Crime Crisis: Four domestic violence survivors recount their abuse — and how they survived

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 07, 2022 2:14 PM CT | Published: June 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT

Told me things would be different leaving church that Sunday But the only change coming was the quarters in the ashtray Yeah I should have known better
When the last three times he swore
That he would never lay another finger on me
But the truth’s on my face.
— “His Hands,” Jennifer Nettles

The first time Penny Mickey’s husband threatened to kill her, she went to counseling alone and he was out of the house for eight months.

Given the prolonged physical separation, the relationship might have ended there.

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Mickey still remembers her second counseling session, and how the therapist — this professional woman/Voice of Reason— stared her dead in the eye and said:

“You know, it’s going to happen again.”

And, at some level, she did know.

“At that point, I knew I was letting him come back,” said Mickey, 46, who holds a doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University. “So, I didn’t go back to (the counselor).

“I didn’t want to hear the truth anymore.”

Hiding the abuse

Much of the domestic violence that takes place in Memphis and Shelby County goes unseen and unheard.

For every incident that is reported, it is estimated that at least one other event goes unreported.

In fact, multiple national studies indicate at least 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Shelby County has about 22,000 formally reported domestic violence incidents annually, according to the Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County, and police respond to 50,000 domestic violence-related calls each year.

Yet many victims suffer in silence, hiding the abuse with excuses for their absences at family functions or work gatherings, covering their bruises with makeup and keeping the threats and the terror concealed.

“There’s a shame,” said Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, who is on the Family Safety Center’s board of directors. “If you were beaten up by a stranger, you would scream it from the mountaintop.

“But when it’s somebody who says they love you, there’s this immediate sense of shame.”

At the time of her first marriage, Penny Mickey held a high-profile position in the Kentucky governor’s office in Lexington. She didn’t fit the stereotype of a battered wife.

“He was very calculating,” she said of her husband. “He knew that on any given day I might be on TV. He made it a point that the majority of my injuries were neck down. A couple of instances I had marks around my eye and my forehead, and I had to call off.”

Charlotte Ray, who is director of navigation and client services at Memphis’ Family Safety Center, says America is behind on the domestic violence issue, that too often children are taught, and other family members believe, that “what happens in the house, stays in the house.”

In a chilling way, it’s even true: A third of children who witness domestic violence become abusers as adults.

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The wrong question

A question may have already crossed your mind reading about Penny Mickey — an articulate, well-educated woman who probably could have gotten a job just about anywhere in the country.

Why did she stay?

“I am appalled that we still have that infamous question,” said Mickey, who today lives in the Memphis area and in 2020 started the nonprofit Gradus Project in an effort to help women leaving domestic violence situations find employment.

Or, to spin that infamous question another direction:

Why didn’t she leave?

“That is the most offensive question you can ask someone,” said Shannon Mason, an attorney for Memphis Area Legal Services, and who has represented hundreds of domestic violence victims/survivors.

“It’s judgment-based. It implies that they did the wrong thing, `Why didn’t you leave sooner?’

“Why didn’t you come save me sooner?”

Said Ray: “Society hasn’t caught up yet.”

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Power, control and hope

There are obvious, practical, answers to why a woman might remain in an abusive relationship or leave it only to return.

A battered woman, Ray says, often worries about supporting her children and/or taking them away from their father.

Beyond that, if a woman has left and applied for an order of protection against her abuser, and/or seeks a new place to live that the abuser does not know about, she’s only getting started on the list of challenges.

“It’s not just getting an order of protection and being separated,” Ray said. “You’ve got your house, your personal items, your money, all this stuff connected.”

So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that leaving only to return is common: On average, it takes seven attempts to get out of the relationship and stay out, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

It’s not just getting an order of protection and being separated. You’ve got your house, your personal items, your money, all this stuff connected.

Charlotte Ray,
Director of navigation and client services at Memphis’ Family Safety Center

Penny Mickey had the wherewithal to support herself (although one of the ways her husband terrorized her was by controlling their finances). Ultimately, it didn’t matter that he only had a high school diploma and largely worked retail jobs, and she had a prestigious position as commissioner of employment and training for the Kentucky governor’s office.

He had established power and control in the relationship.

In the 1980s, the founders of the Domestic Violence Intervention Project in Minnesota created a Power and Control Wheel for Domestic Violence that details the way abusers manipulate their victims.

The short list of all the ways an abuser exercises that power and control includes everything from physical intimidation and injury, public humiliation, using jealousy to justify actions, to controlling finances, creating guilt and keeping the victim isolated.

Even without bars, the battered woman is tantamount to a prisoner in her own home.

Often, belief of a better day is the only thing sustaining her.

“What happens is, she keeps hoping,” said Robert Holdford, who from 1999-2021 was director of the Domestic Violence Assessment Center at Kindred Place in Memphis.

“It’s the hope that keeps her in the relationship.

“That it’s going to get back to where it was when it was good.”

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Reasons to believe

Penny Mickey had that hope for a while. A good marriage was what she saw every day growing up.

“My parents have been married 57 years this year,” she said. “I have never heard my dad raise his voice at my mom.”

Said Ray: “Women often tell me they don’t want to appear to be a failure” by divorcing.

That’s how Mickey felt.

“My parents managed to do this for all these decades,” she said. “We should be able to figure this thing out.”

So, she gave her husband another chance.

Soon, she was pregnant.

He found a new sales job — he was always losing sales jobs, she says — and things were going well.

“We were actually really happy,” she recalled, a trace of wistfulness in her voice.

And there was a logic to holding on to hope: Mickey’s husband wasn’t a drinker, didn’t use drugs, and was “highly religious.”

Mickey even agreed that their son would be named after his father; she still dreamed that they would all live happily ever after.

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‘Good guys’

I remember that day when he walked up to me
Wrote my number down, put it in the pocket of his bluejeans
And I fell like a feather, yeah, just like that, we were together
He was my perfect gentleman, sweet like, real sweet.

— “His Hands,” Jennifer Nettles

No man who batters a woman leads with his left — rather, he leads with kindness and thoughtfulness, smiles and kisses, whispering promises as he plants those seeds of hope.

“He was charming, respectful, a gentleman … you know, open the door,” Serita Applewhite, 35, said of the good first impression her abuser made.

“He was fun to be around, he was very affectionate,” Deborah Robinson, 59, said of the early courtship with her second husband when she was a widow wondering what the rest of her life would look like. “I got roses all the time. He’d bring me sweets.”

He was charming, respectful, a gentleman … you know, open the door. (talking about the good first impression her abuser made.)

Serita Applewhite

Penny Mickey also had no reason to expect that the man she had just met would turn into a monster.

The chemistry, she said, was “instant, instant; he was always a charismatic person.”

During their dating days, there was only one time that he really lost his temper. But it didn’t get physical.

“I just wrote it off as a couples fight,” Mickey said. “An argument.”

After all, who doesn’t argue once in a while?

They had their faith in common, knew that when they started a family that they would stress core values.

Mickey smiles, shakes her head, “We looked like the perfect couple.”

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Combat zone

And his hands felt like thunder on my skin 
His breath hot, oh, how or how could I forget
That his eyes looked right through me and that was it
Silence was the only sound then, and my heart pounding.

— “His Hands,” Jennifer Nettles

They don’t just have stories. They have war stories.

Samantha Wilder, 28, got into a relationship with a 66-year-old man. She, too, says there were no warning signs of impending physical danger: “When me and my dude got together, I’d say it was cool at first.”

It didn’t stay cool.

Especially not after his health deteriorated and his medication couldn’t keep pace with his pain.

“I’d be sitting in a chair, and he’d just be pacing around the house,” Wilder said. “He’d make all kinds of threats, saying he was gonna shoot me.

“He punched me in the stomach when I was pregnant,” said Wilder, whose baby — her abuser’s baby, she says — is due in August. “He did not care.”

I’d be sitting in a chair, and he’d just be pacing around the house. He’d make all kinds of threats, saying he was gonna shoot me.

Samantha Wilder

Serita Applewhite counts blackened eyes and a “busted nose” among the injuries her batterer inflicted over a two-year relationship. He also pistol-whipped her and held the gun to her head, saying, “B----, I’ll shoot you.”

Police got to know Deborah Robinson and her abusive husband from answering multiple calls at the couple’s East Memphis condo. Doctors and nurses at Saint Francis Hospital also knew her on sight, having treated her for a separated shoulder, a broken nose, sprains, concussions, being choked …

“He punched me in the head one night and I had a brain bleed and a stroke from it,” said Robinson, who eventually left her abuser and now is a speaker with the Family Victims Center. “Lost almost all my sight in my right eye.”

Mickey says her husband began more slowly with “pushing, then slapping, then breaking special mementos, destroying property, and then the financial abuse.”

He was just getting started.

Before he was done, he’d take Mickey on a spin all the way around the Domestic Violence Power and Control Wheel.

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Survival instincts

He had lost another job and Mickey was fed up, saying she just might have to leave him. Her husband’s response?

Hold a gun on her and force her to drive him to the bank, withdraw all their money and give it to him.

“If you think you’re gonna leave me,” he told her, “I’m not gonna have nothing.”

That was before she got pregnant. After she gave birth to a son, she asked herself, “What have I done? What have I done?”

As much as she wanted to leave, she knew the danger she and her baby would be in if he so much as suspected she was thinking of divorce.

“If you think about it statistically, leaving is the most dangerous thing to do,” Mickey said. “Four thousand women die each year due to domestic violence. And 70% of them were killed as they attempted to leave.”

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So, after an especially tense argument where he sat the baby on the arm of a couch and pushed her hard against a wall — Mickey fearing the baby would fall on its head — she took a deep breath, stayed the night and slept in the bed next to her husband.

If you think about it statistically, leaving is the most dangerous thing to do. Four thousand women die each year due to domestic violence. And 70% of them were killed as they attempted to leave.

Penny Mickey 

“To not piss him off worse,” she said. “I was going to pretend like everything was good. I was going to cook, I was going to clean, and serve him like he was a king.

“And that’s what I did. For two months. Until I got a protective order, he was put out of the house, and I changed out the locks.”

Unfortunately, he wasn’t taking no for an answer.

After the order of protection was in place and he had moved out, Mickey was talking to her husband on the phone about supervised visitation with the baby and the selling of their house as part of the divorce.

He cautioned against pursuing a divorce, Mickey said, detailing alternative options he could pursue: shooting her, or tying her up, dousing her with acid, and throwing her in their swimming pool.

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‘Who am I?’

Deborah Robinson’s first marriage lasted 24 years, until her husband’s death.

“I could never have asked for a greater man,” she said. “Billy Robinson.”

In April of 2008, a friend introduced her to the man who would become her second husband just six months later.

At first, she says he seemed like a social drinker. But she soon realized he was hiding a lot of the drinking from her. Then he didn’t bother. An electrician, he favored Evans Williams bourbon straight. And repeatedly.

“If dinner wasn’t right, he’d throw it at me,” Robinson said.

She thought it must have been her fault: “Why’s he drinking? What’s going on? Am I not the perfect wife?”

For 24 years with a good man, she had been the perfect wife.

Now, she started to become something less than a person. He dictated what she could and could not wear, even when she could wear makeup — to church was fine, but no time else when going out if he wasn’t with her.

If dinner wasn’t right, he’d throw it at me.

Deborah Robinson

“I did a lot in the community,” she said, “and he didn’t want me looking nice.”

Serita Applewhite says her abuser’s habits changed her behavior.

“I started doing things that weren’t normal for me,” she said. “Like, I don’t smoke (weed) and I don’t drink. My natural high is just getting up and thanking God. But I pretty much had to do what he demanded, or I got jumped on.”

Worse was what she felt on the inside — his distorted image of her taking up residence in her heart, mind and soul.

“I started putting myself down,” Applewhite said. “I wouldn’t keep myself made up. I believed everything that he said, like that I was ugly, that I was fat, nobody wants me …

“I kinda lost myself.”

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Step by step

Penny Mickey started the Gradus Project with her current husband, and in partnership with the Family Safety Center, to help battered women find financial independence.

“‘Gradus,’ in Latin,” she said, “means another step.” 

Applewhite, too, is trying to take a step forward, to feel like herself again.

“I’m back in church,” she said. “I do a lot of mentoring groups, I read more, I write everything down about how I’m feeling and how I was feeling prior to that feeling.”

Mickey says many of the women she is trying to help now have none of the advantages that she had. And she hasn’t forgotten how tough it was for her to get out of an abusive relationship.

“I had three degrees, financially stable, and one kid,” Mickey said. “How in the world will a woman with a GED ever leave?

“How will a woman who doesn’t have the work history ever leave?

“What about the woman with four, five or six kids? It makes it that much more difficult.”

 Mass misunderstanding

Oh I, thought that he was all I ever wanted
Should have come with a warning
Just like you, I’ve been there too
Oh I got bag and I got a plan
Girl you better get out while you can... While you can, while you can.

— “His Hands,” Jennifer Nettles

Deborah Robinson made multiple attempts to leave her abuser for good. Then one day he choked her. National statistics show, on average, 43% of domestic violence murder victims had been choked by their abuser in the previous year.

Miraculously, Robinson convinced him to let loose of his grip when she said, “Just let me go talk to my mom.”

But Robinson knew she had been lucky to escape. She left and never returned.

Now, she sometimes thinks back to the start of the abuse and that friend who had introduced them.

“I don’t talk to her anymore,” Robinson said. “When he started hitting me, I called her. And she said, `What did you do?’ That’s what people ask, `What did you do?’”

And yet those same people, when the violence gets bad enough, will ask a victim that infamous question:

Why did you stay?

“The general public has no real good understanding of why victims stay,” said Robert Holdford, the former director of the Domestic Violence Assessment Center at Kindred Place in Memphis, and a licensed social worker who now does contract work for a Memphis-area company.

“They think these are adult people who can make decisions, and that’s kind of the attitude,” he said. “But think about it: Somebody assaults you, and you’re asked to leave your home?

“Does that make any sense? Why should you have to leave, and the offender get to stay?”

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Writing their own stories  

Cause his hands felt like thunder on my skin …
Silence was the only sound then, and my heart heart pounding.

— “His Hands,” Jennifer Nettles

What both Penny Mickey and Deborah Robinson figured out was that fair or not, it was on them to make a new home, a new life.

Mickey and her husband divorced when their son was still little. She even wrote a book about her experience.

Her son is now a teenager and his father, Mickey says, sends the occasional elaborate gift. Otherwise, there is little contact — Dad showing up for one of the boy’s football games, and a couple of years ago a birthday party.

Mickey’s current husband, all 6-feet-5 and 275 pounds of him, was by her side.

“I felt completely safe,” she said, adding with a laugh, “(The second marriage) worked out for multiple reasons.”

I felt completely safe. (The second marriage) worked out for multiple reasons.

Penny Mickey

For Robinson, the life ahead likely will be solitary save a couple of close family members and friends.

Still, she isn’t walling herself off. Sometimes when she is out, say at a restaurant or a grocery store, she’ll see a couple interacting. It can just be a few moments and it can be subtle, but she’ll know.

So, she’ll wait until the man gets a few feet away and go over to the woman and slip her a kind word and a card, a lifeline for getting help. The healing, Robinson understands all too well, being an ongoing process that starts with that first difficult step.

Recently, Robinson went to St. Louis. The view from atop the Gateway Arch would be pretty, she thought. So, she climbed into the car that would carry her to the clouds, the compartment not much bigger than an aluminum can.

Robinson held her service dog Liley, now 13, and who often growled at her abuser, in her lap for comfort.

It was still too much. She couldn’t relax enough to take the ride to the top of the Arch. She says a doctor has diagnosed her with PTSD: post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Small places scare me to death now,” said Robinson, recalling the time her abuser cut the power to their condo and locked her in a bedroom for more than a day.

She shares this past horror easily. For it is no longer a secret that she carries, just one of the scars that remains, a fact that she can neither change nor forget.

“People say I’m better, and I’m totally different since I left him,” Robinson said, managing a small smile. “But I have to sleep with a light on. I keep my gun by me now. People have tried to get me to date, and I cannot do it. I’m scared.”

People say I’m better, and I’m totally different since I left him.

Deborah Robinson

“I may be by myself the rest of my life,” she said. “But hey, I’m happy, I’m alive.”

For help with domestic violence:
Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County, 901-800-6064;
National Domestic Violence Hotline, 800-799-7233


domestic violence Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County Charlotte Ray Penny Mickey Deborah Robinson Robert Holdford Shannon Mason Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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