Woman emerges confidently from abusive relationship (Article from 2005)

Rhonda Wright has the self-assured manner of a woman who is confident about her future, her family and her life — no small feat for a woman whose husband used to beat her on the head with the butt of a loaded .30-06 rifle.

Wright now has a loving husband, Scott, and a stable home life for their son Jonathan and her daughter, Amberlyn, a life that is far removed from the one she was living just a few years ago.

Like many abusive relationships, Wright’s started when she was young, just 18, a few months after she had just lost the most important male role model in her life, her father. She met Nicholas in July of 1999, was pregnant by November, and they were married in April the next year.

“He was abusive even before we got married, but it’s one of those things you think you can change. I ended up getting pregnant, but I married him anyway,” said Wright, now 25. “I was raised old school where if you were pregnant you got married, no matter what.”

Nicholas’ home life was anything but stable, and after they were married, Wright tried to pull his family together while simultaneously juggling her own chaotic world. She said she learned a lot about men by evaluating how Nicholas interacted with his family.

“He came from a violent background, and his family was going through a divorce. I thought I could make it kosher for everyone. But all that was dreaming, basically,” she said. “I also learned you can’t trust a man who doesn’t respect his mother. Even today he will call her and tell her he has people watching her.”

The reality of married life for Wright was almost immediately brutal, as Nicholas progressed from slapping to pushing to punching in a very short time, she said.

“In the beginning, he would hit me, slap me, push me, then he would say ‘I love you’ — the usual,” Wright said. “Then it would go from bad to worse — to slapping, to hitting, to punching on the body to punching in the face.”

Wright knew she had to get out of the relationship, but at the time she faced the same obstacles many women in her position face — financial instability, an unsure future, no place to live, and in one case, being actually locked up.

“It was when we were still in California, and we were looking at storage units, and I told him I was going to leave him. He actually locked me in the storage unit. He was outside screaming at me, and I was inside looking around wondering if I could climb over the wall to the next unit,” she said. “I was just tired of it. I was just going to leave. I probably said that 10,000 times in those three years.”

If there was one thing protecting her, it was the fact that both their families lived in California, so Nicholas was more careful to control his abuse because of that, Wright said.

“He had to watch himself in California because his family and mine lived there,” she said.

So Nicholas did what Wright said is typical of abusers — he moved her away from the protection of her family to gain more control over her.

“He contacted an aunt and uncle in Belgrade, and moved me away to Montana. It’s all part of the isolation process,” she said.

They lived a short time in Belgrade before moving to Helena, where Nicholas took the isolation process to new levels, Wright said. The couple moved into a low-income housing area, and Nicholas immediately began to dictate even the most everyday details of her life, Wright said, as he took complete control over her.

One of the first things he did was to take away the one thing that could probably help her best escape her abusive situation — her car.

“He made me sign the title over. He sold it to a friend for 50 bucks,” Wright said.

Things got steadily worse. Nicholas refused to work and would sit around and drink and do drugs all day while demanding that Wright work, but only on his terms, she said.

“I had to walk to work everyday, and work from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. only. I wasn’t allowed to work other shifts, and I was not allowed to work on Saturday or Sunday, which was his time to go out,” said Wright.

At work, she got her only respite from the abuse and from his controlling nature. At home, it was much worse, Wright said, as Nicholas used his 200-lb. frame to terrorize his 5′ 3, 95-pound wife.

“He monitored who I saw and who I talked to. I was not allowed to have contact with anyone. The only thing I could do outside was hang laundry,” she said. “He was paranoid that I was cheating on him, but he was the one cheating on me.”

Their daughter Amberlyn was a regular witness to what Wright said had become daily beatings at that point. Nicholas would take Amberlyn, who was less than a year old, out of her room to watch as he beat Wright.

“When he would beat me he would make Amberlyn come and watch. He said it was so she could maybe learn how to kick my ass,” Wright said.

Wright said one of the worst images still in her mind is of Amberlyn putting herself between the two adults in an effort to protect her mother, a horror no child should ever have to witness, Wright said.

“I will never forget her putting her little body between us and saying ‘No, daddy,'” she said.

Nicholas’ physical abuse was backed up by plenty of psychological abuse, and it was the typical talk of an abuser, Wright said.

“He would tell me I was worthless, and that nobody would want me. He told me if I left him he’d kill me because nobody would take his daughter away from him,” she said.

Even at six months old, Amberlyn wasn’t spared, Wright said. One day while she was at work, neighbors walking by heard Amberlyn screaming by the window, her face purple from the effort. Social workers from the Dept. of Family Services were called in to investigate, but they didn’t find anything.

Meanwhile, Wright knew her life was never going to change unless she did something about it. If anything, it had become progressively worse since they moved to Helena, away from the protective eyes of their families, she said.

“He had been beating me day in and day out in Helena. He repeatedly hit me in the head with the butt of a .30-6, which he kept loaded in the house,” she said.

At the time, Wright was taking anti-depressants, which made her more passive, she said.

“I went on anti-depressants because I was in a very depressing situation. A new ant-depressant made me feel really inward. He like it — there was no talking back, no arguing,” she said.

So she stopped taking the medication, and with it, her will to fight reemerged, she said.

“I started getting my own opinions back,” Wright said of the change in her outlook.

Just a year and a half after they were married, Wright had had enough. She knew she had to do something, and on the day before Thanksgiving, 2001, she decided to make her move.

She talked to her co-workers at Wendy’s, and they contacted the Helena Police Department, who immediately got in touch with a shelter for abused women. And it was there that she found the one person she needed most — a victims advocate who knew how to work the court system in Wright’s favor.

“She was smooth. She went straight to the courthouse to get the temporary restraining order in place before the cops even showed up (at their residence to arrest Nicholas),” she said. “He didn’t even know it was coming.”

Nicholas was arrested and charged with partner or family-member assault, and assault with a deadly weapon for the beatings with a rifle, but his attorney managed to get that charge dropped. He was convicted of the partner assault charge in 2002 and served less than two weeks, with credit for time served. (Local victims advocates say two weeks is a lot longer than most first-time offenders serve for the same charge.)

From there, Wright went to live at the shelter for one week. She said the shelter life was chaotic, with abused women of all types — many with children — trying to put their lives together.

One woman had left her husband because he was mentally abusing her, and the other women resented her because she hadn’t had the same level of abuse they’d endured. The woman also had an older son staying with her in violation of the shelter’s rules aimed at making the women feel secure, who would often stand over the other women looking at them while they slept, Wright said.

The counseling sessions were frustrating because Wright saw the same women going back to the same pattern of abuse. Almost all of them would eventually return to their abusers instead of taking more steps toward freedom, she said.

“The women would sit there in the counseling sessions and say ‘I can’t leave.’ Maybe I’m the oddball of the group because I got out,” she said.

Through her experience, Wright has researched abusive relationships and characteristics of both the abuser and the abused. She said she sees a strong correlation in her own life with what’s known as the “fatherless woman syndrome,” where woman who grow up without a father — whether due to divorce, death or just too much work — begin to develop severe self esteem issues. Wright’s father died just months before she met Nicholas.

Other aspects of the relationship were more obvious, such as Nicholas’ efforts to isolate her from her family and the outside world to hinder any chance of escaping the situation. She said she saw a lot of the same characteristics in many of the woman at the shelter.

“I was frustrated because I didn’t understand why they kept going back to these guys. But I’ve done the research, and with my own personal experience, I’ve seen you can only help people to a certain extent, and then it’s up to them,” Wright said.

For Amberlyn, the past few years have been therapeutic for her, but Wright has had to work with her constantly. She has bout of anger, and at one point could not stand to be in the same room with a man. But she gets along well with her peers at school, Wright said, and loves going to school.

“The counseling [at the shelter] was OK, but it didn’t focus on the children. All the counseling I’ve given to my daughter is through me. She still has nightmares occasionally, and she has some aggression that she wants to let out physically,” Wright said. “She’s come a long way, but there are still anger issues to be resolved.”

The ensuing court experience was equally frustrating, she said. Wright had made the decision that many abused woman find too daunting — to confront her abuser in court — but Nicholas’ lawyer talked him into taking the plea bargain, probably in an effort to avoid having him, and her, appear before a jury, where Wright would have made a convincing witness, she said.

“When these things go to court it goes between the state and the public defender, which doesn’t make sense because the state wasn’t the one that got hit,” Wright said. “They need to refine the laws [for partner or family member assault] because it is a slap on the wrist for a first offense.”

Wright said she agreed to talk to a Leader reporter in an effort to encourage other women in similar circumstances to get help, and to highlight the support services available to women to help get them out of those relationships. Locally, the Domestic Violence Emergency Services organization in St. Joseph hospital, and the Safe Harbor shelter in Pablo, help provide victims advocates and shelter for abused women.

Nicholas was recently released from the Wyoming State Prison, where he served time for larceny. He returned to California. In a cruel irony, Amberlyn’s name was removed from the permanent order of protection Wright has against Nicholas during the court process because he still has visitation rights.

However, Nicholas cannot exercise those visitation rights until he completes a number of court-ordered mandates including counseling and other requirements related to his sentencing, which he has not done. But if he does, he will regain visitation rights to Amberlyn, Wright said.

She has advised Amberlyn’s school officials of the situation, and has filed her permanent order or protection in Lake County to ensure her safety here should Nicholas ever show up.

“The greatest fear I have is of him walking up and trying to get Amberlyn. He hasn’t tried to come up here. He’s more scared of this piece of paper,” she said, referring to the permanent order of protection. “He knows I won’t put up with him now.”

Wright and her new husband Scott moved to the county in 2003, and have a son together after they were married in June of that year. (The Leader intentionally avoided naming the town they live in because it would indicate the school Amberlyn attends.)

Wright credits the victims advocate in Helena with helping her the most, by navigating the court system with her and making her aware of the options available to her. She urges people who know abused women to try to get them help — something her friends didn’t do when she needed them to.

“My friends knew, but they didn’t do anything. They had a phone. There was a point where I was ready to leave, and we didn’t even have a phone for me to call someone,” Wright said. “Get involved, just to make sure. If you hear something next door, call the police. Take that step. You don’t even have to know these people.”

(She said although times were tight financially, she suspects Nicholas didn’t have a phone installed to intentionally block her contact with the outside world, including law enforcement.)

Wright is working on a paper for a writing class she is taking while she is pursuing a college degree, in which she is examining many of the issues and theories about abusive relationships, including her own. She said her husband Scott has really restored her faith in men, despite what she’s been through.

“There are good men out there. I didn’t have to look to find my [current] husband. We are open and honest about my past, and he’s very supportive,” she said.

Most of all, she hopes other women will take that first step.

“It just takes that step to get out of there,” she said. “I would love to help women, not only to show them what they can achieve, but because it wasn’t fun where I was at. I know there are other women in that situation. It’s a growing epidemic, and the public needs to be aware of it.