I am writing this because I have been battered and felt powerless to free myself from abuse. I never told anyone my boyfriend beat me up because I was ashamed. Who stays with a man who beats them?
Me, for one. Holding on to the hope that he would stop and we would resume our elevated status in the perfect-couple department kept me hooked.
It has been over 30 years since I escaped from the perils of living with the actor William Hurt. He recently passed away and I wrote an essay about surviving him. I heard from many people who shared with me their own stories of enduring violent partnerships. But what stood out were the worried messages I received from people concerned that someone close to them was trapped in a physical and/or psychologically controlling relationship: mothers anxious about daughters; friends troubled about friends. Intimate partner violence has not subsided. Because of Covid, it is most certainly on the rise.
The World Health Organization estimates that one in three women worldwide has experienced physical violence. This statistic still shocks me whenever I read it.
Donna Kaz, now 67, with Hurt on the set of the 1980 film Altered States. ‘In public, we appeared to be head over heels in love,’ she says.
Growing up, I thought it would never happen to me. While I may have been raised to be independent, strong and smart enough to sidestep obvious traps, violence found me. I was 17 when I left home for college in 1971, and inside I felt nothing but potential. Yet, I still had to buck the steady diet I was fed of what a ‘woman’ was supposed to be ‒ thin, beautiful and worthy only if attached to a man. Then, six years later, while I was a young actress in New York, I met Bill.
To say he swept me off my feet is an understatement. He told me I was the one true love of his life and that he needed me by his side. I believed him. He was the only man who saw me for who I was. In the beginning, we had many loving and glorious experiences together.
Looking back, I recognise that this whirlwind romance was the start of Bill’s control of me. He moved into my life in what felt like seconds. I followed because I fell for him. What I did not realise was that I was losing myself along the way. While the experience might feel impetuous and daring, rushed-into relationships are also out of control and perilous and should raise red flags.
The first time he hit me I immediately erased the memory. It must not have happened because how could someone who loved me do that? The second time it happened I thought it must have been my fault. And thus the cycle began. Bill would snap over nothing then blame me. I remember days and days of carefully dissecting every move I made to uncover the real culprit of Bill’s ire – my behaviour. He would slap me to the ground, kick, punch, strangle and suffocate me. Threats, name-calling and the destruction of anything in his path were our ‘normal’, after which a calm would wash over him as quickly as his rage had. He would cry, apologise and promise never to do it again.
He would slap me to the ground, kick, punch, strangle and suffocate me
This became my never ending merry-go-round of intimate partner violence that, once I got on, was impossible and dangerous to get off. And here is the bottom-line reality. I knew that if I left, it would certainly be worse. He told me not to leave, that there would be consequences if I even thought about leaving him. If you are reading this and saying to yourself, ‘If anyone ever laid a hand on me, I would simply get up and leave’, think again. This idea used to stop me from sharing anything about my own experiences because I knew how difficult leaving was for me and why. It is not that simple. Violence often becomes more frequent, more intense and leaving is risky.
Domestic violence has three main phases: the tension-building phase, assault phase (physical/ psychological, or both) and the honeymoon phase. It was the latter phase that kept me coming back. I bought into the promises, the regret, the apologies, the flowers and the gifts. I believed it when Bill told me that I was the only person who could help him stop his volcanic behaviour. Only I possessed the power to make Bill, my true love, better.
William Hurt in TV show Humans in 2015. Donna Kaz has opened this year about the abuse she suffered at the hands of the actor
That power dynamic was at the core of our relationship. Even as he swore I was his sole redeemer, Bill dictated my life. He isolated me from friends and family and requested I cover my black eyes with make-up and my bruises with long-sleeve shirts. In public, we appeared to be head over heels in love. Sometimes, though, he would verbally insult me in front of others. They would gently chide him or try to change the subject. Bill was charismatic, a brilliant artist and, understandably, edgy and intense. No one suspected his barbs towards me were clues to much darker behaviour. If they had looked beyond my quietness, beyond my tugs at my shirt sleeves or heavily made-up face, they might have suspected I was in trouble. If they had asked why I did not return phone calls or was always too busy to get together when I did answer the phone, they may have figured out I was in crisis.
After living in California for almost a year we moved back to New York City. One day a letter was slipped under our door. It was from the young man who lived in the apartment next to ours. He was tired of listening to our fights and demanded that we soundproof the walls. I remember reading that note and feeling completely hopeless and abandoned. He did not care if I was safe. I often saw him in the hall but he never asked me if I needed help. The best thing he could have done was to enquire (in private) what he should do the next time he heard us fight. I know many survivors who did not want the police involved for a variety of reasons – fear, eviction, arrest. For me, a call to the police would have been welcome.
Hurt with Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, 1981. Donna reveals that even after the relationship ended, the emotional abuse continued
In all the time I was being battered I can remember just one instance where someone asked me about my bruises. Bill was right there next to me and, of course, I made up a story. As my situation worsened and I became more and more disempowered, I fantasised that one day someone would guess what was happening to me. I was certain no one heard me, even when I was right behind the wall in the next apartment. So I began to give up.
At the end of three years Bill left me for someone else. It was over, but it was not. We continued to see each other at least once a year for the next ten. The physical violence stopped but not the emotional abuse. If he called I would drop everything and run. I remained deeply attached to him and held out hope that we would get back together. I conveniently forgot our past, content to stay on the merry-go-round of promise.
It took me years to acknowledge that I had survived a physically and psychologically abusive relationship. I downplayed it – mostly because I did not want to admit I had been damaged. Thinking back, I believed all the myths – that abuse only happened to lower socio-economic couples. That I provoked it. That it was caused by excessive alcohol and drugs. That it was a personal matter solved with a few anger-management classes.
I fantasised that one day someone would guess what was happening to me
It was only when I made the choice to get involved in the movement to stop violence that I began to heal. I volunteered for a hotline, worked at a domestic violence shelter and wrote down my story which turned into a book. Eventually, I came to believe that if I revealed the details of my tumultuous romance I might help someone else get through theirs.
Wresting yourself from a violent relationship is a difficult, hazardous and lengthy process. Survivors need supportive listeners who offer safe spaces and confidentiality. To be an ally for yourself, or for someone you suspect is trapped in a troubled relationship, start by understanding how complex the power and control dynamic can be between couples. Call a hotline yourself or reach out to organisations such as End Violence Against Women (endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk) or Refuge (refuge.org.uk). Appreciate the fact that abuse is not only physical, it can also be emotional or economic.
Donna says if you suspect someone you care about is in an abusive relationship, find a safe space and time to let them know that you are there for them
When I write about my past I often think back to something that happened when Bill and I lived on the beach in Malibu. One morning I discovered a hummingbird inside our kitchen. Bill had gone to work so it was up to me to deal with this dilemma. I tried to shoo the bird towards the door with a towel but with every flick it dived deeper into a corner of the ceiling, obviously traumatised and unable to understand it could escape. I remember thinking the hummingbird was me. I saw my fragile self ‒ trapped and unable to find a way out. It took me all day to gently coax the bird towards the open sky but, eventually, I watched it fly away. And somewhere inside I think it gave me a tiny bit of hope that I, too, would one day be able to do the same thing.
Being raised to be independent, strong and smart did come back to me in the end. But I had to be as fragile as a hummingbird for a while. Here is what I wished for during all of it. That someone had expressed concern, reminded me it was not my fault and that no one deserves to be harmed. That someone told me they respected my choices and believed my story. I wish I had been assured that someone would be there for me for as long as it took and reminded me that self-empowerment can seemingly take a long time.
If you suspect someone you care about is in an abusive relationship, find a safe space and time to let them know that you are there for them, you are concerned about them and you do not judge them. Be patient. Listen. Arm yourself with knowledge. There is a way to call a halt to intimate partner violence. Follow me.
- Donna Kaz is author of UN/MASKED: Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl on Tour (Skyhorse, £11.34, amazon.co.uk). For more details of her writing classes, go to donnakaz.com