Most victims of domestic abuse do not have visible scars.
Abuse that is verbal, psychological, or financial is as real as physical abuse. Identifying and helping victims of this type of abuse is difficult, but imperative.
That is the message that Mildred Muhammad, ex-wife of D.C. sniper John A. Muhammad, a domestic abuse survivor, brought to Memphis last week at the invitation of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, the Memphis Crisis Center and the Family Safety Center. She shared the message with faculty, staff, and students in talks on campus, and with the community on radio, television, in print, and at a free forum at UTHSC Saturday.
A powerful advocate for domestic abuse victims, Muhammad was the keynote speaker at the second annual Bridging Troubled Waters, a public forum aimed at ending domestic violence, resolving conflicts peacefully, and building healthy relationships.
The event was from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the UTHSC Student-Alumni Center. More than 200 people registered for the forum that was held in observance of October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Breakout sessions, including one Muhammad facilitated, offered participants advice, support, and resources. Topics included emotional intelligence with a focus on why victims stay in abusive relationships, the forgotten victims and the impact of domestic violence on the family, and empowering victims through the church.
“Eighty percent of victims don’t have physical scars to prove that they are victims,” she said. Often, these victims become isolated from family and friends and suffer in silence because of fear, embarrassment, and a desire to shield their children from the truth.
“There are some families who love the abuser more than the victim,” she said. “They are looking for scars as evidence of abuse, instead of watching the behavior.”
Muhammad shared her gripping story in multiple media appearances, and with the crowd at Saturday’s forum. “My help was slow in coming, because I did not have scars,” she said.
She cited startling statics about domestic violence and abuse.
“There are 10 times more animal shelters in this country than there are shelters for women,” Muhammad said. “And the third-largest reason for homelessness in this country is women who are victims of domestic violence and abuse.”
She stressed the importance of separating emotions from the situation. “The victim and the abuser have a dialogue that only they can understand,” she said. “As long as we are emotionally attached to the abuser, we cannot do what we need to do. We need to deal with what is real.”
In 2002, her ex-husband went on a three-week shooting rampage in Washington, D.C. After his conviction and execution, she learned from police that she was the primary target of his rage, and his end goal had been to find her and kill her, too. The random shootings would not implicate him, and he could gain custody of their two children from the 12-year marriage.
A speaker and author, she is the founder of After The Trauma, Inc., through which she has advocated for victims. Her initial memoir, “Scared Silent: When the One You Love Becomes the One you Fear,” was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009. A second book, “I’m Still Standing: Crawling Out of The Darkness Into the Light,” was published in March, and talks about her life during and after the conviction and execution of her ex-husband.
Muhammad said she never encourages anyone to leave, but instead to make a plan. “You know when the time is right,” she said.
The forum was one of several events the university sponsored in recognition of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
A free screening of the HBO documentary “Private Violence,” was held October 16 at Malco Studio on the Square. The film focuses on domestic violence as described by two survivors. Kit Gruelle, a survivor and advocate featured in the show, was present for a question and answer session.
“We invest time and resources into addressing this critical problem because, simply put, we care,” said Pam Houston, director of Special Events and Community Affairs at UTHSC. “We care about our mothers, sons, daughters, and fathers. We care that they live productive, safe lives. Anything we can do to help complete that mission, without hesitation, we will do. We know no other way to respond.”