On January 15, 2011, Sergeant Robert Young arrived at 735 State Street in Schenectady, New York.
“Police,” he announced, as he stood outside apartment number three, where my aunt had been living, thanks to Social Services and disability checks.
According to Sergeant Young’s police report, no one responded right away. But after several more unanswered knocks, he heard faint mumbling on the other side of the locked door. “Police,” he repeated. “Open up.”
“I’m too tired,” a woman’s voice escaped under the door and rose into the crisp winter air.
The phone call Sergeant Young had just received from the woman’s sister-in-law was reason enough to stay. According to the sister-in-law—my mother—this woman was not only dying of stage four lung cancer but she was living with an abusive man who, until very recently, had isolated her from her family, her friends, her own life, for over twenty years. And although this woman was my father’s younger sister—my Aunt Lorraine—she still lived in my memory as the cool aunt from my childhood: the single, globe-trotting woman who took me to the beach on sunny days, and who let me watch the scary movies my parents didn’t allow, and who talked to me about birth control and training bras while my parents prayed that puberty would pass me by.
According to what my mother told Sergeant Young, Lorraine had started calling my parents several weeks ago: “And he was always there, on the phone in the other room,” my mother said. “Or screaming into the receiver Lorraine was holding.”
“He” was Jeff, the man my aunt had met at a bar more than two decades before, and who had been torturing her for almost as long.
“Something’s different now, though,” my mother told Sergeant Young. “For weeks they’ve been calling several times a day, relentless and desperate, but now no one is answering the phone and I haven’t heard from either of them in days.”
I imagined Sergeant Young strategizing while he listened to my mother’s account. He would go to my aunt’s apartment and knock on the door. She would let him in. They would talk. She would tell him about the cancer. He would tell her he was sorry for her pain. He would ask her about the domestic violence. She would say there was none.
Schenectady, New York, was a city that moved to the rhythm of blaring sirens and drive-by shootings, where even emergencies weren’t unexpected. Its streets were lined with matted dogs squatting in front of boarded-up, graffiti-covered buildings while heaps of people crouched under piles of soggy cardboard boxes and shredded layers of flannel and wool. After dark, stooped men in hooded sweatshirts wandered into alleyways and stood, shifting from right foot to left, their eyes darting down nameless streets lined with potholes and bullet-filled stop signs, where the local drug dealers made their daily drop. No one would have looked directly at Sergeant Young’s police cruiser as it passed, but they always knew who was on their turf. Schenectady was Nowhere, and they were the people who lived there.
Sergeant Young would have driven through all of this before arriving at 735 State Street, where he finally stood, wondering what was happening on the other side of the door.
“Ma’am, would you like to go to the hospital?” he asked.
“Tell you what,” he replied. “I’m just gonna wait out here for a bit and let you think about it.”
Within minutes, the doorknob began to jiggle. Then came the sound of metal grinding against wood as the door hesitated and slid, hesitated and slid, a little at a time, before separating from its casing and pulling itself in. As soon as the opening seemed large enough, Sergeant Young crossed the threshold and squeezed himself through the narrow space of opportunity. And there, lying on the floor, was a naked eighty-pound woman covered in blood and filth, barely able to speak.
“Is anyone here with you?” Sergeant Young asked.
“I’m alone,” she whispered while curling herself into a question mark and wrapping her hands around her bald head.
“Can you tell me your name?”
“Lorraine. Lorraine Haskins,” she mumbled, as Sergeant Young flicked the cap off his pen and began scribbling everything—every sight, every sound, every smell—on his notepad. Months later, when the City of Schenectady finally honored my request for a copy of the Domestic Incident Report from that night, I read all of Sergeant Young’s notes:
“The residence appeared to have been ransacked.”
“There was blood on various items throughout the residence.”
“Unable to determine events that happened…”
He had recorded only verifiable facts. He didn’t write about the stench of decaying flesh and rotting food he later described to my mother. I imagined him holding his breath while he knelt to examine the dark streaks smeared across Lorraine’s forehead and around her mouth before noting that the dried blood on her arms and legs seemed to be hers, while the location of the feces he identified indicated that someone had defecated on her face and neck. I assumed that was the image that prompted him to kick a walkable path through the cockroach-infested garbage my aunt had been using as a bed.
He would have moved slowly through the dark, his right hand covering his weapon, ready to aim and shoot if necessary. Since the government-issue efficiency apartment must have been so compact, the hall so short and the rooms so tiny, I am surprised he didn’t step on the second body before he actually saw it. When he could finally focus on the thing sprawled across the bedroom floor, he realized he was staring at a naked middle-aged man—Jeff—whose skin erupted in oozing, red lesions; whose vacant eyes bulged out of their sockets and stared, unblinking, at the cracked water-stained ceiling above; whose hands were locked into tight fists.
While Sergeant Young spoke to the body and checked it for a pulse, the woman’s insistent moans drifted down the hall:
“He… did not… do this to… me.”
But Sergeant Young was a trained professional. He responded to these calls daily. He knew the truth as he stood in the middle of what he later described to my mother as “the worst domestic incident he’d ever seen.” His job had required him to search criminal histories and orders of protection registries before he left the police station, so he knew about the violent history—the prior police reports, my aunt’s fear and denial, Jeff’s control. Later, when he pieced together the information from my mother’s phone call and his observations, he realized that Jeff had left my aunt stoned and starving on their living room floor for almost a week. She couldn’t reach the phone or her walker or her necessary cancer medication, though Jeff had made sure to leave each lifesaving object just close enough for her to see them. I can almost see her begging for them for the first few days, before she finally passed out; how desperate she must have been for those small symbols of safety. And then I picture Jeff, stripping off all his clothes and drugging himself with my aunt’s pain medication and whatever he bought on the street, before defecating on my aunt’s broken body. I can even hear his laughter as he gave her head a final smack before staggering down the hall and passing out on the bedroom floor.
Unfortunately, Sergeant Young’s options were limited by New York State law despite the obvious: this was attempted homicide. While I thought it would have seemed reasonable to arrest Jeff and toss his dying body into a jail cell that night, there was not enough concrete evidence, not by legal standards, to charge him with a crime. With two barely breathing people as his only available witnesses—one who denied the truth and one who said nothing at all—the only thing he could do right then was call for medical back-up.
According to his report, after the two ambulances left—one carrying my aunt and the other carrying Jeff—he conducted his more thorough investigation. He photographed the scene, though unfortunately no one was able to locate the photographs when I requested copies. He checked “No” in the box labeled “Arrest Made?” And under “Offenses,” he simply wrote “Pending Investigation.” He had identified my Aunt Lorraine as V1, the only Victim, and Bernard J. Hill, Jeff’s full, legal name, as S1, the primary Suspect. My mother, by virtue of her lifesaving phone call, automatically became Associated Person 1, and I was Associated Person 2. The niece. I was the family member who lived close by, qualified to sign paperwork should my aunt become unable to sign for herself. I was geographically convenient and genetically linked. And completely unaware of what had just taken place.
A friend of mine who was a nurse at Ellis Hospital called me several hours after my aunt arrived that night. Over the years, the Ellis Emergency Room staff had treated Aunt Lorraine for various illnesses and injuries, most of them related to Jeff’s abuse. And on January 15, 2011, although she was closer to death than she had ever been, more battered and broken than they had ever seen her, they once again responded quickly and thoroughly in an effort to save her. They admitted her to the Intensive Care Unit and treated her renal failure and bandaged her bruises. They rehydrated and fed her. They cared for her as if they hoped she would live through the night, but they were admittedly surprised when she ended up living through several days. And then several more. By the end of the week, my parents had scheduled a meeting with the hospital social worker and the head nurse to discuss what to do with my aunt once she was recovered enough to leave the hospital. I secretly hoped that her cancer would disable her just to the point of anchoring her to the hospital’s care forever. She was safe there.
But eventually, the hospital needed to give my aunt’s bed to another patient, and since she was out of immediate medical danger, the hospital family meeting happened. My mother didn’t come right out and ask me to attend, so I didn’t offer. Even though I had been working at a domestic violence prevention agency for the past six years, all I knew how to do was write policies and coordinate workgroups and manage projects. So when domestic violence confronted me, when a member of my own family needed lifesaving help, the only thing I knew with absolute certainty was that I had no idea what to do. So I did nothing, and I hated myself for it. At first, I worried that my mother would think me selfish, or uncaring, or too fragile to handle the reality of Aunt Lorraine’s life, but if she felt any of those things, she seemed to have let them go by the time she called to fill me in after the meeting was over.
“She looks like death,” my mother said. “Each of her thighs is as big around as my wrist. They say she would have died within hours if Sergeant Young hadn’t arrived when he did. Thank God she finally let him in.”
“Yeah, thank God,” I whispered. I tried to ignore my belief that Sergeant Young hadn’t actually saved my aunt as much as he had prolonged the inevitable.
“Anyway,” my mother continued, “there was this young hospital social worker named Matt, and he was just wonderful. Told her she didn’t deserve to be abused. That he was concerned for her safety. That he didn’t want to see something like this happen to her ever again.”
Thankfully, hospital social worker Matt had said every single thing my colleagues and I recommend people say to victims of domestic violence. And he had done something no one else had been able to do. He had looked at my aunt; he had seen her; he had spoken to her. And he had reached her.
“And,” my mother continued, “she actually agreed to go to a domestic violence shelter. They’re going to drive her there tomorrow. They can give her clothes and toiletries and whatever else she needs. She never has to see Jeff again.”
“Seems like a good first step,” I said. My mother sounded hopeful and I didn’t want to take that away from her. But the reality was that even if my aunt did go, most domestic violence shelters in New York State were restricted to a maximum ninety-day stay. They offered emergency assistance, not long-term solutions. And since these women needed more than three months to secure the housing and resources that would allow them to permanently leave their wage-earning, home-owning abusers, it wasn’t uncommon for them to return to their abusers, often before their time at the shelter was up.
Part of my job involved writing the training manuals that explained to police officers and judges why abusers always let their victims return home after leaving the shelter. Almost immediately, they would up the ante by ripping phones out of walls when they went to work, and by confiscating car keys and doling out meager food allowances while demanding receipts for every item purchased. It was my job to inform officials about how abusers regained their sense of power and control by screaming at the kids, kicking the pets, tracking all Internet use and monitoring computer keystrokes—sometimes even remotely, without their victims’ knowledge. And they did all this while barring everyone else—friends, relatives, neighbors, warrantless police officers—from entering the house. And there the victims would attempt to survive, until the next time things became so unbearable, or their abusers hit them so hard or terrified them so badly, that once again leaving seemed possible, even necessary.
I guess I was somewhat relieved that my aunt realized she wouldn’t survive another day in her apartment, and I cautiously believed that she did want to live, at least for the next ninety days.
“She can’t do drugs in the shelter though,” I focused on facts. “If they catch her violating the ‘no drugs’ rule they’ll kick her out.”
My mother sighed. “She isn’t going to do drugs,” she said. “Jeff’s the addict. Lorraine has cancer. She’s on meds. It’s different. And they’ll help her regulate them at the shelter.”
“No they won’t.” I wanted to end the conversation and give my mother a moment of peace, a moment to feel this small victory. But I couldn’t. So I continued: “They won’t even admit her into shelter until she can take care of herself. They aren’t allowed or equipped to provide medical care, and once she’s there, they’ll give her a place to sleep, some transportation and meals, maybe some counseling. Their goal is to help her get a job and become independent, not provide her with a home.”
My mother deflated into silence.
She must have thought I was a horrible daughter.
My mother and I didn’t talk much the following week. But then, on Saturday morning, when “Mom and Dad” appeared in the Caller ID window of my ringing cell phone, my throat tightened and my heart raced; I knew, I just knew, that Aunt Lorraine had gone back to Jeff. It was the most painful, most common reality of my work. And, at that moment, it was the most devastating moment in my family.
I hoped that a nonchalant greeting could reverse what I already knew. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked.
“I just talked to Aunt Lorraine,” my mother said.
“She went back home, huh?”
“She went back h … Wait. How did you know?”
“How did I not know?”
It seemed heartless to spit statistics at my mother when she was so upset, to tell her that an abused woman typically attempts to separate from her abuser up to seven times before leaving for good. And with each attempt, her odds of permanently leaving, or of surviving long enough to leave, decrease significantly. At that point, I was pretty sure my aunt was only on attempt number one.
“She told me it was her choice to go home,” my mother said.
“Mom, it wasn’t her choice. And she’s never going to leave him.”
“We’ll see,” she said, as firm in her position as I was in mine.
That was the last conversation my mother and I had about my Aunt Lorraine until February 26, 2011. Early that morning, an ambulance crew once again wheeled her through the double doors of the Ellis Hospital Emergency Room. At first, no one realized who she was. As ravaged as she had been during her weeklong stay the month before, she had literally become—a nurse would later tell me—a thin layer of skin draped over bone.
But eventually, someone recognized her name. Within minutes, someone else pulled her file. And then, finally, someone else wheeled her into an exam room and pronounced her dead.
It wasn’t until after my aunt’s death that I became consumed by her. I often imagined what her life had looked like, what she had looked like. I created a picture of the Schenectady apartment that Sergeant Young had done his best to describe on that January night. I thought about the feces that Jeff had left on her. I imagined her walker, her bald head, her thighs, no bigger than my mother’s wrists. Instead of sleeping, I had endless streams of nightmares that dragged me through hospital corridors, desperate to save her before Jeff could destroy her.
When I realized that I was creating a fictional account that seemed far worse than my aunt’s reality could have possibly been, I decided to find whatever truth I could. Thanks to my job, I knew that the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) would allow me limited access to some public records, so, several weeks after my aunt’s death, I submitted the correct forms to the City of Schenectady. And then I waited. All I could do was hope they would release the information about her calls for help, the specifics of what Jeff did her, the police officers’ notes about how they responded. Or whether they responded. I wanted to know how much time had elapsed between the beatings and the threats, and whether anyone ever held Jeff accountable or told him to stop, or arrested him, or by forced him to leave their home. I wanted facts. And finally, twenty days after I submitted my request, the facts arrived in my mailbox.
I spent a week moving the sealed answers from writing desk to kitchen table to nightstand and back to writing desk again before I finally sliced into them with a nail file. And with the documents as my guide, I travelled back in time, to places my aunt had been. While reading, I felt as if I was watching her scrape together enough pocket change to cover her fare on the crowded dirty bus that would take her to the crowded dirty police station. In my version, she wore a torn sundress, its hem frayed and uneven, its safety-pinned straps flapping against her bony shoulders. Her filthy feet were shoeless and calloused and bulging with swollen veins as she staggered through the police station doors to ask the desk sergeant for help and shelter and answers. Many of the reports were a variation on this same story.
But what was different, and what I hadn’t expected, was the report stating that my aunt had actually left 735 State Street on at least one other occasion, the year before, and that she had gone to the Schenectady YWCA’s domestic violence shelter.
At that moment, I realized I’d found the answer I had been seeking: my aunt had not wanted to die. She believed that she deserved a safe place, and she did everything necessary and possible to find one. Although she didn’t stay in the shelter for long, I could finally disprove my own conviction that her life had become something of a long-term suicide.
As this very different image came into focus, everything else began to make sense, too: my aunt’s willingness to undergo lung surgery, chemotherapy, radiation. Her calls to family, to the police, to domestic violence advocates. Her attempts, as she once described them to my mother, to apply prescription burn cream to her upper back by twisting her arms and stretching her fingers and doing her best to reach the stinging, scarred radiation-induced blisters that oozed and throbbed and refused to heal. Everything she had done suddenly presented a picture of a woman trying to survive rather than a victim trying to self-destruct.
My Aunt Lorraine had wanted to live. She had tried to live. And that was the truth inside the fiction.
Rumpus original art by Wendi Chen.