October marks National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In South Burlington, it hits a little harder in the wake of resident Anako “Annette” Lumumba’s domestic violence-related death in May 2018. That’s why city councilors, the South Burlington Police Department, the Community Justice Center and other local organizations have convened to discuss the issue with city residents. The first community forum will be held Thursday, Oct. 10, from 5:30-8 p.m. in the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School Cafeteria. 

The Other Paper sat down with two local survivors before those talks to hear their stories and learn about resources.

Leaving a bad situation

Gretchen Gundrum knew she had to leave. It had been a tumultuous decade with an abusive partner. His other partner, standing in their home “like it was no big deal,” was the last straw. 

“There was infidelity and to him it was almost as if it was Ok,” she said. “To me, it was not Ok.”

Gundrum and her partner first met at work. He was new then, and she was a three-year veteran employee. She wanted to help him feel welcome. In time, they started dating.

“In the first two years, we did a lot of things together, but there was still a lot of things that weren’t talked about,” she said. 

Eventually, Gundrum and her partner had two children – boys, both autistic. After their youngest son was born, Gundrum’s partner began physically and sexually assaulting her, but most of the abuse was psychological and emotional, she said.

Because of that, she didn’t initially recognize it as domestic violence.

“The stigma that is on domestic violence is that in order for it to be real, you’ve got to see the victim … they have to be bruised or [have] broken bones,” Gundrum said. “That’s only one portion of what domestic violence really encompasses.”

Domestic violence includes everything from physical abuse to restricting access to finances, verbal and emotional abuse and other similar behaviors. Gundrum’s partner also “gaslighted” her, attempting to convince her that she was the problem, not him.

“After a while … you do start to question your own sense of reality,” Gundrum said. “You start to question, ‘Am I crazy? Was I right to say this?’”

Things worsened when her partner’s other partner stood, nonchalantly, in their home, Gundrum knew enough was enough. 

“I decided right then and there something had to change,” she said. Either he had to change, or I had to make changes and find a way to get out. The reality behind abusers changing [is that] they don’t change.”

The two had their last fight on June 1, 2014. Gundrum’s partner physically threw her out of the house, with their children still inside. Then the South Burlington Police Department responded. 

“I can still see the look on this officer’s face telling me, ‘You need to get out of here because this is abuse,’” Gundrum said. “‘If you let him back in this door it’s going to get worse.’”

Gundrum rushed to the Dunkin’ on Williston Road, sans wallet, phone or plan. She stayed for hours using one of the employee’s phones to find domestic violence resources and make a plan. Steps to End Domestic Violence –then called Women Helping Battered Women– helped her find resources. But she and her boys remained in their home another nine months. The emergency housing coordinator at the organization had told Gundrum that moving the boys to an emergency shelter would only add to their trauma. 

“I kind of foxholed,” she said. During that time, her sons were frightened when Gretchen so much as moved from one room to the next. 

Gundrum’s partner returned once. But afterwards, police kept him away for violating his temporary restraining order. 

Later, Gundrum and her children were able to find new housing. Through counseling, their faith-based community and the good care of the South Burlington School District, Gundrum said her family is healing. 

But her connection with the boys’ father is ongoing. She still drops her kids off to spend time with him – she acknowledges that she was the focus of his abuse, not them. In a recent court litigation, he gained legal custody of them, although she maintains physical custody. When there are children involved, you can be “dragged through the court system for years,” she explained. It can be a continued form of abuse, she said. But in time she hopes he will tire of it. She believes things will change.

“Love should not hurt,” Gundrum said. “If it’s hurting, it’s not love. It’s control and it’s abuse and it should not be tolerated.”

Dreaming of escape

In the quiet, dark hours of the midnight watch, Sybil Hearn fantasized about untying the dingy and abandoning ship. She was in her second marriage, and her second abusive relationship. Her husband, a cantankerous man, had taken her on a sailing trip from Lake Champlain to Florida.  

“I knew he would konk out and then I would have the whole world to myself,” she said. “I could talk to the dolphins ... I could look up at the stars, that got me through a lot.”

But once he awoke with the dawn of each day, she felt great fear.

“Out in the middle of the ocean, no one can hear you,” Hearn said. “And I don’t think he would have cared anyway. It was pretty hairy out there.”

Hearn had previously been married to an abusive partner for 18 years. She wanted to wait until their son graduated high school before divorcing him. But during that time, her husband raped her, lied to her and stole from her.  

“He was a nogoodnick,” Hearn said. 

Just about a year after their divorce, she married her second husband, who was also abusive. He was a spoiled brat who had to have his way, she said. 

“A lot of times, the only way he could get his way was just pitch incredible, noisy, really bad tantrums, break things,” she added.

Hearn was “terrorized” living with him. She was at the mercy of his business whims since he had made her leave her job of 20 years to help him manage his ventures. 

“I kind of lost myself,” she said. “I was in survival mode 90 percent of the time.”

His behavior only worsened as time passed. He began ventures as a storekeeper, taking Hearn with him on trips to purchase merchandise. She recalls many a time when he’d lock her in the hotel bathroom and yell at her. Hotel employees would come up and ask him to keep it down, but they never checked on Hearn personally. 

Despite her fear, she didn’t speak to anyone about the abuse. 

“I wouldn’t have dreamed of talking to anybody about it,” she said. “I was embarrassed to my core.” 

Her mother hadn’t wanted her to marry her first or her second husbands, but despite that open admonition, Hearn married them. 

“I just felt like I was the worst daughter ever born,” she said, adding that she felt great shame. “I just felt so guilty and so embarrassed.” 

In both her first and second marriages, she felt at fault, so she worked and muddled through – supporting her first husband, then running her second husband’s businesses. 

Toward the end of her second marriage, her husband purchased a hotel in Essex, N.Y. He and Hearn lived in an apartment on its upper floor with a beautiful view of the lake, she said. But their interactions were anything but beautiful. The yelling and abuse continued. Hearn felt there was little she could do. She called a nearby shelter, and they offered to send the police. But Hearn didn’t want police at the hotel because there were guests.

“I felt boxed in by all kinds of circumstances,” she said, but her imagination kept her going. 

“I used to have these fantastic fantasies of how to get away from him,” she said. “It was my fantasy life that kept me going.”

Eventually, her fantasies came true. Her husband left to bring the boat back up from Florida – a five-day trip.

Hearn called her brothers and they helped her pack up and leave.

She moved in with her ailing mother, and was able to begin the healing process. Attending domestic violence recovery groups helped significantly. She could speak openly to people who had experienced similar misfortunes.

“I started to be able to take deep breaths again,” Hearn said. 

In time, she went to college and earned her degree. Later, she became a facilitator with Spectrum Youth and Family Services, helping lead a reformative class for domestic abuse perpetrators. This also helped her heal, she said. 

“I really liked it because I was learning, learning, learning about what made these bozos tick,” she said.

In time, she was even able to forgive them – not for their abuses, but for how their upbringing colored their view of relationships. 

“They weren’t taught to be men and what men should be,” Hearn said but added that domestic violence transcends gender as a pervasive issue with perpetrators across all genders, sexual orientations and financial statuses.

“There is no gender that should even be called into it,” she said. “It’s how to be a human being and be on the planet with other people.”

Fighting the good fight on policy

Obtaining a restraining order can be challenging, according to Gundrum. 

“The court doesn’t like to issue restraining orders based on fear,” she said. But there are several state statutes around domestic violence that include the words “imminent fear” in them, she added. 

Another issue is that Vermont’s relief from abuse orders do not address emotional and psychological abuse. That’s why Gundrum has been working with Chittenden 7-4 representative Maida Townsend (D-South Burlington) over the last four years to improve them.

“They need to change,” Gundrum said. “Vermont does not recognize psychological and emotional abuse and they need to because it’s a huge part of what happens with domestic violence.”

Townsend has focused on relief from abuse orders, introducing legislation that includes psychological and emotional abuse as factors to be considered for protection orders. 

Those terms appear in domestic violence information from the Vermont Department of Health and local organizations like HOPE Works and Steps to End Domestic Violence, she said. 

Townsend’s legislation remains live going into the second year of the biennium, and she and the 21 co-signers are hopeful it will be adopted.

“It was my conversations with Gretchen that got me focused on this in the first place,” Townsend said. “It’s thanks to her giving me a real-life view of domestic violence issues as opposed to an intellectual view.” 

Arguments against including psychological and emotional abuse in the statutes come from concerns that those terms lend themselves to “he-said-she-said” cases, or that including them in the statute will enable “tons” of cases to be added to court dockets, Townsend said.

“Just because it causes more cases to come before the court doesn’t mean it should be legal,” she said, adding, “just because you can’t see physical damage … doesn’t make it any less painful and traumatic.”

Everyone’s business

Gundrum didn’t talk to anyone about her abusive partner while the abuse was happening. 

“When you’re in that type of environment, you don’t necessarily tell people what’s going on behind closed doors,” she said.

“There’s still that stigmatized piece with abuse … it’s happening behind closed doors, and as long as it’s not happening in your home, it’s none of your business,” Gundrum said. 

But, she added, the reality of domestic abuse is that it’s the entire community’s business. She gave the example of children in a home where there is domestic abuse. Those children witness abuse and then go to school, where they carry that trauma with them. It can manifest in their behavior, Gundrum said. 

She hopes the community forum attendees will be inspired to discuss the statutes with their local representatives. 

“Everybody should know violence, abuse of any type, should not be tolerated,” Gundrum said. “It’s not okay.”

The first of two domestic violence awareness community forums will be held Thursday, Oct. 10, at 5:30 p.m. in the Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School Cafeteria. It will begin with a community dinner followed by discussion. A second forum will be held at the same time and location on Wednesday, Oct. 30. 

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