The Move that Saved My Life
There was a lightness about her even though the words that were rolling off of her tongue stung and made me shift in my chair. She was ready to reveal the innermost parts of her story. It was a good thing, after all, a sign of healing. How did this classic blonde American woman with a loving, supportive family and immaculate common sense end up in the kind of relationship that hurts? I flat out asked her. She was candid in her response, even eager to share. Saying, if this keeps one woman from making the same mistake I did, it's worth it.
Lauren was living in Highland, NY with her then boyfriend J.M. when she received word that SHE had been accepted into the state police academy. Snide comments and a history of lying paled in comparison to what he would do when he found out she was moving up in the world. His rage burned beneath the surface. He called her selfish. She was used to it by now, and able to combat his challenging remarks. “You have to understand something: I’m not just trying to make a better life for me, I’m doing it for us,” she told him.
And she was.
Lauren—a Dutchess Community College graduate—held a criminal justice degree and had been in pursuit of this career move for some time. At the time when Lauren got the great news about her acceptance she was working for a packing and shipping place. The exemplary employee had always been hard working. As for J.M.? He was not so ambitious. According to Lauren he spent a lot of time at home self-medicating and self-loathing. It apparently gave him plenty of time to worry about what she was doing.
One thing I've learned in my travels of this project, in speaking with domestic violence advocates and groups and even survivors (don't call them victims) is that the effort to try and understand the psychology of the parties involved is often complicated in layers that outside perspective cannot conceive of. "Why did you stay?" I asked her. This response is one that's heard time and time again.
Lauren had been smitten with J.M. from the beginning, charmed by his comedy and lulled by his sweetness. She was in love.
"I try to see the best in people and I tried to help him as much as possible. I tried to stick by him and show him that someone cares and wants to help, hoping it would hit home with him. I learned you can’t help somebody that doesn’t want to be helped. I learned the hard way."
Lauren's plight began on a regular Sunday in October 2012. The couple ran some errands, lounged about the house. Lauren picked up a bottle of pinot grigio, J.M. went for his usual case of beer. Back at home Lauren was playing a game on her laptop when J.M. told Lauren he wanted to play her a sweet song to set the mood. Justin Bieber's "As Long as you Love Me" was humming from the tablet inside of their apartment and the two were cozy. His anger wasn't visible to her but it was boiling over inside of him. He toyed with her, having her recite the prayer from the popular vigilante action movie Boondock Saints. She thinks they're about to watch it.
And Shepherds we shall be For thee, my Lord, for thee...
He got her while she wasn't looking. Something told her: look to the right. The move might have saved her life.
There was a spark. With her head turned, she glimpsed it. He was screaming. Lauren, still unaware, became tired. HE, having been shocked by his own actions, realized he had done something terrible. He had shot her. She bobbed in and out of consciousness. PLEASE HELP she thought, trauma setting in. He fretted over what to do, made some frantic calls speaking mostly in Spanish, and finally put her in the car. He would ultimately leave her at Vassar emergency entrance in doctor and nurse's care.
"Talking to the cops I (said I) thought it was an accident. I was delusional. I made up a story. I don’t know what happened. I went back out of consciousness... I woke up 3 days later in Westchester hospital. Brain trauma reverts you back to your childhood self. My first words: 'MOMMY.' She was right there holding my hand."
The aftermath: Lauren has endured immeasurable pain, underwent multiple surgeries, endured seizures, had a frontal craniotomy and was rendered blind in both eyes -- he meant to pull the trigger near her temple but the turn of her head put the bullet behind her eye. She recently regained sight in one of them. This time, out of tragedy comes a second chance. She sees everything now with clarity that she is anxious to share with anyone who will listen. Maybe this could have been avoided if she would have left. She tried. Lauren is incredibly resilient and is moving on with her life, though she bears the scars of that day and always will.
Her story is common. It only takes two seconds for life to change irrevocably. Her sense of humor is astounding. Her family is there for her. She is beyond grateful. "Be happy to have the air you breathe in your lungs."
Lauren wishes to thank the officers who helped her through the events: Detective Perotta from the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department and Sergeant Rolloson. They came and talked to her, knowing the psychology. They caught the holes in her story and finally coaxed her out of her hiding spot in the corner of his life. "Just tell the truth," they told her. "We can't help you unless you help us." "I think it was an accident", she finally told them, asking to see him. "With domestic violence you want to protect them. It's a psychological thing,"
J.M. was arrested at home. He receivied his sentence in a courtroom shared with Lauren - her family by her side. It was served down in Ulster County by Judge Donald Williams: 18 years on felony assault. TIme that he can spend thinking of everything he took that day. But, not if Lauren has anything to say about it. In the courtroom she was strong and had been preparing for this moment. She wanted to tell him what he gave her instead.
"The bullet you meant to silence me did not silence me; it only empowered me."
Photos by Tamme Stitt Photography
Lauren is on the road to recovery emotionally and physically. She will spend some time focusing on herself now and is ready and willing to "help anybody." She is even playing with the idea of becoming a counselor and advocate. She's not sure how much she is capable of with her disabilities, but she is optimistic. That's not the word for her. She's determined. With the help of family, friends and the officials who helped her through, to whom she is incredibly thankful, she is ready for a new start.
Domestic Violence can happen to anyone. Don't ignore the warning signs.
There is hope and there is help.
Rise Up Against Violence with One Billion Rising and Happy Hudson Valley On February 19th, 2014.
A global event to demand an end of violence against women and girls.