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A view of violence: Survivors share how they overcame abusive relationships

A woman's depiction of how she and her children escaped their abuser hung on the wall of a Project Safe safe house

By Joe Johnson

Dawn's boyfriend beat her so badly one night she miscarried in a bathroom.

Four days after that, Jared raped the 22-year-old Athens woman, who later gave birth to a daughter for whom she felt no maternal instincts.

"I didn't love her because of the way I had her," Dawn said.

Now 27 and two years removed from a violent relationship, Dawn is working hard to be a loving, responsible mother and provide a nurturing home for her child.

"It was an awful experience, and it's been over for two years now, but I'm still settling into being normal today," she said.

Dawn, who asked to be identified by her middle name, is just one of an untold number of women who suffer domestic abuse every day across the country, in Georgia and here in Athens.

She is one who survived to tell her story.

Even before Dawn met Jared, she was no stranger to domestic violence.

"I was just brought up around it as a kid, so people hitting and yelling a lot was normal to me," she said.

Sherry Tanner, who was battered for years by her husband, also was a young victim. She said her mother endured years of emotional abuse and her stepfather sometimes beat her an a daily basis.

"My stepfather set me up for what came later," she said. "It's really bad when you're bleeding from welts, head to toe. He died when I was 15, and that was actually a celebration on my part. That's pretty sad, but that's the way I felt. It was relief."

Dawn and Tanner's stories are typical, said Rita Smith, executive director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. They were young women running from one abusive environment into the arms of men ready to manipulate their vulnerability.

"Many women witness violence growing up, and it appears to be the norm for them, and if they don't have any other models to look at, it's hard for them to know that's not what everybody does," Smith said.

Dawn was still in high school when she met Jared, and she thought him a savior.

"I was attracted by his attitude, thinking he would protect me because he wouldn't take nothing from no one, if that makes sense," Dawn said. "He was the bad-boy type I was after."

Tanner fell for husband Stacy when first she saw him in her high school's lunch room, where other admiring girls gathered around him.

Red flags that Tanner missed began popping up soon after she and Stacy started dating.

"The abuse didn't start right away, but the controlling began pretty quickly," she said. "If I went to mall with my mom and sister, he'd call as soon as I got home, accusing me of being out with another guy."

While cursing out Tanner for taking too long running an errand in a store, Stacy slammed on the brakes and wrecked the car, sending Tanner's head through the windshield.

"I just swept it under the rug" Tanner said. "When the wreck happened he started crying and saying, 'I love you. I'm sorry. It will never happen again,' you know, those kinds of things. And I forgave him.

"I just wanted to be loved. I was craving for someone to love me."

Though unique individuals, Tanner and Dawn shared one thing. They each used the word "brainwashed" to describe how their abusers made them believe no other men would want them. And they stayed, hoping their partners would somehow change.

Tanner even left her husband, who tracked her down at her father's home in Texas and convinced her to come back.

"He acted like the perfect husband and had us all fooled," she said. "My dad drove us back to Georgia, and as soon as dad left the driveway, he beat the hell out of me."

Love hurts

JD Smith was 22 years old when she met the man who would later become her abusive husband.

"I was young and looking for a husband, someone to spend the rest of my life with, and Michael had the kind of personality where he was just the light of the room," Smith said. "He was happy-go-lucky and funny, and everybody liked him. That's what attracted me to him."

The singer-songwriter soon found herself pregnant. She then married Michael.

"That's when the abuse really started coming out," Smith said. "When I was pregnant, he actually hit me with a rocking chair right across the back."

Michael displayed the same controlling behavior as Tanner's husband. He accused Smith of having affairs whenever she went somewhere without him.

"He would check the odometer of my car and chalk the tires to see if I went anywhere. It got that bad," she said.

Smith said her husband kicked her in the stomach soon after she had surgery, scalded her with hot coffee, and once knocked her unconscious.

"I know what it feels like (when) a fighter who is KO'd," she said. "I saw stars, then everything went black and I woke up on the floor."

Michael's drug abuse only compounded problems.

"We had a really bad fight while he was coming down from a high, and he told me if I called the police he would barricade us in and have a shoot-out with the police," Smith said.

During that fight, Michael ripped the phone from the wall and flung it, causing a bloody gash to Smith's head.

"Right at that time, Michael's brother walked in, saw what was going on and said to him, 'She's not worth it, let's go get a beer,'" Smith recalled. "So they left, and I think that actually saved my life."

Tanner has war stories of her own from the seven years she was married to Stacy. A recurrent phrase of hers while being interviewed was that Stacy always "beat the crap out of me."

The husband punched Tanner in the stomach while she was pregnant. He would drag her into the bedroom by the hair and force her to have sex.

"He really loved to bash my head against the wall," Tanner said. "He got to the point where he didn't want bruises that people could see so he began putting pillows on my face to smother me. He did that a lot, even to my daughter."

Stacy cost his wife jobs by showing up and making scenes at workplaces and making her stay home so often she got fired for incurring too many absences.

While jobless, Stacy took a week's vacation. He placed his daughter with his parents, then spent the entire time holding Tanner hostage.

"I couldn't even go to the bathroom by myself because he thought I might climb out the window," she said. "He beat me and tortured me. He wouldn't allow me to make any calls or talk to friends. I felt I had died and gone to hell."

While hostage in her own home, Tanner even had a gun put her head and a knife against her throat.

She made up her mind what she needed to do.

"I figured the only way I was going to get out of this hell was to die, so I took a bottle of pills," she said. "Things didn't work out as planned, because I woke up screaming with a pain in my head. I told (Stacy) what I did and he yelled at me all the way to the hospital," where Tanner's stomach was pumped out.

Dash to Freedom

An alert domestic violence advocate was shopping at a local grocery store when she saw Smith with Michael. Recognizing the bruises, the husband's behavior and other signs of abuse, the advocate discreetly slipped Smith a business card with the phone number for Project Safe's 24-hour hotline.

After the episode in which Michael threatened to kill Smith and her children, then shoot it out with police, the woman called the hotline.

"I finally got to the point where I said, 'OK, I'm not going to become a statistic,'" Smith said. "I really believe (Michael) was going to kill us."

Counselors from Project Safe quickly devised a plan to get the woman and her children out of the home.

"One night when Michael wasn't home, I got the kids, threw their clothes into the car and grabbed one guitar and met with them at a Project Safe safe house, where I stayed for five weeks," Smith said.

With the agency's help, Smith found an apartment where she began her new, independent life.

"You can break away. There is hope," Smith said. "You just need to take that first place until you get to where you want to be."

Tanner found refuge at Project Safe's emergency shelter twice. The first time was after Stacy held her hostage in their home.

The couple divorced after that and Tanner moved to Texas. But Stacy once again used his emotional sway to convince Tanner to give him another chance.

"He was crying, saying how he loved me, that we needed to work things out for our daughter, he'd found God, blah, blah, blah and I believed him," Tanner said.

"I took a bus to Athens and as soon as I got off the bus I saw him standing there with evil in his eyes," Tanner said. "When we got into the car he slapped the hell out of me and said, 'Wait 'til I get you home (expletive),' and that when he beats me and rapes me.

"When I found out I was pregnant from the rape he denied it was his and beat the crap out of me again, and that's when I fled once more to Project Safe to get away from him for good," Tanner said.

Even after leaving the emergency shelter, Tanner continued to attend group meetings. That's where she met JD Smith, and through shared experiences became fast friends and then roommates.

"We gave each other strength," Tanner said.

There is a rainbow

A woman who sought refuge at the Project Safe shelter made a painting of a home with a cloud hanging over it and a lock and chain inside. But there's a rainbow in the sky on which the victim wrote the word, "Hope."

Another woman's artwork shows a stitched-up heart getting pummeled by a hammer.

The paintings are among the more than 200 that hang at Project Safe's confidential location. Expressing their feelings through art is therapeutic for victims, but their paintings also inspire and challenge the women, shelter volunteers and staff alike.

Survivors like Dawn are up to that challenge.

Since leaving her abuser, she obtained her GED and today works as a server while also working on a counseling certificate she expects to receive from Athens Technical College in April.

"I want to stay in this field. I have a passion for it," Dawn said. "I can see today why God allowed what happened to me, so I could get through it and help someone else."

Smith and Tanner teamed up to record "In the Dark," a song that Smith composed while staying at the Project Safe shelter and appears on her album, "My Conscious Earth."

Both women are committed to helping others break free of abusive bonds. They regularly give presentations in public and at shelters. Smith is in the process of granting Project Safe the rights to her CD so that all profits from sales at the agency's gift shop will go entirely to the agency.

"Project Safe is amazing. I don't know what I would have done without them," Smith said. "They give you everything you need to get back on your feet. They tell you it's all about you and your kids and being safe."

As a Project Safe alumnus, Tanner also obtained her GED, started a business and became a successful insurance agent. She remarried, had another child, and counts her blessings every day.

"My new husband would never lay a hand on me, and that's what I always try to tell other women, that you don't have to be treated like you're a piece of garbage," Tanner said. "There is happiness out there, but you will never find it if you stay."

Anyone who is in an abusive relationship can seek advice and services by calling Project Safe's 24-hour hotline at (706) 543-3331, or by visiting

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