Meet Jane Wells. On the surface she looks like a normal woman, but what lies beneath is a story of heartbreak and pain beyond what many of us can even comprehend. Jane is a victim and a survivor of domestic violence, but she has paid a heavy price for her freedom today. When Jane first contacted us and told us her story, we were taken aback. But when she told us she was forced by the law to stay with her abuser, we couldn’t believe what we were reading. October is domestic violence awareness month so it was fitting that she share this interview with you.
Her story is outlined in a book called ‘Run Jane Run‘ and it is a shocking reminder that domestic violence is not something that happens to people far far away, it is happening to people around us every day. We’ve seen the issue of domestic violence being discussed a lot in the media lately because of the various sports stars who have been caught on tape abusing their wives. We’re talking of course about ex-Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice whose leaked video of him knocking out his wife in an elevator sparked a nationwide outrage over the coverup that often happens in domestic abuse cases.
The most important aspect is that we can’t allow the news media circus to take away that the victims are the ones who deserve the most attention and deserve to have their voices heard. Because it is from them that we will learn the most as a society what actually goes on behind closed doors, and the many barriers some women (and men) face in unlikely areas, as you will see in Jane’s story below.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us where you are from?
I was born in eastern Kentucky. Growing up I was a cheerleader, played drums and violin in school, loved music and college basketball. Many talented people are from this region in Appalachia, including Ashley Judd, The Judds, Billy Ray Cyrus and Dwight Yoakum. Ashley Judd is a fellow Feminist and Kentucky Wildcat basketball fan. I don’t know her personally, but I do borrow her quote on Patriarchy frequently! “Patriarchy is a system in which both men and women participate. It privileges the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.”
I studied Political Science, Criminal Justice and earned a degree in Women’s Studies at the University of Cincinnati. I worked as a hotline counselor & advocate part-time at a DV shelter during college. I have appeared on 25+ TV shows and spoken to hundreds of groups detailing my personal experience with domestic Violence.
You are the author of a new e-book called ‘Run Jane Run’, can you tell us what it is about?
In ‘Run Jane Run’, I wrote about the horrific experiences my entire family suffered first at the hands of my abuser. I survived homicidal domestic violence at the hands of my husband, and watched in absolute terror as a family member was shot 3 times in the back by him and killed. The gun was then turned on me, but miraculously the gun jammed. Throughout the book, I detail how the legal system not only dealt me a remarkable case of secondary victimization, but seemed to gift my abuser with all sorts of benefits.
My second husband Michael began to beat me after we were married. As bad as it was, I never thought it would lead to murder. When I learned I was pregnant, abuse intensified. It ranged from being thrown out of a moving car, having food and drinks thrown at me, busted lips and black eyes, to having my legs tied with an orange electrical cord and drug up and down a stair case for over 14 hours during my 8th month of pregnancy. This was not abuse, it was torture. Whenever he left our home, our phone went with him, ensuring I couldn’t call for help.
My grandmother had given me house years before I met Michael. His name was not on the mortgage or the deed. With equity from that home I purchased rental properties. These properties provided me and my daughter from my first marriage with enough income to live. Yet once I married Michael, it was no longer safe. The police were often called by neighbors, but Michael was never arrested. The cycle of violence became more frequent, forceful and threatening my physical health. Early in my pregnancy Michael would lock me in a room or tie me to a chair when rent checks were due to arrive by mail. Checks made out to me were intercepted, endorsed by my husband and cashed. The proceeds would end up in bars, clothing store cash draws, or spent on other women or his new friends. The unpaid mortgages were soon in default. Abuse was not only physical, but financial.
As the abuse intensified, I had to protect my daughter and my unborn child, so I decided to get a divorce. Expecting legal relief, I was further offended by my findings. In Kentucky, just like 30+ other states in the US, women can’t get a divorce when pregnant. Regardless of the battering, rapes or theft, I was forced by Kentucky law to stay in my violent home. Further insults were thrown my way when I learned Kentucky Domicile laws entitled Michael to live wherever I lived, as long as we were married. I couldn’t move out of my house and into one of my rental properties for protection.
Any county judge could have the locks changed and given Michael a key. When the bill from my lawyer arrived by mail, Michael’s violence escalated. I had to work hard to stay safe and get through my pregnancy. After enduring hideous, cyclical violence for several months, I gave birth to my 2nd child. Our brief hospital stay was a welcomed reprieve, but discharge returned us to our torture chamber. The stakes were now raised.
Trying to care for myself and nurse a newborn was a greater challenge, and provided more methods of torture. Michael would take my breast-fed-days-old infant from me and feed her formula, causing her to get sick from the unfamiliar food while my breasts became painfully engorged. He was meticulous to make sure I never had my two girls together. This went on for weeks. Secretly, my 5 year old daughter Erica and I discussed opportunities to leave. Easter weekend, Michael had gone to the bathroom and left both girls close to the door. With a quick glance, Erica yanked the door open and ran, me carrying the baby behind her, but Michael caught up. He grabbed and threw me onto a neighbor’s car hood with my infant clutched closely to me. My head slammed repeatedly while I clasped Megan’s head firmly in my hands. Erica ran next door and the police were called. We were taken a Domestic Violence Shelter in Ashland, Kentucky.
Once registered and settled in, we began a legal plan and nursed my multiple wounds. At the court house I had several restraining orders put into effect. I was hired as a seamstress, but Ashland being a small town, Michael was able to stalk me easily to my new job. He’d storm the workplace and cause huge scenes. Within days I was let go. More restraining orders, more lost jobs. I had to get away. I decided to leave it all behind and relocate to Lexington, KY. When I went back to my house to get some furniture and clothes, I discovered it was all gone. Bare walls in a two story, 3 bedroom house all gone. In less than one year, my mortgages were in default and I had lost everything, but my children.
My first husband, Johnny, had learned from my brother of our situation while visiting family Easter weekend. It is important to point out Johnny and Michael did not know each other. Johnny came to Lexington to help me and his daughter Erica move, but Michael had stalked us to the new location. Michael stormed our apartment while we were moving in and began beating me. Johnny ran for help. The police arrived. I gave them copies of five outstanding warrants for Michael’s arrest. Handcuffed and taken away, I fell asleep that night believing justice was ahead.
I later learned that since Kentucky is a Commonwealth, those restraining orders and warrants did not transfer from county to county. The following morning I was awakened by gunfire and screams from my daughter, Erica. Michael had been released, befriended a fellow inmate who drove him back to us, walked into our apartment and shot Johnny in the back 3 times, while my daughter screamed in horror. I was sleeping in the other bedroom when the killing began. I grabbed the baby and yanked open the door and saw Michael with the gun heading towards me. I slammed the door and considered jumping out the window with Megan, but I would be leaving my daughter Erica behind alone to face a killer. I opened the door not knowing if I would live or die, but I had to try to get my children out alive.
Michael whipped the gun and pointed it at my forehead, and threatened to kill us all. But, I didn’t beg for my life, I only asked him to let me get the girls out. As I stepped over Johnny’s body, I clutched Erica and Megan in each arm and started down the stairs. The police arrived and knocked at the front door, causing Michael to recoil, allowing me a split second to get ahead and down the stairs. I made it to the front door, squeezed it open, buy Michael slammed it shut trapping my fingers, and planted his foot behind the door. I felt Michael jam the gun into my side and pull the trigger, but it didn’t fire. I shoved him backwards to the ground, opened the door and exploded out with both girls fused to me. The ballistics test revealed the gun jammed. I escaped death due to a faulty gun.
Domestic Violence and spousal abuse is a major theme of your story, tell us your story and how you got to where you are today?
The book came about after a professor connected me to someone in Washington who told me about a bill sponsored by then Sen. (now vice president) Joe Biden, and they asked me to submit testimony. The Biden Bill would later become VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act.
My written testimony became my book outline. I was a sophomore in college when a professor gave me a must-read book by Dorothy Allison, author of ‘Bastard Out of Carolina’, a semi-autobiographical novel detailing her unspeakable childhood of battering and sexual abuse. I followed Dorothy Allison to writers’ conferences over the next few months. She instructed me to put my southern voice on the page, a skill she did masterfully. The first 13 chapters of RJR are written in Appalachian dialect. I felt it important, not only to show personal growth, but discrimination that happens when people have a southern accent, or just different. I love this quote from Dorothy: “My goal as a writer is to break the world’s heart, and then mend it back again”.
After the book was written, Gov. Paul Patton & First Lady Judy Patton of Kentucky (pictured with me & Advocate Carol Jordan) held a reception in my honor at Kentucky Governor’s Mansion and attended by my family, professors and other distinguished guests. Kentucky Laws were reviewed and revised as a result of my work, and a copy of Run Jane Run was purchased for every domestic violence shelter in the state. Truly one of my proudest moments!
Your experience almost sounds like a movie plot! But that’s why talking about domestic violence is so important, cases like yours are no fairy tale and they are more common than we think. What are some popular misconceptions about domestic violence we need to know about?
Hollywood has delivered social awareness and change for years. I still hope to see it on screen someday. As for misconceptions about domestic violence, I think too many people believe it’s easy for victims to leave. It’s not easy, and it’s often dangerous. Every case is unique, with many factors from age to income, community and legal response and availability of resources. For younger, childless, financially set women it may be easier, but once you have a family, leaving becomes complicated, and costly. Victims need money, escape plans and then must deal with an inconsistent legal system.
For older women, many who worked mostly in the home, they are reliant on their husbands’ income for retirement. Few states split 50/50 in divorces. If you live in an economically depressed area, after you sell your marital home, there may be nothing left to split. Financial disparity plagues most victims who try to leave and they are at risk more than ever. In fact, death or serious injury is most likely to occur when they attempt to leave. Women with children are faced with family courts, a totally different branch of our legal system and every state and community has different laws, policies and procedures.
The conversation about why some victims stay with their abusers is a complicated one and is different in every situation. In your case, the law prevented you from leaving! Can you explain this to us?
If a man punches someone at a bar or at work, he’s arrested, arraigned and there is a plea or trial and sentencing. If he batters his wife or girlfriend, IF police arrest him and a prosecutor agrees to press charges, the case goes to family court. Family court can be very biased, some even say corrupt, with lesser charges and lighter sentences. The consequences are not as likely to be severe, if they are punished at all. However, I want to stress this, there are some awesome programs in cities all across the country when cities decided to stop domestic violence. Don’t let my experience stop you from trying. Be aware laws can get in the way of justice. Laws created historically by men who have little or no insight into the dynamics of abuse and family violence.
In my case, I was forced by law to stay in my violent home. In over 35 states women are not allowed to get a divorce when they’re pregnant. Repeat that out loud. Women are not allowed to get a divorce when pregnant! Startling isn’t it? But true. I’ve had attorneys explain these laws were made to protect women from men walking out on them when they are pregnant. As my book reveals, laws can and will be manipulated to control women and children.
Do you feel the justice system in America helps or hinders victims?
The legal system is adversarial. Someone wins, someone loses. I believe we should scrap it and start over with a new system that responds and repairs a woman’s life, not leave her in more fear and desperation. But this is unfortunately not likely to happen anytime soon. Change takes time, and meanwhile many will suffer, so I believe we have a moral obligation to protect through other avenues until that laws and response happens. Name another setting where a man can beat someone (other than sports, like boxing) and not have consequences? Our society has allowed this to continue. Our legal system is a clear reflection of society.
My experience is that secondary victimization is the norm, not the exception. We’ve approached Violence Against Women incorrectly, asking the wrong questions in domestic violence and in Rape. What she wore, why she stays, how much she drank, all of these questions focus on the victims actions, instead of the violent behavior of rapist and abusive men. When your starting point is wrong, the end result will follow, and consequences will be inconsistent, or devoid. We need to start asking how we can help.
You mentioned in an email to us that some government agencies abuse victims as much as abusers. How so?
Remember, abuse is not just physical. It’s financial, psychological or usually a combination. It’s about control and power over. I tried to leave when I was pregnant, but laws prohibited me. Then, after I left, he stalked me and killed until the gun jammed. But he wasn’t finished. Even after he was sentence to prison, because I had a child with him he could control and abuse me with the assistance of the legal system from his jail cell. The next few years he continued to control me with court appearances, asking for silly minor modifications of visitation.
I had moved away to school and was working in a battered women’s shelter. Each time he asked for modification, I was required to go to court, take unpaid time off work, pay to travel and pay for my attorney. My children were older and my oldest daughter would panic at the thought of being in the same room with him again.
Michael was convicted only of manslaughter and served 6.5 years. While in prison, he was found to be a “fit father” and granted visitation privileges. Michael had no income. A day I thought my head would explode was after the judge ordered me to pay for HIS attorney fees. At the time my only income was my deceased first husband Johnny’s Social Security death benefits. I was ordered to take his death benefits and pay his killer’s attorney fees.
Michael received 3 meals a day, free medical and dental treatment, education, while I struggled to survive, pay his legal bills, nurture traumatized children and pay my $50,000 in college debt. He walked out of prison with a fully paid college degree. This is a salient example of secondary victimization. Using the long arms of the legal system, he continued to reach out and abuse.
We just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, which vice President Joe Biden had a huge hand in shaping. You shared a congressional testimonial for the VAWA, what did you speak about?
Yes. Sen. Biden really shed light on a huge social problem and attempted to revise laws. My testimony detailed exactly what I am speaking out about now. How the system fails victims. No matter how hard I tried to get away, laws protected the abuser, or created obstacles for me before during and after the legal system processes began. Laws can be interpreted and carried out differently. Unless judges and attorneys are retrained and some measure of checks and balances, change will never happen. The welfare system should be included in this reform, too.
What would you say to someone who is stuck in an abusive situation and can’t see an easy way out?
There is help. Ask for help. If possible, use someone else’s phone and call the National Domestic Violence hotline 800-799-7233 (US only). I think everyone reading this should put this number in their cell phone, right now. If you want out, talk to a very trusted friend. I always caution people on the trusted friend part. I can’t count the times I’ve heard women who start to leave only to learn her abuser is using her friends to watch and track her. Make sure it’s a trusted friend. Abusers can be highly manipulative and will go to great extremes to control her. Sometimes, sadly, it may be necessary for women to leave everything and start new. It takes strength and courage. There are support groups and domestic violence shelters. If you’re persistent, there’s help. Make a plan and follow it.
What would you say to someone who knows another person in an abusive relationship and wants to help somehow?
Be very careful if you are trying to help someone get out of a controlling abusive relationship. It’s dangerous. Death or injury is most likely to occur when women leave. It may be a good idea to contact a local shelter, or a shelter in another city. You could do this for your friend from another phone. The shelter may provide you with a check list to make a plan. Be very careful with phone, text and emails. Technology has not passed by abusers. It’s made it easier for them to stalk and control. With GPS and so many spyware programs, the odds are they are watching every move, and friends are usually not welcomed.
Isolation by the abuser is common. Understand it may take time. If there isn’t a major battering event, where they must flee for their life, your friend has a lot to gather- social security cards, birth certificates and other documents. Maybe make a plan in steps or phases. I also recommend getting a USB Stick and download pictures and personal business off the home computer. Odds are if you finally break free you aren’t coming back; her (his) abuser may destroy these things when they leave.
If she has children, try to draw the attention away from her and focus on the damage her children suffer. In abusive relationships, often self-esteem is the first to go, but the love for their children doesn’t. She may be convinced it’s better to stay BECA– USE of the children and their financial needs, schools, etc. Try to get your friend to understand how damaging this thinking can be, that it’s not better to stay.
Also, if you can afford to give them some extra money, it’s a wonderful gift. Believe me it’s extremely hard to ask for money. Yet it’s often the single thing that keeps women from leaving. Maybe offer to sponsor them for a few months just to help them. Ask other friends to help, though be careful not to let too many people know about the plan. Set up a direct deposit in a PayPal account to ensure privacy from her abuser, who may already have all of her credit cards and bank accounts staked out.
You have mentioned to us the importance of activism and volunteering in terms of raising awareness of domestic violence. Can you share more?
I believe volunteering comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Many of us get in a routine with our jobs, friends, families and social activities. Volunteering gets us out of our routine, exposes us to people and situations. Some women are choosing not to have children, more so than previous generations. I totally support their choices, but I think it’s important to have children and elderly in your life, maybe a weekly or bi-monthly trip with your friend’s children or a close neighbor. Little girls and teens particularly need mentoring. I like adopting a family from a shelter. Maybe once a month check in on them, decide in advance what you can do to help, pay for one bill or buy them groceries or school supplies. Ask what they need, and know it may change month to month. It doesn’t always require money; it could be watching her children while she takes a nap.
Court watches are also a great place to donate time if you can make room in your weekday schedule. Check with your local rape crisis or domestic violence shelter to see if they have this program. It usually requires a few hours of training, a clip board and pen. Volunteers are assigned a court room to go sit, watch and listen to the outcome of cases and write them down. It’s informative, and allows critical stats to be collected.
What role do you think the media plays in how domestic violence issues are shared, given the whole Ray Rice NFL incident happening right now?
The role of social media and traditional media may prove to be a game-changer. Since we have a viral video and the violence is verifiable, this could have a dramatic impact for all victims of violence. Football is one of the most beloved sports in the world. If media continues to follow the stories of domestic violence & child abuse, and how it travels through the legal system and NFL, exposure can be just the opportunity to have sweeping change.
If you are following the fallout from the Ray Rice assault, it was handled like many cases. There were efforts to sweep it under the proverbial rug. Ray Rice’s people and the Ravens tried to work their usual magic, calling prosecutors to wrangle plea deals, and efforts were successful to reduce Ray Rice’s sentence. The NFL initially ignored it, with a two-game standard suspension. This is common in domestic violence cases across the country. The NFL has an extraordinary opportunity to show true leadership, by implementing policies and practices that benefit victims and perpetrators.
First, to be clear, there should ALWAYS be consequences. But should the first step be to lose his job, like Ray Rice? Doesn’t that put his wife and children at risk for financial ruin? It’s easy to see why some women don’t tell, particularly those in high profile positions. There has to be consequences for abuse, but education and reevaluating how we respond is at the heart of repairing families, curing the batterer, and keeping women and children safe. I’m not at all saying women should stay and work it out. But even if she gets away, his behavior hasn’t changed and more victims are likely.
The O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman brought the subject of domestic violence into conversation, but it remained elusive, blaming, unchallenged and lacked visible evidence. But now, with the help of social media, we can see it, name it, and can begin to exam exactly what we need to do to help stop it.
What role do you feel men should play in terms of preventing domestic violence?
It’s essential to have men involved at every level. Men need to discuss the subject with their friends. Managers and business owners need to review policies. The internet is filled with information. There’s help if you want it. With 1 in 4 women in the U.S. victim of abuse, everybody knows somebody; they just may not realize it or are afraid to say something. Be brave. Say something. Stop hitting women. If you witness abuse, call it out, make them stop, and make them get help. Men need to learn as much as they can about the signs of abuse. I think we should teach that no one should hit anyone!
I’m encouraged by men like Cris Carter, former NFL player and member of the NFL Hall of Fame who has been very vocal and passionate about stopping Domestic Violence.
Also consider that the domestic violence movement is only about 30 years old. Access to media can help advance the movement forward, educate and raise awareness. Readers may not remember all of this history, but beating your wife was not historically illegal, in some communities it was used to “keep her in line”. Women getting custody of their children didn’t really become the norm until the 1940-50’s. Historically, if states granted divorces, men kept everything, property, children, slaves and savings. Women were basically kicked to the curb.
Your battle isn’t over just yet, as you are now fighting to help your daughter regain custody of her children. Can you explain what is going on and how people can help in your fight?
I haven’t spoken much about my children, but they have suffered terribly. I’m unable to speak about some of the issues. My younger daughter became seriously ill last year with many complications, but her personal privacy keeps me from detailing much. However, last November, I was 2000+ miles away and before I could get to her, the state took her children into custody. If my life has been painful, losing my grandchildren is soul crushing. Grandparents don’t have rights in most states. In the last 10 months I have been paralyzed to learn that although in theory families are supposed to be kept together, government agencies have incentivized adopting children to non-family members.
In less than 2 months I may never see my grandchildren again. The expense has been devastating. I set up a GoFundMe account for fundraising legal expenses to fight to keep my grandchildren from forced adoption. So far, I’ve been unsuccessful. Justice is not cheap. After surviving all that we have been subjected to from an abusive husband and a legal system that fails us at every turn, I was finally looking forward to enjoying my grandbabies, but it seems that could be stolen from me soon.
I also recommend this video by a former Child Protective Services worker, and author of ‘Friend of the Court, Enemy of the Family’ Carol Rhodes.
Jane we are so honored you shared your story with us. What final words would you like to say about domestic violence and to encourage other victims?
Let’s keep the conversation about domestic violence going. I know you don’t want to be consumed by it, but make a point to do something. Mark it in your calendar to check in on a family, donate clothes to a shelter or gather with a group of friends make a list and review things you can do in your community to help.
It’s not an easy thing to go public with your personal life, and by submitting testimony, then writing a book, you lose privacy. There is a cathartic effect, and for me I believed it afforded us safety. At the time I knew my abuser was only going to be in prison for a few years, and speaking out was a way to put a fortress around my family. Thank you, GirlTalkHQ for the opportunity to share my story.