Melody Gross is not your stereotypical victim of intimate partner violence, and that's a point she's more than happy to make
"It doesn't have a look, and we have to get out of that mindset," Gross tells me.
Although small — just 5 feet 1 inch tall — Gross' body language and thick New York accent portray a deep self-confidence.
"Anybody who knows me will tell you that I am very opinionated and outspoken," Gross says, "[but] there's this mentality that women who experience domestic violence are weak and shy or they're in the corner in the fetal position, and that wasn't really the case. If you're calling me a bitch I'm gonna say, 'Ya mother.'"
Gross laughs at herself when she makes that last point, but then turns passionately serious when she discusses the possible effects that witnessing domestic violence may have had on her son. It was because of him, now 9 years old, that Gross finally left the relationship in which she had suffered abuse for nearly thee years.
On a recent chilly night, Gross meets with me inside the warm confines of Dupp&Swat on The Plaza. I had met her last summer, but wasn't familiar with what she had been through. When she read my recent series on domestic violence in Charlotte, of which this is the final installment, she reached out to me with a desire to share her story.
Since leaving her abusive boyfriend on March 12, 2016, Gross has been eager to speak up on the issue and talk about her situation whenever she gets the chance. It's her hope to combat the stigma surrounding intimate partner violence, and show that any type of person may find themself in an abusive relationship.
When Gross met the man who would eventually become her abuser, she thought he was the complete package. He was pro-black and cared deeply about his family, two important qualities she looks for in men.
Over time, he became controlling, insisting on picking her up from work and sometimes not letting her leave the house. He then became verbally abusive, and eventually things became physical. Gross was once confined to crutches after the man picked her up and threw her down when she tried to leave the house, resulting in a major sprain in her ankle.
It was only then that Gross truly realized she was in an abusive relationship, just as her mother had been, and her grandmother before that.
"It's interesting that I didn't recognize it, because I come from a family where domestic violence was really normal," she says. "I always had this mentality of, 'Never me.'"
Following the assault that sprained her ankle, Gross took out a temporary restraining order against her abuser. He eventually talked her into returning to the house they shared, and convinced her not to pursue criminal charges. It was one of two times that Gross would leave the relationship only to return later, falling into a cycle that so many victims and survivors of domestic violence would recognize. On average, it takes victims six to seven times leaving a relationship before they're able to fully detach themselves from the situation.
"I do understand that I am not the norm," Gross says. "Growing up, my mom would stay with men who were abusing her for years."
That's why Gross wants to tell her story: to help victims understand that domestic violence needs to be talked about out in the open. She believes the stigma surrounding domestic violence is part of the reason it took her so long to leave.
"Even in my own family, with the women who experienced it, we don't really talk about it," Gross says. "It's this idea that we are supposed to heal men, we're supposed to save men, we're supposed to endure, because then the outcome is they will love us more. And that is absolutely not the case."
Gross says she only got the courage to leave after experiencing a resurgence of confidence that led her to recognize her own self worth, which had been grated down by the degrading things she would hear from her boyfriend on a daily basis.
"At the time, I settled for what I thought I was worth. So getting that reality check, like, 'No, I'm definitely worth more,' that was the hardest part," she says. "Now I know I am worth more than being called a bitch, and being called a cunt, and someone saying that I'm a slut, and implying that I'm fucking someone at work. These are all things that were said. Once you realize and affirm that you are worth more than that, then it's, 'How the hell do I get out of this?'"
The "cycle of abuse" is an idea first presented by Dr. Lenore Walker, in 1979, which diagrams the all-too-familiar cycle that becomes prevalent in many abusive relationships.
There are different versions of the cycle, but for the most part they follow a path similar to what Gross experienced. It starts with a growing tension, which can manifest in controlling behavior, then an incident of abuse, whether it be verbal, emotional or physical.
In the reconciliation stage, the abuser usually apologizes, or they may simply deny that any abuse occurred or justify it through victim blaming and excuses. Finally, in the calm stage, the abuse is forgotten. This is sometimes called the "honeymoon phase."
According to Bea Coté, founder and executive director of the IMPACT batterer intervention program in Charlotte, victims often don't recognize that they are trapped in a repetitive cycle, because incidents of abuse might differ, leading them to believe each incident was the first time.
"What victims often do is they separate each incident and make it a separate abuse, so therefore they're not seeing a pattern that's building," Coté says. "If he hits her this week but he strangled her last week, this is the first time he's ever done this. So she may not be seeing the pattern. So how is she going to know what's going on to reach out for help? She's going to think she just needs to be a better wife, a better girlfriend, and then he'll be nicer like he was when she met him."
The most tragic part of this line of thinking is that an abuser will never become the person that a victim thought they were when they met them, Coté says. It's similar to an addict, chasing that elusive first high.
"She's trying to get that man back that she fell in love with because she thinks he exists, but that was the act to get her," Coté says. "I think once victims come to that understanding, that's when they're done. When they know that he despises them, that's when they're done."
Julie Owens is one of the leading experts on domestic violence in the country. She lives in Charlotte, where she once served as the regional director of the North Carolina Council for Women's domestic violence program. She is now a national consultant, working as a domestic violence trainer with organizations both public and private, from Bank of America to the Department of Justice.
Owens does not subscribe fully to the "cycle of abuse" idea, because it does not apply to all victims. However, many of the countless victims she has worked with in her nearly 30 years in the domestic violence field do identify with the cycle.
Owens also does not use the term "honeymoon phase," preferring to emphasize the use of "manipulative kindness" by an abuser to convince a victim to stay.
"It's not a honeymoon," Owens says, "because honeymoons don't ever follow violence. What it is, though, is coercive control. It's another phase of abuse. And a lot of people think that's when things are really good.
"It's never 'really good' living with an abuser," she stresses. "It's just that the type of abuse changes. Instead of being beat up, there's still emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and it will escalate again. The abuser uses tactics of manipulative kindness to coerce the victim into not leaving. So it's not a honeymoon; in fact, it's one of the worst forms of abuse."
Owens describes how abusers slowly cut off a victim's connection to the outside world, making it harder for them to leave or gain perspective on the experiences they're having. She likens the result of this behavior to Stockholm Syndrome, in which victims become "traumatically bonded" with their abusers as a means of survival.
Gross remembers how her boyfriend had convinced her to lose all trust in her family, so that when they tried to warn her, she wouldn't listen.
"During that time, the appearance that I had to put on was that I am in control of this," Gross recalls. "In relationships, we argue, that's normal. And I didn't have anybody. I didn't have support like that. A lot of survivors don't. A lot of women and men that go through this do not have support."
When Spencer Merriweather began as Mecklenburg County's new district attorney in November, he stated immediately that he wanted to offer that support to victims in any way he could.
During his first day, he announced the formation of a special victim's unit for victims of family violence, including intimate partner violence. He also has been a strong backer of opening a family justice center in Mecklenburg County, which CL covered in detail in the first article of this series.
A family justice center is designed to place all or most of the services that a victim of intimate partner violence would need under one roof by creating a collaborative effort among police, prosecutors and advocate organizations.
Merriweather says the center would help create a safe environment for victims, many of whom often don't follow through with prosecuting their abusers due to the difficulty of accessing services.
"We know that the quickest way to keep a survivor engaged in our criminal justice system is to make sure that their needs are met," Merriweather says. "Across the country, we've been able to see that a family justice center is an effective way of making sure that we meet those needs. We can meet a survivor's needs at one place at one time. If we engage with them early, we know that it's very likely that a survivor will stay engaged. That empowers them, and it empowers us to be able to hold offenders accountable."
Some, however, are concerned that Charlotte officials are rushing into a decision before taking all the options into account. Owens points out that prosecution is not the priority for some victims, and shouldn't necessarily be the prioritized service.
"When family justice centers are created, the focus is heavily on law enforcement, and not everybody needs that as the focus of the response for them" Owens says. "For some people, going to get a protective order will make them safer. For others, it may endanger them. For some people, getting their abuser arrested is going to help. For others, she might get beat up worse or killed for doing it. For some people, to testify against their perpetrator is going to help. For others, it's going to hurt.
"So one caution is putting so many eggs in a law enforcement response basket," Owens says. "There are lots of different models and ways to intervene with victims and work on the issue of domestic violence, and this is just one."
Owens would prefer to see Charlotte city leaders put together a "coordinated community response," which is a partnership between everyone who works, volunteers or is otherwise involved with the domestic violence field in Charlotte. Then, that CCR could serve as the basis for a Community Safety Audit, a study carried out by domestic violence organization Praxis International, in which researchers come to the city and look into all the ways city officials and advocates are dealing with domestic violence issues. They then create a comprehensive report about what is working in the community and what isn't working, and follow up with specific suggestions.
"I think it's important to have other voices, and to step back and look at things from a distance," Owens says. "Look at Charlotte-Mecklenburg and say, 'Where are the weak links in the system? When victims are killed, what are we missing? Why are so many people dying? What are we not doing right?
"[Praxis International] may recommend a family justice center, or they may find that because of various factors, this isn't the greatest place for one. But what's happening is that they're becoming very popular around the country, and they're popping up in lots of places, so it's like, 'Let's get us one, too.' But it's not a quick fix; it's not the solution to everything."
Another concern some have expressed is that the presence of police alongside advocacy organizations will keep some victims away, such as undocumented immigrants who would otherwise want to seek help.
Lisa Diefenderfer, an attorney with the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, works on cases involving immigration and domestic violence. She says many of her immigrant clients have told her they hesitated to come to her office, a nonprofit that is in no way connected to the government, because they believed ICE would be there.
Diefenderfer says she'd like to see a change in the way law enforcement treats victims, regardless of their immigration status.
"We would love to see our law enforcement agencies and our governments support our immigrant populations more, whether that's undocumented or documented," she says, "because right now there is so much fear surrounding law enforcement because of all of the mess that is immigration right now. People are not reaching out for help."
Shakira Clarke, housing director at Time Out Youth, suggests any police housed at the new center wear plain clothes, not only for undocumented immigrants' peace of mind, but for any population wary of law enforcement.
Clarke points out that many LGBTQ youths don't seek help when they are victims of intimate partner violence because they don't feel comfortable sharing their stories with people who don't understand their experiences.
Clarke and others with Time Out Youth have trained the staff at Safe Alliance's Clyde and Ethel Dickson Domestic Violence Shelter, which CL toured in the second piece of this series, to be more inclusive of LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming victims. She says she hopes that any staff working at a family justice center in Mecklenburg County would not only carry out similar training, but also bring on members who are representative of that population.
"A lot of individuals who are serving [victims] have a very heteronormative perspective on serving folks, and they are missing the interaction with folks who are LGBT," Clarke says. "When you think about law enforcement, you think about mental health professionals — and Safe Alliance has been doing a better job, they're just awesome — but there's other serving agencies that come from a very heteronormative perspective."
Clarke says word spreads fast in the LGBTQ community, especially among young people, and one bad experience can make an entire organization obsolete to an entire community in a very short time.
"Young people just need a space to feel welcome and empowered to share their story," Clarke says. "If a non-binary or gender nonconforming person comes in and they're misgendered, they don't feel safe to share their story or feel that the information that they're going to share is trusted. That, right there, can be a deal breaker for many young people who walk through the door."
As for Gross, she was able to remove herself from her own abusive experience without the help of any organization, but she realizes now how lucky she was.
She has a surprising perspective on what she went through, now that her eyes have been opened to a reality she tried for so long to hide from.
Gross admits that, before experiencing abuse herself, she had a habit to victim blame, adding to the stigma she now tries to speak out against.
"I'm going to say something that's really weird and shocking probably," Gross warns me as she sits in Dupp&Swatt, surrounded by walls filled with art pieces portraying strong black subjects like herself.
"But I do feel like I had to go through that. I had to, because I remember growing up despising my mother for those experiences, not having any respect for the fact that she went through that," Gross says. "Even when she told me, 'Mel, you know what I've gone through. Leave.' That still wasn't enough. Because I was like, 'I'm stronger than you.' My mom didn't have a voice, my aunt didn't have a voice, my grandmother didn't have a voice to speak out. And so I had to be put in their shoes in order to become that person who speaks out."
Now, Gross wants to pass along a message to those who might still be going through what she once was.
"You are not a bad person because you are experiencing abuse. There's nothing wrong with you, you are whole, it's just that person is an asshole, and you can't fix the person. We cannot fix them," she says. "Trust yourself and know that you're absolutely worth more than this. This doesn't define who you are.
"Yes, I talk about domestic violence, I speak about it, but it doesn't define who I am," Gross says. "It enlightened who I am, as a speaker, as a healer, as just someone who cares and wants other people to love themselves. But I was who I was before I met him. And I'll be who I am afterwards."