to pay attention to it. And he proceeded to stalk me for the next eight years.
Yep. So I mean, we dated for 3 and 1/2 months, and it took eight years of me telling him no. And every time he contacted me, I had to go file police reports. So I felt proud of myself for showing up every two weeks. But I knew it wasn’t really going to do anything. So it was eight years.
Wow. I mean, I’m struck by the overall — what seems like an overall lack of legal recourse to what happened for so long. None of that adds up to legal consequences.
Yeah, and I like had everything on my side. I mean, I have a lot of privilege. I’m white. I called the cops. I went to the hospital. I had everything documented. I came in prepared to court in case he showed up with my stack of papers. I didn’t have a job, so I could show up every two weeks. I mean, I was very, very lucky. And a lot of women in my similar situation aren’t. And one of the things I’ve noticed is how so many women — it’s mostly women — downplay what happened to them.
And in the women’s group I was in, all the women were either divorced or getting divorced, and they all had children with their abusers. And I’m just sitting there thinking, like, I am so lucky, I don’t deserve to be here. And every one of the women in that group said the same thing. So women who had two little kids and were still living with their abuser would like apologize to me, because I’d gotten beaten the most badly. And I’m like, no, no, I’m like, I shouldn’t be here. But it’s like, we were the people who deserve to be there. But we could see it about everybody else. So you think, like, I’m not worthy of being here.
Right. How do you see — if you see yourself as trying to get to the other side of this, what does that look like for you?
I guess I just want to be — I want to have less fear in my life. For instance, I live in like the safest neighborhood in the world. And now I take a lot of walks, because I have a lot of anxiety. And you know when people like ring their bike bells? I still jump and yelp like a kicked dog. And it’s literally a person trying to say, like, I’m passing on your left.
My startle response is still, like, crazy. I’m hyper vigilant. I don’t sleep because when you sleep, you’re totally unprotected, which is not fun. I just want to get somewhere back to whatever my normal was. So I actually — I’m going to do this 40-hour training. One of the things you can do is become a court advocate. So you can’t give legal advice, but you can help people fill out paperwork or get in touch with emergency housing or food banks, things like that.
What would that be like as work?
I guess I feel like I had so many people, and people I’ll never be able to think adequately. I mean, the X-ray technician — I was shaking so hard in the emergency room. I couldn’t get my feet in the little stirrupy things in the wheelchair and had to like lift my feet up for me. Dr. Beach, who was my physician in the emergency room. All the lawyers who helped me. My therapists that I’ve had, three therapists since then. I’ll never be able to adequately thank all of them for what they did for me. And I’m a stranger to a lot of them. But what I can do is be that person to somebody else who needs a person.
How do you think about your future in terms of romantic relationships? Or have you have had romantic relationships since this happened?
But it’s somebody I’ve known since junior high. I keep telling him, I keep reminding him that he’s not my boyfriend just so he doesn’t get any ideas.
I feel like I kind of want my life back more than I want a boyfriend.
And what does your life back look like?
I mean, I’d like a job. I want a job I can leave at the office or whatever, and then go home and do my stuff, my reading and writing. I feel like I generate enough stress on my own that I don’t want something stressful.
Mm-hmm. How do you spend your average day? Do you have a routine to your days?
Yep. I try to go see the sunrise at one of the beaches, and I’m kind of equidistant. So I go see the sunrise.
You try to do that every morning?
Yeah. I don’t set my alarm. But if I’m still awake or if I’ve already woken up, I figure I might as well go.
And I do that, and that’s about an hour. And then I kind of come home, and I read and write and usually go on another walk. Sometimes I walk like 10 miles a day, just because I have a lot of anxiety. Go to the library, I read a lot. And then sometimes I go hang out with my fella at night. It’s boring. I’m OK being boring.
Yeah. But when you’re at the beach in the morning watching the sunrise, what are you thinking about?
Sometimes I write. I mean, I always have my notebook on me. Sometimes I just sit. I mean, when the sun comes up and hits the water, it literally goes gold. And I just kind of sit and try to empty my brain out. Because my brain, I have a lot of intrusive thoughts, and it’s quiet. And I haven’t checked my email yet, or I haven’t read anything horrifying in the news.
Are there moments of happiness when you’re in that spot?
Definitely. I mean, it’s not so much I guess happiness as it is like peace. I guess I don’t pray per se, but it’s the closest thing that I do to prayer.
Courtney, I’m so, so sorry that you had to experience this, and I’m very grateful that you talked to me about it today.
Thank you so much for having me.
Modern Love is produced by Kelly Prime and Hans Buetow and edited by Sara Sarasohn and Wendy Dorr. Music by Dan Powell.
Special thanks to Julia Simon, Nora Keller, Mahima Chablani, Laura Kim, Bonnie Wertheim, Anya Strzemien, Sam Dolnick, Choire Sicha and also to Ryan Wegner and Kelly Rogers at Audm. The executive producer of New York Times Audio is Lisa Tobin.
If you or someone you know is being abused, visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website at thehotline.org or call 1-800-799-SAFE, 1-800-799-7233. We’ll include links in the show notes as well.
I’m Dan Jones.
I’m Miya Lee.
See you next week.