A Safe Place

By Alison Freeland

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

On Nantucket an organization called A Safe Place helps victims-they call them survivors-of domestic violence and sexual assault. They have a 24-hour-a-day hotline, counseling, and a network of safe houses on the Island. They respond to 150 crises a year, and are working with sixty people at any given time. They're good at helping women out of bad relationships. Sometimes it means helping them off Nantucket.

In a working class town in New England, a woman we'll call Sarah is starting over. She has a two-room apartment and a new job. But the past lingers. She has a guard dog. She jumps when the phone rings. She's miles away from her life on Nantucket where says she was relatively new to the Island when a charming man approached her one night in a bar.

Sarah: "We got to talking; exchanged phone numbers and all that. He called me the next day and pretty much every day after that. He called me more than once a day. So he came on very strong."

At the time Sarah was newly divorced with four children, and wondered if anyone would ever want her again. This man seemed to love her and her children. It was six months before she saw his temper. One night he invited her over, but when she got there the TV was turned up, and he was pacing. He made it sound like his problems were her fault. She said to him: It doesn't seem like you really want me to be here. I can leave.

Sarah: "Picked me right up off the floor by my collar and threw me onto the couch. Grabbed the back of my hair, and said, You aren't going anywhere. It felt like a train hit me, whoa. Totally and completely dumbfounded and petrified."

Sarah's in her late thirties and petite-half the size of her abuser. She's got light-colored eyes and a steady gaze. She cinches her coat with a perfectly-knotted belt and curls her shoulder-length hair into smooth waves. "Presentation is important", she believes. Sarah says she's independent, but she could not disentangle from this man or predict his behavior. One winter night they were in his truck. They passed by the shuttered boutiques in town and went to his house which was surrounded by empty summer cottages. That night he became enraged. Sarah fled to the bathroom, but he followed her and threw her on the floor.

Sarah: "He sat on my back and he grabbed my head and twisted it around. And I heard from the base of my head all the way down, it just sounded like popcorn. .That's when my life flashed and I thought I was going to go. I saw stars, and one more fraction and I would have broken..I don't know why he didn't finish the job, but he just got up and walked out of the bathroom."

No one was nearby to hear her scream. For three days he kept Sarah with him, but eventually he returned to work, and Sarah went to the emergency room. They gave her the number of A Safe Place. Sarah met with a counselor in their office and began the process of getting out of the relationship.

Sarah: "They didn't tell me what I should or shouldn't do. They basically left it up to me, but told me that I had the courage in me to do whatever I needed to do. I didn't feel like I had any power left. That had been taken away. I knew I had it within me, and my courage as well, but I didn't know how to reach it anymore."

Sarah found the courage to leave her abuser, but couldn't avoid seeing him around town. Ultimately A Safe Place helped her plan a new life on the mainland. They got her a police escort to the ferry. Even then her abuser was standing on the corner looking into each car as she drove by. Not all women decide to leave the Island. Many hope the court system will protect them. On Monday mornings in Nantucket, they sit among the drunk drivers and tax evaders, waiting for the judge to fly in. Inside the courtroom, they find their abuser glaring at them across the room. When they are called before the judge, Andrea Markovitch from A Safe Place walks with them to the bench in support.

Andrea Markovitch: "That's one of the things they fear the most, seeing that person, because it puts them back into that situation that brought them there in the first place. It's not that they don't care about them, it's just that they can't live with the fear anymore. I'm not up there for me, but sometimes just standing up there I can feel their fear and anxiety."

In many cases abusers spend one night in jail and are given a restraining order. But it's hard not to see each other on Nantucket. Police Chief William Pittman is committed to dealing with this issue. He wants to educate people about the signs of domestic abuse which are right in front of their noses, even though many think it doesn't go on in a place like Nantucket.

Police Chief William Pittman: "It's one of the top priorities for us. Quite honestly, next to burglar alarms, it's probably one of the most frequent calls for service that we here in the Nantucket police department deal with." A Safe Place Executive director, Meg Hunter, says they often meet women in the E.R. or Police Station when police request their support. Other women come to them on their own. When Sarah started her new life, she sought out another Safe Place in her new community and went for counseling. She's been gone from Nantucket for over a year now, working on healing both mentally and physically.

Sarah: "I'm just so appreciative I'm alive. But I'm appreciative that I can even walk, because I knew when I was laying on that floor that there was no way I was going to get out of there alive. I'm just amazed I can walk. I take my dog for a walk every day now, and I smile with each step."

Meanwhile A Safe Place on Nantucket continues to try to protect women like Sarah. Their programs touch about 1700 people a year on the Island. They post their phone number on message boards next to summer rentals and babysitting signs. And their hotline continues to ring.

Broadcast June 29, 2006

Alison Freeland reports for the Cape and Islands NPR Stations.