Thriving, not just surviving: what it takes to heal after domestic trauma
On one of the first pages of Cassandra Archer Morgan’s upcoming book, she asks her readers if they know how many layers of makeup it takes to cover a black eye. After surviving almost 10 years of domestic violence, she certainly does.
The verbal abuse started when Morgan was 21 and then escalated over the years to slaps, kicks, punches, choking and sexual assault. Due to her partner’s jealous and controlling nature, she lost several jobs and had to file for multiple restraining orders.
When she called the police, she was told that they could help her and her sons leave the apartment. Removing her abusive partner was never presented as a legal option, even though Morgan paid the majority of the rent and wanted to maintain her children’s routine.
“They said ‘If you were in a bad situation and you wanted to be safe, you would leave.’ Yeah, I would, but I had to think about stability,” Morgan said.
When Morgan finally made the choice to leave, she learned she could not use the shelter system without being separated from her children. “It’s very hard to flee when you have three kids, first of all,” Morgan said. “Because I had three boys, they couldn’t go to the shelter with me.”
The family was forced to stay with various relatives, moving from house to house for a week, before returning to the apartment and the relationship. The cycle of abuse continued until finally, in 1999, Morgan said her abuser broke into their apartment, raped her, and held a gun to her head.
That night he was arrested, and they spent the next year in court.
Over the years leading up to the break-in, Morgan had called crisis centers, the police department and churches for help. She had been hospitalized with injuries as a result of her abuse. But all that evidence was found inadmissible for her case. Her abuser was not charged with attempted murder because when Morgan was under attack, she had grabbed a wooden spoon to defend herself and the jury found her to be just as much of a threat to him. Her abuser was found guilty of second-degree assault and kidnapping. Morgan was outraged. “What about the abuse part?” she said. “Does he get arrested? Does he get a fine? Does he get anything? Unfortunately all of that just got swept to the side.”
This challenging process motivated Morgan to tell her story and educate other women on how to leave their own abusers.
“They have to realize that when a person is in a situation like this, first there is fear. You’re afraid to go. You’re afraid to stay,” Morgan said. “And when you are in that box and when you have children, I had to make sure my children were safe, I had to keep a smile on [my abuser’s] face while I’m trying to figure out the best way out of this.”
Morgan is one of many domestic violence survivors who have frustrating experiences in the judicial system. Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous because she is currently engaged in a custody battle, spoke about the re-traumatizing nature of her time in court.
“The court is a place that you run for justice. [My abuser] obviously has issues. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist or a medical doctor to understand that. But I expected from the court to show a little dignity because they are abusing me and my children openly, ” she said.
This woman said she is locked in an international custody battle with her abuser, who is trying to take her children overseas to live with him, even though he has failed to pay child support for years. He has used his wealth and the legal system to exert dominance over her and keep her unemployed, the woman said.
“The court is empowering him to abuse us and the court is abusing our rights. Violation of major legal primary constitutional rights,” she said. “This is someone who is very controlling and whenever he wants something, that’s what he has to have, and if not, you will be punished.”
After her husband manipulated her children’s attorney, the woman in the custody battle was forced to remain in the United States instead of accepted a job offer in Germany. Without his financial support, she and the children lost their home and car and for several months they were homeless.
This is not rare. One of the major causes of homelessness for children in the U.S. is domestic violence and other experiences of trauma, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness at American Institutes for Research.
Morgan and other women interviewed for this story spoke about the importance of forgiveness in their healing process. Morgan passed that lesson on to her children by encouraging a relationship between her abuser and her sons through counseling. She has also offered emotional support to several women who he was in abusive relationships with after her, encouraging them to leave and take their children.
“I don’t have to be a friend to the [other] wife. I don’t have to be cordial. But it gives me such a high for him to see me happy. He cannot destroy me,” Morgan said. “It gives me such pleasure to see myself moving on, to see him connecting with my kids, and still have him in their lives.”
Through stand-up comedy, Morgan has found a way to transform the pain from her abuse into power and laughter. She has a passion for making people laugh that began when she would imitate characters on “Saturday Night Live” as a child. And while Morgan was in the abusive relationship, she invented comical stories to cover up the real reasons for her injuries.
“I would have them in stitches laughing about my abuse, and they didn’t really know what was happening to me. My black eye: I was walking in the dark, and I tripped up on the kids’ matchbox toys, and I fell and hit my eye on the wall,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t tell them that I was in an abusive relationship. I had to do that as a distraction.”
She didn’t take the plunge into performing until she spontaneously started cracking jokes at an open mic with some friends in downtown D.C. A woman after the show recommended she join a comedy workshop in Maryland and from there Morgan learned how to write a stand-up routine that she took on tour. She takes her audience on a “ride of her life,” including raising her children and surprisingly, her experiences with domestic violence.
“It’s very hard to do but I found a way to do it, and I’m able to reach people through my comedy and tell my story,” Morgan said. “God gave me this platform because I needed a way to reach these women.”
Her comedy routine is one of many ways that Morgan supports other survivors and gives back to her community. Four years ago, she launched her own domestic violence ministry called HATS, which stands for “Hurt and Troubled Sisters.”
“When you’re in a domestic violence relationship you wear a lot of hats. I was a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, a mother,” Morgan said. “Whether I was the dog, the slut, the whore, the bitch, whatever he wanted to call me, those were hats I wore for him also.”
Morgan later started a youth outreach program called CAPS, or “Choose Abstinence or Protective Sex,” with the goal of encouraging young women not to have children in unstable relationships. Her ministry focuses on speaking engagements, but she hopes to expand to a conference, a program for women, and a safe house.
Morgan has been happily married for almost two years, and she and her husband have coordinated the Hope, Toys, and Laughter toy drive for the past nine years. When they founded the initiative, they collected 300 toys and books for hospitalized, orphaned, and abused children. Last year they collected approximately 8,000 toys and books.
Through her network, Morgan met Tenickia Polk, another domestic violence survivor and entrepreneur. Polk works to share her own experience and to build media platforms and support networks for other survivors through her business, Marketplace4Change. She has helped survivors publish books, recorded videos to inspire others and maintains an ongoing speakers bureau.
Street Sense first covered Polk’s efforts in 2015. She has since provided financial support out of her own pocket to other women escaping violence. Having distributed $1100 and still finding more people in need, Polk is formalizing her support program with a simple online application form and her first fundraising event. Morgan is donating her comedic talents as entertainment and Polk’s parish, Bethel Church in Bowie, Maryland is donating venue space. Money raised from tickets to the Oct. 21 “night of comedy” will be given away that evening as the first “Thrive Award” to assist abused women and families who are unemployed and facing legal crises.
The anonymous survivor engaged in a custody battle will receive this award at Polk’s fundraiser, and the money will pay what insurance does not cover for her son’s surgery. His father has not contributed to the cost, according to the woman.
Polk said the ongoing financial awards will be named Thrive because she has found that in order to heal from abuse, survivors must find a way to become proactive instead of reactive to their situation.
“I want to do more than just survive,” Polk said. “That’s what the whole Thrive award is about. We got out, we made the decision, we know our worth. But now we have to rebuild and thrive and learn how to live in peace without fear and enjoy life. Take those vacations again, have some healthy relationships, have families so that your whole life doesn’t revolve around this situation.”
More information about the community Polk has built: www.marketplace4change.com/charity
DC Domestic Violence Resources