Gravity of Abuse (Chapter One: Honeymoon Phase)

Non-Fiction | published in Real Change on May. 9th, 2012

Brandy Sweeney dreams of a better life. Then she meets Richard Duncan. Together, they imagine a future with a family. But no matter where they travel, substance abuse, poverty and domestic violence press down on their lives.

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Anywhere. He could be anywhere.

Around the corner of the apartment building where they live. Across the street at the construction site where he works. At the nearby bar where he sometimes goes for a beer. She looks around, nervous. What if he sees her?

But she can’t wait. Not anymore. She tightens her grip on the baby stroller and heads off into the night.

She has a plan: make it three blocks, to the shelter for women and children. Borrow someone’s cell phone, call 911. She tried to dial the number back at the apartment, but he yanked the phone out of her hands and broke it to pieces.

She zooms the stroller down the sidewalk of South Othello Street, heading west toward Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, a busy intersection in a diverse, yet gentrifying, south Seattle neighborhood. On her right, an abandoned lot and taco truck, on her left, an unfinished luxury apartment complex. By this time of evening, heading on midnight, hardly a car drives by; the light rail station sits empty. She’s all alone.

Except for her son. Their son. Tomorrow he’ll turn seven months old. About 90 minutes ago, shortly after the yelling and screaming drew her neighbors into the hallway, the child cried while she splashed water on her face in the bathroom of Apartment 21. Now he sits in his stroller, bundled up in a blue, fuzzy snowsuit.

In a rush, she forgot to grab her own coat. Not that she minds. She barely feels the chilly spring air rushing over the red mark on her throat.

But she can feel her right cheek throb. In the bathroom mirror, she saw the knot, the swelling, the purplish-maroon hematoma that formed under her eye. But it’s weird. Because when he hit her, she couldn’t really feel it. It was like she lost consciousness … Did she? Did she black out?

Outside, she hustles the stroller down the sidewalk. Streetlights cast an orange halogen glow, throw shadows that pile up under bushes, shadows large enough to hide a grown man. If only she knew where he went when he left the apartment.

Nearly 16 months ago when she met him, back in Idaho, she had wanted to change her life. He’d told her the same. They would do it, together. But things got in the way. The poverty, the drug use, the drinking, the yelling, the fighting, the fists, the fear — all of it clouded their vision. All of it weighed on their lives.

And other lives as well. The best friend. The neighbor. The roommate. At some point, each witnessed parts of their turbulent relationship. People in close contact will feel transformed by the experience of violence.

But none more so than the woman who flees the relationship’s fury: Brandy Sweeney, 28, racing a stroller down a sidewalk on April 29, 2010.

It’s taken her some time, since each abusive relationship exerts a unique gravitational pull. Not only does it draw in the abused and the abuser, it also attracts the attention of those closest to the couple.

Due to under-reporting, the true number of people caught in abusive relationships is unknown. The Centers for Disease Control estimates 1.3 million women a year in the U.S. experience some type of physical assault by a partner. Not every woman survives.

But for the woman who pulls free, aided by those around her and her own ingenuity, she may find, waiting on the other side, a peace that seemed impossible when the weight of the relationship pressed down upon her. That’s what Brandy seeks now — to end the gravity of abuse.

So she rushes to the shelter. She can see the building up ahead, illuminated, a beacon several hundred yards away. A light in a city where she hopes to find a better, peaceful life.

Treasure Valley

On a brisk, winter morning in mid-December 2008, Brandy Sweeney, 26, stepped off a Greyhound in downtown Boise, Idaho, looking for an emergency shelter for women and children called City Light. Boise lay four hours from her hometown, Pocatello, a place she hadn’t seen in months. But simply being in Idaho opened up a grab bag of emotions tied to two words: “meth” and “Skye.”

The first tie happened by accident. She’d had too much to drink at a party, and, when she wasn’t throwing up, she was close to passing out. Someone offered her a line of crystals and said, Here, do this, you’ll feel better. Brandy snorted. “And it was one extreme to the next,” she recalls. Her stomach settled, her mind cleared. So she kept drinking. She was 14.

From that point on, Brandy snorted and smoked meth whenever it came around, and the drug, easily “cooked” in neighborhood meth labs, turned up on a regular basis in rural Pocatello. But snorting and smoking get old, so she switched to needles, injecting into veins in her arm. The off-white crystals made Brandy’s teenage troubles seem to disappear. For a while, anyway. But meth, which stimulates production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine, ignites the brain’s reward center. Rushes of euphoria and invincibility result, but they come with a cost: the likelihood of long-term addiction. 

The second tie occurred when Brandy developed a delirious fever. Her mother rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent an examination. Brandy listened to the results. “I was pregnant.” Eight months later, she gave birth to a daughter, Tyranny Skye. Brandy was 19.

A young mother, Brandy loved her child, caring for her the best she could. But meth — it haunted her with its siren song. As Brandy gave in to its addictive call, her mother and brother obtained joint custody of Skye. When Brandy tried to visit, her mother wouldn’t have it. She left food on the porch, locked the door, drew the blinds. Humiliated, Brandy stopped visiting the house.

Her visits became impossible in early 2004, when she was arrested for burglary. Paroled six months later, Brandy entered a mandated treatment program and devised a remedy for sobriety: “I need clean, sober friends.” Those friends eluded her. When she started shooting meth and drinking again, she broke parole. Thirty-eight more months in prison.

Back on the streets, estranged from Skye, high on meth, Brandy knew she needed help. Fast. A friend from prison, Morgan Price, had hightailed it to Seattle in August 2008 to kick meth and had remained clean. Maybe it would work for Brandy. Morgan bought her a bus ticket. But in the Emerald City, Brandy couldn’t find her groove: After failing treatment programs and sleeping on the Seattle streets, Brandy hopped on an overnight bus bound for Boise.

Brandy consulted the map with the address to the shelter that sits three long blocks from the bus station. She walked through the bus station’s glass doors and into the cold Idaho night.

Even after years of meth, Brandy still carried an air of small-town wholesomeness. She had a plump, oval face. Deep brown eyes. Smooth lips. A cascade of auburn hair. She moved her full figure with a take-your-time gait, as though she didn’t know the meaning of hurry.

City Light occupies a remodeled church. At the front desk, Brandy asked if the shelter had space. It did, a mat on the floor in a room filled with women and children. That night, she listened as women whispered, kids snored — the white noise of a place full of people with nowhere else to go. By 8 a.m., at last exit call, all the women and children were required to go somewhere. Brandy walked out into the Idaho morning.

Boise, the state’s largest city, marks the eastern fringe of an enormous flood plain called Treasure Valley. To its northeast, snow-frosted mountains. Within its borders, stands of cottonwood, maple, sweet gum. And meandering through downtown, the Boise River.

Upon a square-mile grid of downtown streets, a small number of shelters and public spaces host Boise’s homeless population. Nearly every day they trudge a circuit from drop-in center to library to shelter. Nearly every day, Brandy considered contacting Skye, but she knew her mother wouldn’t allow it.

One afternoon, Brandy wandered into the library. Homeless people sat at tables, some asleep. That’s when she noticed him: shaved head, blue eyes, beard, a few tattoos. Cute and seated alone. She caught his eye. He looked back, then averted his gaze. Neither spoke. They went their separate ways.

A couple days later, Brandy stood outside a drop-in center with her cup of coffee. Homeless people huddled in the cold. Breath and steam merged. The guy from the library stood nearby. Sensing he was shy, Brandy went up to him.

Hi, Brandy said.

Hey, he said. His name was Richard, Richard Duncan, but sometimes he went by Auto. Their eyes locked.

Wanna go hang out tomorrow? Richard asked.

Sure, Brandy said.

The next morning, Brandy and Richard reconnected. Each brought along a friend, and, piling into Richard’s buddy’s old SUV, they went for a joy ride. They stopped for gas and stocked up on Joose, a caffeinated malt alcoholic beverage in a 23.5-oz. can, before they drove to the Boise foothills. All four tipped back cans as they gazed out over Treasure Valley. It was barely 9 a.m. Brandy had failed to find clean, sober friends.

Brandy talked with Richard. He made her laugh. She found him nice, sweet. Plus, they had things in common. He’d been released from prison in November, the month before. She’d been released in July. Richard had a teenage daughter, in Boise, but he barely knew her. Brandy had a 6-year-old daughter, in Pocatello. He told her people sometimes called him Auto because he stole cars.

As her mind absorbed information about Richard, her eyes drank in his appearance. He had a pair of small lightning bolts tattooed near his left eye. Across his upper fingers, displayed like a pair of brass knuckles, was a word: “SKINHEAD.” Brandy’s father was of Native descent, so the tattoo made her wonder. But once, two male friends who had done time in California told her that just because someone got tattoos while on the inside, it didn’t mean he was a white supremacist outside. “I was just really thinking it was a prison thing,” Brandy remembers.

Still, she asked him, It’s not going to be a problem, me being part Native?

No, Richard said.

When his buddy left, Richard, Brandy and her friend bused back to town and bought beer. They sat near the greenbelt, the area hugging the northern banks of the Boise River. There, Brandy kissed Richard for the first time.

If you wanna back out of this, he said, that’s fine.

Brandy thought it a strange thing for Richard to say. Back out? Of what? She didn’t know what he meant, so she told him, No, I’m sticking with it.

As Brandy’s friend visited a job center, Brandy and Richard tagged along. The pair sneaked into a bathroom together. They kissed again. Passions rose. Clothes came off.

It’s a vulnerable moment, undressing in front of someone the first time, the body revealing its secrets. When Richard removed his shirt, Brandy saw more tattoos on his arms and neck. Then she saw the two on his chest.

Covering most of his left pec, in blue-green ink, was an enormous swastika. On his right pec sat a likeness of — Adolf Hitler? “I was just like, ‘Wow,’” Brandy remembers, stunned by the imagery. Northern Idaho had a reputation for white supremacy, but Brandy had grown up in the southeast. She had little experience with it. The story the two guys told about tattoos came back to her: probably just a prison thing.

Brandy, drunk in a bathroom in Boise, fumbled to remove her clothes. True, she felt a little uncomfortable about the tattoos. But by that point, she and Richard had hit the ground running, and she didn’t think there was any reason to stop.

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