By Carol Goodman
A woman and a ten-year-old boy are on a bus driving through the snowy Catskills. They are fleeing an abusive man. They have no money, no other family, no close friends. Where will they go? Who can they call?
This is the situation at the beginning of my new novel The Night Visitors, but it is also the situation of millions of women and children in this country. More than 12 million women and men are the victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner over the course of one year in the United States. According to the same Department of Justice report, nearly 1 in 4 intimate violence cases involved a child witness.
When I set out to write The Night Visitors I already had some familiarity with the realities of domestic abuse. I’d left an abusive relationship years before with my two-year-old daughter. I was lucky enough to have family to come home to, but over the years I thought often about what I would have done if I hadn’t had a place to go. I met women who were in abusive relationships but didn’t have the money and resources to leave. I listened to heartbreaking stories of abuse and homelessness from my students. I helped where I could, but I often felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more.
It was one of these stories that led me to begin The Night Visitors. When I launched my characters Alice and Oren on that bus ride through the Catskills, though, I still didn’t have answers to those questions: Where did you go when you had no family, friends or money? Who did you call?
Then I learned about an organization near me that ran a crisis hotline and a domestic violence shelter: Family of Woodstock. When I visited them to fill out an application for their Crisis Hotline training I found a somewhat chaotic but well run office of volunteers answering phones while also helping walk-in clients and dispensing food from a food pantry. When I asked where the domestic violence shelter was I was told that it was a secret.
Of course it was.
As I learned three months later when I did the training the shelter run by Family is one of a dozen in the counties between New York and Albany. As well as handling calls on any and all problems, volunteers on the hotline are trained to respond to calls from victims of domestic violence and find them help. I learned that the first rule for a DV call is to make sure that the caller is in a safe place and that her abuser is NOT in the house with her. Women are at risk if her abuser overhears her looking for help. Even if the woman says that her abuser is asleep or passed out we are not allowed to continue the call. We are supposed to tell her to get to a safe place and call back. Nor can we send the police to her house unless she provides us with her address. The hotline is anonymous, which means we don’t have caller I.D. If we are going to call the police we’re supposed to tell the woman to get her and her children to a safe place. I was taught to ask not “Is there a gun in the house?” but “How many guns are in the house?”
The idea of taking such a call terrified me but I learned on my first day that volunteers are backed up by experienced staff who will guide and coach us through the most difficult calls. Most DV calls are less immediately dangerous, but no less heartbreaking. Women call who are torn between leaving an abusive partner and finding themselves homeless. They are often ashamed and shocked to find themselves in a situation they didn’t think would happen to them. That shame often keeps them from confiding in friends and relatives. They worry that people will say, “Why don’t you just leave?” But leaving often means subjecting themselves and their children to homelessness and poverty. It’s also dangerous. Women may be more likely to be killed after leaving than at any other time during the relationship.
When they make the choice to leave and are looking for shelter there’s not always room for them. I have a clipboard near my phone that gives that day’s bed count for close to a dozen shelters. Sometimes they’re all full. Sometimes a woman doesn’t have transportation to the ones further from her; sometimes she wants to be at a shelter as far as possible from her abuser. When there is room at our own shelter I take down the woman’s phone number. We don’t give out the number for the shelter. When I call the shelter a woman picks up without identifying herself or where she is. I give her the name and telephone number of the client. They will take it from there.
I don’t usually find out what happens to the women I refer to the shelter but I did get to see the shelter at the end of my training. It’s a big old house with cheerfully painted rooms, toys, and a large kitchen where women can cook meals together, and a caring staff. It is a hopeful place. I know the women I’ve referred there are in good hands.
How many other women and children, though, are out there on the road with no safe place to go? As a human being I can only imagine what that’s like. As a writer I can ask my readers to imagine themselves—or their sisters, brothers, friends, children—out on the road with no way home, in the hope that once they’ve placed themselves there they will be more likely to lend a helping hand, support the organizations that help, and pick up the call for help when it comes.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
The Night Visitors (William Morrow) will be available March 26, 2019 from Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, IndieBest, and a local independent bookstore near you. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book will be donated to Family of Woodstock. Visit Carol’s website at https://carolgoodman.com/ to purchase the book or find out more.