Little Details (10/8/09)

Trusting your gut

Oct. 8, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

It was supposed to be a fun workshop exploring art’s role in advocacy. The room was filled with social activist types representing education, child welfare and mental health agencies. We sat at tables littered with fresh, waxy crayons and sheets of white paper.

“Take a few minutes to create a picture — in images or words — of your personal dream, your vision for the future,” our facilitator invited.

How nice, I thought, that somebody even asked. I endured criticism as a child for “dreaming too high.” I pondered the assignment. I couldn’t decide. It seems I have too many dreams.

My trance was broken by the facilitator: “OK, who would like to share?” Embarrassed, I flipped over my blank page, hoping no one noticed.

A 50-something woman held up a colorful sketch depicting her dream to visit Florence. She longed to make a face-to-face acquaintance with Michelangelo’s “David.” Her glowing, romanticized description transported me to Italy, conjuring memories of my own introduction to the masterpiece. It was short, sweet — I held a squiggling toddler in my arms — and yet, enthralling. Witnessing Michelangelo’s miraculous interpretation of the human physique was a gift.

A social worker with whimsical eyeglasses and two-toned hair spoke of her weekly indulgence: pricey but life-affirming voice lessons. They nurtured her desire for a little limelight. Her dream was to perform a one-woman cabaret, decked out in silk and rhinestones while sitting atop an upright piano.

“My dream is to be able to live in a home where my husband doesn’t constantly criticize me and put me down,” a voice emerged from our group.

Her comment seemed out of place.

“I want to be able to live in peace,” she said, and held up a picture of a simple, hand-drawn house sitting serenely on a hill.

Silence. A pained look of recognition registered across our faces. More silence. Our facilitator froze. We connected the dots, silently communicating with our eyes that we understood. This woman suffered abuse from her husband. This may have been the first place she felt comfortable enough to name the abuse, to speak this truth of her life.

Some women live in fear of their partners. Although men may be abused, the vast majority of victims remain women.

Domestic violence does not discriminate. It infiltrates lofty homes of the wealthy and humbler spaces inhabited by the poor. Highly educated, externally spiffed-up and polished people can abuse with the same vigor as folks of limited education. Native born and immigrant households are not immune to the poison that is domestic violence.

I believe it’s important to educate ourselves and our children about domestic violence. We must learn to trust our gut in relationships. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

There’s a story I’ve shared with my daughter. I had a boyfriend in college named Andrzej, a law student several years my senior. We visited with friends, enjoyed long walks, and sat up in the dorm talking late into the night.

I liked wearing scarves back them. Andrzej once chided me, “You know, those scarves aren’t really in style anymore.”

Never a slave to fashion — I’m slightly sartorially-challenged — I replied, “I just like it, so I wear it.”  His statement wasn’t abusive. It was just a teensy, weensy bit controlling. I didn’t like how it made me feel.

Another time, Andrzej dropped by my room and asked in a tone sounding almost parental: “I came by earlier and you weren’t here. Where were you?”

“I was out, with my friends,” I responded, feeling uncomfortable with the questioning.

I never felt threatened or unsafe with Andrzej. We actually had a lot of fun together and our great conversations — about politics and social issues — formed the basis of our relationship.

I disliked Andrzej’s questioning, his criticizing my choice of dress, his chiding me for comments I made in social interactions with friends. Mildly critical comments such as these, spoken too many times, can rattle even the most sure-footed among us.

I ditched Andrzej but kept my outdated scarf and my independence. Was Andrzej abusive? Not exactly. Did his marginally controlling behavior hint at potential problematic behavior down the line? My gut told me yes.

Listening to that little voice inside, that early warning system whispering, gnawing or sometimes shouting to exit a relationship is a self-preservation instinct.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Recognizing abuse — emotional, physical or economic — and naming it empowers people to walk away from potentially toxic, dehumanizing relationships.

For more information about domestic violence or for free, confidential support, contact the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence at or call the network’s domestic violence hotline at 1-800-228-7395.

We all deserve to feel safe.


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. She spent 10 years working with women, children and men affected by domestic violence. Reader comments are welcome at or