If you had to pick a domestic violence survivor out of a crowd, your gaze probably wouldn’t stop on Gus. He doesn’t embody what society paints as a typical survivor—he’s a gruff, 62-year-old long haul truck driver. He’s bald, broad-shouldered and looks like he could be a bouncer if he needed a side gig.
But look closer, and you’ll see that Gus has a purple ribbon tattoo on the inside of his right arm with the letters “BTS” inside— break the silence. He also has a “Break the Silence” sticker in the window of his truck.
“When people ask, I tell them my story,” says Gus, referring to the abuse he endured growing up and his subsequent six-year marriage to an abusive wife. “Most of the time, they’re interested and want to hear what I have to say.”
By opening up, he’s met other survivors—women only, so far—at truck stops who have confided in him that they’re involved in “something like that,” he says. He refers them to places or hotlines where they can find help.
He considers himself an advocate now, but it took him a long while to get here. For a long time, the stigma has been that men can’t be victims. He’s been asked why he didn’t fight back. He’s used to his machoism being called into question.
“I hate that term ‘manly.’ What is manly? I tell people I’m a feminist.”
It Started with His Mom
Gus grew up experiencing extreme emotional abuse and neglect from his mother.
“She resented having children,” he says. “She was a very bitter, angry person. And very manipulative.” While she doted on her youngest son, the older four children shared the brunt of her abuse, as did Gus’s father.
“I think she disliked my father because he was not a strong man and she was able to manipulate him a lot,” tells Gus. He describes himself as nonviolent and nonaggressive, a fact that his mother disliked as well.
“She would always tell me ‘You’re just like your goddamned father.’”
As soon as possible, Gus wanted to escape his tumultuous home life. He married at 18. She was his first girlfriend, his first kiss and the first woman in his life who had shown him any kindness, other than his grandmother. But she, too, had come from an abusive home, witnessing her father abuse her mother.
Gus’s mother told him she must be “pretty trashy and desperate” to settle for a guy like her son.
His wife’s abuse had begun before they’d ever said their vows. The first time she hit Gus was at a state fair when they were 17. He tried to win her a stuffed toy at a game booth, but she wasn’t pleased with the small teddy bear.
“When I tried to give it to her, she said I hadn’t tried hard enough, and that I was paying too much attention to the girl running the booth. She threw the bear into a trash can, and slapped me hard across the face,” remembers Gus.
Still, Gus says he never connected his wife’s behavior with his mother’s.
“To be perfectly honest, I was just so excited to have a female pay attention to me that I wasn’t going to do anything to jeopardize that.” With each abusive incident, Gus said his only thought was that he wanted to make up for whatever it was he did to cause it.
Others Advice: Hit Her Back
Gus joined the Navy after high school but his new wife was unhappy with military life. She referred to Gus as “worthless.” She became extremely suspicious of him, showing up at his work without notice to check up on him, and screaming at him when he got home, accusing him of sleeping with other women. She would slap him, scratch his arms or punch him in the stomach if Gus didn’t do what she asked quickly enough.
“I would numbly submit to it and tell her I wasn’t cheating—I only loved her, and I was so sorry she was unhappy,” says Gus. “Eventually she would calm down, and tell me that if she ever found out I was cheating, she would kill me.”
At one point, his wife said she was leaving him. She had a boyfriend and was going to move in with him. She demanded a divorce. He moved away to another state to continue his military training, both dumbstruck and depressed. Eventually, she called and said she had broken up with her boyfriend and she demanded he take her back. Gus did.
“I rationalized that now she knew that I was a ‘good” guy,’ and our marriage would be better. But the abuse started immediately.”
Gus says, over the next year and a half, his military medical records would reflect the abuse—or rather, his attempts to hide the abuse. The scratches on his arms and face were from falling into bushes. His concussion came from falling against a wall.
At one point, Gus tried to take an assignment to Norway to get away from his abuser. She beat him so severely with a pool cue that she broke two of his ribs, gave him a concussion and broke his right tibia. He told emergency room staff he fell down a flight of stairs. As a result, he missed out on the assignment.
“Each time she beat me she would use a different weapon—flower vases, shoes, frying pans, cooking utensils—and sometimes, just her fists,” says Gus. “Sometimes I would try holding her wrists to keep her from hitting me, and I would leave bruises where I held them. She threatened to call the military police and show them the bruises as proof that I was abusing her.”
During one incident in the car, military police saw her beating Gus and pulled them over. They didn’t arrest her. Instead, says Gus, one of them walked up to him and told him, “grow some balls and slap the bitch around a bit, and maybe she won’t hit you!”
Gus says that even though he was far more physically strong than his abuser, he could never justify retaliating with violence.
“Hitting her, for any reason, would have made me an abuser. Far too often, I hear of men who beat women and use the excuse is that they were just defending themselves. ‘Defense’ is protecting yourself, inflicting violence is offensive in nature. Violence met with violence only leads to more violence.”
No Resources for Men
It was the mid-70s. During this time, “domestic violence” wasn’t even a term most people were familiar with. Instead, it was called “Battered Wife Syndrome,” as though it was some affliction women were prone to catch, like a disease. There were no resources for Gus, no one for him to turn to.
“I talked to my chaplain. He said to beat her back. My Naval advisor gave me similar advice,” says Gus. “I’ve never struck any woman ever, for any reason.”
Instead, Gus wondered what he could do to “be better.” His abuser told him that if he was a better man, a stronger man, she wouldn’t hit him.
“I thought it was some defect in myself,” says Gus.
The Lucky Encounter
The only time there was peace in the relationship was when his wife became pregnant. The beatings stopped, Gus believes, in order to protect her pregnancy. After his daughter was born, the abuse began again. After one particularly harrowing beating, his abuser threw him out and demanded a divorce. Afraid of losing touch with his daughter, Gus says he went along with whatever she wanted. The luckiest day of his life, he says, is when his wife demanded he get psychiatric help.
His therapist told him he wasn’t “crazy,” he was a victim of domestic violence. A survivor herself, his therapist helped Gus come to the realization that he didn’t deserve abuse—no one did. Through therapy, Gus began to feel empowered and when his abuser, now ex-wife, demanded they get back together, Gus refused.
Even though Gus escaped with his life, he lost something else in the process—his daughter. Gus’s abuser accused Gus of sexually molesting their child in order to keep him from her.
“It got to the point where I would have had to put her on the witness stand at the age of 5. It was a choice of putting her through that or backing away. I decided to back away in hopes that she [his abuser] would realize she needs her father.”
Unfortunately, he would come to find out decades later that after Gus left them alone, his abuser turned the focus of her abuse toward their daughter.
“That was the hardest part of it all. I could never forgive my ex for that,” he says.
Twenty-five years later, Gus and his daughter, a social worker, finally reconnected.
“The one thing she never understood is that she never remembered any of this abuse I supposedly put upon her and the one thing she knew is victims remember. After we went through it, she realized it was all something her mother made up.”
He says the two have a “wonderful relationship” today.
Learning to Speak Out
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that Gus, now happily remarried to someone new, started speaking out about what he’d survived. He was cautious at first, he says, fearing the worst of people’s judgment.
“I hesitantly started to make comments on social media. I was afraid people would say this is not my place, as a man. But suddenly, people were supporting what I was saying, thanking me for speaking up. It gave me hope, and it got a lot off my mind.”
He credits the #MeToo movement for making things different, in a good way, and giving permission for survivors from all walks of life and backgrounds to step forward. He hopes to retire soon from truck driving and become more active in domestic violence advocacy.
“I’m able to talk to other people about my story now, and when they do call me a wimp I don’t care,” he says. “You need to talk to somebody. Today, it seems like, domestic violence advocacy is much more open to the fact that men are victims, too.”
In 2016, one of the first domestic violence shelters exclusively for men opened in the U.S. Read more about that, and what one expert says makes women choose to abuse, in “ Women as the Abusers.”
This article originally posted on domesticshelters.org
Sunday Survivor Series is a bi-weekly blog series highlighting survivors of domestic violence and their success after abuse.