Tuesday, August 5, 2008

He Was the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of His Country; She Was My Best Friend.

Note: This very long post is a very short version of the story it tells. I hope some people will give it a real read.

Let me tell you a story about an American woman not named Margit, and a man not named Baz, from a country here not named—call it Fland, short for far-away land. I will use their not-names to protect her. The protection he needs can only be found in a secure, humane prison—or in death. Not that I am calling for his death, but I can’t imagine him healing on this side of the river.

In the days preceding the marriage of Baz and Margit in faraway Fland, I fell to fretting, really without much cause. There was the letter from Baz that Margit’s mother had read me over the phone. Formula prose. Baha’i out of a can. I had been positive about the upcoming union, despite how briefly they’d known each other—good things can happen quickly. But, I wondered, could Margit be happy with the man who wrote this letter? She was a storyteller, a joker, a woman of lively words. She was playful, adventurous, and very social. Her personal missives did not come from cans.

After her family returned from the wedding, I talked with mother, father, and sister in turn. They said veiled things like, “Well, now they begin the process of getting to know each other,” or “They are different from each other, very different,” or “It’s clear there’s some place for us in her life, it’s just not clear what that is.” Her mother sent me a small album of wedding pictures and a Xerox of the journal which the three women of the family had kept during the nuptial week. Nobody said anything bad about Baz. But Margit wrote in the journal that things had been hard for her with him; she thought it would get better after the wedding.

At that time, I could not use a computer at all due to pain in my hands and arms, and in Fland Margit did not have easy access to email. So I sent audio letters on CD via snail mail and knew of her only the snippets I gathered from her mom. Some weeks after the wedding I received a first brief email from her, relayed by Larry. There was no humor in it. Okay, that worried me. There’s always humor in Margit’s speech and correspondence.

Knowing Margit was lonely and struggling, her mom sent out Sam’s Club calling cards to Margit’s closest friends. I started calling Fland. I was awake at odd hours anyway, being a poor sleeper, and I had a strong feeling I should keep her connected to her former life.

I didn’t call often; that felt risky. If Baz was about, the vibe was uncomfortable, like it wasn’t really okay to talk. Margit said he thought she relied too much on her friends. He also said she was selfish, self-centered, arrogant, and lazy. He was efficient; she hardly got anything done. Margit tried to accommodate the criticism, and I tried to catch her when he wasn’t around. Often she was traversing the city to meet him, by foot and by bus. On the bus she couldn’t hear anything I said over the noise of engines, so I listened. The tears were few; she told me what she felt she could, slowly, a little bit more, always trying to make sense of it, to be strong, to find improbable hope. Mostly she talked about his anger and her attempts to communicate to Baz how she felt.

Not only was Margit sorting out Baz and his ways, but much of the time their two-bedroom apartment also sheltered his twin brothers and their mother. The mother freely volunteered her critique of Margit as well. When you become part of a family in a culture very different from your own, disentangling cultural difference from dysfunction, theirs and yours, is tricky. I know this firsthand from my experience as an exchange student in Indonesia, and I didn’t want to jump to simple, outsider judgments. Larry kept saying to me, “I don’t care what their culture is—that’s just wrong.” And I think he was right. But I couldn’t say to her, “Margit, this sounds to me like emotional abuse.” I was always afraid of saying something she wasn’t ready to hear and losing her trust.

A downstairs neighbor who, along with the rest of the neighborhood, heard their fights, told Margit, “a wife should be like her husband’s tail.” “Okay,” Margit said to me, “so the ideal of the Faith is service. If I think of it that way it doesn’t seem so bad.” What do you do, what do you say, when your friend half a world a way tries to quell her own anger by translating woman-destroying expectations into the ideals of her faith? I don’t know what I said. We talked as if she was working out a marriage. But she was surviving. I know that now. Surviving. I kept calling and sending CD’s. Please keep talking to me, Margit, please.

Despite the difficulties Margit said she still felt, at core, that it was right for them to be together. On her best days she said, “The reality is, things are just really intense between us.” At times she expressed hope that they would be able to be of service together, that their different strengths complimented each other and could combine to the practical benefit of the Faith. When I asked how Baz saw this, she said she didn’t know. She sounded very vulnerable.

They married in March. In June a work conference called Baz to the United States, and they planned to visit family and friends as well. In our last trans-planet conversation Margit described briefly a billboard the bus was passing; it displayed a public awareness message about physical abuse of children. She said the beating of children was extremely common there, that parents even boasted of having hit their kids so hard they had to take them to the hospital.

Margit said that Baz had been abused by his parents. Family fights had erupted over this recently. “It’s your fault I’m like this,” he had yelled at his parents, “You did this to me.” I couldn’t get a clear answer about what “like this” meant, only that there were big problems between everybody, but especially Baz and his mother. Margit talked about needing to get professional help for Baz, but he considered the guidance of the Baha’i Faith all the help a person needed. Margit was hoping that on their trip to the United States and in consultation with her family, he would open to the idea.

I prayed that she would stay in the U.S. and not return with Baz to Fland. It seemed unlikely.

At her first opportunity Margit called from the hotel in Washington D.C. Baz was sleeping. She had unpacked their bags, hung and stowed their clothes. Do I remember correctly that she had also ironed them, or was that a packing chore only? All very important. “I arrive and just want to call family and friends, but I know he’ll get angry,” she said, “if I don’t do it right away”—while he rests from the long journey, I noted silently. “I’m getting better at it,” she said. “He’s so appreciative when I get things done.”

“Things are really hard,” she said. She cried. I had to go.

Baz got angry the next day when Margit decided not to swim in the roof-top pool as they had discussed. Following her dad’s analysis, she tried to understand what happened as a communication problem or a personality clash—she was spontaneous while he needed plans to be followed like contracts. But she sounded unconvinced. Her parents had come to D.C. to see them and bring them a car to use, and Margit said her father had expressed concern for the potential for abuse he saw in their relationship. For the first time she acknowledged the possibility to me.

I talked with Margit at each stop as they traveled to Vermont from D.C. She always had to get off the phone right away whenever Baz returned to wherever they were staying. I knew there was emotional abuse, but it was this detail that made me afraid it was physical as well. It is so typical of abusers to isolate their victims and control their behavior, to restrict their independent action. They made their way up the eastern seaboard with occasional fun and plenty of trouble. Margit was becoming less protective, more willing to name things for what they were. She corrected me once when, after hearing of the latest crisis, I made a flaccid remark of sympathy with their marital trouble, connecting it to something in my marriage. “We are not even close to that level of understanding,” she said. She was changing fast. I wondered if I could keep up with her. Was I ready to face the truth?

Boston to our house is three hours. They left in the morning, and Margit called a couple times from the road to report delays and difficulties. Like the little piggy who cried all the way home, Baz was acting out all the way to Vermont. The last call came near 8:00 pm. The charge on Margit’s borrowed cell was spent. She was calling from a payphone in a parking lot about twenty miles away. Baz had walked off. She couldn’t see him at that moment. She said she thought things were really falling apart. There was a chance she would be dropping him off at the bus station so that he could return to Fland by himself. She was hoping he would get back in the car and come to our house, but she was concerned about me and my bedtime schedule. “What is the latest we can arrive?” she asked. I said ten o’clock and she said okay. She hoped to be here soon.

I lashed myself for the next hour, at least, with the thought of them in a hotel room and him in meltdown to a personal Armageddon. Why hadn’t I said they could come at any time? What an idiot. The signs of abuse spun in my head. Margit’s friend in Boston had commented on how angry Baz felt to her. “I wouldn’t want to be around when that anger breaks,” she said. I didn’t know what he had been doing to her or what he might do now. I didn’t want Margit alone with him. I had no way to reach her.

Finally headlights shone in the driveway. They were here, they were getting out, they were in the house. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. She looked so thin, so worn. He kept staring at me. “You don’t look how I expected,” Baz said.

“Really,” I laughed, “How did you expect me to look?”

“Different, I expected you to look different. You don’t look like I imagined.”

Larry stood at the kitchen island preparing food. “What about me?” he inquired. “Am I not as pretty as you expected?”

Margit laughed. That was a good sound to hear, the sound of pleasure in the surprise of the familiar. That sound said, yes, I am here, I made it, and I know I can count on these friends. Baz looked blankly at Larry then back at me.

“You look different than I expected,” he said.

Oookaaay. Somebody said something to distract him. Maybe we told him we had maple sugar candies and real root beer for him. He liked that.

Margit stayed close to Baz, sat in his lap, suggested they eat off the same plate. I studied, she coaxed, Larry hosted. After Baz had eaten dinner and talked with Larry, Margit tilted her head sharply like a bird performing some compulsory mating ritual and looked sideways at him. “So, what do you think?” she asked. “Do you want to stay, or are you going to the bus station?” Her voice sounded strange, simultaneously gentle and shrill, playful in a weary kind of way. He looked at her like she was empty space, then looked at us and not at us. “Yeah, I’ll stay,” he said. He smiled briefly.

Before going up to bed, Margit told me they almost didn’t make it here. The time limit had been just what she needed. They had circled round and round, driven by his indecision—on the highway heading our way, off the highway, on again heading back to the bus station to drop him off. Baz had finally announced dramatically how he loved all humanity and so he must come to our house and apologize—we had been expecting him all day. He had not intended to stay.

The next day, Baz was Mr. Perky, Mr. Happy, Mr. Eager to Get Out and Take a Thousand Pictures of Nature with His New Digital Camera. He and Larry sallied forth to hike a big mountain, one that would take all day to reach, climb, descend, and return home from. Of course I couldn’t hike a mountain, being the sickly cripple that I am, and Margit, of course, had to keep me company. This mildly devious arrangement gave me and Margit hours to talk.

The time went quickly. Mostly Margit sat enveloped by the cushions on our soft red couch. She stretched out her legs and nestled under a blanket. Her thin body disappeared from view so that she presented as boobs, spindly arms, and a head with full, bright hair and a tired face. She looked out the picture window at the young woods on our hillside, at the sky of clouds speeding by, and, beyond them and through them, at the strange difficulty of her life and the decisions she had to make.

When Margit met Baz about four months before they married, their lives seemed to fit naturally together. But nothing of their actual life together was as she had expected. They were struggling to live on his salary of $600 a month. When Margit tried to get work he sabotaged her efforts, and when she didn’t, he criticized her. They had bought a van, and he blamed her for the strain on their finances of this large expense. She was a soft American; she needed so much. Yet he took the van to work every day, while Margit walked and used the two-cent buses, not daring to take the more comfortable ten-centers.

I didn’t say much of what I thought. I listened. I affirmed. I asked questions. I let her talk and cry. Having watched them interact now I could freely confirm her perceptions. But when she said she must not be a very sexual person because she didn’t have much desire to be with him, I put my hand on her knee and said, “Margit, you shouldn’t want to be physically intimate with a person who treats you that way.” She looked surprised . . . then relieved; she nodded silently.

The unspoken question of the day seemed to be: Could she trust herself? The unspoken answer seemed to be: She had to. Though we talked about the possibility of her leaving this marriage, I would not know until the next day what was actually at stake.

Baz took his thousand pictures and more. When the car pulled into the driveway Larry leapt out and strode in to greet us like a man seeking water to sate a great thirst. He told me later Baz had to take pictures and video of everything. “The only thing that saved me,” Larry said, “was that he ran out of battery power for his video camera part way up the mountain. After that I didn’t have to stand in front of the camera and talk for him every fifty feet.”

The next morning Larry rose, went into the kitchen, and started making tea. I heard Margit walk over to him from the couch and ask if I was awake. “Yes,” he said, “go ahead, go in.” She came and climbed into my bed. She pushed her long hair, which had hung forward, behind her shoulders. She showed me her torn pajama shirt. She showed me the red scratches and marks on her neck. She said that Baz had tried to strangle her in the night.

She had cried out for Larry, and her cry had stopped the attack. Larry woke, it turned out, but he didn’t hear his name. He laid in the dark, alert, listening, ready to act. He heard crying or sex; he wasn’t sure which. Neither was grounds for intrusion, so he went back to sleep. I wore earplugs and didn’t hear anything, an anomalous good night’s sleep. Jolted from his violence by the threat of discovery, Baz begged Margit to give him another chance. She finally said yes just to quiet him then told him to go to sleep away from her; she had new power with our proximity. In the morning she sat next to Baz on the couch, pretending to read with him and waiting for Larry.

Now, sitting cross-legged on my bed, she looked fragile, brave. I looked her in the eyes and said, “It’s time for him to go.” She held my eyes and nodded.

Although Baz was in a calm state just then, it seems strange, in retrospect, that we did not phone the police right away. Instead, as I headed to the bathroom, I called into the kitchen in my most natural, method-acting voice, “Larry, could you come help me?” That’s a request he lives by, as much as he lives by the words “I love you.” “Sure,” he said, and followed me in.

I told Larry what had happened. I told him the plan was to get Baz to pack up his stuff, then they could go out together. They could get breakfast, and Larry could take him to the bus station. We were trying to give Baz an out. Dumb idea. We “should” have called the police. Thankfully, I didn’t think of it. I had been straining every bit of mind-reading I could muster to follow Margit. She led. She was ready to get out. But I don’t think she was ready to bring in the cops, not yet.

But Baz wouldn’t take his out. He pleaded. He whimpered. He said Margit had promised that she would give him another chance. He said he wanted to talk with her.

We live in a small, odd house: two rooms downstairs separated by three steps through a doorway, and two rooms upstairs separated by a hallway, three steps, and something we call “the tunnel.” I inhabit only the first floor, because a flight of stairs is like a mountain to me, or was at that time, especially our stairs. So my bed is about ten feet from the front door. Margit and I held our quiet court upon this bed. And Larry shuttled between the two first-floor rooms—between Baz’s refusal and ours. He left Baz thinking his tactically penitent thoughts upon the couch and reported to us. We looked at each other and shook our heads. Larry went back. Baz said the same things again. Larry came back to us. We cycled, then we said that’s it, don’t ask again; the answer is not going to change.

I felt slightly annoyed that Larry allowed this. Hadn’t he heard what I had said? Baz had tried the strangle Margit. Poor Larry, no tea, no morning vittles, and we expected him to drive the homicidal man away, eat breakfast with him, and drop him off at the bus station, where they would, no doubt, shake hands and say a cordial goodbye. Zippedy doo da, zippety day! My, oh my, what a wonderful day.

While Larry did his earnest best to convey finality to our guest in the living room, Margit went out to the car to retrieve what she needed from their bags. And to confiscate Baz’s knife. Baz heard the door and saw her step towards the car. He moved quickly from the couch, passed within a few feet of me and opened the front door carefully, as if being quiet might help him evade notice. I noticed. We all noticed. He was barefoot, almost tip-toeing. He wore red plaid boxer shorts, and his shoulders curled slightly forward under his white t-shirt as he turned the knob and slipped out the door. For that brief moment I stood watching things go wrong. The first fear rose in me. Larry grabbed his pepper spray from the utility drawer—waking up fast—and followed.

“Larry, excuse me, I’d just like to talk to my wife,” Baz said calmly. Margit moved from the trunk to the back seat, carefully keeping space between herself and her petitioner. Larry watched. “Excuse me, Larry, I just want to speak with Margit alone.”

“Larry, don’t leave,” Margit said, “do not leave.” Larry stood a few feet from the car, his head bowed slightly, his face wary, his hand in his pocket fingering the trigger of the pepper spray. “I’m not leaving,” he said.

“Please, Larry, I’d like to speak with my wife.” Margit opened the front passenger seat door. Baz took the driver’s seat and leaned across to her. He spoke quietly, desperately. I don’t know what he said. Margit finished and returned to the house. Larry remained. We locked the door. Baz sat back in his seat and looked randomly around the yard.

It was late June. The grass was green; the leaves were out. The work of wood peckers sounded from the hillside. Crows wheeled and cawked. Later, when Baz was gone and our home was quiet, when we were all safe and could talk over the strange gravity of what had happened, grey birds, shooed away by the commotion, would return to the weed-fringed gravel driveway to peck at seeds in the shadow of the car.

Larry squatted on the ground by Baz’s side. “You just get dressed, Baz,” he said, “and we’ll go; I’ll take you to the bus station.”

“No, Larry, no; it’s all over.”

“Come on Baz. Come with me. You can go home. You just need to get dressed and we can go.”

“But Margit said last night she would give me another chance. She promised we would go together to her parents’ house. She promised.”

“That’s not going to happen, Baz. Come on, get out of the car. I have your jeans right here. You can get dressed.”

“No. I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost everything. It’s all over.” His right arm supported his weight as he leaned against the steering wheel. Periodically, he would drop his head and collapse forward sounding the horn. Then he would right himself before slumping lethargically against the seatback and staring out through the windshield.

Larry tried and tried. Then he came in. We discussed calling the police. We knew once we invited them to our party we would not be the game masters anymore. And we knew things can go very wrong with cops in charge. But, we agreed, we were already not in control. We needed the assistance of a greater power.

The day before, Larry and Baz had talked up and down the mountain. They had talked about cameras and traffic fatalities and God. Larry said he thought God was as present in the woods as in any church, synagogue, temple, or mosque. He told Baz of Thoreau’s words about the white pine: “It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.” When Larry returned to the driveway he told Baz that we were ready to call the police if he would not go with him. Baz said he would leave, he would walk off into the woods. “No,” Larry said gently, “If you do that we will still call the police.”

“But Larry, you said God is in the woods, you said so yourself.”

“Yes, Baz, God is in the woods, but God is also here in this car, right now.”

It was time. Larry told the emergency dispatcher what had happened. He said we only wanted Baz to leave. He also said Baz was in a passive state. They didn’t hurry. We waited and watched. Finally, two state troopers in separate patrol cars swung in, each positioned to block our cars from exit. One trooper’s dry cleaning obscured the window of his cruiser’s back seat. We joked that this might account for the delay.

The two officers conferred briefly. “What about this idea of getting him to leave?” one asked the other. “No,” came the answer, “we don’t do that in Vermont. If we find evidence of domestic violence, we have to make an arrest.” The junior officer entered the house.

He was tall and trim, sported a thick mustache and a stiff gray hat with a broad brim all around. How embarrassing, I thought, that hat, like Smokey the Bear playing policeman. “I am wearing a microphone and everything we say is being recorded,” he said. Margit and I held hands. She answered his questions, showed him her neck and the torn collar of her shirt. Then he left to get his camera from the cruiser. As he walked behind Baz, he made eye contact with the other trooper—Larry told us later—and, holding his arms in the air, snapped an imaginary handcuff with his right hand down onto his left wrist.

The senior officer had ordered Baz to get out of the car. Baz had obeyed. He looked small standing there on the grass, bare-legged, barefoot, clad only in boxers and a white undershirt. There was no question who was in command. But Baz denied attempting to strangle Margit. No, no, he had just grabbed her shirt. While Baz spoke his denial—the trooper noted in his report—his hands demonstrated not shirt grabbing, but strangulation. No, no, he had just grabbed her shirt.

They arrested him. They advised Margit to seek a restraining order in case he was released, told her they might need to talk to her again, and left. Margit phoned her family. After lunch, Larry drove her to the courthouse. With considerable feeling of surreality, Margit requested the restraining order. After returning she said, “It’s hard to believe I just had my husband arrested. Filling out the forms and walking through the building, I kept thinking, ‘At least this is happening to a bunch of writers.’”—meaning herself, me, and Larry.

That evening Larry put Paul Winter’s Canyon Lullaby on the stereo. “Lyrical and haunting,” livingmusic.com says, “Canyon Lullaby showcases Winter’s soulful soprano sax within the extraordinary acoustics of the Grand Canyon, among a symphony of wildlife voices.” We came to call it “The Earth Weeps for You.” Margit slumped deeper in her chair and a total collapse looked immanent. Try something else, we said to Larry, something less exactly matching the moment.

Our talk ran over the day, of course. The miracle of it was that Baz himself had helped things go right. He had the chance to avoid arrest, a long chance. But he didn’t take it. It was as if he knew he needed someone else to take charge of him, as if he himself wanted out of his life as it was and knew he couldn’t do it on his own. We wondered aloud what it was like to be in jail. Was he praying? Larry said, “If I was in jail, my prayers would make all the prayers I’d ever prayed before sound like nursery rhymes and bullshit.” The next day we learned Baz had requested a Baha’i prayer book, and I made phone calls to arrange getting one to him. My Baha’i contacts were rather startled that I, an ex-Baha’i, knew of this incarcerated brother-in-faith before they did.

A couple days later, Larry drove Margit to the troopers’ office where she answered more questions. “Well, you see when it happens, you have to—” she said. The officer stopped her, “You mean this wasn’t the only time?” No. “What else did he do?” “Well,” she hesitated, “Once he slapped my face so hard that my nose made strange noises for a long time afterwards . . . Once in the car he punched my arm again and again, and my whole upper arm turned black and every color . . . In a hotel he dragged me across the carpet, giving me large carpet burns on my legs, and threw me against the wall, so that my head slammed hard.”

“That’s horrible,” the officer said. “I am sorry; that shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

That last incident happened on their way home from a three-day visit to the Baha’i World Center in Haifa. As I learned much later, Baz had reprimanded her for something in front of Abdu’l-Baha’s shrine, reminding her where she was. And Margit had stood up to him there. “I don’t care,” she said. “Abdu’l-Baha sees everything you do to me. Abdu'l-Baha knows what you do to me.”

While Margit was in Fland I depended on her parents, especially her mother, for their independent impressions of what was going on. We had a tenuous collaboration supporting Margit. But we reacted very differently to the arrest. They were talking to Baz on the phone. They wanted to get him out of jail. They wanted him to be able to return to the U.S. for school. This is the hardest part of the story for me to write because my frustration and anger of the time has passed, and I feel somewhat protective of them and of Margit’s relationship with them. When Margit told me of the incidents she had described to the officer, I said I thought she needed to tell her parents this, hoping that more details would clarify what was at stake. I said they needed to, at least, think about her future safety, about making sure there was one country where he couldn’t get at her.

“Margit, could you pass me a tissue?” I said, as we talked that evening about what Baz had done to her. “I’m going to blow my nose and try not to throw up.”

More stories came out. He had closely monitored all her activity, locked her out of the house, threatened to abandon her by the side of the road, deprived her of sleep, called her a whore, wildly jerked the steering wheel while she piloted the car on the highway. One way or another she was under attack nearly all the time. If it wasn’t physical violence, it was physical deprivation, verbal assault, blame, or denigration. In those first days after the arrest Margit felt disoriented by being trusted, not criticized, and allowed to care for her own needs. Later in her healing she made a list of things Baz would get angry at her for. Two hundred, many of them contradictory. It’s called crazy-making behavior, and it works.

The violence had escalated in three months from exclusively verbal and emotional to just on the living side of homicide. If they had left our house together, I think he would have killed her. It was really only luck that he didn’t. And Margit’s cry. And a little something in Baz that held back. Instead of releasing her neck when she cried out, he might have clamped down to silence her. Strangulation can cause unconsciousness in as little as seven seconds. I imagine the resulting silence and cessation of struggle would make it much easier to hold on for the end.

Margit stayed with us for a week after the arrest, resting, thinking, waking up from the nightmare, talking with friends and family, and dealing with the legal process. I was not involved in the conversation she and her parents were having about prosecution. Even after the truth had come out I found myself trying to read what was going on from small clues and bits of reported conversation. I started to feel I just wanted her to leave. We knew what this man had done and here we were playing patty-cake with him. If I couldn’t change that I didn’t want to watch it, from the front row, either. I felt trapped and impotent, again. But I didn’t really want her to leave. “I’m going to have to trust Margit,” I decided. “After all this, I can take that risk. I can tell her what I’m feeling.”

So when Margit said to me, after a conversation with her mother, that she wasn’t sure about separating from Baz permanently, that maybe she wouldn’t decide yet, I spoke up.
I can’t remember if I responded right then or later, but I told her that I was feeling really sick. Poor Margit thought the physical strain from all this had been too much for me. There had been rather a lot going on in my place of convalescence. But what was making me feel particularly sick, I explained, was the thought that she might go back to Baz. I said, “There’s nothing for you to work out together. The problem is not between you; it’s in him. He’s not capable of being with you in a healthy relationship, and he is never going to be. That’s how messed up he is.” I think it was a relief to Margit to hear that clarity. Integral to abuse is a mental mind game that undermines the victim’s own judgment and reality sense. A person doesn’t come out of that the instant they are physically safe and free.

Margit was in no condition to transport herself or be alone. And I was exhausted, yes, ready for a simpler domestic scene. A friend flew east and drove with Margit back to her family’s home.

After she left, I removed the pictures of Margit’s wedding from the small album her mother had sent me three months before. While she was in Fland I had stared at those pictures—cutting the cake, putting cake in each other’s mouths, standing face to face holding hands—and tried hard to find some sense of a living connection between these two people. I couldn’t feel it. And now there was no reason to search for it. I took scissors in my fragile hands for the first time in years and cut the images apart, separating their likenesses as their selves had been—all along in truth, and now in fact.

Experimenting with physicalizing my prayer, I placed the images of Margit in a robin’s nest which Larry had brought me from our wood pile. Around it I spread the pictures of her family and small objects symbolic of my hopes. I prayed for Baz too; his pictures had their place, well away from hers. I felt no anger at Baz then, no desire to get him or punish him. But I did want him to be treated as the dangerous person he truly was. Jail in Vermont, in the offender rehabilitation program, with a male Baha’i in the nearby community who was ready to befriend him, was a decent chance for some kind of positive change. The terrible place Baz was in was not jail but his own mind and psyche—not a safe neighborhood.

But I learned from Margit’s mother that Baz was to be offered a plea bargain of one count of trespassing and one count of creating a nuisance, down from felony domestic assault, and to be released on time served. I called Margit and said “If this isn’t what you want, this is your chance to do something.”

Margit said the plea bargain made it sound as if Baz had been dancing in his underwear on the front lawn. But as good as the Vermont law enforcement and criminal justice system was in this situation, they unfortunately leave prosecution choices in domestic violence cases significantly to the victims. Margit wasn’t ready then to prosecute. She wasn’t ready to break away from her parents and say Baz should be in jail. But she wrote a personal statement of rebuke, which was read at his hearing. She said she hoped this conviction would hang on him as a warning to other women.

After the plea bargain went through I didn’t know what would happen to Baz and I didn’t feel I could do anything to help him anymore. I had to let go. I looked at the pictures of him a last time—praying for the unknown ahead in his life and the lives of those whom he might hurt next—and dropped them in my paper recycling bag. He was getting recycled, back out into the world.

I wrote a letter to Margit saying I needed a break from contact with her. I couldn’t pretend to have milder feelings and thoughts about Baz than I did. And the tension of trying felt unbearable to me now. I had used up my willingness to suspend judgment. One evening I asked Larry to leave me alone for a bit. The living room was dark, and I was tired. I placed all remaining images from Margit’s wedding in the robin’s nest and arranged the nest in our wood stove. I spoke my awkward prayers. I lit the match. I let it go.

Baz was released and flew away to Fland—but only after visiting the Baha’i House of Worship in Wilmette and giving a workshop for volunteers there. He resigned from the National Spiritual Assembly of his country. For a few months he harassed Margit from a distance, then went silent. As a final stroke, he took the independent initiative to retain some of her most personal belongings as mementos for himself. A fucker, right to the end.

I never sent that letter to Margit. She called before I could, and, well, she’s just one of those people I can’t resist. I knew I couldn’t not talk to her. Two months after the arrest she was ready to prosecute, but it was too late. And when she called the prosecutor back and told him, he said he hears that all the time and there was nothing he could do. Margit has been healing beautifully, and we are the best of friends. I am only sorry this narrative tells so little of what she suffered and of her good work to survive and heal.

I would give the National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S., its Office of Community Affairs, and the local spiritual assembly which oversaw Margit’s year of patience a collective A- for their responses. There were problems, but nothing big. The word from the Baha’i national center was “prosecute.” And one member of the NSA apparently had some rather colorful things to say about what he would do if somebody did that to his daughter. It helped, I’m sure, that none of them had a personal connection to Baz.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the U.S. reported the incident to the Universal House of Justice. I don’t know if Baz’s resignation was initiated by him or ordered by them. But we learned in the summer of 2007 that he was on the NSA of Fland again. He probably helped elect the House this year.

22 comments:

Polychrysos said...

Priscilla,

I would say something about this, but how can I? There's too much here, and it's hard to even begin to sort it all out. All I can say is that I had no problem reading this all at once, although I was on edge through most of it. Words fail me.

Brendan

kaweah said...

Wow, Priscilla. That story had my heart racing. It was not too long, even reading it from my desk at work. It reminds one that every little life can so easily become a world of pain, terror, grief. I am grateful, at least, that things did not spin any more out of control.

Dan

Naani Amma said...

Thanks for sending this message to me. This is the story of my life too, the only difference is that i didnt get proper healing the first time, so I was trapped in repeating the past. I thought it better to be in a relationship than without, and maybe that was all i was worth, so into another abusive marriage i went. This happened 4 times. My advice to anyone is seek the help you need instantly, and dont rush back into any abusive relationship. See it for what it really is, and get out of it before its too late.

ABD said...

Dear Priscilla,

This was at once difficult to read and a race to the finish. May God guide, protect and bless you and your loved ones, Larry and Margit foremost.

The pith of the piece is too heavy for comment, but I did want to highlight a small remark that speaks volumes about Larry and you:

[A]s I headed to the bathroom, I called into the kitchen in my most natural, method-acting voice, “Larry, could you come help me?” That’s a request he lives by, as much as he lives by the words “I love you.” “Sure,” he said, and followed me in.

Words to live by indeed.

Eliza Mellen-Smith said...

Hey Priscilla,

Magrit sent me the link to your story and it brought me right back to that time. I applaud all that you and Larry did for her and have always thought that the order of visits that summer was so clearly not an accident. From my house to yours. . . I always felt like you were a guardian angel waiting to help her . . .

I remember the night before they left my house for yours: you know who was sulking in the other room, and I lay on my bed with Magrit shaking and crying on my shoulder, and my beautiful baby sleeping peacefully on my other side and I kept thinking that this was SO wrong: She deserved peace, innocence and love; no less than my sleeping child. I wanted to keep her there next to me and protect her as fiercely as I would him. Hold her until all her pain went away. . .

But I also felt a sinking feeling that this wasn't mine to fix. Much as I wanted to swoop in like a mother bear and kick his ass, and make her stay in the states; I knew I was powerless to force her to safety, that pushing her would just reinforce HER powerlessness.

I remember also feeling underneath the protectiveness, a hope, along with the dread. I knew change was coming and I knew something had to give. This wasnt right, this wasn't a marriage, that she could not go back there with him. I, too, thought she would die if she went back.

So, I bit my tongue, breathed, and I offered her help when she was ready- whatever she needed, $ support etc . . .and I prayed for her protection and also for something to give, and for it to happen here, where she would have the support of people who know her and love her. And it did. And she did. And she couldn't have had a better set of friends with her at the time.

Priscilla, you spoke truth to distortion and pain, both Magrits and his, which is hard as hell, and I am SO grateful you for your lucidity and grace. (crippled or not!:)

Thank you for helping Magrit, for keeping it real when it really counted, and for writing down the bones of this story. It is both unique and universal. ( It WAS a blessing that this happened to a group of writers!)

You have my admiration, respect, and above all:
my gratitude
and love,
Eliza

Priscilla Gilman said...

Thank you Brendan, Dan, Naani, and ABD for your comments. It seems a little funny now that I was concerned the length of this post would put people off. Although it is hard to comment on a piece like this, it is also really good to hear from people, and Margit is eager read responses. So thanks for commenting, and thanks to those who have written to me privately.

Priscilla Gilman said...

Oh Eliza, I felt we were such good collaborators. I was sooooo grateful to you for the part you played. You definitely prepared the way for The End with the things you said and the time you had with Margit. Thanks for telling some of that tale here. You said, “I knew I was powerless to force her to safety, that pushing her would just reinforce HER powerlessness.” I completely agree.

bless you,
Priscilla

Dale said...

Whew. Very powerfully written. I'm so glad you and Larry could be there for her.

Anonymous said...

Dearest priscilla
I can so much relate to this story... I was also abused emotionally by the Bahais. I never recovered and ended up in psychiatric institutions many times trying to take my own life. I am a born again Christian these days and have found healing in the words of my lord Jesus Christ. thank you so much for your beautiful writing.

Baquia said...

I'm an easy going, peaceful person but have some v e r y un-Baha'i thoughts race through my mind when I read about abusive spouses.

What caught my attention was where Baz says that the Baha'i Faith is all the help he needs. In my experience this is a huge red blinking warning sign and I run the other way at top speed when someone tells me this.

My prayers and best wishes to Margit. She is blessed to have friends like you and Larry.

Faith said...

It is also important to read the ideas of this blogger

http://jewbahais.blogspot.com

Priscilla Gilman said...

I let the above comment stand despite its irrelevance to this post because I am loathe to censor. But I found the website bizarre. Kavian has made the case that it is fake:

http://jewsandbahais.blogspot.com/2008/09/plan-b-fake-web-log-syndrome.html

After reading his post, I'm inclined toward the opinion that the website is actually parodic, but I don't really know.

Steve Marshall said...

I struggle to censor comments on my own blog but, as a reader on yours, I think Faith's comment is parasitic.

Steve Marshall said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brent Poirier said...

If I was a woman, and my husband hit me -- one time -- I would consider that sufficient grounds for a Baha'i divorce; period, no second chances. And if any woman in that situation asks my opinion, that's it. There are some boundaries you don't cross. There are some faults you don't get to have. If you're a wife-beater, don't get married. Work that out of your system beforehand.

You have presented very well the chaos, the ambivalence of Margit, the plausibility yet insincerity of Baz; the protection and common sense you and your husband demonstrated. Well done. You may well have saved a life; and your thorough posting may well save the lives and well-being of other women in the same situation. And well done for your fairness in giving "A-" to the US NSA and its Office of Community Administration.

But.

My one and only problem with your posting is the last line, which is a punch in the stomach, a gratuitous and unfair undermining of the exalted position of the Universal House of Justice -- that Baz probably helped to elect it. What could the NSA of Fland or the House of Justice do to remove his participation in the election, in the absence of a criminal conviction?

It's unfortunate that such a sensitive and powerful article ends with what came across to me as a cheap shot.

Brent Poirier,
New Hampshire USA

Brent Poirier said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Cheap shot Brent? Please. The point is why does it take the efforts of a couple of non-Bahais to help a soul like her out? Why? Because the Bahai community fails miserably at helping the vulnerable. The AO is more concerned with it's own self-preservation on how it looks in the eyes of the public. So please quit with your administration (idol) worship- it really is making partners with God.

Anonymous said...

For a moment I really thought it was about my own story, except in my case I was the victim and the husband. For a number of reasons I'd rather not get into here, I won't share my name here. I'll give a brief outline ... I don't want to change the subject or anything.

In my case police also got involved, and I had involved them myself in the hope that they might somehow help my ex-wife by doing a psych eval. Instead, they recommended bringing charges, but she fled the country to the US before that could happen - with our child. We now both live in the States and I only have visitation, whereas we would have had joint custody by default in the previous country. While I was dealing with this, I must say the local US Baha'i communities were completely unhelpful, though there were one or two individual Baha'is who went out of their way to help, in additional to my family helping. It was very disheartening, and the opposite someone in my situation needed.

I also have come to the conclusion that parental consent does more harm than good when parents blindly bless a union, but this of course does not absolve the couple from responsibility in using their own judgment. The trouble is that outsiders who are in frequent contact with such a couple can often recognize abusive behavior more quickly than the couple itself, and people should speak up rather than keep to themselves.

When there is gaslighting going on, it takes help from outsiders for the victim to understand that there is nothing wrong with them, but that their partner is projecting their problems onto them through gaslighting (look it up).

Priscilla said...

Anonymous: Thank you much for your comment. There is a huge need for more awareness about domestic violence of women against men. It's a subject I have a particular interest in. Please contact me via e-mail if you want to communicate more on that. And thank you for speaking/writing.

Amado said...

In our own little "Fland", a lucky, happy ending: the abuser seduced our niece, got her pregnant as she was leaving for her year of service, and "as a good girl" she married him and cried every day, all day, for several years. We got her free, him in jail, etc. But she was still broken. What brought her back to life was meeting the right guy: good, patient, loving - he revived her, and turned the little boy from a hateful monster (absorbed from the biological father) to a great little kid. We so often repeat such a cycle of wrong choices, that this was simply a miracle, and can't be prescribed as the remedy, because a good man is hard to find, but this good man did what we were repeatedly unable to do - he brought her (and the little boy) back to life!

Anonymous said...

In response to a prior posting... I don't believe you ever stated your friend was "abused by the Bahai's" but by "a Baha'i". I struggle with people's experiences and blaming the Faith for individual failings. I too was abused by a Bahai... but not for one minute did I blame the Faith. And people say "now I am [insert new faith here] as if people in THAT faith would never do such things. It was made very clear to me when I first learned about the Faith that we are never to judge the Faith by the people - albeit they are all called to a high standard - but that if we do so we will always be disappointed in the Faith. But if we put our faith in God and understand through our own hearts then we will find out peace in a fallible world.

Just sayin'... I am actually appreciating your presentation. You never really blamed "the Faith" you just stated the facts. Also, as a "Free Range Bahai" [I liked that term... not sure what it means but it feels fitting *hehe*} I, myself think people expect WAY too much from the institutions in this day and age. They are SO young, they can barely pay the bills most times and get people together for meetings in most places. This abusive man thought that the Faith was enough for him to solve his problems and you rightly stated this was craziness. Isn't it also unrealistic to expect a young faith with such loose structure to do the job that takes a social worker and a lawyer to do. I dunno.. I might also be considered an ex-Bahai by some standards - but I like to see things fairly and rationally. From what I've read of your blog I am really liking your honesty and integrity in your writing. You seem fair and rational and I like that in a person.

BAHAI1844 said...

Ya Baha'u'l-abha! Thank you for exposing this, as well as the other sober commentary on journalism... The House of Justice may well have deserved that punch in the gut! Really! Why do I say this? Because - that abuser WAS part of their election - and tell me this - does the Bible not say that Satan will deceive even the very elect? I'm sorry, but I have come to HATE the faiths institutions, mistrust them COMPLETELY, FIND THEM DISPOSSESSED OF THE WORD OF GOD AND THE CENTER OF THE COVENANT! AND FRANKLY, THE COMMENT INSINUATING IDOL-WORSHIP IS ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE. BEWARE OF THIS!! UNITARIAN-UNIVERSALISM NAILS IT DIRECTLY - BEWARE OF THE IDOLITRIES OF THE MIND AND SPIRIT!! BLESS YOU! YOURS IN SERVICE - ZACH LIGHTCAP - HOMEFRONT PIONEER - KNIFED IN THE NECK, KNOW WHAT YOUR TALKING ABOUT BAHA PERSON OR WHATEVER YOU CALL THAT. SOMEONE UNDER THE COVENANT! Maybe you find the firesides of Neal Chase interesting - if there is a living guardian - what are the choices? How would this help to teach the public, and also, I have seen a "local house of justice" form inside an LDS church - the Bishop just snapped his fingers, and whalah! complete with a recording secretary! Believe in the Covenant! You are his PRECIOUS TRUST!BLESS YOU FOREVER!! -ZL