Beaten up, beaten down

In moving new book, elderly women tell of lives of abuse by their husbands.

bruise woman 63 (photo credit: )
bruise woman 63
(photo credit: )
There are few victims more tragic than women who decide to go to a support group or leave their husbands only after they have been beaten and verbally abused for 30, 40 or even 50 years. But there are countless elderly women of a variety of backgrounds, socioeconomic and educational levels around the country who have been through this. Dr. Tova Band Winterstein, a social worker and gerontology and nursing lecturer at the University of Haifa, has pulled such suffering women out of their anonymity and written a book about them, albeit without mentioning their full names. The 177-page Hebrew-language volume has just been published by ESHEL (the association for the planning and development of services to the elderly; of the Joint Distribution Committee. CalledKmo Yona Petzua: Sipurei Haim Shel Nashim Mukot Zekenot (Like a Wounded Pigeon: Life Stories of Elderly Abused Women), the volume relates the deplorable and lamentable self-told experiences of 20 such women, whom the author met in support groups; some have died since they were interviewed. Although it will never make the bestseller lists because of the painful and unpleasant narratives, the volume was intended by ESHEL as an educational means to minimize and prevent violence against the elderly - along with pro-active programs the voluntary association has launched in the field and material it has published during the past three years. Publication would be justified if even one abused elderly woman who reads it extricates herself from her situation. "Every one of them is close to my heart, and the little I can do for them is to expose their stories and give them a voice," Band Winterstein writes. The name for the book comes from Masouda, a 67-year-old who was liberated from long years of suffering when the husband who beat her constantly died. "I am wounded like a pigeon," she said before she became a widow. "What I am going through is not living. Without any drive, without any reason. Even if it will be OK, I'm already finished. My medical tests are all right. I don't 'have' anything. I am a woman who is ill without a disease." The author notes that elderly women, even though they constitute a large majority of Israelis in that age group, have received very little attention from society; abused women with emotional and physical problems get even less. As in many Western societies, such women have almost been ignored here. Ageism and sexism, she continues, contribute to the negligence, and because they are both elderly and the victims of violence, they "fall between the chairs." While she could have carried out an "objective" and quantifiable scientific study, Band Winterstein suggests that she preferred to interview women for their life stories, to "empower them by telling their personal narrative," enable readers in the same situation to identify with them and take action, and shock society into becoming their protectors. It could also help psychologists, social workers and others to better understand women in this situation who come to them for help. THE WOMEN she interviewed were all Haifa-area residents who finally sought help from the local social services offices and Haifa's unit for dealing with elder violence. They ranged in age from 60 to 82; some still lived with their husbands and some were widowed, while others had the guts to separate from them (but none actually divorced them). Two described themselves as religious, half as traditional and the rest secular. A minority were born in Israel, while the others came from countries like Russia, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Romania, Morocco, Tunisia and Iraq. All but one had children, from one to 10, and grandchildren. Some were housewives, while others worked as a teacher, nurse, hairdresser, secretary, X-ray technician, store clerk, cleaner or child minder. Band Winterstein, who worked during her student days in a shelter for female victims of violence, recalls her first encounter with an elderly pensioner, Malka, who was abused by her husband (and has since died). That experience provided her with the motivation to agree when she was later invited to set up the Haifa office for treatment and prevention of elder abuse. Decades later, Malka's son has called Band Winterstein every year to wish her a good New Year; the last time, he informed the author that his father was found dead, alone, in his apartment after the rescue services broke the door down. Even though the son had had no contact with his father because of what he had done to his mother, he nevertheless took responsibility for funeral arrangements. Many of the women said they felt lonelier living with a brutal husband than if they had been single. Mazal, a 65-year-old pensioner born in Morocco, was married to Ya'acov, who at 83 was much older than her. When interviewed, she had already separated from him. A mother of three sons and a grandmother of seven, she had worked for years as a clerk in a large shipping company. Band Winterstein went to her rented apartment where she lived alone, and found it almost empty of furniture. Mazal was wrinkled, tired, restless and troubled by her daily routine. She had been married to Ya'acov for half a century. The two women sat on a chair and a stool in the modest living room as Mazal related her story in a deep, cigarette-damaged voice. She had been forced by her family to marry just after starting adolescence, and gave birth to her first child at 15. "They all told me; 'you're getting married' and I said 'but I am still in school!'" Nothing helped. She was handed over "like an object" by her parents to her husband, who was 18 years older - and lost her childhood. She wasn't in the least bit attracted to him. Verbal and physical abuse quickly followed. Several other women interviewed for the book had also been forced into early marriage by their families. Tunisian-born Gila, 62, arrived in Israel at a young age and married a Romanian immigrant named Yitzhak; only a year before her interview had they separated. She rarely left her apartment and complained about her health and bureaucracy in the courts on division of property for a divorce. When they lived together, Gila had to adopt an "emotional veil" to separate herself from her violent husband and put up with the resultant loneliness; she also perpetually felt angry at herself for remaining with him. GILA AND OTHER victims described husbands with "animal instincts." One said: "He was always at the refrigerator, taking food and eating even at 1 a.m. He didn't bring a salary home and would come and demand: 'Is this what you have cooked?' He would gobble up everything in the pot and then leave me and our daughter with nothing." Sex with him was unbearable, she recalled. "He was dirty and came to bed with smelly socks." Another woman, Talia - who still lives with a husband currently being treated for mental illness - described her fears: "I'm always afraid that he will do something to me, like a ticking bomb. He is that bomb, and I wonder from where he will take out the bomb and when he will explode it." Another woman described her husband as being extremely stingy. "He started this after we got married. Within a few months, he used up all the money I had saved for years. He fixed his rotten teeth with the money," she said, and whenever she complained, he hit her. A 66-year-old woman named Sophie, with whom the author has since lost contact, said her husband developed "nervous attacks" in which he often shouted and screamed and then calmed down. "He could never remain angry for more than two or three days at a time. He would plead and cry, and I made up with him. We had some good times. But even when he hugged and kissed me, I was annoyed. Do you understand? He suffered as a child and saw his father hit his mother, who died when he was only 12." The fact that some of the husbands had difficult childhoods, writes Band Winterstein, gave many women the excuse to remain with them despite their own suffering. A woman named Golda who became a widow after her violent husband committed suicide, described the abuse: "He had asthmatic bronchitis and heavy phlegm. One day he came close - I didn't know what he was doing - and he spat into one ear and then the next. I felt like zero... I couldn't believe he did it to me. I didn't react except to get up and run. I stayed away till the next morning, and when I returned, I felt such disgust that I couldn't find enough soap and water to purify me. When I returned, he asked me why. It really influenced me... There was a time when I loved him, but over time his behavior finished me off." YOUNGER WOMEN may have more energy and resources to object and take action, but when they grow old, their family and social circle shrink. They have less support and more chronic diseases, and are afraid to get up and leave. The author notes that many of them increasingly feel angry at themselves for "staying with him for so many years." In many cases, children are early witnesses and victims to the violence in the family. Sophie, married to Moshe and the mother of four and grandmother to 13, herself has a high-pitched child-like voice. "On Friday night, we fought, but I don't remember about what. He threw me and the four children out of the house. It was winter. We climbed up to the roof and slept there. He went crazy and hit me, and my daughter told him: 'Kill me, hit me. I want to get all your blows, but you won't touch Mom! I am here.' For the first time, I saw someone was protecting me, and I returned to my husband. Even now, my daughter is the only one who says anything to his face, and he's afraid of her." Perla, a woman who despite being abused took care of her ailing husband until he died, recalled that her son thought in advance how to protect her and himself from shame. "He would go to synagogue with his father and then on the way home, ran very fast to get home and check that everything on the Shabbat table was in place. As soon as he entered, he would close the windows so that people outside wouldn't hear [his father's] screaming." After years of living with family violence, Perla recounted, her son developed a mental illness. Other women said their children began to abuse drugs as a "way out" of their own suffering. Many women victims who received emotional support from their children reported feeling helpless when they grew up and left home. ALTHOUGH Band Winterstein heard only one side of the story and not that of the "abusive husband" as well, she often saw physical signs. Even if only part of the recollections are absolutely accurate, the 20 women's stories are nevertheless a testimony to lifelong misery. They can benefit from therapy, the author writes, and this is their "last chance to frame their life's narrative as a story of abilities and competence in which their strengths and weaknesses change places in the picture of their lives - with the strengths in the front and the weaknesses in the background." Treatment, she advises, should focus on the future rather than the past, on helping the women to chance the meaning of life as a "monument of survival and successful coping with suffering - not just a monument of reconciling themselves to their past but also of energy and resources." Women, she concludes, should be encouraged to "forgive themselves so they can process burdensome feelings such as guilt, shame, suffering and revenge. Together they give a chance for improving their quality of life."