Diamond in the Dark: Leaving the shadow of abuse

Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present an excerpt from Diamond in the Dark : Leaving the Shadow of Abuse , an autobiography by Phyllis Brown Hain.

Phyllis Hain was born in Alabama, the pretty blonde daughter of a Marine sent home from World War II with acute brain trauma. Growing up poor on the Gulf Coast of Florida, she suffered abuse from a father who today would be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. Pregnant at sixteen, Phyllis escaped her childhood home, only to marry a man at whose hands she experienced years of devastating domestic violence and spousal abuse.

After a tumultuous divorce, Phyllis found herself rescued by a businessman she believed to be generous and loving. But the marriage fell apart in a series of courtroom dramas and front-page headlines as her husband was charged with, tried for, and convicted of conspiring to murder his previous wife.

But Phyllis regrouped, putting all her lifetime experiences to work as a U.S. Navy Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC)—a Family Advocacy Educator. During twenty-one years of service, she responded to hundreds, if not thousands, of victims in crisis. She taught well over 20,000 students. She helped educate first responders on how properly to document incidents and how to provide sensitive, effective treatment and support to victims of sexual assault. She studied domestic violence, child abuse, child sexual abuse, sexual assault, victim intervention, and the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence. She became a national advocate for the abused.

diamondPlease purchase the book at Amazon.

For me, the weekend seems to start like all the others. I begin every Saturday and Sunday struggling with painful slowness. But this weekend is different. Only a person who has suffered through an unbearable relationship can understand how the impending end of a marriage can make a life devoid of pleasure. I ask myself, how is it that spring, a time that should normally bring joy and a sense of renewal, can harbor such emptiness and usher in the acceptance of defeat?

It’s May 31, 1980. The day is beautiful, with blue skies and a gentle breeze. I look out my kitchen window. The white cafe?L curtain is pulled back so I can view the entire back pasture, but now I watch a calamity in the making. My bulldog, Jake, is running full speed, the hair on his back standing straight up. He’s growling and barking at Sugarboy, my daughter Jamie’s poor pony. The pony is running for its life. Sugarboy’s eyes are wide with fear, his whites clearly visible around their hazel center, as he is about to crash into the fence. I flinch, hold my breath, and brace for impact. The dust stirs as Sugarby slides through the dirt, planting his little hooves—just in the nick of time. He stands up straight on all fours and gives a shake that rattles his whole body. Turnabout is fair play—it’s
now Sugarboy’s turn. Flight didn’t work, so fight takes its place. Sugarboy puts his head down, with ears laid back, and unleashes his anger on the dog, as if he is saying, “That’s it. Now I’ll nip at your heels.” Jake sees the fire in his eyes, turns, tucks his tail, and runs for his life as the pony, mouth open and teeth bared, tries his best to land just one bite on the white of his nubbin tail.

This is their routine. They’re actually great friends, and often pass the time chasing one another. Neither has ever hurt the other. Both have provided us with reams of laughter and joy. Even their act this morning is not making me
feel better.

I walk outside, feel the glorious day, and wonder: Why can’t I just be happy? Little did I know that peace and happiness would not re-enter my life for what seemed several lifetimes.

My children, Nathan and Jamie, are rushing around to get ready for a day at the beach. “Hurry and feed the animals,” I encourage them. “Get your things together quickly because we’re getting a late start.” Since they know the beach is waiting, they set out to get the jobs done without the usual resistance. They are eager for life. I am still feeling the sting of my emotions. When I think about last night, I feel ill.

I wonder how I’m going to get through the next ten hours of family togetherness. It’s funny, though, because no one seems to notice that I am not happy. My chest is welling up with pain, and my mind is crying. Meantime, my kids need help finding their swimsuits.

Last night was Friday night, and what could have been a nice evening became, instead. Just another embarrassing disappointment. It started out meeting my husband (here I’ll call him JJ), his friend, and his friend’s companion du jour at a restaurant in Mobile, Alabama,. With good Italian food, Chianti, a few laughs, and congenial conversation, it should have been good.

Who knows what makes a 33 year-old adult act like an imbecile? Looking back, it must have been a set-up to make sure he came out as the all-powerful one in our relationship. What else would make a grown man decide to start throwing ice chips he fished out of his iced-tea glass?

I looked at him with amazement—I don’t get a chance to go out much, and manners are very important to me. “Behave” is the Southern admonition that slips out of my mouth like a watermelon seed you spit out. That makes
it worse. He now reaches into my glass and tosses an ice chip at my face to further demonstrate his disdain for me as I attempt to keep our dinner within the parameters of acceptable behavior. “OK, I see everyone’s looking now. Can
we just cut it out?” I try to speak softly. This just brings him strange pleasure as he announces to the audience of attentive bystanders, “If you don’t like it, you can leave, but you’re not taking the car.”

The only way I can deal with this is silence. I look at the stunned faces of our dinner companions. I don’t really know them, but I remember thinking how odd they were. She was an attractive petite blonde, he a tall, not so attractive, red-haired man. I felt embarrassed, trapped, degraded, and helpless. JJ was smug, and his contempt for me was so obvious. His friends said nothing.

I just sat there, in my usual retreat mode.

The rest of the meal is a blur. The evening is certainly unmemorable, other than the fight. I don’t think I ever saw either of his friends again. As his opponent and wife of 12 years, I had suffered another defeat. I was okay with that—I knew our days were numbered. The decision had already been made—I would leave him as soon as there was an opportunity to escape with my children. It was going to be hard—I had tried and failed several times before. But if I wanted to survive, I knew I had to make a good plan.

The 18-mile ride home that night is silent, and it seems even longer than usual as we head due west along Airport Boulevard. We pass the airport and continue almost to the Mississippi line before taking a left onto Grand Bay- Wilmer Road, headed toward Union Church. We finally make the single turn up to our farm on the hill.

Our driveway is literally cut into the side of an embankment, where some concrete had been randomly poured to keep erosion from washing it away. Nothing pretty about it, just two rough ruts that allow our car tires to roll
easily up the grade. As the lights hit the opening, you can see that the sides of the drive are just dirt, and that the hill is sprinkled with oaks, some pines, and a few scrubby looking bushes. We are home.

There won’t be an apology coming. There never is. I will just go in and try to stay away from him. The last thing I want is to be next to him. Maybe we can just go to bed and he’ll leave me alone. I will get into bed. I will face the wall. My body will remain rigid as I pray he will read my unspoken language. His hands on my skin cause a chill to run up my spine and tears to well up in my eyes.

The phone is ringing and it jolts me back to face the morning. It is my older sister Ann, who is also my only sister. It’s unusual for her to call me on a Saturday morning. She’s a beautician and usually busy handling a shop full
of gossiping ladies. She works hard to style their hair. She is attentive to each one in their proper turn, and for that, they tell her their life stories. She smiles and laughs appropriately. Compliments come from her talkative customers, as does news from the neighborhood. In lieu of a good bartender, your hair dresser is the next best thing.

I sense something is wrong because Ann’s tone is different. I can’t put my finger on what is different, but I hear something strange in her voice. She asks me what I am doing. I tell her we are getting ready to go to Gulf Shores for the day. Still trying to act like it isn’t a big deal, she calmly says, “Can you stop by here on your way? I’ve got a shop full, but I need to talk to you.”

“Sure,” I say, “but what’s wrong?”

She says, “I can’t talk now. I’m busy. Just come by.”

I wonder if she and my brother-in-law had a fight.

Only three miles due south, at the crossroads of Old Pascagoula Road and Grand Bay-Wilmer Road, stands the Corner Grocery Store. It’s a rundown place. Its old green block building and asphalt parking lot, complete with potholes,
is always in need of repair. It is a gas station/ hamburgers-to-go diner/grocery/beauty shop. Ann and her husband, Otto, own and run the place.

Directly north of the Corner Grocery Store is Phelps Feed Company, and diagonally across the street is Donny’s Auto Repair Shop. The opposite corner on the other side is still a vacant lot. Not much else around and the closest real
grocery store, Sims Clover Farm, is still a couple miles down the road. This logistical fact accounts for the constant traffic in and out of this homey stop.

To enter the grocery store, you must walk past the two gas pumps out front. Walk in and you will be greeted with a Southern, “Hi, how ya’ll doin’ today?” The one cash register is on the left and the grill bar on the right. You
can order up the best hamburger in town and then shop for other needs. When you leave, the cook will hand you your brown bag of fresh grilled hamburgers and you pay for it right along with your groceries and gas. JJ goes into the
front with the kids, and I head around to the back door. The entry on the opposite end of the building is the beauty shop. As I walk around the side, I can’t help but notice that the weeds, or the so-called Jap grass, are getting high.
It’d almost take a bush hog to knock it down.

When I enter the shop, there must be five or six ladies sitting around at various stages of the beauty process. Ann, spotting me as I enter, lifts a woman up from the shampoo bowl, wraps a towel around her dripping wet head, and tells her she’ll be right back. Ann looks at me. Man, this oughta be good. In the small and dingy back room, Ann closes the door behind us and looks me straight in the face. “Paul’s wife is dead,” she says.

I’m taken aback. I’m not even sure what she’s saying. “What are you talking about?” I ask. I’m in a brain fog trying to put the words together.

“Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, is dead. It’s in the paper, on the front page,” she tells me.

“What happened? Did she commit suicide?” I ask her quickly, as if I can’t understand what she is telling me.

Ann shakes her head and tells me, no, the newspaper reported that she had been shot and stabbed.

“Oh my God!” I can hear myself say. “I can’t believe this.” Ann doesn’t appear to be sympathetic. She turns and opens the door to walk out, leaving me with a quick shake of her head. “I’ve gotta get back to work.”

I pick up a Sunday paper as we leave the store. I can’t wait to get into the car so I can be still enough to read the story. Totally engrossed, I start to read the article out loud to JJ as we drive down the road. It said Paul Leverett, a wealthy businessman in Mobile, found his wife murdered inside their fashionable home in the Airmont subdivision.

JJ stops my reading and asks me, “Isn’t that the man you sold insurance to?” I nod my head yes. The pretty blonde woman in the photo gracing the front page, above the fold, is smiling. It’s a beautiful smile. It’s the first time I
have ever seen Elizabeth Leverett, and she is dead.