I didn’t know Sherry Walls, the mother and daughter and beloved friend who lost her life last Friday, but as the person who handles most of the social media for The Times-Gazette, I saw the comments on Facebook. And once upon a time, I could’ve been her.
When I was 15, I started dating an older boy. The honeymoon period was a standard grade teenage romance. We went downtown for lunch every day that school year. He took me to prom. We spent many happy summer days at his house. Every now and then, he’d say something vaguely possessive, but I waved it off because the good outweighed the bad.
I started taking classes at Southern State the next year, but I could usually make it back to Greenfield to have lunch with him. One day at lunch, I told him a mutual friend, who was also attending SSCC, joked that he’d printed a license off the internet and could marry us any time. This was the first time the boy I was dating accused me of cheating. I laughed it off at first. Then he went through my phone, reading all of my text messages in search of evidence. I drove to a bike path so we could work things out before he had to go back to school. At some point, he jumped out of the car, slammed my car door hard, and stalked off toward the road. I sat there, staring after him with my mouth open. Then I drove after him.
When I caught up, he got back in the car and told me to drive to his house, even though I reminded him that he had class. On the way to his house, we noticed the window on his side wouldn’t roll up anymore. At his house, he grabbed his stepdad’s tool box and took my passenger-side door apart. School was out by the time he reassembled it, and things between us had gone back to normal. We never talked about it.
But that was only the beginning.
A few months later, his mom and stepdad started fighting. When he Skyped me, I could hear them screaming at each other even though his bedroom was in the basement. My boyfriend stopped eating and sleeping. Once, he mentioned he’d harmed himself. I asked my parents if he could come stay with us until his parents figured things out. They agreed, but I think we all believed he’d only be there for a couple weeks, tops. Toward the end of September/beginning of October, I brought him to our home. He got better. He slept on the bottom bunk in my brother’s room, and we Skyped every night, even though we were only separated by a short hallway. I made him breakfast, took him to school, drove from Hillsboro to Greenfield to have lunch with him, picked him up after football practice. At home, we watched movies and played video games in the evenings, and then we did it all over again the next day. And the next. And the next.
A few weeks after he came to stay with my family, the Tigers lost a football game. They’d lost before, but for some reason, he was angrier about it than usual. When he came out of the field house, he ignored me and headed down a dark side street. I followed him, begging, “please come to the car” and “let’s go home.”
Eventually, he turned back toward me. He started yelling. And then he hit me.
I remember thinking, “OK. He hit me. That’s out of the way,” like I’d been waiting for it. He calmed down, and we went to my car, went back to my house, and didn’t talk about it. We went back to our video games and movies and all-night Skype sessions.
But soon, he started working physical punishments into our daily routines. When he was upset, he threw things at me, choked me, punched me. He went through my phone daily to make sure I wasn’t texting any other boys. Then he told me he didn’t want me to text my best friend anymore.
One day, he threatened to kill himself and never really stopped. That Christmas, my parents got him and my brother knife sets, and he started cutting himself and showing me the aftermath. They were superficial cuts, more like bad scratches, but they got the reaction he wanted: I obeyed. Even though I hid the knives when I could find them, I obeyed him to keep him calm and happy. I didn’t talk to my best friends or any friends for that matter. My life revolved around his schedule and what he wanted.
This went on for six months. Then, a few days before Valentine’s Day, I visited the McClain choir room, and my best friend’s boyfriend wrote something on the back of my hand. On the drive home after school, my boyfriend noticed. I told him the truth and tried to play it off, but he yelled at me. He punched me in the shoulder, and my arm went numb. He reached over and grabbed my face. He dug his fingernails into my cheek and squeezed as hard as he could.
I remember, as he did this, I was looking straight ahead. There was a car coming toward us, and for a second, I thought they must have seen. For a second, I hoped they could help me. But then they passed.
My cheek stung, and I felt like I was bleeding. My eyes teared up, and the area under my eye burned when the tears touched it.
He panicked and told me to drive to Mitchell Park, and I hesitated because I was truly afraid for my life. But I obeyed. When we parked, I sat unmoving in my seat and let him tell me he was sorry, that things would change. Finally, he told me to drive home, and I did.
At home, I put on a movie and sat on the couch. He went into the bathroom. When he came out, he was pale. He told me he had stabbed himself in the side with one knives I hadn’t been able to find. He wouldn’t let me look at the alleged wound, and I suspected then — and now — there never was one. I told him I was going to call an ambulance, but he told me not to and went back to the couch. I took the knife he’d allegedly stabbed himself with and hid it. By the time my parents got home from work, we were cuddling on the couch. When they asked about the scratches, I told them my big, goofy boyfriend had playfully tackled me in the snow, and my glasses had scratched my face.
The next morning, after he’d eaten breakfast, he went in my brother’s room to put his shoes on and grab his backpack. I waited for him on the couch. When he came out, he glared at me and said, “You let [him] write on your hand.” He showed me a knife, the last one I hadn’t been able to find. It was a miniture folding knife, only a little bigger than my pinky finger, but I was still scared when he put it to my throat.
I started talking, loud and panicked. He told me to shut up, so I didn’t wake up my parents. He told me to take him to school. He kept the knife pressed to my leg for the whole ride. I started to speed, and he yelled at me to drive slower. “Do you want to get a speeding ticket?” he asked. I just wanted him out of my car.
When we finally made it to the school, he told me he was going to take the knife and hurt my best friend’s boyfriend. I begged him not to. He started to get out of the car and told me he’d see me after school. And I said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
He turned back to me and asked what I meant. He started crying. I got the knife away from him, but he wouldn’t get out of my car until I said I’d pick him up after school. And I did pick him up. And everything was what it had been before he moved in: he joked with me and kissed me and even suggested we watch my favorite movie series, even though he’d made a big deal about hating it.
But I had texted my best friend the moment I got him out of the car. I told her I couldn’t explain, but she had to warn her boyfriend to stay away from mine.
A few days later, my best friend’s mom messaged me on Facebook. She said she’d seen the message on my friend’s phone, and she was going to tell my mom. I begged her to give me a few days, and she did.
Later that week, my mom asked me to come home during lunch, and I knew my friend’s mom had told her. Standing inside the cow shed, my mom asked if my boyfriend had hurt me.
And I said yes.
Things did not end there, though, even when we moved all of his stuff out onto the front porch and left the house, so his mom could bring him to pick up his belongings. Things didn’t end when I called the cops on him after he threatened to kill himself and called me on Skype just long enough to show me a hunting knife because I was breaking up with him. Things didn’t end when I blocked him on everything except for Snapchat. Things didn’t end when he threatened to beat up the friend from another school who I’d asked to prom. Things didn’t even end when I finally blocked him on Snapchat. I was having nightmares about him.
One day at Southern State the school year after, he saw me in the library and asked if I could draw something for his stepdad. I said I couldn’t and fled to the safety of my next class, where I couldn’t focus because I was trembling. I felt like throwing up. Eventually, I walked to the student lounge, where I knew I’d find him, and told him, “What you did to me was not OK. Don’t talk to me.”
That put an end to the nightmares, but even then, it wasn’t over.
I was 17 when I broke up with him, but I was emotionally numb for years after. It took me years to process what happened, and though I’m better now, the triggers are still alive. I still can’t have anything near my throat. Raised voices can send me into panic attacks. I’ve seen his mom while I was out covering a story for the paper, which almost made me puke because I was afraid she’d tell him I’m back in town.
A few weeks ago, I thought I saw him working the drive thru at the Hillsboro McDonald’s. I caught a glimpse of a lanky arm, a sharp elbow, and some black hair through a window overlooking the drive thru line, and I started panicking. I was sure it was him. When I made it to the window, I gave the stranger, a teenage boy, a weak smile and a weaker hello. My heart didn’t stop pounding until I was almost to Leesburg.
I’m not religious, but if I had a god to thank, I would thank them for the fact that I didn’t have children with him. Because, if I did, I would’ve had to choose between staying to placate him and leaving to protect them and myself.
People always ask, “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” but that’s almost like asking a hostage why they didn’t just leave their captor. It was dangerous to stay, but leaving can be deadly too. Though my abuser didn’t stalk me after I broke up with him, I was still afraid he’d come to my house or see my car and find me in public. I was afraid he’d hurt me or worse. Because sometimes abusers attempt to kill their victims. And sometimes they succeed.
The people who said in Facebook comments that the man who shot Sherry seemed like such a nice guy were probably just seeing what he wanted them to see. Others who were close to Sherry said he’d been threatening her for two years before Friday’s tragedy.
When I opened up about what my abuser did in a post, some of my Facebook friends told me they would’ve never expected that from him. It wasn’t that they didn’t believe me; they just couldn’t believe he was that type of person.
But he was.
My car’s passenger window still sticks every now and then. And I remember how lucky I am to be alive. Sherry wasn’t so lucky.
If you don’t feel safe with your partner, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). They also offer online chatting on thehotline.org. There are Alternatives to Violence centers in Hillsboro and Wilmington. Their 24-hour crisis line can be reached at 888-816-1146.
McKenzie Caldwell is a news reporter for The Times-Gazette. You can reach her at 937-402-2570 or firstname.lastname@example.org.