Krystal Ryan was tired. Not work-tired, when your eyes start to burn. Or mom-tired, when your shoulders ache and your neck feels hollow. The 34-year-old mother of two was tired in a way she couldn’t sleep her way out of. She’d tried, but her 5-foot-7-inch frame had stopped doing what she wanted it to. Her nose ran constantly. Her teeth ached. By that fall day in 2009, her whole being just seemed to belong to someone else.
She padded around her Houston townhouse touching things—clothing, furniture, makeup—and leaving them all exactly where they were, seemingly undisturbed, so nothing looked amiss. She didn’t dare look at herself in a mirror. Although she normally grinned a lot, a smile that stretched across her mocha cheeks, it never seemed to light up her almond-shaped eyes, which always remained somber, worn, and wary. She thought about taking her journals but decided she’d like him to read them—just after she was far, far away.
Earlier that week, she’d sat on the couch with her children, 14-year-old Jay and 11-year-old Adara, and repeated a conversation they’d had many times before. If we left, where would we go? By then, Adara was so withdrawn she couldn’t bring herself to meet people’s eyes, and she rarely spoke up. This time, she was unusually self-assured.
“Denver,” she told her mom decisively.
“Denver, Colorado?” Krystal asked. They’d never been there. Didn’t know anything about it.
“Yeah, let’s go to Denver,” Adara said. After about six years in Houston’s swelter, she longed to see snowflakes.
With their destination decided, they now had to determine what to pack once they were ready to leave their entire lives behind. Krystal told her kids to take only what they couldn’t do without. She knew the more they left things looking normal, the longer it would take him to figure out they’d gone. Leave the toys. Leave the pictures. Leave the Mercedes. Leave the lease, the report cards, the Xbox, the medical records, the money. Leave the dogs.
A day earlier, Krystal had stuffed some shoes in a suitcase and pulled pants and shirts out of her closet before taking the luggage to a trusted friend’s house. She shuffled the remaining hangers to make it look like nothing was missing. I want it to look like he’d expect it to be. The next night, after dinner, she told him she was taking the kids for ice cream. She gave him every indication she’d be back in a moment. On their way out the door, she stole one last glance at the puppies, and thought, Man, I’m leaving.
Not long before she fled, Krystal had $650 to her name. Not his. Not theirs. Just hers. She’d been squirreling it away for a month, knowing he’d ask for it when the bills came. Make that demand it. If she didn’t have it, he’d know something was up.
She used it to buy bus tickets to Denver, just like Adara asked, even though the purchase ate up $585. It left the three of them with $65 to start a new life. For shelter. To eat. Of course it wasn’t enough; she couldn’t think about that or she’d turn back.
She led the kids to the Houston bus station’s loading zone, where only ticketed passengers could sit. She’d already turned off her cell phone so he couldn’t call her. Their bus didn’t leave for hours, though, and Krystal was getting nervous. She told a police officer standing nearby they were running away. “Don’t worry,” the cop said. “If you don’t have a ticket, you can’t get back here.” Could he see them through the terminal windows? Could he buy a ticket and try to stop her? Though he’d menaced her countless times, she’d never been so frightened as when she stared at the bus station clock and watched the seconds creep by.
Finally, they boarded the bus. Krystal didn’t stop worrying until the doors closed behind the last passenger. Adara quickly fell asleep. Jay couldn’t stop smiling, a wide grin that softened his eyes and made him look more like the boy he used to be than the man he was becoming. At last, Krystal slept.
Every dozen or so seconds in the United States, a woman is beaten, assaulted, or strangled. Domestic violence is the top cause of injury for American women between the ages of 15 and 44. Many of these victims know their assaulter: Nearly 30 percent of all murdered women are killed by husbands, exes, or boyfriends. (Less than five percent of males are slain by wives, exes, or girlfriends.)
You also know these women. One in four females will be the victim of domestic violence. She could be your mother, sister, friend, or co-worker, stuck in a controlling relationship in which her partner uses manipulation, humiliation, violence, and other means to maintain control over her. (Ninety percent of all victims are women and most of the perpetrators are male.) Most shockingly, domestic violence is so vastly underreported, you may never actually know.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that many states finally agreed a wife could be raped by her husband. Until then, the law and conventional wisdom said a wife could not refuse her husband sex, or that once she’d given consent after the wedding day it couldn’t be retracted. Thanks in part to the women’s liberation movement, the law caught up with the reality of wives who were being assaulted by the very men they vowed to stay with through sickness and in health. What seems intuitive now—that a wife and husband each have equal legal power over their bodies—was an ideological nuclear bomb in the ’70s.
In 1986, domestic violence was finally identified as a “public health issue”—one costing $5.8 billion a year in the United States. Four years later, then-Senator Joseph Biden first proposed the Violence Against Women Act. It took four years to pass. (In 2012, conservatives stalled VAWA’s renewal over ideological differences about extending the law to include same-sex couples and some provisions to aid illegal immigrants. After months of squabbling, VAWA was renewed in February 2013.)
The laws remain difficult to enforce, partly because the term “domestic violence” is a misnomer. Abusive relationships often are less about actual violence than about control and power, which makes abuse even harder to define, enforce, and convict. Domestic violence involves a warped dynamic that—whether or not a criminal act has been committed—is often misunderstood by people outside the relationship. Still, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once quipped about porn: “I know it when I see it.”
This wasn’t the first man Krystal left. Her former husband, a Gulf War veteran, could never escape his mind. When the PTSD became too much to bear, he’d drink. And drink. Krystal endured her husband’s behavior until Jay started understanding why his mommy begged for his daddy’s car keys. When he’d grabbed her throat and wouldn’t let go. When Jay yelled, “Get off my mommy!” That’s when Krystal left him.
She was just 23 and a single mom, but she’d been on her own for much of her life, anyway. In her home state of Virginia, her mother abandoned her at social services when she was nine months old. Her paternal grandmother adopted her—and then died when Krystal was 15. Krystal became a nomad, moving from home to home, just trying to finish school. She married at 17, had Jay at 19, then Adara when she was 22. It wasn’t until her husband almost strangled her that Krystal decided she’d had enough.
By the time Terrance* landed in Krystal’s life, she wasn’t looking for a man. She was 27, raising her children, paying the bills, and getting a licensed practical nurse (LPN) degree. She worked as a night auditor at a Ramada Inn in Virginia. He was an engineer from Houston who stayed there a few months while working on a job. He showed up, and he kept coming back, night after night.
She tried to ignore him as she’d been doing with all men for the previous four years. She rarely dated and never brought anyone home to meet her children. She figured it might be like that forever: Jay, Adara, and her in their home, making do.
Terrance proved to be too good to ignore. At 6 feet 3 inches, with powerful arms that he’d wrap around her, he quickly convinced her he was wonderful. Safe. He wanted to meet her kids. After three months, she agreed. “I am going to be the father figure,” he told them. “I love you guys. We’re a family now.”
Krystal had one thought: “This is it.”
Maybe she saw a few warning signs. Terrance could be intensely protective. Didn’t like her stepping out without her man. Didn’t like men talking to her at clubs. But that’s because he was worried about her, right? He loved her and didn’t want to share her with anyone else.
Krystal thought about how quickly he’d waltzed into her life, wanting to take care of her and be a dad to her children. She concluded that after nearly three decades in a world that didn’t seem to care if she was alone, someone wanted her, even with all her baggage. So what if it seemed like too much, too soon? She deserved this.
So when he asked her to leave school early to join him at his new work site in Chicago, she agreed. It would be a honeymoon, a test to see if they could live together in his hotel room. She packed her suitcase and left the kids with her half sister for a little while so she and Terrance would have some time alone.
Krystal was finally letting go and allowing herself to trust someone. For a while, it was fun. There were parties. Nice cars. Dancing in hotel rooms. High heels. New clothes. But one night he thought she danced too close to another man, and Terrance hit her. Another time he saw a guy at a club approach her. Even though she was careful to point out her boyfriend, he slapped her on the drive back to the hotel. “I saw you in that man’s face,” he raged. She hit him in the forehead with her shoe’s heel. It drew blood. She wasn’t a pushover. She’d fight back.
Her moment of self-defense didn’t stop the violence. One night, they were at a cookout at the hotel and Terrance wanted to leave. Krystal wasn’t ready yet. “I’m going to sit outside for a while,” she said. “It’s nice. I don’t want to go back upstairs.” He hit her, grabbed her hair, and yanked her head back. When she woke up the next morning, she wouldn’t leave the room. She’d been in Chicago less than a month.
A woman she’d met there kept calling; Krystal didn’t answer. Finally, the woman came to the hotel and made a manager let her into Krystal’s room. “Oh my,” she said when she saw Krystal’s face. “What happened?”
“I had a seizure,” Krystal lied.
She couldn’t stop lying to herself, either. He was so different most of the time. That wasn’t the man she met. Every day wasn’t bad. Something had gone wrong those times, and it wasn’t his fault. He was the man she wanted, the father she hoped her kids would have.
If there was a moment to escape, it was when she flew back to Virginia. She hugged her kids and faced a choice: Keep them in the same school. Finish her classes and start working as an LPN. She’d make good money, there would always be work for her, and she could start forgetting Terrance. She could heal.
Instead, she packed their bags and moved her family to Houston.