Abuse survivor outlines brainwashing, gives advice for responding to domestic violence

The Daily News, New York/September 19, 2015

By Matt Surtel

Warsaw  — The verbal abuse was horrifying, just like the physical assault which accompanied it.

The 54-minute tirade was caught on video by Susan Still’s then 13-year-old son — forced to do so by his wickedly domineering father.

“Stupid heifer.”

Still ultimately escaped from her husband, who’s now still serving a 36-year prison term. Now she’s using her experiences to advise police and court officials about the realities of domestic violence.

“I met Prince Charming,” she said Friday, describing how she met and married her abuser. “He was wonderful to me — wonderful. I didn’t fall in love with the man who 24 years later was beating the crap out of me.”

Still’s talk was part of a domestic violence training session for Wyoming County law enforcement, along with Social Services workers and others. She talked about the realities of being a victim, and why it’s so difficult to leave those situations.

She also shared insight on approaching and handling such incidents, from a survivor’s perspective.

“We’re hoping this training with her will give a personal side of the story, which is explaining what goes on behind closed doors,” said District Attorney Donald O’Geen. “So when people go to these incidents, they kind of know the background.”

How domestic abuse develops — and how people escape — isn’t as easy as people think.

Still and her husband, a successful blues musician, lived in the Buffalo area. He wasn’t abusive at first, although controlling behaviors soon started bubbling up from beneath the surface.

At first, he didn’t want her to visit a female friend after dark, saying he worried for her safety. But his behavior gradually snowballed into ugly words, unrelenting hair-trigger criticism, and ultimately violence.

Still’s husband was given to paranoid, controlling jealousy.  He accused her repeatedly of imaginary extramarital affairs, tracking her around town and timing her movements down to the minute.

The physical abuse started in the last two years of their marriage. It began when she forgot to buy some items while grocery shopping, and escalated continuously in the days and months afterward.

Still finally managed to escape after a beating which ruptured hear eardrum. Her husband was ultimately convicted of six counts of second-degree assault, along with six counts of third-degree assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

“I know that if I stayed any longer, I’d be dead in a couple days,” she said.

Her advice for police?

Still recommends that officers tell victims they believe them, when talking to them at the scene.

Victims should also be kept out of the abuser’s line-of-sight, since a “look” or non-verbal signal can easily intimidate a person who’s essentially brainwashed and fearing for their own safety.

Officers should also understand they may be dealing with a victim who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s interpersonal terrorism, is what they do to us,” Still said. “It can take one look (from the abuser) and the victim is not going to say anything.”

Police can also stress the need to keep one’s children or pets safe, since that can also motivate a victim to seek help. They should also have a domestic violence advocate ready to respond.

Many victims will try to defend their abuser, or even try to verbally abuse, assault or spit on the responding officers. Still said it’s because they’re doing “damage control”, knowing what’s in store after the officers leave.

The reality is many victims won’t testify, or appear in court, given the level of control an abuser maintains, she said. It involves physical, emotional and financial aspects.

Police must do their best to collect evidence, and be prepared to make an arrest regardless of whether the victim cooperates, Still said. Even one night away from the violence gives victims time to collect themselves, and a glimpse of life away from the fear and violence.

Domestic abuse is complex, she said. When she was being abused, her mind still turned to the good times she and her husband had together, or the charming man she fell in love with.

But that fell away, and he revealed himself to be cunning, controlling and brutal.

Still and her children have rebuilt their lives. Her husband will be eligible for parole in 2021 and she admits she still wavers between whether a supervised release or the full prison term would be safer.

O’Geen advised her not rely on parole.

“The longer he stays in there, at least you know you’re safe,” he said. “Period.”

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