“Were you abused as a child?”
Annette McGivney said she had never been asked that question until she found herself melting down in a psychiatrist’s office. As a 49-year-old mother, breadwinner, caregiver, teacher and journalist, she prided herself on being the rock that others depended upon. However, cracks in a dam of repressed memories appeared as she dug into the murder of a Grand Canyon hiker.
The victim had been stabbed 29 times, and McGivney didn’t accept law enforcement’s theory that it was all about a drug addict wanting money for meth. As she learned about the murderer’s history and how his parents brutalized him, she uncovered personal parallels to her life that shook her to the core.
“I was unknowingly triggering my own childhood trauma,” she said.
Crying, shaking and having gone without sleep for 10 days, she sought expert attention and was posed the six-word question. Saying “yes” shattered the barricades and brought a flood of suppressed scenes. After decades spent admitting she couldn’t recall her childhood and didn’t want to remember, she started to face the consequences of being beaten almost daily for 12 years.
Family violence is an unaddressed epidemic, she told the audience Monday night at the 25th annual candlelight vigil and silent witness memorial, which are part of Domestic Violence Awareness Month. McGivney and other speakers at the Broadway Theater in Rock Springs shared stories to illustrate the impact of abuse, especially on children; celebrate survivors; and explore ways to end the cycle of pain and violence.
AN UNDERREPORTED REALITY
Due to the reluctance to report abuse, many believe official statistics do not capture the full scope of the problem, but the numbers that are recorded are staggering. McGivney said 3.4 million children in the United States were deemed at risk for being victims of abuse and neglect in 2015. She noted that half of all homicides are perpetrated by a domestic partner.
Taneesa Congdon, the director of the YWCA of Sweetwater County Center for Families and Children, said every minute 20 people are abused in the United States, which adds up to more than 10 million men and women a year. She said 1 in 3 women will be a victim of abuse, which could be physical, verbal, emotional, psychological, sexual or financial.
“Two out of three won’t be abused. We’re here for those who will,” Congdon said.
McGivney noted that Wyoming has one of the highest rates of abuse per capita. Due to the nature of the geography and sparse population distribution, it’s harder to get help or get away when people are more isolated.
While Wyoming may have fewer safehouses or programs than other states, residents have access to what McGivney identified as “the proven solution to stopping the cycle of violence in despair” – nature.
“Nature to me, that was my lifeline as a kid,” she said.
Looking back, she said while she had few memories of her home, she can clearly envision childhood walks in the woods, where everything made sense and it felt like “a very loving, natural place.”
Having identified the best medicine for her post-traumatic stress disorder, she wanted to share the “park prescription” with others. She started the Healing Lands nonprofit group to take victims of family violence on clinically supported river trips. The goal of these fun and therapeutic expeditions is to interrupt disruptive cycles and help youth establish healthier patterns. Campers are promised that they can return year after year, so they can continue connecting with functional adults and an understanding peer group. She said this program that uses Mother Earth as a way of healing could easily be reproduced in Wyoming.
“You’ve got what you need,” she said.
A JOURNEY OF ENLIGHTENMENT AND ESCAPE
“I’m connected to a fairly known story,” said Carine McCandless, another guest speaker at the memorial.
She is a writer, speaker and sister of Chris McCandless, who journeyed into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land on his own and died in the attempt. “Into the Wild” is the title of the book and movie that chronicled his life and death, but Carine McCandless admitted she asked writer Jon Krakauer and director Sean Penn to leave out parts of his story. It took her years to find the courage to say the full truth, which was that she and her siblings had been physically and mentally abused by their parents.
She said their mother served as the main target and accomplice. She told her children she wouldn’t have been trapped if she hadn’t given birth. Carine McCandless said her parents justified their actions with the excuse “if it isn’t visible, it’s not really abuse,” and they worked hard to keep up appearances. Between the beatings, lies and threats, she said her brother was over the charade by age 6, though he never stopped trying to protect and reassure her.
She does not blame her parents for her brother’s death, but she does hold them accountable for his disappearance. As he grew up, his adventures into the solace of nature grew more extreme. He found peace in the wilds. She said he told her, “That’s the purity of nature, it may be harsh in its honesty but it never lies to you.”
However, he was inexperienced and unprepared for Alaska, which led to his death and later his idolization. As Carine McCandless found her confidence, she began to tell people the rest of the story. She said people learned more from what made her brother human than what made him a legend. She said she wonders what would have happened if someone came to their school and openly talked about abuse.
Even though her father has died, she said her mother is still in denial about what occurred.
“There are many out there, like my mother, we need to reach,” she said, along with their children.
She knows destructive habits don’t have to continue generation after generation. She said she and her step-siblings all broke the family cycle.
Carine McCandless closed by reciting her favorite quote, which is, “Perhaps strength doesn’t reside in having never been broken, but in the courage required to grow strong in the broken places.”
Eleven wooden silhouettes were placed on the stage of the Broadway Theater to represent the women and children in Sweetwater County who died due to abuse. Each one has a shield on the chest relating their name, age at death, and story.
“Each name holds a special place in my heart,” Congdon said.
Across Wyoming, 66 women, seven men, four boys and one girl have been murdered as a result of domestic violence since 1985.
Congdon said domestic violence remains a problem in the community, and it will continue until society as a whole speaks with one resounding voice, “No more.”
STAND UP AND SPEAK OUT
YWCA Executive Director Melinda Baas said events like these honor strong women and keep a door open for those who choose to come in. She stressed that it’s important to set aside what you want to happen to allow victims the chance to make their own choices – even ones you don’t agree with. Baas said telling them to leave one makes life easier for her – not the person who is again denied a choice.
Challenges don’t end when they walk out the door. Baas asked people to consider common questions victims must face. What if your wallet, purse, or car is all you had left? Where would you stay? How would you pay for it? Where will you get clothes? How will you get a job without a driver’s license or Social Security card? Can you keep yourself and your family safe?
Of course, helping victims answer these concerns is only part of the solution. Baas said prevention works backward, and they need to do more with those who wield power and control as a weapon. To counter them, she said we need to end our silence. A lack of public discussion leaves people suffering in isolation. She encouraged people to teach children about healthy relationships and to challenge unacceptable attitudes and behavior.
Earlier in the evening, McGivney said everyone needs at least one significant, loving relationship to help them cope. Baas noted that McGiveney turned to nature and Carine McCandless looked to family.
“Be that MVP for someone,” Baas said. “Be there for them. Stand for them.”
The memorial ended with a candlelight vigil, where people were reminded that life is fragile. Like flames flickering in the breeze, those who lack protection may be prematurely extinguished.
Remember the names of the lost. Remember the names of the survivors. Take steps to shield those in need, so that if we must add names, may it only be to the latter list.