PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN – After spending any amount of time with Sil Lai Abrams, it would be hard to imagine her in an abusive relationship.

As a magazine columnist, motivational speaker and published book author (No More Drama, Sepia Press Publishing, 2007), you’d figure this sista is simply “too put together” to have been caught up with a man who would raise his voice at her, let alone his fists.

A former runway model, Sil Lai’s posture, even while nestled comfortably in an armchair in her living room, is astute and refined. She has no problem telling you she is 41. But her well-kept figure, vibrant demeanor and unblemished, caramel skin tone gives the appearance of a young woman many years her junior.

Without uttering a word, Sil Lai exudes confidence and grace.

But during our hour-long interview in her Park Slope apartment in Brooklyn, she recalled a less-than-confident 22-year old version of her former self who struggled with low self-esteem and bouts with alcoholism. She also was a single mother to a young son while pursuing a demanding modeling career with no familial or financial support.

“I was working in an industry that is not geared towards parenting at all,” Sil Lai says. “There’s no daycare for models.”

Sil Lai then met with fellow model whose last name is Scott. He wanted to be a good man to her and a father to her son. He was a down-on-his-knees praying Christian man, and an “authority figure” whom Sil Lai hoped would help her to become a better her. At first, Scott wooed her with words. But he soon began using them against her as weapons when he didn’t get his way. Scott’s fists eventually followed.

“We were two emotionally damaged people who found each other,” Sil Lai says.

It took just three weeks into their relationship before he displayed the signs of an abuser: controlling her every step, intimidation, using abusive language, etc. Two years would pass before Scott laid his hands on her. It took place while they were moving into their new apartment in The Bronx.

“We were arguing about something and he pushed me,” Sil Lai recalls. “It was this little shove on my shoulder. I remember I was like ‘how dare you. Don’t you ever blah blah blah. Don’t you dare.’ You know, Miss Attitude, thinking I was so bad. But I didn’t realize it was coming.

The it that eventually came was Scott beating her while she was six months pregnant with their daughter.

Whether it was the physical attacks or him calling Sil Lai names that would make a sailor blush, Scott’s abuse never relented. And neither did her belief that, if she loved him enough, he could be changed. She didn’t want to be alone. And she even felt some shame.

“I didn’t want to be the single parent to two kids by two different men,” Sil Lai says. “So I was heavily invested in making this work no matter what.”

Why Sil Lai (educated, worldly, attractive) would want to “make it work” with a man who would attack her while pregnant with his child proves how complicated domestic violence truly is. And it’s not as if Sil Lai needed him for financial support.

“The irony was that I was the breadwinner in the relationship,” she said with a burst of laughter.

Victims of domestic violence are male and female, though men are less likely to report abuse. They come from every social/economic class and do not fit a particular image or stereotype. (i.e., uneducated, unworldly, poor welfare mother).Domestic violence is not only physical. Threats to bring bodily harm or “verbal battery” are considered gateways to physical attacks. And helping victims sort through their abusive relationships is not an exact science.

Nathaniel Fields, Vice President of Domestic Violence Shelter and Hotline Programs at Safe Horizon, a national organization that helps women and men deal with domestic abuse says the method with which he and other domestic abuse professionals used to work with women like Sil Lai has evolved over the years. At first, Fields says, a domestic abuse counselor would have encouraged Sil Lai to leave her relationship and told her what she had to do to make it happen.

“Now we’re backing up a little bit and we’re realizing that the person has a choice,” says Fields, who has more than twenty-five years of experience in the field. “Our goal is not to tell somebody to leave a relationship. The goal is to partner with them. And if they’re motivated to want to leave that relationship, then we partner with them. If they want to look at ways to increase their safety and that means staying, then our work is to do that.”

Safe Horizon, who Sil Lai credits for helping her to leave her batterer, also provides short-term and long-team housing for those transitioning out of their abusive relationships. Nearly 60 percent of those seeking shelter are under the age of 30. At least 35 percent bring an additional family member-most likely a child. Women make up 96 percent, while the remaining four percent are men.

Fields and other domestic abuse professionals say every victim has a way of rationalizing his or her reasons to stay with their abuser. For example, a woman may figure “as long as he doesn’t hit me, its ok.” If it is a man who is the victim, the shame of admitting that their girlfriend or wife abuses them may keep them put-and silent. Many victims stay so they wont break up their families.

For Sil Lai, it was “as long as he doesn’t hit the kids, we can get through this.”

One evening, Sil Lai’s son, who was six or seven years old at the time, was playing with a stuffed animal Scott had given her for Valentine’s Day. He had instructed the boy not to tear off the from-me-to-you tag that was sewn on to it.

“My son, being six or seven, took the tag off,” Sil Lai says. ”(Scott) saw it and he screamed at (my son), picked him up with both arms and threw him across the room onto a bed and he landed against the wall. And at that point is when I snapped. I knew that was it. It was done. He had crossed that imaginary line.”

Ironically, during their tumultuous relationship, She and Scott had gone through couples’ counseling together. But it took the incident with her son and counseling at Safe Horizon for her to realize that their relationship could not be salvaged. In addition to learning about the signs of abusive relationships, she also spent time dealing with her own self-esteem issues and why she had chosen to be involved with a man who hurts her to begin with.

“When I stopped focusing on him and put the focus on me, that’s when I began to change,” Sil Lai recalls.

The experience was both informative and empowering. More importantly, it gave her options rather than ultimatums.

“If you tell someone ‘this is the only thing you can do to stay safe in my opinion’ and they don’t do it, they feel like they can’t talk to you anymore because somehow they feel they have disappointed you or you don’t approve of their decision,” says Amy Barasch, Executive Director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

With full custody of both of her children, Sil Lai eventually made the decision to leave Scott for good. Luckily, he honored the orders of protection filed against him.

“Orders of protection tend to be most affective against individuals who respect the law,” says Barasch, who has defended battered women in family court.”If you have someone who is hurting their partner and they have committed other crimes or had some other interaction with the criminal justice system, then you can’t expect an order of protection to have as much power over them because they’ve already decided to break the law, so that may not be the best safety tool.”

Unfortunately, many women around the country do not enjoy as clean a break from their abusive pasts as Sil Lai. Many abusers stalk their former partners and sometimes become even more violent. Back in April of this year here in New York City between April 11th and April 19th, 14 women died at the hands of their abuser. Nationally, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to statistics provided on National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website.

(Ironically, on the evening of the same day I interviewed Sil Lai, I ran into a woman in my apartment building’s foyer in The Bronx who claimed to have been beaten by her boyfriend. Her face was bruised and she was bleeding from her legs and forearms. In the middle of our conversation, I mentioned that I had interviewed someone earlier that day who had overcome her abusive relationship and pulled out a copy of the book she had given me. Without seeing the author’s name, the woman said, “Sil Lai Abrams?” “No More Drama?” Yeah, I read that book three or four times!”)

Some 14 years removed from her abusive relationship, Sil Lai is now racking up frequent flyer miles crisscrossing the country conducting self-empowerment workshops hoping she can help women avoid the kinds of unhealthy relationships in which she was once entangled. Sil Lai also sits on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s national advisory board.

When asked if she could go back and advise that young woman she used to be, Sil Lai, with poised passion, switched into motivational speaker mode.

“I would tell that 22-year old if you see hints of controlling behavior, if he uses any threats or behavior, if he does anything along those lines, run for the hills. Don’t look back. Don’t go into counseling. If you’re going to get counseling, get counseling for yourself. Learn how to choose appropriate partners. But don’t you think you can ever change another human being. It’s impossible. We have a hard enough time trying to change ourselves, let alone trying to change another person.

Then, with a flair of sophisticated sas and a smile, she added:

“And I would tell her what I tell women now in my workshops across the country: Honey, a man is not an acceptable life plan.”
Why Sil Lai, who is an educated, worldly, and attractive woman, would want to “make it work” with a man who would attack her while pregnant with his child proves how complicated domestic violence truly is. And it’s not as if Sil Lai needed him for financial support.

“The irony was that I was the breadwinner in the relationship,” she said with a burst of laughter.

Victims of domestic violence are male and female, though men are less likely to report abuse. They come from every social/economic class and do not fit a particular image or stereotype. (i.e., uneducated, unworldly, poor welfare mother). Domestic violence is not only physical. Threats to bring bodily harm or “verbal battery” are considered gateways to physical attacks. And helping victims sort through their abusive relationships is not an exact science.

Nathaniel Fields, Vice President of Domestic Violence Shelter and Hotline Programs at Safe Horizon, a national organization that helps women and men deal with domestic abuse says the method with which he and other domestic abuse professionals used to work with women like Sil Lai has evolved over the years. At first, Fields says, a domestic abuse counselor would have encouraged Sil Lai to leave her relationship and told her what she had to do to make it happen.

“Now we’re backing up a little bit and we’re realizing that the person has a choice,” says Fields, who has more than twenty-five years of experience in the field. “Our goal is not to tell somebody to leave a relationship. The goal is to partner with them. And if they’re motivated to want to leave that relationship, then we partner with them. If they want to look at ways to increase their safety and that means staying, then our work is to do that.”

Safe Horizon, who Sil Lai credits for helping her to leave her batterer, also provides short-term and long-team housing for those transitioning out of their abusive relationships. Nearly 60 percent of those seeking shelter are under the age of 30. At least 35 percent bring an additional family member-most likely a child. Women make up 96 percent, while the remaining four percent are men.

Fields and other domestic abuse professionals say every victim has a way of rationalizing his or her reasons to stay with their abuser. For example, a woman may figure “as long as he doesn’t hit me, it’s ok.” If the victim is a man, the shame of admitting that their girlfriend or wife abuses them may cause them to stay silent on this matter. Many victims stay with their abusive partner in order to keep their families together.

For Sil Lai, it was “as long as he doesn’t hit the kids, we can get through this.”

One evening, Sil Lai’s son, who was six or seven years old at the time, was playing with a stuffed animal Scott had given her for Valentine’s Day. He had instructed the boy not to tear off the from-me-to-you tag that was sewn on to it.

“My son, being six or seven, took the tag off,” Sil Lai says. ”(Scott) saw it and he screamed at (my son), picked him up with both arms and threw him across the room onto a bed and he landed against the wall. And at that point is when I snapped. I knew that was it. It was done. He had crossed that imaginary line.”

Ironically, during their tumultuous relationship, she and Scott had gone through couples’ counseling together. But it took the incident with her son and counseling at Safe Horizon for her to realize that their relationship could not be salvaged. In addition to learning about the signs of abusive relationships, she also spent time dealing with her own self-esteem issues and why she had chosen to be involved with a man who hurts her to begin with.

“When I stopped focusing on him and put the focus on me, that’s when I began to change,” Sil Lai recalls.

The experience was both informative and empowering. More importantly, it gave her options rather than ultimatums.

“If you tell someone ‘this is the only thing you can do to stay safe in my opinion’ and they don’t do it, they feel like they can’t talk to you anymore because somehow they feel they have disappointed you or you don’t approve of their decision,” says Amy Barasch, Executive Director of the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence.

With full custody of both of her children, Sil Lai eventually made the decision to leave Scott for good. Luckily, he honored the orders of protection filed against him.

“Orders of protection tend to be most affective against individuals who respect the law,” says Barasch, who has defended battered women in family court. “If you have someone who is hurting their partner and they have committed other crimes or had some other interaction with the criminal justice system, then you can’t expect an order of protection to have as much power over them because they’ve already decided to break the law, so that may not be the best safety tool.”

Unfortunately, many women around the country do not enjoy as clean a break from their abusive pasts as Sil Lai. Many abusers stalk their former partners and sometimes become even more violent. Back in April of this year here in New York City between April 11th and April 19th, 14 women died at the hands of their abuser. Nationally, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men are victims of domestic violence at some point in their lives, according to statistics provided on National Domestic Violence Hotline’s website.

Ironically, on the evening of the same day I interviewed Sil Lai, I ran into a woman in my apartment building’s foyer in The Bronx who claimed to have been beaten by her boyfriend. Her face was bruised and she was bleeding from her legs and forearms. In the middle of our conversation, I mentioned that I had interviewed someone earlier that day who had overcome her abusive relationship and pulled out a copy of the book she had given me. Without seeing the author’s name, the woman said, “Sil Lai Abrams?” “No More Drama?” Yeah, I read that book three or four times!”

Some 14 years removed from her abusive relationship, Sil Lai is now racking up frequent flyer miles crisscrossing the country conducting self-empowerment workshops hoping she can help women avoid the kinds of unhealthy relationships in which she was once entangled. Sil Lai also sits on the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s national advisory board.

When asked if she could go back and advise that young woman she used to be, Sil Lai, with poised passion, switched into motivational speaker mode.

“I would tell that 22-year old if you see hints of controlling behavior, if he uses any threats or behavior, if he does anything along those lines, run for the hills. Don’t look back. Don’t go into counseling. If you’re going to get counseling, get counseling for yourself. Learn how to choose appropriate partners. But don’t you think you can ever change another human being. It’s impossible. We have a hard enough time trying to change ourselves, let alone trying to change another person.

Then, with flair of sophisticated sass and a smile, she added:

“And I would tell her what I tell women now in my workshops across the country: Honey, a man is not an acceptable life plan.”

—-

If you or someone needs help dealing with a domestic violence relationship, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or 1-800-787-3224 (TTY). Safe Horizon’s number is 800.621.4673 (HOPE)

To learn more about domestic violence, refer to the links below provided by Safe Horizon.

Ten Signs of Domestic Abuse

Ten Signs You May be Experiencing Relationship Abuse