Harper Keen reached for a drink. And slowly talked about the brutal memories of her abusive father. “Most kids have their first memory being like their first birthday party, where you’re super excited and having a good time,” Keen said. “I have the birthday party memory. But I also have the memory of fifteen minutes prior to the party of him snapping a dining room chair right before.”
Keen, a 25-year-old medical student, remembers the hidden bruises, broken bones, and shattered furniture — common occurrences throughout her life.
Harper, The Pioneer has changed her name because she remains under a victim’s protective order, her mother and her younger sister lived with the abuse for years.
“He was horrible,” Keen said “He put my mom’s head through a window, he snapped a toothbrush down my throat, just horrible, awful things and the funny thing is — and this is so ironic — he was the Deacon of a church.”
Keen, her mother, and younger sister tried to escape. Once when her mother received a black eye the trio left their home in Yukon, but Keen’s father found a way to convince their mother to return home.
Keen said her mother was welcomed back by her husband, but faced agonizing guilt from him and their church.
The endless cycle of abuse continued and Keen’s family is not alone.
A Problem Across the Country
According to YWCA of Oklahoma, the Sooner State is rated sixth in the nation for its domestic violence and sexual assault charges.
“There are more than 32 million victims annually,” the organization said. “Between 30 and 60 percent of children in homes with domestic violence are directly abused.”
In these cases, as the situation progresses, the breaking point hits when the victims have had enough and look for a way out. Emily Gaylor, Director of Communications for the YWCA, said the most dangerous time for any victim is the moment they decide to leave.
Between 1998 and 2014, statistics show that 1,426 Oklahomans died due to domestic violence.
In Oklahoma County, some victims find refuge at the YWCA.
Gaylor said if victims are in immediate danger, they are placed in the organization’s shelter. The YWCA is the only certified shelter for battered women, children and LGBT members to find protection in Oklahoma County.
As the victims settle in, members of the staff come to speak with them the following day to establish a plan, such as food, clothes, length of stay–which can be up to six weeks, or longer depending on their situation.
Overall, the shelter’s works to give victims a chance at a better life.
Gaylor said the facility offers job coaching, building resumes, job searching, finding a new place to live, locating schools for their children, individual counseling for adults and children, S.A.N.E (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) exams, court advocates and more.
“Change starts with learning,” Gaylor said. “I guess the only thing is to teach our sons to respect women, which is sad to even go there.”
Still, the problem continues.
Mahina Gillespie, a S.A.N.E nurse who previously worked for Oklahoma City’s YWCA, said she saw the victims in their most vulnerable state.
“There would be no eye contact, a feeling of guilt, or shame, I mean they were clearly in shock,” she said.
Gillespie said after they were seen, it was up to the victim to take the case to court. “A lot of the times the victim’s attorney, if there is a perpetrator, the attorney can still pursue it, even if the patient doesn’t want to.”
Gillespie said her busiest time was during holidays, and concert nights, when she was on call. “That crap happens every time,” she said.
Within her four years she did over 130 exams.
“By now, in the program, they are probably averaging about five exams a week,” Gillespie said, “It really is sad to see.”
Oklahoma City Police Officer Jason Clifton, who serves as a captain in department’s Domestic Violence Unit, said he’s had more than 36,000 calls of service with about 6,000 of those calls resulting in criminal offenses that were forwarded to investigations between June 2016 and June 2017.
“Every case is reviewed by a supervisor,” Clifton said. “Ninety-five percent are assigned for investigation.” The investigator on the case will then call the victim to insure they are safe, and then begin his investigation.
Clifton said the investigator forwards the case to the department’s victim assistance advocate so criminal aspect and safety are addressed concurrently. “Every case is then screened with the domestic violence assistant district attorney for charges, then the victim is notified of the outcome,” he said.
For the victims, resources are given to them from the Family Justice Center. Families of domestic violence are offered services including the YWCA, Legal Aide, counseling and parent assistance.
“Every avenue to address the situation is communicated to these victims,” Clifton said.
In Oklahoma City, the YWCA has doubled its shelter capacity for individuals and families. Those still in search of safety, hurry to find a backup plan, while others remain silent, and trapped.
Finding the Truth
For Keen, her abuse remained secretive while she was growing up and completely hidden from outsiders.
“We put on a good show, you would never know from the outside that anything was wrong,” she said. “We were a picture perfect church family. Nobody had any idea except the four of us, and our grandparents.”
Keen’s father wasn’t always a monster.
Her mother and father married young, she said. He was nineteen, while her mother eighteen. Keen’s mother and her father were, at first, happily married. Then they started their family.
“It wasn’t until the birth of my sister and I,” Keen said. “He didn’t start being crazy, weird, or protective or into church until I was born. My mom said it was like a flip of a switch.”
Keen said that none of them could do anything without her father’s approval.
“He controlled what I ate, what I wore, the color of my nails. I thought he was going to beat the hell out of me for dying my hair red,” she said.
Keen hit her final straw, after her father dragged her by the scruff of her shirt through a parking lot while he drove his truck.
She made the elaborate plan that, even today, she didn’t think would work. “I was the one who instigated leaving,” she said. “While my sister covered my shift, I sent my mom for a U-Haul, as my friend and I packed up our whole lives.”
Keen, her sister and her mother left their home — this time for good. The family went into hiding, adjusting to a new form of normalcy.
But her father continued to chase them.
Ursula, she asked that her last name not be used, is a thirty-eight year old mother of four. She is no stranger to the scars that abuse leaves.
Ursula’s abuse, like Keen’s, began when she was a child.
Her abusive father led Ursula to a future relationship that echoed her childhood.
“I met someone just like him,” she said. “I thought he was better. For the first couple of years everything was fine, he didn’t seem like a bad person but by the time I had two kids he went spiraling.”
Ursula’s abuser went from bad to worse. Slowly her husband became a drug addict.
When the drug addiction grew worse, Ursula’s husband would take it out on Ursula when he couldn’t get what he wanted.
“I lost countless jobs because of black eyes,” she said. “By the time I was 24, he broke my jaw, knee and my ankle all because I couldn’t get him what he wanted. He would keep my children from me and locked me outside. If I couldn’t get him drugs, here was hell to pay.”
By the end of their relationship, Ursula had gone back and forth — from staying with her husband to leaving.
She put her husband through rehab five different times. He would release himself and return to the drugs.
In his last attempt to harm Ursula, he tried to kill her.
“He tried to slit my throat,” she said. “He tried to kill me for the last six dollars I had in my pocket. All because he needed a hit of a meth.”
Ursula’s eyes begin to swell with tears. “My oldest son, who was six at the time, jumps on his back, and that gets him off of me, just enough that I can slip out and not have my throat sliced,” she said.
Ursula was incoherent.
Austin (her oldest son) stayed by his mother’s side and called 911. Ursula regained consciousness and heard her son speak to the 911 operator.
He told them that, “him and his mommy were in trouble, and daddy was trying to kill them,” she said.
After a few minutes, the police arrive and walk Ursula and her boys to their car. Ursula’s husband chases behind them at full speed, but is quickly tackled by a police officer and was taken into custody.
“We ended up getting divorced, and him having no rights to the children,” she said. “But that didn’t keep him away.”
Ursula and her children fled from town to town and state to state for five years. She began a new life in Missouri, where she found herself, again, in an abusive relationship.
Ursula began to be verbally abused, which was followed by physical abuse.
That was Ursula’s breaking point.
“It takes time to build up the courage to leave again,” she said. “Once it starts, your brain switches you back to ‘this is normal’ even though you know it’s not. After living it all your life, it’s hard to break, you just start to think, ‘this is what they all do.’”
Since then, Ursula and her children have found a safe and accomplished life in Oklahoma.
But not everyone is so lucky.
A Global Problem
According to the World Health Organization, one in three, about 35 percent, of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
While many people assume that abuse is something that only occurs in their hometown, incidents of domestic violence and sexual are common across the globe.
For twenty-six year-old, single mom, Jessica, who also asked that her last name not be used, her abuse began in a country many people travel to as a tropical getaway, Brazil.
Jessica, who was 21 at the time, arrived at a party, and met a charming, well-dressed businessman. She said she had no suspicion that he was dangerous. He told her he was previously married and had two sons of his own.
A short time later, Jessica was pregnant with the man’s child.
“I was six months pregnant,” she said, “He got upset with me for not cooking the way he wanted.” The man threw a pan she was using against a wall. He grabbed Jessica by her neck and beat her until she was in the fetal position, trying to protect her unborn son.
Jessica’s abuser lived a fictitious life.
“The next day, he gave me the real info on who and what he was,” she said, “He had two other wives and eleven children.”
Jessica said she went through the same realization her boyfriend’s other women and children were going through — fear.
Later, Jessica attempted to leave the relationship. After each attempt, her punishment led to another beating.
He prevented Jessica from leaving the house, taking her phone and electronics away, lying to her friends, and telling family saying she hated them. He erased any and all contact to her familiar, outside world.
“He never let me sleep more than four hours a night and he kept food to a minimum to keep me mentally and physically weak,” she said. “He would make me cook all night or keep me awake all night with insults and abuse.”
When she escaped, Jessica suffered from Stockholm syndrome, a condition that causes the victim to feel trust or affection for their abusers or kidnappers.
“I was physically and mentally debilitated,” she said. “I like to believe I am fully recovered, but that would be a lie. No one ever recovers, we just learn to deal with it.”
The Psychology of Abuse
Jessica’s story is a common one. For many, the biggest question is where does the source of abuse begin? According to Grace Point Wellness, a website focused on the psychology of abuse, “people internalized a particular relationship dynamic, namely the complementary roles of ‘abuser’ and ‘victim.’”
The abuse, the website said, is familiar with and fully understands the terror of being the helpless victim just from childhood experiences alone. As those children become adults, they simply turn this relationship dynamic around and start acting out the ‘abuser’ side of the relationship dynamic because it is what they have always known.
For Harper Keen, her abuse returned after she had moved on from her childhood to the next man in her life, her husband.
Keen developed a friendship with a mutual coworker, that eventually blossomed into a loving relationship. Her then-husband had experienced a very similar childhood of abuse and assault, and the two found a connection with their childhood traumas.
“Dating was fun,” Keen said. “We had a great time. I don’t know where I would be if he was actually the person he pretended to be.”
Keen’s husband was a recovered drug addict and alcoholic, but held a management position at Keen’s job.
“I thought ‘wow he had really hung the moon’ because he’s pulled a complete 180 with his life,” she said. “He’s really trying to better himself.”
After a thirteen month engagement, Keen married.
However, the tune of their relationship quickly changed. Her ex-husband pushed her to the floor. Keen said he had never laid a hand on her before.
“He let his temper get the best of him,” she said. “It was so out of character. I thought forgiveness is a thing. This is okay, but then it started all over again.”
Keen’s memories of her father flashed through her brain, as her husband followed the same steps. “It seemed normal because of my dad. I bought into it for a little bit and it got worse and worse,” she said.
After the abuse came the excuses, apologies and jokes.
But the abuse continued.
Her husband, she said, flipped the script and gave a very victim-like approach.
“He was very disgusted with his behavior, and play it off or be really sweet after, or joke around and pretend to punch me in the face, just different things,” Keen said.
Keen’s once happily married life, deteriorated. Soon, she was waiting on her husband at his ‘every beck and call.’
Normal sexual experiences were new to her, but her ex-husband took the essence of new and innocent away. It became an obsession, an addiction.
“He wanted to have sex, I wasn’t used to having sex in the context of a relationship,” Keen said. “I remember I was not into it, and it got to a point and it didn’t matter, I’d tell him no, and he’d do it anyway it didn’t matter what I was doing, cooking he’d do it anyway.”
A graphic, recurrence of rape became a part of her life. Her husband would take advantage of a simple beverage and drug it with melatonin to get his way with her.
“He raped me repeatedly,” she said.
“You mix that and alcohol and you’re basically comatose. I woke up not being able to breathe [one time], and he was choking me out while on top of me. I didn’t know what was going on, then I blacked out again. He told me it didn’t happen, but I knew it did just from finding a little scratch on me.”
Keen was unfamiliar with the signs of rape until an article caught her eye.
“I didn’t think of it as rape for the longest time,” she said. “I remember I made a comment like ‘you know I didn’t say yes to this’ and he picked up on to what I was insinuating and made me feel bad about it.”
Keen second guessed herself. “I guess there isn’t really such a thing as rape in the context of a marriage,” she said.
Near the end of their relationship, Keen’s husband made an attempt to have sex in the kitchen while she washed a cast iron skillet. She turned back, telling him to ‘stop.’
Her husband reacted as if she had instigated a sign of aggression — so he pushed and shoved her.
Keen went to the backyard for safety. “He locked me out for two hours, and I ended up having to run away from him like I did with my dad,” she said. “He made it very clear that he was not leaving.”
Like she had done with her father, Keen put her plan into action. She spent her last few weeks sleeping on the couch, and on that final week, her time had arrived. Her husband was leaving on vacation for a few days.
As he was preparing to leave, he said, ‘you’re not going to say goodbye to the man of your dreams?”
Keen sat locked in the bathroom in disgust. After her husband left, Keen, with her mother by her side, put what she could in a few trash bags and left everything else, including her hurtful life, behind.
Her ex-husband did not follow. The pair eventually divorced but Keen had to start over financially. She was able to start fresh and establish who she was without fear trailing behind her anymore.
“After 24 years it seems like everything is out to get you,” she said. “I don’t even believe [this story] is mine sometimes. It doesn’t even seem real.”
Keen, her mother and younger sister have dealt with therapy, moving from place to place, and simple life experiences that are easy for many, but difficult for those who were abused and assaulted and never allowed them to be themselves.
These women have done more than most have in a single lifetime.
Survival, selflessness, courage, and strength took them to where they are now.
These women are raising their families, teaching their children to be kind, and helping those in need.
Jessica said she feels stronger. “I feel like everything I’ve been through made me stronger and more aware of the world,” she said.
For Ursula, the past was a problem that needed to be fixed.
“You do hope for the best, as women we are nourishers and we want to help people, ‘we can fix this problem,” she said. “That’s broken in them, it’s not broken in us.”
And for Harper Keen, the future is bright.
“When you say it out loud it seems so much, but it never felt like that,” she said. “I had to take care of these things and it was just something I had to do. I don’t have anything to hide.”