Problem family

When domestic abuse showed up in my neighborhood, I had to decide whether to help or keep my distance.


Jill Wolfson
June 28, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

My front door flew open and two neighborhood children, a self-possessed, moon-faced girl of 7 and her 5-year-old brother, pigeon-toed and shy, came rushing into the living room. From outside on the street, I heard adult voices, loud and punctuated with hard,
dangerous-sounding consonants.

"She says he's wacko," the boy announced.

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"He turned over the kitchen table!" the girl said.

My two children, with their fine-tuned antennae for drama, came running from upstairs. Who's he? What kitchen table?

At the time, we were new to the street. My first instinct was to lock the door, corral them all, until I figured out who was wacko and just how wacko this particular wacko was. But I didn't move fast enough. The front door flew open again and Debra came rushing in. Debra is their mother, a pleasant enough woman from our brief, front-yard conversations. Her daughter inherited her apple cheeks and a smile that takes up half her face. I don't think I've ever seen someone smile as much as Debra.

But right then, she was a wild woman, nostrils flaring, her skin both ashen and blotched. In her arms, she balanced her curly haired infant daughter.

"This is it!" Debra yelled. "I've had it. I mean it. I'll go to the shelter. He's gonna kill us all one day."

I felt those words -- "kill us all" -- like a slap and I saw that
they'd had the same effect on my children. They stopped talking mid-sentence. Their eyes scanned Debra's face, waiting for her to wink or to do one of those reassuring adult things to prove that she wasn't speaking literally.

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On the other hand, Debra's kids could have been watching a boring rerun. The infant was too young to understand the words, but I expected her to be reacting to the emotion in her mother's grip. Yet the baby was smiling, doing an infant's flirt with me. The 7-year-old said to my daughter, "Want to play Monopoly or something?"

I was especially taken aback by the 5-year-old, who kept repeating the word, "wacko!" with delight. He obviously loved hearing such a kid word being spit from a grown-up's mouth. Then he rolled his eyes skyward. When he did this, he suddenly looked like a 35-year-old who has seen more life than he cares to remember.

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I know people have trouble reading stories about domestic violence. We switch the channel, fold the newspaper against the victim's face to block the ripples of her suffering. I assure you that nobody gets hurt in this story, at least not physically.

It's been more than two years since the police showed up that day. They listened to her side, then listened to his side, then handed her a card with a phone number for domestic violence counseling, then suggested that he take a walk around the block to cool down. The two officers glanced at the kids and when they didn't see blood or broken bones, they didn't see any victims. Then they said something into their radio, wrote something in their book and pulled away.

Later, the elderly woman who lives sandwiched between Debra's house and mine leaned over the fence to fill us in: That wasn't the first ugly scene and -- welcome to the neighborhood! -- it wasn't going to be the last. "It's a lovely street, quiet," she assured me. "Except for ... well, the rental house."

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She used the term "rental house" the way people talk about a haunted house, as if that explained everything. Every neighborhood seems to have one of each. The haunted house is usually some dilapidated, boarded-up building where ghosts supposedly run amok and children dare each other to cross the threshold.

The "rental" house usually means trouble in a more flesh-and-blood way. There are too many children, too little discipline, too many emotions spilling into the street. Debra's front yard is often littered with broken refrigerators and assorted car parts. In the summer, hundreds of pieces of fruit drop from a gorgeous plum tree and stain the sidewalk with leaking red pulp. Our street is populated with roller-curled widows who learned their frugal housekeeping skills during the Depression. This waste of perfectly good fruit drives them nuts.

And don't even get the neighbors started on Debra's teenagers, who come and go, slamming doors, yelling obscenities at their mother and her partner.

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I have to admit that I too would rather not have to witness this
kind of family chaos day after day. It's not that I don't know it exists. As a journalist, I have buttoned up my emotional armor and gone into battered women's shelters and juvenile halls. I have looked into the haunted eyes of beaten women, abusive men, children in hip-to-thigh casts.

I understand why the neighbors peek out from behind the curtains, shaking their heads in disgust or frustration or pity when the shouting at Debra's house begins. Why doesn't she throw him out? How does she live in such a mess? How did she get herself into this situation? Those poor, poor children!

Yes, helping other people is a wonderful thing. Isn't that what we always say as we bag up our used clothing for the homeless shelter and donate a turkey on Thanksgiving? But the situation is different when the need is right on your street, right in your face, and you can see that a sack of groceries doesn't even begin to satisfy the real hunger. Try telling your children that things would be easier if we kept our distance.

You can't. I couldn't. I told Debra and her children: If you're ever scared, if you ever need help, just knock.

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They knocked. My husband and I helped Debra pack up and move to the
women's shelter. My children, so ready to feel useful, spread out
sleeping bags so her kids could stay with us. A few days later, we helped Debra unpack and move back home. We talked to her partner, who swore up and down that he was determined to take care of his drug problem. We offered encouraging words when Debra said that she really does love him and things are going to be better now. When she went into labor with her seventh baby, we moved the younger ones in with us for a week. We lent her eggs and sugar. We lent her money.

Every time Debra's partner saw us, he made a little bow and thanked us for our help. "We have no one in the world," he said. "We are trying."

I saw how truly alone a family in America can be.

"So why can't I go over to her house to play?" my daughter asked.

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I was standing in the kitchen, up to my elbows in dirty dishes. Debra's daughter, her face eager and ingenuous, waited for my answer. My daughter is a master of bad timing.

"It's just not a good day for that today," I said.

"That's what you always say," my daughter pushed. "When's a good day?"

"But you two are playing so well here." I pretended to be casual but the girls didn't buy it.

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"What's wrong with playing there?"

Nailed. What was I supposed to say? That her friend's house is too
dirty and chaotic? That people in that family call each other "bitch" and "bastard" the way we call each other by our names? That Debra's partner is battling a drug problem and an incendiary temper?

Over time, I had come to really like Debra. She surprised me by shrugging off all the labels I tried to put on her. She isn't wimpy,
oppressed, stupid. She isn't even depressed, though from my perspective, she has plenty to be depressed about. In fact, she's upbeat. She's got a vibrant spirituality, a ready sense of humor and a college degree. She is the only woman I know who is always ready to have a long, leisurely chat about absolutely nothing. Everyone should have a friend like that.

I think she adores her children and they obviously adore her. I see it in the way they snuggle shyly into her hip. But, to put it mildly, she's not always in control. I don't know who would be with seven children, two of them still in diapers, and no outside help. I worry about my children being in her house. I worry about them getting caught in the crossfire of a flying kitchen table. Debra herself has stood among her piles of dirty clothes, filthy dishes, crying babies, cursing teenagers and said to me, "I can't imagine why anyone would let their child come play in this madhouse."

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"So why can't I go?" my daughter insisted.

She had drained me of excuses, so all I could fall back upon was a tight-lipped, "Because I said so."

Later, we had a family meeting on the subject. Our children listened as my husband and I explained that Debra tries hard and we respect her for that. Her partner isn't an evil person. He has a mental disability and a drug problem. Which means that we don't think it's safe for them to play over there. My daughter actually looked relieved and admitted that being in the house scared her.

"Debra's kids are welcome here any time," I emphasized. "Any time."

Then my son gave voice to the thought I had been trying to keep
quiet: "If it's not safe for us over there, is it safe for them?" I didn't have an answer. My husband and I made a pact. If we ever saw
any sign of physical abuse, we would personally get those children out of the house, even if it meant calling in the police. Every time
Debra's children came over to play, I ran my eyes over their bodies. Is there a black eye? Are there welts or pinch marks? What is under that Band-Aid? I started asking them directly and they answered just as directly: "Naw, nobody hits. They just scream all the time."

I'd known another family like this one. They lived a few doors down when I was growing up. The father was short and wiry. The mother had skinny legs and a wild mane of hair. Boy, could they lay into each other. The neighbors called their shouting matches the Friday Night Fights.

Their four daughters, close in age to my sister and me, would
come thundering into our house, never crying, but whooping with exuberance. The oldest girl had a wicked wit and could do a viciously accurate imitation of their mother. Her face would screw up and turn all red. Her voice quivered as she blasted us with: "You ... you ... douche bag!" That made all us kids howl with laughter.

As the girls got older, one by one, they dropped out of school. They drifted from boyfriend to boyfriend to husband to another husband to one crappy job after another. One was a heavy drinker and almost died in a car crash. Another was a junkie.

I don't think that anyone ever laid a hand on these four beautiful, bright children. But from that family, I learned that words can also warp the heart so that it never again regains its normal shape.

The pattern of domestic violence sounds like a weather report: Clear, tranquil skies followed by a buildup of increasingly high pressure until boom, all hell breaks loose.

Over the years, I have found myself weathering my own internal
storms in relationship to Debra's family. I talk, offer, suggest, pontificate, give, listen -- thinking that I can somehow "save" or "fix" these people. And like so many "social workers," I burn myself out.

My husband and I ranted to each other that we needed to set up better boundaries. It's embarrassing to admit, but there were times when the doorbell rang and I actually hid behind the couch, like a criminal in my own home, because I could not face another of their problems. Then I'd kicked myself over my lack of compassion.

For many months now, the rental house has been relatively peaceful. Debra's partner has been clear-eyed and even-tempered. He's even
working part-time. She has taken a job at a day-care center. I marvel at how she gets four little kids ready every morning and then heads off to a day of minding a dozen toddlers. When she pulls in at night, she's exhausted, but always waves. Even her teenagers seem less tumultuous.

Not long ago, Debra and I were having one of our impromptu sidewalk
conversations. All our kids were running around. Things are definitely better, she said. Then a darkness passed over her features.

"But I worry -- what if something happens to me? Who will take care of them? Not him. He's just not capable."

She's right. There is no one. No grandparent or sister or cousin
to step in. She has no close friends. There is no will, no trust fund, nothing tucked away for "just in case." I know what can happen to children in foster care. I know how they are ripped from their siblings and put wherever there is space for them. I know how they can bounce from home to home. I know how abysmal some of those homes can be.

Debra looked at her feet. "I've been wanting to ask you ... If something happens to me, would you ... ?"

When I didn't answer right away, she laughed nervously and tried to make light of it. "Oh, nothing is going to happen to me," she said and shuffled a little. Then she changed the subject.

I was off the hook, and I was relieved. There are so many nights
when I feel that my own two children have stretched me and my husband to our limits, that we have nothing left to muster. The thought of more children! The thought of children who have been through so much and obviously need so much. I don't want Debra's or anyone else's family dropped at my doorstep.

But knowing what I know and hearing what I hear over the fence, can I ever really be off the hook?

There is a Buddhist deity, the goddess of compassion, who has about a thousand arms radiating out from her center. It just goes to show where I am in life that I always envision her arms waving around sippy cups, baby wipes, vacuum cleaners, science fair projects, homework slips that need to be signed. Cut off one of those arms and it is said that a dozen more pop out to take its place.

But I'm no goddess. I think about what I would do if those children stood at my door. That's when I say a silent, fervent prayer for Debra's health.


Jill Wolfson

Jill Wolfson is a co-author of "Somebody Else's Children: The Courts, the Kids, and the Struggle to Save America's Troubled Families," and she reviews books for the San Jose Mercury News. She lives in Northern California.

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