The Year of Living Dangerously

Each vignette in this piece could be its own chapter, but I don’t want to dwell on the pain in the marriage any more than is needed to set the context for what has happened to me in family court. These glimpses into the final months of my marriage are a humble confession of how bad things got before I managed to leave. Again, my wife and my children remain unnamed. They are obviously as central to this story as I am, but it will be their choice someday whether to add their names and incorporate these events into the narrative of their lives, too.

2. The Year of Living Dangerously
David Weiss, December 2, 2010 (Day 4)

Over the summer of 1998, although I could no longer deny that I was in an abusive marriage, I had neither the voice to say this to anyone else nor the wherewithal to take steps to end the violence or to leave. My life became its own little parallel universe. I persevered in my graduate work in Christian Ethics at the University of Notre Dame. I interviewed for and was offered my first job teaching religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. And in August I moved my fragile family to the middle of nowhere.

Decorah is a wonderful small town, and my years at Luther became some of the defining years of my life and now hold some of my dearest memories. But it was “the middle of nowhere” when we moved there, in that it put all of us hours away from any support systems. My wife’s need for control was triggered most by entering unfamiliar terrain—the first escalation happened when we moved from Wisconsin to Indiana for me to start graduate school, the second occurred when she ventured into motherhood in 1996. Now this move to rural Iowa triggered anxiety, insecurity, and violence to a new degree.

Until now most of the fighting and all of the hitting had been hidden from our kids. We had managed to make sure they were out of earshot or asleep before things got really ugly. But by late September all pretense evaporated.

“Mommy, stop …”

I forget the cause of the argument—there were so many, and very few had significant reason behind them—but she came at me, fists swinging, while I was in the living room on a Sunday afternoon. Our daughter, just 2½, was seated in her high chair at the dining room table facing the other direction. Craning around to see what was happening, her first words, all too innocently spoken were, “Mommy, stop playing with Daddy like that!” And a moment later, her first plea have been futile and her innocence now lost, she repeated, “Mommy, stop hitting Daddy!!” I hollered to my son, 11, holed up against the tempest in his bedroom, to grab a few things because we needed to leave. I went into the bathroom to get something and found my exit blocked by my wife, glaring at me, “Don’t you see, if you didn’t make me so angry I wouldn’t have to hit you?!”

My son and I escaped to a colleague’s home for the afternoon. He was the first person ever to see the bruises because I hadn’t changed clothes before leaving the house and I hadn’t realized how quickly the welts on my arms would turn black and blue. My terror was no longer a secret.

“Teaching feminist theology”

But in the classroom I did my best to be confident and full of insight for my students. That fall, I taught a course in Feminist Theology. I was passionate in teaching my class of mostly women that while the Christian tradition has often characterized the root of sin as pride, in a patriarchal culture the root of sin for women has usually meant self-erasure, too little of themselves. I helped them see that if God so loved them, their quiet complicity to a system that constantly invited them to become doormats for the men in their lives was a betrayal of God’s invitation to live into their full sacred worth. And I taught those insights wearing long sleeve shirts in the lingering autumn warmth … to hide the bruises on my arms that bore witness to the doormat that I daily chose to be to the woman in my life. The irony was not lost on me. If I was a healer to any of them, it was surely a healer of the most wounded sort.

“Speaking my first tentative truth”

Early that fall I began seeing my own counselor in Decorah. I cautiously tried to put my quiet desperation into words that still preserved some semblance of “dignity” for my increasingly undignified life. At some point—because my careful wording created a huge hole in the picture of my marriage—she asked a pointed question seeking to better understand the desperation she heard in my voice that didn’t mesh with the careful picture I set before her. Frustrated and impatient to be understood, I yanked up my sleeve, exposed the bruised truth of my life, and said—as the tears came raining out—“This is what I live with! And I don’t know how to anymore. Listen, I’ve done lots of political protests. I’ve stood in a quiet composed line at an Air National Guard facility where I had hecklers taunting me in threatening ways, and I managed to find a place of inner calm. But I don’t know how to do that in my own marriage. Can you help me?!”

She declared in no uncertain terms that a marriage was not a place to learn to live with violence and threat, but a place where either we found a way to end the violence or found a way to end the marriage. Those words, so starkly spoken, were “gospel”—good news—to me that day.

“Death wishes … justice hopes”

Because we shared a single vehicle and rented a small apartment a little outside of town, I often biked back and forth to campus. I don’t know that I ever heard the words “have a good day” as I left. But I remember mornings when I pulled my bike out of the garage only to hear these parting words, “I’ll be praying that you get hit and killed today so that I’m finally rid of you.” And then I biked off to college to teach about how Christianity has at its center a message of astonishing good news with real implications in this world—apparently just not in mine. Weeks later when I flew to Florida for a conference, my wife’s farewell words were, “I just want you to know I’ll be praying for your plane to crash, so that I can move on without you.”

It was within this maelstrom that I became more visibly and more vocally than ever before an Ally for LGBT persons. During these dark days, when I could claim neither justice not joy for myself, I somehow kept faith by claiming these for others. I am reminded of the gay men who, in the 1960’s, worked fervently—and from within the closet—for civil rights for African Americans. They transferred their passion for justice to an arena where they felt they could give it expression. My work as an Ally has roots that run much deeper than the injustice and sorrow that framed my marriage, but I do believe that this work for justice offered me a spring of clear water from which to drink when the well in my own home had grown so toxic.

“The three magi”

In November, I flew to Orlando (my plane did not crash) for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, where I joined several thousand of my academic colleagues for a few days discussing religion in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. I did not feel very magical, and of the thousand colleagues there, only three mattered. We attended academic talks during the day, but late at night, up in our hotel room, these three magi—wise men who hailed from various points on the compass—brought me gifts much needed: listening, encouragement, and challenge. It was by all accounts, an “intervention.” Having heard me both name the broken terror of my daily life and also say, “But I can’t leave the marriage,” they pushed back. Hard. I remember their challenge, offered gently but firmly and from multiple directions around the room, “David, the marriage left you months or more ago. You’re not leaving a marriage at this point. You’re leaving a war zone, and—for your sake and your kids—it’s time to get out.”

These three friends pledged their unconditional support and love to me in the days and months ahead. I learned more in that hotel room than in any of the academic sessions I attended. I learned the power touched when you dare to be vulnerable in the presence of those whose love is trustworthy and sure.

“A Lego® fortress”

Now I come to the darkest chapter of all. Up to now I have named the madness in which I found myself. It is time to speak the nightmare in which my son lived that fall. An 11 year-old “legomaniac,” he adored his little sister. He read to her. Entertained her endlessly with all manner of antics. And most of all he delighted in fashioning Lego® creations that he would then display and explain to her wide-eyed wonder. But while my wife never hit him, that fall he became the target of her incessant criticism (her passive anger) every afternoon when he arrived home from school. Most especially he was criticized for every effort he made to play with his sister.

I learned from him later that within a month of moving to Iowa he had entirely forsaken the joy of his sister for the safety of his small bedroom until I was around again. Each day he came home and closed himself into an 8×10 room where he built Lego® starships that were in truth a fortress against the anguish that he had no words for—only feelings that threatened to swallow him whole.

That Christmas we embodied the fracture in our family as my wife took our daughter with her to her parents in Wisconsin and I took my son with me to my parents in Indiana. We celebrated the holidays in a subdued fashion, I’m sure. Just how subdued I learned a day or two before it was time to head back to Iowa.

You need to know that eleven years earlier, when I had told my parents about my decision to divorce my first wife, while both were hurt and disappointed, my dad was overwhelmingly so. His life was framed by multiple stresses and mine was simply too much to bear; he disowned me. I was forbidden to visit, call, or even write to him. It lasted “only” four months, and the wounds have long since healed, but as 1998 drew to an end—and, with it, hope for my marriage—I did not know how I would survive if he reacted the same way to me for ending this marriage.

One of our last nights in Indiana my parents asked to talk. This holiday was the first they had seen my son since we had moved to Iowa in late August. They were alarmed—frantic in their concern—at how withdrawn and listless he had become in those four short months. They barely recognized their first grandchild, except outwardly. Inwardly he seemed to have simply drifted away. They openly worried that he was deeply depressed. They asked if I thought he might be suicidal.

This is perhaps the most humbling truth of all: that when pain clusters deeply enough inside yourself—as it had in me—it can lessen your ability to notice or respond to the depth of pain in others. I knew my son was hurting. I ached for him each day. But as we descended into the darkness of that fall I had not noticed how deeply he hurt and how precarious his interest in life had become. It took my parents to wake me up. My dad did the speaking, “David, your mother and I love you very much. And we are very concerned now for your safety and for your sons. We think it is time for you to get out of this marriage before any more harm is done. We are giving you this check—and we want you to use it to hire an attorney and file for divorce.”

That probably happened on December 29 or 30 of 1998. And this was the hell that my life had become. Bar none, those words of desperate worry and financial assistance spoken by my dad (and the absence of any words of judgment) were the most “glad tidings” I heard that entire year. Not because they were “tidings of great joy,” but because they were tidings that suggested, just maybe … perhaps … the possibility of hope.

To this day my son and I are bound together by this ordeal in ways we have yet to fully fathom. Our love for one another is sure, but there are still moments when we meet on a landscape mined with memories of fear and absence, ache and longing, and now and again we step on them and the pain of our past explodes into our present.

“An ultimatum”

I came back after Christmas ready to try one last time to save the marriage. But this time there would be a period not an ellipsis at the end of that sentence. We’d been meeting with our pastor for marriage counseling since mid-fall and at our first session in January, when he asked where we were at with things, I was very clear. Either by the end of February my wife would be in anger counseling or I would look for a lawyer to file for divorce. Unsurprisingly, my words were not well-received. My wife accused me of blackmail. Our pastor affirmed the legitimacy of my position, and the course was set. I never expected that she would seek out counseling for her anger, but I felt like I had to make one last genuine gesture at saving the marriage. She brooded, sulked and occasionally exploded over the next six weeks, but she never sought out counseling, and in early March I made good on my commitment to find an attorney.

The rest of my memories of that winter/spring 1999 are a mosaic of agony. Three in particular stand out.

“The furthest away she could get”

Mornings now became opportunities for all out verbal assaults as soon as my son left the house to catch the bus. With the stakes heightened and with my resolve clear, I rarely left the house without a barrage of angry words. Our daughter, who turned three that March, sought refuge during these tirades beneath the dining room table. The shouting would start and, as if on cue, she would wordlessly make her way between the chairs until she sat on the floor in the middle of the table. Confused. Numb. Forlorn. Her whole face vacant of innocence and hope. Unable to flee any further, that place beneath the table became the furthest away she could get from the hurt that was her home.

“Bed beatings”

I slept that spring only by sheer exhaustion, which I experienced in plenty. But short of exhaustion sleep rarely came. We lived in a tiny apartment—maybe 650 square feet. We shared a queen size bed up until I actually met with an attorney. Our daughter slept in a corner of our room. On several occasions in February and March, in the middle of the night, wrapped restlessly in exhaustion, I awoke to discover my wife sitting on top of me, straddling my waist, her fists flailing against my chest while she wept. Had she wanted to hurt me while I slept, she could have. These nighttime assaults were driven by anger now muted by anguish, sensing that my course had indeed been set. But they were frightening each time nonetheless, but you just never knew when it would happen or if it would get worse. Exhausted, I dreaded sleep that spring as much as I dreaded waking.

“I will remember”

Most of my immediate colleagues in the Religion department knew that my marriage was crumbling, though few would have guessed at the depth of cataclysmic rockslides going on behind our withering vows. I said nothing to my students until late spring when our separation was imminent. Even then my words were guarded. The classroom had been perhaps the only real refuge I knew all year. My gifts as a writer and a poet, coupled with my passion for and understanding of theology made me a gifted teacher even when I entered the classroom less prepared and less rested than I wished. Teaching fed me that year. It was the one place where my life made sense.

But the year took it toll even there. By late spring I lived inside Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous poem “Who Am I?”. One morning, after a particularly raw night, one of my best students asked, quite sincerely and quite innocently, “How are you doing?” I responded at the edge of tears, “Life is hard right now. I’m not sure that I even know who I am anymore.” Without waiting she replied, “David, I know who you are, and I will remember who you are in all of this.”

In Christianity we speak of being “surrounded by a whole host of witnesses.” This is the gift that came to me that day on the sidewalk in front of the student union at Luther College. For a fleeting moment I imagined—no, I heard—in her steady gracious words the voice of everyone who mattered to me. In my own personal Pentecost, I heard each person’s voice—a whole host of them—within her voice. It may well be that grace always come in fleeting moments. But that moment—over in an instant—sustained me for the rest of the spring.

“At last and at length”

On April 27, 1999 we signed a divorce stipulation and not long after that my wife and our daughter loaded belonging into a rental truck and left for Wisconsin.

It seems not nearly so long ago because the emotions remain raw (probably due to all of the ensuing conflict over my time with my daughter). Still, my life has moved on into incredible new ventures—as husband now to Margaret, as parent to our blended family, as grandparent to three little ones now, and as writer and speaker. I sometime wonder myself, “How long ago was that?” But I know exactly how long.

One of the quirks in that marriage was that my wife dictated almost to the day each time I got my hair cut. It was one of the first concessions I made when we started dating, and it became a symbol of just how much of my own turf I ceded to her. So how long has it been? Exactly the length of my hair, because since the spring of 1999 no one has told me it was time to get a haircut … and I’m still savoring my wild—and free—hair. All eleven-plus years of it.

* * *

This entry is the second written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. In the next one I begin to relate my journey through the courts. You can learn more about the fast here (https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry), including ways to support me.

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14 thoughts on “The Year of Living Dangerously

  1. David,

    Your gift of words sustains, even when you are retelling such horrific moments. Thank you for trusting us with this.

    Jason

    • Jason,
      I agree. I do not think I could tell the story if I could not wrap it in words that balance the terror with some measure of beauty. And I hope that by trusting my readers with it, the weight becomes shared by many and rests less heavily on me.
      David

  2. This type of story is kept in the dark, locked up in the closet so to speak. It happens more than it’s known about. A very dear close long time friend went thru a very similar situation. It almost killed him. The thought of his precious boys at the hand of a controlling abusive Bible thumper. (Not to say that every person of any faith is an abusive and controlling person. It just seems to be that the louder they preach the more they have to hide, at least in some cases.)
    And I was the receiver of physical and verbal abuse as a child from the day care worker who happened to be the wife of a minister. When you are tied up, taken to a dark basement and beaten until you saw god in the numerous photos that were plastered on the wall, you soon don’t forget it.
    As with the dearest friend I could ever have, and in David’s situation, the hurt and pain is far worse and deeper reaching. I hope that those men who have been taught to never strike a woman find a woman that has been taught the same values. My heart goes out to you all.
    David your pain does not go un-felt and your hurt does not go misunderstood.

  3. David, My bones ache for you as you write about the pain and horror you and your children endured. By speaking out and breaking the silence of what happened, you’re shining light in the darkness.

  4. David,

    What a powerful, raw and moving story you share. I ache and I cry for that dark time in your life that continues to bleed into the relationship you have with your daughter. It amazes me that so much of this happened the year before I came to Luther and met you. And, in some respects, how great the healing process was for you between April and September, when you seemed so joyful in the beginning of your re-relationship with Margaret. I know I’ve said it before, but you changed my life at Luther and I will be forever grateful for your wisdom, guidance and the words that have transformed and moved me, over and over through the years. Many blessings to you as you continue this journey of hunger and of sharing your story as completely and honestly as you can, through Advent.

  5. Dear David; I see you enfolded in the Loving Arms of God, and pray that time takes away the hurt. When history is forgotten it tends to repeat. By sharing this perhaps the good is that someone elses history will be changed. Love and Blessings, Paul

  6. David,

    As the victim of an abusive first marriage, I can relate to some of the experiences you shared. I praise God for the people He placed in your life- the Magi, your father, your student. God comes to us through folks like that- perfectly orchestrated as only He can do. I’m praying for your strength as you undergo this fast. Perhaps you will remember me- I’m the mom that asked permission to give you a hug after your talk at St. Louis University. Blessings to you now and always.

  7. David, my heart goes out to you. I had no idea of the long treacherous life you endured all those years. Your writings are a gift to all who read them.
    God’s richest blessings as you continue to grow in a relationship with Margaret and the whole family.
    Al

  8. I am so sorry these things happened to you and I give thanks for those bright lights who gave you strength when you needed it most. Your words remind me that so many of the best gifts to the world are born out of desperation and pain. Those who know you have enjoyed your writing and teaching and benefited from your passion for justice. God continues to use you to stir up hope. Thank God you survived and thank you for all you are and all you do.

  9. David,

    Your story reminds me to be on the look out for all who are hurting and abused. May Christ’s healing find us all. Amen.

    Timothy

  10. No wonder your witness to the Gospel is so powerful! It has sustained you even in the depths of hell.

    Keep writing, and keep singing!

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