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Escape to Woodstock

By Minda Zetlin

I was born and raised in Manhattan, so I guess it's natural that I always wanted to live in the country. When my mother moved to Saugerties, NY, 100 miles north of the city, I started visiting her and fell in love with neighboring Woodstock, for which the famous rock festival was named, though it took place in another town. I even told all my friends I wanted to move there, but there was always some reason not to leave.

First, I had a job in a magazine publishing company. Then I quit that to be a freelance writer, but I had a boyfriend who loved New York. Eventually, we split up, but then I went into therapy and didn't want to leave that. I would have stayed forever, except for one thing: I got married.

Javier had striking good looks. He swept me off my feet, took me to bed several times a day, and never tired of telling me how much he loved me. But he was poison, the worst mistake I ever made. The first time we had an argument after we were married, he choked me. Another time, he grabbed the front of my shirt and shook me hard enough to bruise me. Worse, I discovered he was a habitual liar, and, as I caught him in his lies, the violence escalated. One night, he beat me so badly, I ran out the apartment door and stood in the hallway. I never wanted to be alone with him again.

Obviously, the marriage was over, but he didn't see it that way. He left message after message on my answering machine. Since I wouldn't pick up the phone, he came to the door. When I wouldn't open the door, he pounded on it till I thought it might come off its hinges. When I called the police, he pretended to leave peacefully, but then came back, climbed up the front of my building, and smashed through my second-floor living room window. 

After that, for my own protection, the police insisted on taking me elsewhere. So, at three o'clock in the morning, I found myself lying in a friend's guest bed, wide awake. It was slowly sinking in that not only my marriage but my life as I had known it was over. If I stayed in my apartment, he would keep coming back, and sooner or later, I would get hurt. And it wasn't just my apartment. He knew the magazine I wrote for, where my friends lived, my favorite neighborhood restaurants. If I stayed, I'd spend my whole life wondering whether he was lurking around the last corner, following me. By morning, I'd make up my mind. After all those years of talking about it, I was finally running away to the country.

I loved Woodstock for its artsy, "Granola Liberal" atmosphere, as one friend of mine put it. What I didn't realize was that it's also a perfect place for someone who'd been through hell and was trying to get back on her feet. 

"Woodstock is a great place to heal." The locals would often say this when I had the courage to tell them how I'd come to be here. Most of the time, though, I didn't. I was embarrassed and afraid of reactions like that of the twenty-something clerk who sold me my first pair of real winter boots. She said primly that, even at her age, she was mature enough not to get into a relationship like that.

I wanted to make friends, but wasn't sure what I had to offer: "Hi! I'm Minda! I'm a basket case! Wanna be my pal?" Instead, I mostly kept to myself.

And every few days, I got the same message, from my friends, my lawyer, my mother, the real estate agent who was subletting my New York apartment: Javier was looking for me. He wouldn't give up. "You know I'm going to find you," he kept saying over my voice mail. "It's only a matter of time."

One day, I saw a notice tacked to the Post Office bulletin board. "Is violence a problem in your family?" it said, and gave a phone number for Family of Woodstock, the local, mostly volunteer, homegrown agency that runs a battered women's shelter, homeless shelter, runaway shelter, food pantry and two crisis-intervention hotlines in Ulster County. I thought about Javier's threats, the way my friends and family kept telling me to fight back, the way I'd been feeling crushed and intimidated for so long. So I called. "I think I need help," I said. "Do you have a support group?"

A few days later, I found myself sitting in Family's main office, telling a counselor from the battered women's shelter my whole sad story. "I'm really scared of him," I said. "I've never dealt with anyone so out of control."

"Is he really out of control?" she asked. "Or is he trying to control you?"

It was one of the most useful things anyone has ever said to me. Of course he was trying to control me. Since he apparently had no self-control, I'd been terrified of making the one wrong move that might set him off. I'd been scared to go to the police, scared to cut off his access to my bank account, scared to get an order of protection because of how he might react. I was away from him, but I still wasn't free.

In the support group, the stories the other women told sounded uncannily familiar. Their ex-husbands and boyfriends had done the same things and sometimes even said the same words mine had. I was astounded. Javier was many things, but it had never occurred to me that he could be predictable. Suddenly he was a lot less frightening. 

A few weeks later, I got a tearful phone message from the new tenant in my apartment: Javier had appeared and tried to intimidate her into telling him where I was. This time, I was more angry than scared. I determined I would do whatever it took to stop him.

I spent two solid days calling the New York police, telling my story over and over. He's violated the protection order dozens of times. He's dangerous, and he won't give up. You have to do something!

Finally, they did. They arrested him. He only spent one night in jail, but it was enough. He never left me a voice mail message or bothered a friend or relative of mine again. Not that I was finished with him. It took the better part of a year in various lawyer's offices to get divorced and see that he was prosecuted (he got three years' probation). But I was finished with being too afraid to act.

I made my first new friend in the battered women's group. Since then, I've made lots of other friends and become a volunteer at Family's Woodstock hotline, answering the number I once called.

One of the last, and hardest, steps has been getting my career back on its feet. A writer has to be constantly out there selling herself, and for the first two years after I left Javier, I had neither the energy nor the confidence. I only worked for editors I already knew, the ones who would call me up and give me assignments without my asking. I did everything by phone, fax and overnight mail, too wiped out to show my face. 

Then one day, I did it. I climbed on the train and walked around midtown Manhattan, visiting all those editors I hadn't seen in months. They treated me something like a long-lost friend, which I suppose I was. Walking to the subway that night with the lights of Manhattan all around, I thought, "I'm back!" though I wasn't sure where I had been. The depression that had left me barely able to work was lifting.

There's one more step I still haven't taken: writing about what happened to me. It seems important, since one out of every four women is a victim of domestic violence at some point, and most of us don't seem to talk about it much. And it's the only way I can think of to make something good out of this dreadful experience. Whenever I've tried, it didn't quite work. Either I was too busy being defensive, or too busy working out my rage to just tell the story. But here I am, trying again. Maybe that's a sign of healing, too.

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