Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?

Why Doesn’t She Just Leave?
Lisa Judd Blanchard

Women in abusive relationships are far likelier to be killed while attempting to leave their partners—a surpising and frightening fact that Lisa Judd Blanchard, who lost her sister, and Julie Rook Schebig, who nearly lost her life, know all too well.

t’s a Thursday night, and Lisa Judd Blanchard is shampooing the carpets in her Fitchburg home. Survivor flickers across the TV screen in the background, where Monica, furious, is calling John a “Judas,” and Natalie bids $200 on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. A Channel 3 weather reporter periodically interrupts the action, updating viewers on the snowstorm outside before cutting back to sunny Samoa. The episode is called “Off With their Heads.” Lisa’s husband, Jimmy, is out driving around in his pickup truck, plowing and looking for anyone who might be stranded in the ditch, because that’s just the kind of guy he is.

Lisa can’t hear her cell phone ringing over the noisy shampooer, and she’s shocked when she suddenly sees twelve missed calls. She dials voice mail. Her twelve-year-old twin nieces are in a panic. They can’t find their mom, Tracy Judd, Lisa’s thirty-three-year-old little sister. The girls’ little sister, Deja, almost two, is nowhere to be found, either. The twins are home alone, and Deja’s dad, Tracy’s live-in boyfriend, Tyrone Adair, has just called them. “Your mom and sister are probably not coming home tonight,” he’d said, just before hanging up. “They’ve been in a bad accident.”

Everything that happens next is a flurry as blinding and numbing as the snow outside. Lisa calls Jimmy and suddenly he’s there, and the two are racing over to Tracy’s house in Middleton, Jimmy’s truck sliding on the fresh snow, Lisa on the phone calling hospitals, Tracy, Tracy’s friends, family, everyone she can think of. They learn from the police that there have been no reported car accidents. A call to Deja’s daycare provider reveals that Tracy never dropped her off that morning. The twins have not seen Tracy or Deja since they left for school, though Tyrone was there briefly when they got home that afternoon. Both Tyrone’s and Tracy’s cars are gone. Even then, Lisa has no reason to suspect what has actually happened.

When they arrive at Tracy’s home, several police officers are already there, interviewing the twins separately. It doesn’t occur to Lisa that this is an unusual response for two recently reported missing people who may have been in a car accident on a snowy night. For her, it’s an appropriate match to her own rising panic as her calls to her sister’s phone continue to go unanswered.

As the night skids on, Tracy’s house sees a constant stream of police officers, and still no sign of Tracy or Deja, or Tyrone. But the police know something that Lisa does not. Across town Tyrone has shot and killed his ex-girlfriend, Amber Weigel, twenty-five, and their two-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, in Amber’s driveway after work this evening. That’s why they’re here; there’s a manhunt on for Tyrone Adair.

Around 9:15 p.m., the bodies of Tracy and Deja are found in the trunk of Tyrone’s car, where they’d been since sometime that morning. The reporters know before Lisa does, even though she’s surrounded by law enforcement. A friend calls and tells Lisa to turn on FOX News at 9, and when she does she sees Tyrone’s face there, and words like “wanted” and “quadruple homicide,” and that is how Lisa learns that Tracy and Deja are dead. Although the police will not confirm this to her for another hour yet, she instantly knows in her bones it is true, though she still cannot begin to fathom why. And the world, as she knows it, collapses.

Four days from now, after an extensive manhunt and two days before Tracy and Deja are laid to rest in a shared casket, the body of Tyrone Adair will be found in Tracy’s car, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and three overlapping families will be devastated beyond comprehension. In the coming days Lisa, despite being a lifelong resident, will hear only for the first time about Domestic Abuse Intervention Services, a Madison-based resource for victims of domestic violence and home to Dane County’s only domestic violence shelter. Six short weeks from tonight, she and her family will organize and host an awareness benefit that raises $28,000 for DAIS, and the “Traja Benefit” will become an annual event on January 14, Tracy’s birthday. Two years from now Lisa will be known in her community as an outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence and a frequent DAIS volunteer.

In the coming months Lisa will piece together police reports like a puzzle, compiling a thick file detailing Tyrone’s long history of violence against women, much of which appears nowhere online. She will learn that just nine months before this night, Dane County sheriff’s deputies responded to a domestic disturbance at Tracy and Tyrone’s home. She will learn that Tyrone was arrested, but Tracy declined the restraining order, despite her noticeably fat lip. She will come to know that many abused women often stay silent, some for fear of even worse retaliation, others because they’re too ashamed. She will be reminded of her sister’s big heart and her belief that she could handle everything herself, traits Lisa had always judged as positive ones, but that now take on darker meaning.

Lisa will come to know the warning signs of domestic violence like the back of her own hand, and she will recognize those signs in Tracy and Tyrone’s two-and-a-half-year relationship in a way she simply did not see before. She will learn that it isn’t unusual that Tracy kept all of this from her only sister, despite how close they were. She will silently wonder why her sister stayed with Tyrone if he was abusive, and then she will learn that Tracy was indeed trying to end things with Tyrone, and she will come to understand that this is the most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship.

But on this night, on December 3, 2009, even as she stares blankly at Tyrone’s face on the nine o’clock news, even as she hears the words “quadruple homicide,” domestic violence does not cross her mind. Because never, never in a million years, could domestic abuse happen in her loving, close-knit family. Never in a million years could anyone convince Lisa that her strong, independent, vibrant, capable, intelligent, beautiful sister Tracy could be a victim of domestic violence.

There was just no way.

***

This is the thing about domestic violence: we as a community are more skeptical than we’re comfortable admitting. Part of it is protective; if we can keep issues like these at arm’s length, if we can chalk up the headlines detailing the handful of cases that end in murder as a strange, rare sort of “snapping” that happened to somebody who is nothing like us, we can pretend domestic abuse isn’t as prevalent as it is. That it has nothing to do with our own lives, that it’s not our problem.

And from this arm’s-length distance we feel safe to judge. To ask, whether publicly in the comment sections of news articles or privately in whispers among trusted friends, why didn’t she just leave? How did she get into that situation in the first place, and how could she let it get so bad? At the very least, how could she do that to her kids? But what we’re really saying is, that could never happen to me. Except that’s what many victims of domestic violence said once, too, and likely kept saying—in some cases all the way to the grave. Nobody wants to self-identify as a victim. Not you, not me and not them.

The reality is that at least one in four women will be abused in her lifetime, and a third of all referrals to the district attorney’s office by law enforcement are domestic violence-related. Domestic disturbance calls in Madison are, as MPD Lieutenant Mary Lou Ricksecker puts it, “our bread and butter in policing.”

“We get a lot of calls. It’s very, very common,” says Ricksecker. “It’s not that public, it’s not that talked about, and the public often doesn’t hear about it until you have a homicide.”

Here’s something even more staggering: seventy-five percent of all domestic violence incidents go unreported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Dane County District Attorney’s office receives approximately 3,000 domestic violence referrals to their office each year; following this math, it’s likely that 9,000 incidents of domestic violence go unreported in Dane County every single year.

Though there are federal laws meant to protect abuse victims and each state may or may not have its own laws on the books, there is actually no such thing as a “domestic violence” charge in Wisconsin. Perpetrators are generally charged with battery, false imprisonment or disorderly conduct, which is often just a forfeiture. The only time the words “domestic abuse” appear with a charge are on a certain type of restraining order, many times waived by victims for fear of making things worse (particularly because DV restraining orders automatically prohibit firearms, enraging some game hunters). Ricksecker says law enforcement gathers as much evidence as possible while on the scene, knowing full well that victims “might report it today, and recant tomorrow. It’s not unusual.” There are dozens of reasons why, not least of which is that you and I are skeptical and disengaged—and victims know that. They read the news article comments. They hear what their own friends say, what you and I say when we don’t realize who we’re talking to, because we’ve forgotten that one-in-four statistic. It serves to reinforce what their abusers are already telling them: that this is their fault. That no one will believe them anyway. That they are terrible mothers, terrible people. That they have no place to go and no one to go to. And right there in the middle of it all, when they’re worn down, exhausted, operating from a place of desperation and hopelessness not unlike a war refugee, it’s not so hard to believe.

Or maybe there’s a more basic, less philosophical factor at play: Plain old fear, and with good reason. Reporting not only makes it “true,” it often makes it worse. Perpetrators will use what is most important to victims—often pets and children—to emotionally strong-arm them into staying. Domestic abuse is all about power and control, and as the victim starts to shift toward independence, the perpetrator ratchets up the control. Victims are six times likelier to be killed when attempting to separate. That’s why she doesn’t just leave. That’s why she shouldn’t just leave, not without a safety plan, and not without the full awareness of the gravity of her situation by her loved ones and the community they all live in. Not without us.

One of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is the way an abuser isolates a victim, and the way the victim herself may be in denial. Maybe she has “mistaken pity for love,” as Leslie Morgan Steiner puts it in her recent book, Crazy Love. Maybe, like Steiner, our victim is the kind of person who would “never get herself in that situation.” Maybe she sees the best in everyone, and believes in giving until she can give no more. Maybe her perpetrator is quiet, moody and depressed but seems like a harmless, decent guy. Maybe she’s the kind of person who is strong and fiercely independent, and believes she can handle anything on her own. Maybe she’s like Tracy Judd.

 

Domestic Abuse 24-Hour Help Line: 608-251-4445 (abuseintervention.org)

 

***

For Tracy’s family, the reality of her situation was a mystery until they were able to piece it all together with the benefit of hindsight and stacks of police reports, restraining orders and witness interviews. Knowing all she knows today, Lisa Judd Blanchard still believes Tracy never would have used the services at DAIS.

“I’m certain she believed she could handle it on her own,” says Lisa. “She was so strong and independent, and she was also such a giver. She liked and trusted and believed in everybody until they did something to break that. She was loyal and she gave chances and she wanted to believe the best in everybody.”

Looking back, Lisa can now see the warning signs for what they were. Tyrone called Tracy’s phone constantly, “followed her, stalked her,” she recalls. He went out or stayed out when he knew she had plans so she’d be forced to remain at home with Deja. This way, he would know exactly where she was. He kept his distance from her family so they couldn’t really get to know him or witness his behavior. And now, of course, she’s got the hindsight provided in police records, so much of which is absent from Wisconsin Circuit Court Access (commonly known as CCAP). Or, as Lisa puts it, “CCAP doesn’t show crap. Anybody can lie about what a ‘domestic disturbance’ means. ‘It was her fault, they blew it out of proportion, I didn’t really do anything.’ But come to find out he had a long history of beating up women, and being proud of it.”

Indeed, detailed police records show at least three restraining orders by three different women, each detailing violent attacks at the hands of Adair. They also describe the same incessant calling, following and stalking behavior that Tracy experienced, and more than one had her tires slashed. One victim was punched in the stomach and kicked in the back. Another had an “extremely swollen, completely closed and purple and bleeding” eye, according to the responding officer. None of these grim details appear on CCAP; all that can be found there over the years are one disorderly conduct charge (which could mean anything), two battery misdemeanors (which also could mean anything) and three temporary domestic violence restraining orders—two of which were dismissed. According to police interviews, Tracy’s friends said she was aware of the restraining orders listed on CCAP, but said Tyrone had explained that he’d “grown and learned” from his past experiences. It is not clear whether Tracy knew the details of the charges, but it’s unlikely.

One close family member, in an interview with police, said she did not believe there was any physical violence occurring in Tracy and Tyrone’s home, but that she was aware of psychological abuse, and that she felt Tracy was “beat down emotionally” by Tyrone. A March 8, 2009, incident in which Dane County sheriffs arrested Tyrone on disorderly conduct, battery and intimidation charges after Tracy’s twin daughters ran to the neighbor’s house and called police—the one Lisa knew nothing about until after her sister’s death—doesn’t appear on CCAP at all. Tracy allegedly told friends she had had it with Tyrone, that the relationship was ending, and Lisa believes, today, that’s what instigated the attack. But she was never aware of any physical abuse, and neither were Tracy’s friends. Tracy just didn’t talk about it, and the loved ones she left behind can only speculate why not.

It’s not an easy thing, speaking out, not for victims and not for family members. Tyrone Adair was a son, a brother, a cousin and a friend in this community; his loved ones suffered a great loss, with no small amount of blame and shame heaped on top of it. The same factors that keep victims silent can keep their families silent, too. Even within Lisa’s own family there are a few members who wish she wasn’t so vocal, who wish she would just let this whole thing go.

“I do this to keep their memory alive, and never let them be forgotten,” says Lisa. “Tracy always said there’s a purpose in life for everything. And if him killing them led me to this, that’s what I’m gonna do. I think there are a lot of powerful voices out there that have been through it or know someone who’s been through it that can speak up. That’s what I want to get out of this. This doesn’t need to happen. It doesn’t need to be kept silent.”

And you never know who’s listening. When this tragic story unfolds on the news that December night, one woman leans forward, riveted. While the families of Tracy, Deja, Amber, Nevaeh and Tyrone are still struggling to make sense of what has happened, Julie Rook Schebig (Julie Orton on that night), understands it in her very fiber.

“Tracy was killed with her daughter right there in her house,” says Schebig. “I know what she went through. I know the thoughts that were going through her head.”

Three and a half months earlier, Schebig was the one being strangled by her estranged husband in front of their children, just before he beat her in the head with a steel mallet and left her for dead.

But unlike Tracy, Schebig survived.

***

Julie Rook Schebig [pictured below] is only seventeen when she meets Gerald Orton. He is charming and handsome, funny and successful. Even after he has strangled and beaten her, even as he is about to be sentenced to prison, a small handful of Jerry’s friends and family members will testify in court that he is not a violent man. “Never, ever has he been an abusive father or husband,” his sister will be quoted saying in the Wisconsin State Journal. “Never.”

Right away there’s an instant connection, the kind you see in movies. Julie remembers exactly what she is wearing on the first day they meet, exactly what Jerry says to her. Although they both go on to marry other people, the electricity between them never wanes, and in 2004, after ten years of ignoring their feelings, the two decide to leave their marriages and be together. Right from the start it is so passionate, so exhilarating. And right from the start it is abusive, though she doesn’t recognize it right away. The way he quickly takes control of the money and the lease on her new duplex feels like someone is taking care of her. He puts her on his cell phone plan to save money, he says, not to track her every move or to shut it off when he wants to punish her. He gives her a job at his company, so it doesn’t seem strange that he controls her paychecks. The way he always wants to be with her, how jealous he gets at the slightest attention from other men, this feels romantic, not sinister. He’s so attentive.

Julie Rook Schebig

 

In time Julie starts to see cracks in the facade, although by then it’s far too late to reverse her feelings; we justify a whole lot of things in the name of love. When Jerry gets angry, throws furniture, and screams and rages out of control, he blames it on his depression. Or his drinking. Or the loss of his mother. Or his recent mold exposure. He is so contrite, so remorseful, so tender. He will go to anger management classes. He will go to counseling. He will never do it again. And exactly what “it” is is sort of unclear, because he never hits her. Julie has no black eyes to show as evidence for the abuse she knows is there. And she feels great pity for this man she loves—he’s so sad, so broken, and she’s the only one he feels safe enough to show it all to—and she’s the kind of person who gives second and third and fourth chances.

She believes she can help him. A pattern develops, and Julie feels helpless to break it.

In 2006 they marry. On the outside everything looks good. Jerry is a Madison business owner, and at one point they live in an $800,000 house. He is the life of the party; everybody loves him—and sometimes he is that same guy at home. But more often than not, increasingly, behind closed doors his abusive behavior is escalating. He now controls every dime Julie spends and every minute of her time. She knows it’s bad and she wants to leave and many, many times she does … but she always comes back. She has nowhere to go. She has no money, and she no longer has relationships with many of her friends and family. If she leaves the house, he calls every five minutes on the phone he pays for. He kicks her out when he’s angry, then rages when she’s gone. He keeps a gun and a knife in the house, never brandishing them, just sending a silent message.

Soon they will have two children in quick succession, and from that point on he will threaten to win custody of them, and why wouldn’t he? He is the one with the house, the money, the rich friends and lawyers. She knows everyone thinks he’s great, and she knows he has painted her to them as needy and crazy. She is terrified of what he might do. She teaches herself to ride it out, to appreciate the peace while it’s there, even though every time she hears the garage door open her legs go numb and panic grips her chest. Because it’s always there, this sensation of waiting for the other heavy shoe to drop.

On the last day of February 2008, Jerry carries out his threat to file for divorce and so this time she goes to stay at a second home he owns. On March 5, when she returns to pack some things, he explodes, trashing the basement and refusing to let her leave. She is holding one of their children and pregnant with their second, and she is terrified. That month he is charged with disorderly conduct. He is ordered to complete drug and alcohol treatment, maintain absolute sobriety and complete certified domestic violence treatment. Julie does not pursue the seventy-two-hour restraining order offered by law enforcement, though, because she doesn’t want to anger him further. But she has grown tired. She is sick of it, and she is done.

Her once-estranged parents co-sign on a townhouse and she moves out for the final time. Julie’s mom has to park several blocks away so that Jerry will not see her car there, because he likes to keep her isolated. He is still following her, still hiding tape recorders in her car, still escalating his behavior and (she learns later) his drug use. He violates his probation in May 2008, and divorce proceedings drag out that year and the next. Still, Jerry remains very much in Julie’s life, and she appeases him as best she can so that he cannot carry out his threats of exercising his parental placement rights. Besides, she feels safer, more empowered. Having her own place allows her to see Jerry on her own terms, to send him away when he starts to behave badly. But in her heart she knows they are through, and something in him must start to believe it this time, too. He must know he is losing her for good, because that explains what comes next.

On the evening of August 19, 2009, on what would have been their third anniversary, Julie is in her new home cooking grilled cheese for her and Jerry’s two children, both under the age of two, who are strapped into their high chairs. A fierce rapping on the kitchen window startles her. It’s Jerry, and she’s surprised, because earlier that day she reiterated they were through. He demands she open the garage door. The last time she didn’t open it he had driven right through it—so this time she complies. He barges past her carrying a box and slams it on the floor. He turns to Julie, who has followed him up, and says calmly, “You fucked with the wrong person.” He starts to strangle her.

A thought creeps slowly through her brain as his grip tightens, as the oxygen and blood try to breach the tourniquet of Jerry’s fists: aside from that time he held her down on the couch as he yelled and that time he’d gripped her arm when she tried to leave, this is the first time he has ever laid his hands on her in anger. He has screamed his throat raw at her, thrown furniture, destroyed her belongings, made threats, followed her, kicked her out, demanded her back, controlled her … but he has never hit her. Nobody can call her crazy anymore.

One second her head slams against an iron frame on the wall, and the next she is on the floor next to the refrigerator. She tries to speak, to tell him they can work this out, that she’ll do anything he wants, but she can’t form the words. He keeps saying, “Tonight’s the night you’re gonna die. I’m gonna kill you tonight.” His left hand is on her throat and his right is rummaging inside the box he brought, and then she sees that hand raised high above his head, a steel mallet in his fist, and she knows this is it, this is the end. It’s the strangest feeling.

The first blow breaks her hand where she has moved it to protect her head. She doesn’t remember the next few blows of the mallet against her skull; she only registers how strange it is that she is feeling no pain. The ceaseless, primal screaming of her babies is the worst thing about this moment, and there’s another sound, too, a sort of deep moaning, and it takes her a while to realize it’s coming from her own body. Everything looks red, just before it all fades to black.

 

Domestic Abuse 24-Hour Help Line: 608-251-4445 (abuseintervention.org)

 

***

Whenever a domestic violence murder makes news, calls to Domestic Abuse Intervention Services drop. Even when we don’t recognize it for what it is—say, the murders of two innocent children by a batterer, which we chalk up to child abuse without looking at the bigger reality, that threatening to hurt or kill a victim’s children is one of the main factors that keeps her complacent—even then, the victim recognizes.

And so does the perpetrator. According to Shannon Barry, executive director of DAIS, perpetrators often attach newspaper clippings of domestic violence murders to the refrigerator to send a clear message to their victims. That’s why the DAIS help line appears on the bottom of every page of this article, to dilute that threat. We want the help line number to be the clearest message of all.

“It’s really important that victims realize that for every one of these stories, there are 1,200 to 1,300 people who are served face to face by DAIS every year,” says Barry. “We don’t tend to hear about the success stories, but there are so many. People do reach out for help. They do become safe.”

In addition to housing 524 people in 2010 (250 were children) in Dane County’s only domestic violence shelter, DAIS helps victims by fielding between 4,500 and 6,000 calls every year. DAIS offers a spectrum of resources, including legal advocacy counseling, support groups and one-on-one safety planning. They assist with things like changing locks, providing secret cell phones and help for children and pets.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that DAIS is a resource, not just a crisis-based agency,” says Barry. “We want to get involved much earlier, back even when people are kind of thinking maybe there’s something wrong about this relationship I should be concerned about. Even just those little red flags you want to talk through.”

Those little red flags are critical, although victims so often brush them off. Julie Rook Schebig says that growing up, she knew she would never be a victim of abuse, “never let a guy hit me.” But “it’s a slow process,” she says. Lisa Judd Blanchard remains certain her sister Tracy never would have recognized herself as a victim, and both women have been approached dozens of times now by friends and loved ones who have survived abusive relationships and never thought it would happen to them.

“The first part of a violent relationship is just like any other healthy relationship,” says Barry. “It’s so subtle and it happens so gradually over a period of time that you don’t even realize for a long time that you’re in an abusive relationship.”

Barry says each of us can play a supportive role, and no act is too small. Maybe you hang a flyer in your apartment building with numbers for DAIS, or Wisconsin Coalition Against Domestic Violence, or Unidos, a family violence resource for the Latino/immigrant community. Maybe as an employer you buy a table at fundraisers for organizations like these, or bring victims’ advocates in to speak. Maybe you write letters to the editor publicly recognizing victims when domestic violence is reported in the media, or maybe you write newsletter articles for your church bulletin. Maybe you choose to speak out or to support those who do.

“It’s about giving victims the control back,” says Barry. “Because they have had the control stripped from them by their batterers, and the last thing that we all want to do as a community is strip their control even further.”

Maybe you read stories like these, and flip the onus from the victim to the perpetrator.

“The number-one thing I think the community needs to do is to believe victims, and to hold batterers accountable,” says Barry. “That starts with really simple things, like switching the question from ‘why doesn’t she just leave?’ to ‘why does he do that?'”

***

It’s a Friday night, August 19, 2011, and a dozen or so kids are rocking a bouncy house in a Fitchburg park. It’s one of those classic Wisconsin evenings, a crisp, cloudless sky cut with a dry breeze, hot in the sun and cool-water-sweet in the shade, the smell of onion dip and grass clippings in the air.

“This is exactly how the air felt two years ago tonight, exactly how the day was,” says Julie Rook Schebig. “That can be a trigger, but I’m actually doing really good.”

This is the second annual “Celebration of Life,” a balloon release orchestrated by Julie, her way of marking the painful anniversary of both her abusive marriage and her near-fatal attack. She stands barely five-feet-five in white shorts and a purple tank top, a cold bottle of Miller High Life in her hand, surveying the scene of family, friends and neighbors.

“This neighborhood means everything to me,” she says. “My kids actually have friends now, coming in and out of our house. We never could have had any of this before.” 

About seventy-five purple balloons are tucked away inside an adjacent house, awaiting their big moment. Each balloon has two cards tied to it, with phone numbers of local domestic violence resources, victims’ rights and statistics. Each bears the quote, “When the caterpillar thought it was the end of its life … it turned into a butterfly.” This same sentence is tattooed across Julie’s thin back.

“For the rest of my life I’m going to do anything I can to help, to get the word out, not even just to women but to society,” says Julie. “Until society is there to back up these women and to say this is an outrage, this is not acceptable behavior, it’s a tough battle to get women to feel safe and come forward.”

Julie’s fingers brush across a second tattoo, this one a slim, purple ribbon on the inside of her wrist.

“It’s here so that people will ask me about it,” says Julie. “I will show them pictures, I will talk all about this, because it’s not my shame, it’s his shame.”

In some ways, it makes Julie feel better to have these outward signs to help articulate the reality of domestic violence. That’s something she didn’t have before, when she needed it most.

“Just because you don’t walk around with bruises, just because you don’t have a broken arm or black eye, does not mean that you are not in an abusive relationship,” she says. “The emotional abuse, the verbal abuse, the physical control, the financial control, the feeling of being trapped, I personally would have rather had broken arms and black eyes than the damage that can be done long-term by living your life in fear. Or wondering, is today the day that he’s finally gonna get to that next step?”

Julie’s ex-husband Jerry Orton was arrested within hours of her attack, after calling 911 himself to report he’d “just killed” his wife and that the babies were home alone in their high chairs. But Julie’s battle with Jerry continued long after her attack. In addition to her five-day hospital stay and months of painful recovery (she still suffers from post-concussive syndrome, PTSD, anxiety, insomnia and terrible nightmares), Orton continued to attempt to control her by manipulating the court system—a tactic experts say is very common. He fired attorney after attorney at the last minute just before trial, prompting the system to reset itself over and over again, before finally agreeing to a plea in the end. Julie alleges that Jerry wanted to avoid trial so that he could keep the illusion with his friends and family intact, and that he was unaware that physical evidence would still be presented at the sentencing hearing if he pled out—but it was. Yet, except for one couple who walked out of the courtroom upon seeing pictures of Julie’s battered face, many of Orton’s friends and family stood by him, and, Julie says, continue to blame her. Last April, Orton was finally sentenced to twenty-two years in prison, despite them.

But Julie doesn’t need the whole world to like her. She has a core group of old friends, and she’s made tentative new beginnings; new friends in the neighborhood, and women who know what she’s going through—like Lisa Judd Blanchard, who is here tonight to support her. The two women embrace, each with her separate path of advocacy. Lisa, along with her late sister Tracy’s friend Heather, has just unveiled the new Facebook page for Traja, and they’re now working to develop badly needed domestic violence legislation in Wisconsin as it exists in a few other states. For Julie’s part, she has just this afternoon come from a training meeting with new police officers, sharing her story. Both of these women have much more to say, but tonight is about the little things, about sunshine and neighbors who know the truth. It’s about what was happening exactly two years ago tonight, and how remarkably different life looks today.

Around 7:30 p.m. as the crowd gathers in a circle, Julie and her children lead a procession from the house, balloons in tow. Each person gathered is given one as Julie speaks.

“A few years ago I thought it was gonna be the end of my life,” says Julie. “And despite what my ex-husband did to me, it is now the beginning of my life.”

With Avril Lavigne warbling over the PA system to “Keep Holding On,” Julie and her supporters release the balloons. Julie moves slowly through the circle as they rise, balancing on tiptoe to deliver hug after hug, until the balloons are just a series of pinprick holes through a tissue paper sky. Shaky, destination unknown, but free.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a frequent contributor to Madison Magazine and founder of Violence Unsilenced Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to giving abuse survivors a voice.

 

Domestic Abuse 24-Hour Help Line: 608-251-4445 (abuseintervention.org)