By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA—It took her 27 years to stand up and tell her story, but Karen Wright Chisholm is silent no more.
Slipping off a red-and-black feathered mask, she held it out and spoke directly to the crowd.
“You see the mask, you see the face, you see me, but you don’t know my story. But I’m taking off the mask and telling my story,” Chisholm said.
Chisholm, a retired chief master sergeant in the United States Air Force and one of 12 authors in the anthology “Camouflaged Sisters: Silent No More,” stood before more than 300 people at the South Carolina Conference United Methodist Women’s 2018 Legislative Advocacy Day Feb. 20 and shared her story—about growing up in Charleston with domestic abuse in families all around her, including her own. About how, pregnant at age 17 and marrying young, she found herself in her own marriage of domestic abuse. About how today she sees it continue in the lives of her daughters and their friends.
About how it must stop—and what we can do to help.
“I remember the first time he actually laid his hands on me,” Chisholm told the crowd. “I did not believe at the time it was intentional. However, I let him get away with it the first time, so he was comfortable with it—with the name calling, the verbal abuse and sometimes with his fists. I always thought it was my fault, and I always forgave him, as he would apologize with all sincerity—he was sorry, he did not mean to do it and it would never happen again.
“How many times did I hear that?”
Chisholm reflected on her life and concluded, “I believe domestic abuse is a generational curse that has followed me from my childhood in a different form into the teenage years and to adulthood.”
‘We just thought it was natural’
The daughter of late Benjamin and Adell Wright Chisholm was one of 11 siblings growing up in a close-knit neighborhood, the kind of place where the family dynamics next door or across the street could not be hidden, where children flowed in and out each other’s houses like water.
“I remember in my neighborhood growing up as a child we always knew that on Friday nights we would have ‘entertainment,’ or at least that’s what we called it,” Chisholm said.
After working hard all week, her father would immediately start drinking and then, as intoxication set in, verbally abuse her mother all evening.
“My grandfather lived downstairs and he would be yelling, “Benji, Benji,’ trying to calm him down as he lashed out at my mother every word he could think of to call her as she calmly listened,” she said.
If it wasn’t at her house, it was nearby.
“We hid on the porch after dark while we watched ‘Friday Night Live’ across the street as we watched the EMS tend to Mr. Cyrus in the back of the EMS because Ms. Garraday was not feeling his wrath this weekend and (hit) his head with an object that caused blood to flow. We watched giggling and laughing because we thought this was funny,” she said. “It was like every Friday a different family would be in the ring. I remember late Friday nights when the doorbell would ring and I would hear my mother opening the door for Ms. V and her children or Ms. Janie and her children as they would seek refuge in a safe haven until Mr. Balcee and Mr. Alfred had fallen asleep or were too intoxicated to mumble another word.”
Most of the time, she said, it was “just” verbal abuse, and she and her friends never spoke a word about it.
“There was no shame for any of us. We just thought it was natural for fathers to verbally and sometimes physically abuse their wives.”
The pattern continued when she got married.
‘It’s women everywhere’
Now, she watches the same thing happening with today’s generation—and knows the generational curse must be stopped.
“Just two weeks ago, I attended a funeral service in Atlanta, Georgia, for my longtime classmate’s 15-year-old granddaughter who was shot in the chest by a 17-year-old boyfriend,” Chisholm said. “This past Saturday I attended the memorial service for 26-year-old female, one of my daughter’s classmates, who was shot seven times by her 23-year-old boyfriend.
“Both these situations hit very close to home.”
The domestic abuse she saw growing up doesn’t compare with what abusers do today, she said.
“They are shooting and killing with no remorse or guilt about what they are doing,” she said, listing the statistics: one in four women will experience domestic abuse. Domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness among families. Each year, two million injuries are caused as a result of domestic violence. Women are murdered every day by an intimate partner.
She called on the 325 women present to do whatever they can to educate themselves about domestic violence, learn to recognize the warning signs, listen to and reassure victims they are not alone, advocate for legislation and hold perpetrators accountable, and break the stigma.
“We must pledge to take action to end domestic violence,” Chisholm said.
And it is not some faraway problem, Chisholm noted. In September, South Carolina was ranked No. 5 in the United States for domestic violence, with 36,000 assaults reported to law enforcement every year. In 2014, South Carolina was the state with the highest number of women killed by men. It has been in the top 10 states every year for the past 15 years, and the homicide rate for women killed by men is twice the national average.
Reading an except from her book, “Camouflaged Sisters: Silent No More,” about 12 women in the military who lay bare the struggles they’ve faced not on the battlefield, but instead in their homes, in their barracks and amongst friends, Chisholm said it happens in the military, too.
“It’s women everywhere, women sitting right in this room,” she said.
Rounding it out
Chisholm was among many advocates who spoke to the women at Legislative Advocacy Day, held at Epworth Children’s Home. Various representatives from South Carolina Conference United Methodist Women spoke to the women about the importance of advocacy and the power and influence godly women have when they band together, including Marlene Spencer, Jackie Hicks and the Rev. Mary Johnson. Sue Williams gave a report about Children’s First of South Carolina, and the Rev. John Holler Jr., president of Epworth, updated the crowd about the children’s home.
Four workshops rounded out the day: Poverty: Building a Compassionate Congregation and Understanding the Effects of Adverse Childhood Experience; Domestic Abuse: Bringing the Protective Factors to Life in Your Work for People from All Backgrounds;
Public Education Legislative Issues and the Need for Community Involvement; and
Criminal Justice and Mass Incarceration, Legislation, Statistics and Our Involvement.
For more on the work of South Carolina United Methodist Women, including upcoming events, visit www.umcsc.org/umw.
By Jessica Brodie