Photo: Mary Ellen Mark
Not all women react this way, however, according to Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, PhD, a North Carolina therapist and researcher specializing in sexual abuse survivors. Some spouses and girlfriends adopt an attitude of "Toughen up; aren't you over this yet? When are you going to get over this?" "You don't think of women having this lack of empathy," says Frawley-O'Dea, "which is why I hypothesize that some are embarrassed and ashamed about their husband's lack of quote-unquote manliness. I think they wonder what he did to get this to happen—more often than guys wonder how a little girl got it to happen." And some wives, weighed down by their own problems, are simply unable to deal with such painful baggage brought into the relationship by their men.
Twenty-six years ago, there were a number of things Marilyn Stevens found unusual about Dominic Carter, an 18-year-old fresh off the bus to attend a rural State University of New York college-prep summer program for promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For one, he looked entirely out of place in upstate apple country—understandable given his childhood in a run-down Bronx tenement overlooking a gritty expressway. For another, he had an unnerving clarity about where he was going in life, and with whom. He was on campus for only a few days before approaching Marilyn, the 25-year-old program coordinator, to improbably declare: "You're going to be my wife and the mother of my children."
"Are you crazy?" she remembers thinking. "It was like, 'Me Tarzan, you Jane,'" she says. Over the summer, she did everything she could to redirect Dominic's affections toward women his own age, but he never faltered. He stayed at SUNY and earned his degree in just three years. Two months after graduation, he and Marilyn married. "I guess I got beaten down by the chase," she says. It turned out, however, that they had much in common. Marilyn came from similarly disadvantaged roots in Harlem, where seven of her 10 siblings have died, most from heroin and AIDS. Her first step out of poverty was the same summer program that recruited Dominic. Like him, she harbored intense ambition—hers was to work in higher education, while he hung his hopes on a career in journalism.
Somewhere during those early years, he mentioned—only once, and without any details—that he'd been sexually abused by his mother, whom he referred to as Laverne. "We were sitting and watching TV and he just blurted it out," Marilyn remembers. "I was really in shock, because I couldn't imagine that a mother could do such a horrendous act to her child. So I just put it in the back of my head and never revisited it. He never spoke about it, and I never brought it up again."
But the silence barely masked the issue. Today both Dominic and Marilyn say his abuse has been the single most defining element of their long marriage, which has produced two children, now 20 and 16. Tensions started to mount after the couple conceived their first baby, Courtney. They had moved in with Marilyn's mother in Harlem, close enough to the Bronx so that Laverne could call or drop by unannounced to visit. Over Dominic's objections, Marilyn always let Laverne in. "How do you tell a person, 'I can't have a relationship with you?' That was not within my personality, or my mother's," she says. "We would let her come in, let her eat and break bread, and try to get her out the door before he got home."
They weren't always successful. If Dominic arrived and saw his mother, he would spin back through the door and disappear for hours—sometimes hitting the clubs with friends till daylight, once staying out all weekend.
We Hear You!