Survivors of Abuse
When Susan married her longtime boyfriend, Ulner Lee Still, in 1989, she never imagined that she'd be included in that statistic. They dated for years before walking down the aisle, and although she says Ulner was overprotective and controlling at times, she says she believed he was the love of her life.
Once they were married, she says things began to escalate at home. Susan says her husband abused her verbally and psychologically nearly every day of their marriage…even when their three children were present. Often, Susan says Ulner made audio recordings of his tirades so that he could listen to them later.
For years, Susan says Ulner told her that she was stupid, alienated her from her family and accused her of being a bad mother. "There were times when I absolutely thought I was stupid. There were times that he absolutely had convinced me that I was a terrible mother," she says.
Then, after being married for more than 10 years, the emotional abuse took a violent turn. For the last two years of their marriage, Susan says she endured regular beatings at the hands of her husband. She says anything could set him off. "When you're in that life—in that state of mind—it's hard to make a decision over the simplest things," she says. "It's hard for you to walk across the room and make sure you're walking across the room the right way."
One Sunday afternoon in 2003, Susan says her husband became enraged when she asked him if she could fix him a sandwich for lunch. He went in search of his audio recorder to tape his verbal assault. When he couldn't find it, Susan says he chose the next best thing—a video camera.
Ulner ordered his oldest son, who was 13 years old at the time, to record his tirade. What resulted was 51 minutes of horrifying footage. Susan says her oldest son operated the camera, while her 8-year-old son sat in the room, watching the abuse unfold.
"You play those stupid games with me, I'll knock your teeth out of your face. … I'm going to knock your head across that wall," he tells Susan as their sons look on.
At first, Susan stands silently in the room with her head bowed. Looking back, she says she was trying to come up with a way to calm her husband down. "My mind was racing to find the right answer—to find the answer that was going to make him happy for that second, to appease him so he wouldn't start hitting," she says.
Nothing she says works. Ulner punches, kicks and slaps his wife repeatedly during the final 10 minutes of the video. As he throws her around the room, he demands Susan's obedience. "You've been taught what to say to me, heifer," he says. "You follow what I say to the T."
In all, he calls her "stupid" 23 times and "heifer" 28 times in less than an hour.
After the camera stopped rolling, Susan says Ulner sent their son to the kitchen to get ice for her bruises. Then, Susan says she showered and spent the rest of the day downstairs, doing laundry and trying to stay far from her husband.
On one occasion, Susan says she said something that made her husband so angry that he demanded a family meeting. "He called all the kids in the room … and he made them call me a 'white ho slut' in unison," she says. "He would tell them when to start, and he would tell them to repeat. … In my mind, I was screaming, 'That's not what I am. That's not what I am. How can you do this? How can you have my children do this to me?'"
Susan says she was devastated by her children's actions, but she understands why they did it. "I knew that my children needed to do what they needed to do to survive in that house," she says. "If that meant they needed to side with the power, then that's what they had to do."
With that comment, she says she came to the realization that Ulner could possibly end up killing her. So Susan made the decision to leave.
When Susan got to work the next day, she was covered in bruises from the previous day's beating. When Lynne, her friend and boss who knew about the abuse, came over to check on her, Susan says she said, "Today is the day."
Lynne called the police. "They came to my job, they took pictures, and we developed a plan," Susan says. "[I needed] time to decide, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? We had nowhere."
As Susan fled with her sons, Ulner called her repeatedly, trying to track her down. Police recorded the phone calls to document his violent threats. In one he screamed at her, "If you don't bring my son home, I'm going to kill you, heifer."
In her closing arguments, Lisa played the videotape for the jury one more time. "What I said to the jury is, 'He keeps saying, I have to teach you.' And I asked the jury to teach him."
They did, finding Ulner guilty of 12 counts of assault and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The judge sentenced him to 36 years in prison—reportedly the longest sentence ever given for this kind of domestic violence. He's not eligible for parole until 2022.
Lisa emphasizes that while the 51-minute videotape put a horrific face on the abuse, it was not the most important piece of evidence in the case. "That videotape shows a misdemeanor assault punishable by up to only one year in jail," she says. "You don't need a videotape. You need to document your injuries."
Ulner got such a stiff sentence, she says, because of the numerous times—not recorded on any tape—he beat Susan with items like books and belts. "Those dangerous instruments make it a felony," Lisa says.
Susan didn't keep records of her abuse…but Lynne, her vigilant boss, did.
Lynne even overheard Susan call Ulner "Master" in her frequent phone calls to check in with him.
"One of the huge tips to me was there was a time that [Ulner] had to leave town for a while. And while he was gone, she was a different person," Lynne says. "She was, you know, free and comfortable."
Find out what you should do if you suspect a friend or loved one is being abused.
"She's a different person to me, but she's very much a part of this person here," Susan says. "I look at her and I think, 'How could you have let yourself get to that state? How could you have let this happen to you?' But I know how I did. So I guess she's a different person to me now. But I know she's here and she's helped me be who I am today."
Recognizing the signs of abuse—especially in instances where physical violence is not involved—is not easy, sometimes even for those being abused. Learn the signs of domestic abuse.
If you think you or someone you know is being abused, it's important to tell someone before it's too late.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE to find help in your area.