I am kind of in awe right now.

I just got home from watching a domestic violence survivor share her very personal story with a television news crew. I can't begin to describe her bravery, her grit, her indefatigable poise. She was a rock star.

She did this, exposing her life and her pain and her hopes for the future, as a result of a humble request from me. She had nothing to gain but the knowledge that maybe, possibly, there would be another victim watching. And maybe, possibly, what she had to say might help that person feel not quite so alone and powerless.

But she had some things to lose. Like her sense of control over her own story and who knows about it. And now, if she chooses, late at night on a weekday after her kids are asleep, she might watch the news story that blurs her face and only shows her hands and the back of her head, in which she discloses very personal and painful and private details about her past. And as she watches this, she may feel alone and also sad, possibly reliving some of the memories of what happened to her children.

Yet she did this because she hoped it would help. She did this because she hoped it would catch people's attention and get them to listen. And she did this because I asked.

I hope nothing goes wrong. I hope she is happy with the final result, that she feels it represents her truth, and that she feels it can help change lives. I hope she feels proud of what she accomplished. I hope she doesn't regret it.

I believe each of us is a survivor of something. Something traumatic, on some large or small scale. There comes a time for many of us when we realize we have begun to think of that trauma not only in terms of its impact on our lives, but also as a tool, something we can use to help others. Reaching that point is a powerful moment. When we realize, "I am more than the very bad thing that happened to me."

I write, in part, for a living. The importance of collecting and honoring other people's stories is central to the lens through which I see the world. I have been a part of other people's moments like the one described above. But I don't remember ever being as humbled in witnessing someone's story as I was tonight. Her courage filled the room. It spilled into the parking lot. And I left there feeling lucky.



I have been thinking about her this week.

It was the first headline I read Monday morning, over the day's first cup of coffee. A local man shot and killed his ex-wife. She was found in her apartment, in a suburb south of Madison, with two fatal gunshots to her head.

They were married 23 years. They had two teenage children. Their divorce was newly final.

She did everything she was supposed to do. In the face of physical assaults and death threats, she managed to keep her job. She managed to save money and move out and settle herself in a new apartment. She managed to get a restraining order. She managed to file for divorce.

This is all hard, brave work, when the force you are managing against is a man who wants to kill you.

She did everything she was supposed to do.

On Saturday, May 16, he showed up at her door carrying a gun. This is the moment that catches me, the moment that happened next. Did he push his way in? Did she try to talk him down from his rage, thinking it was like all the other times and he would stop right before he crossed that line? When did she realize that he wouldn't? When did she think, "I will not see my daughters again"? Was it fear or terror she felt at the end, in the final seconds before he pulled the trigger? Or was it something closer to a desperate relief, that finally it was over, and he wouldn't be able to hurt her anymore?

This story is more than the headlines, more than the manhunt, more than the ex-husband's body found two later in a nearby park, death by self-inflicted gunshot. The story is more than the newspaper accounts of their turbulent, violence-ridden marriage. It's more than the measly $500 bail the ex-husband received after he tried to strangle his wife and attacked his daughter with a fireplace poker the day after Christmas.

The heart of the story is the moment that matters -- the moment Francie Weber realized she was going to die, at the hands of someone who claimed to love her and then exerted every effort to inflict harm. The look in her eyes. The thoughts in her head. The panic. This is the moment her terror becomes real.

I read the newspaper account to Joe that night. "That makes me so mad," he said. He stood up from the couch where he had been sitting. He paced the room. "How could any human being do that to someone else?" he asked. "Doesn't it make you angry?"

I paused and sighed and looked away.

Because anger isn't the word for it. To be perfectly honest, I told him, it makes me feel a little defeated. It's a reminder that sometimes it will never be enough. Restraining orders and divorces and new apartments and fresh starts sometimes don't help if an abuser is hell-bent on killing you. Prison helps. But most domestic violence cases are never reported to the police. And often, prison only happens once something horrible has occurred, something like murder.

What does make me angry is that despite this crime, and despite the fact that the most recent murder in that same suburb was yet another domestic violence homicide, and despite the fact that the news these days from all parts of the country (like here and here and here ) seems to be fraught with headlines of husbands killing their families, we as a society still don't seem to think of domestic violence as a real problem.

Yes, we pay it lip service. But we still appease ourselves with the false reassurance that domestic violence doesn't happen to "people like us."

What makes me angry is that more people don't consider this a public health emergency. How can we fight for economic justice -- of any kind, for anyone -- or lobby for health care reform, or demand an end to torture, yet ignore the fact that one out of every three women in this country is terrified of the person in their own home?

These issues are related. Economic justice for women fleeing abusers is critical -- not having financial resources of her own can be one of the main obstacles preventing victims from leaving their abusers. Health care is critical -- consider how many costly emergency room visits are the result of intimate partner violence.

And if the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib captures our attention and inspires nationwide calls for investigations and policy reversal, then the torture of women and children (and to call systematic physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse "torture" is not an exaggeration) in every community in our country should rally a similar and related cacophony of outrage.

And yet it doesn't.

It isn't seen as political. It isn't seen as important. It isn't something that happens "to people like me."

Until it does. And now another woman is dead, and two kids are parentless, and the community is left to ask, once again, "why would someone do such a thing", and then we forget until it happens again.

Because it will keep happening until we demand that it stops.


One More Note

There is a woman who wanders our neighborhood. I don't know her name. But we see her often. She stops to give us gardening tips when we're potting our tomato plants on the front porch. She pauses to say "hello there!" and "cold night, isn't it?"

She is sort of like a fairy godmother. She pulls the heavy trash bins up from the curb after garbage pick-up, tucking them in their out-of-sight spaces between our house and the one next door. She carries a broom wherever she goes, sweeping leaves and fallen flower petals from the sidewalks. She does this up and down the streets. Everybody knows her.

She never wears shoes. Never. Not in the summer, when the asphalt burns. Not in the winter, in four feet of snow. She wears her long, gray hair tucked inside two bandannas tied around her head. She is missing her front teeth.

I don't know where she lives. I don't know how she gets by. I do know she gets her meals from a nearby soup kitchen. I've seen her walking back from there in the evening, with a Tupperware container in her hands. She looks up at me, on my porch, sipping my Shiraz. "Peas tonight!" she smiles and says.

The soup kitchen is around the corner, on a side street. I see the people lined up there in the late afternoons, waiting for the doors to open. The line, lately, has been growing longer.

I thought of the woman who sweeps our sidewalks when I read a news report the other day about the startling increase in homelessness in our community. Across Dane County, the number of people experiencing homelessness jumped 17% last year. Homeless shelters were forced to turn away 3,600 people in 2008 -- a 22% increase in the number of people denied shelter for lack of space and resources.

This is not a unique story. It's happening everywhere, from Baton Rouge to New York City.

But it is one example. One more important example. One more note in a sour chorus of "What am I going to do?" that can be heard in every corner of every community in every state in our country.

Sometimes economic hardship can strengthen a community. Sometimes it can inspire us to look beyond our own immediate needs and act in impressively selfless ways -- or realize the extent to which our needs are wrapped up with the needs of others. Suddenly the walls that separate "us" from "them" seem paper-thin, rubbed down to nothing in places. There is little difference between a college-educated CEO and a truck driver, when both are unemployed with bills piling in the basket by the door.

But hardship doesn't always do that. It can make us act in irrationally protective ways, cause us to fence off our property and stock up on guns. It can make us look upon our neighbors with suspicion. It can harden us, so we can more comfortably hold our purses to our chest and say, "This is mine. Fend for yourself. You are not my problem."

I don't want to be that kind of person. But I look around, or read the newspaper, or eavesdrop on conversations at the bus stop, or look into the faces of other shoppers at the grocery store, and I wonder, What will be enough? There isn't enough.

Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle announced budget cuts and employee furloughs to address a rising budget deficit (similar to the deficits plaguing 46 other states). Our County budget is stretched beyond thin. Nonprofits that provide emergency services for domestic violence survivors, abused children, and families on the brink of homelessness are worried their budgets will continue to shrink. Charitable giving across almost every sector has plummeted.

There isn't enough.

I keep reading the papers and watching the bulletin boards at the college campus near my office, looking for signs of revolution. Isn't it in times like these that revolutions get their start? I keep waiting for a sign that we, our community and our nation, are tired of allowing our neighbors to suffer. How long is too long, when we're talking about a soup kitchen line? At what point does the comfortably employed person say, "A homeless family is my problem"?