It had been a long time since Charmagne Helton felt so good.
She had never cooked for more than a dozen people at once, but the 30 or so women and children at the dilapidated Gwinnett County, Ga., shelter that had become her home were her family now and it was her turn to cook.
She fried fish and baked corn bread so moist it slid from the pan like cake.
The women and children raved. Helton started to feel “whole” again.
“That did so much for my self-esteem,” she said.
And so when the 40-year-old Roswell, Ga., mother remembers the four years her husband abused her, the seven weeks she and her two small children found refuge at the shelter and the night she cooked there loom large.
It is why the kitchen at the new shelter scheduled to open in February will bear Helton’s name, said Meagan Fulmer, the president and CEO of the Partnership Against Domestic Violence; it is why Helton has spent the past few years sharing her story and reminding the rest of us that one in four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
“The more people like me talk about it the less stigmatized it becomes and the more victims will be able to get help,” she said.
But sharing one’s story, Fulmer said, is one of the hardest parts of being a survivor.
Message of hope
“Charmagne has been a tireless advocate sharing her story,” she said recently. “She makes it real and imparts a message of hope. One of the biggest gifts we could give her was to name the kitchen in her honor.”
In 2010, the last year for which statistics are available, 132 women, up from 123 the year before, were killed in Georgia by their intimate partner, Fulmer said.
When Helton arrived at the shelter in 2003, she said, the thing that surprised her most was the diversity.
There were poor and middle-class women, educated and uneducated, black women like herself and white and Latino women.
“There was a 17-year-old girl fleeing her pimp and a 50-something grandmother,” she said. “There were women pulling up in their BMWs and women who were getting off the bus.”
Helton, director of a human resources consulting firm, said her abuse occurred over the course of her four-year marriage, beginning when she was three months pregnant with her daughter.
Before then, she said, her husband “was my knight in shining armor.” He bought her flowers and went with her on long walks in the park.
Then one night in a fit of anger, he began beating her. The first blow busted her left eardrum. The second dislocated her nose. And the third one busted the right eardrum. The beating continued until she blacked out.
“I remember the emergency room doctor being very upset, but no one called the police,” she said. “They patched me up, popped my nose back and sent me home.”
Over the next four years, the abuse continued. He beat her because she got stuck in traffic. He beat her when it took too long to get dinner on the table. And he beat her if the delivery man brought chicken fried rice instead of shrimp fried rice.
“Somehow it was always my fault,” Helton said, crying.
Twice she left, but each time, unwilling to burden her parents, she returned. The final straw, Helton said, came in early July of 2003.
They argued. He pinned her against the wall and began choking her.
“I looked over at the door to my bedroom and my children were sitting there watching,” she said.
This time, Helton escaped to a neighbor’s house and they called police.
When she refused to press charges, the police did. (He was later convicted of assault.) This time, however, Helton called an employee-assistance hotline. A counselor told her she was a battered woman. Go to a shelter.
other women are battered
“I had never thought of myself as a battered woman,” Helton said. “Battered women were other women.” But when she left work that day, Helton took the counselor’s advice. She and her children went to the shelter.
“It was so loud and chaotic, I almost left, but I stayed and that’s what changed my life,” she said. “We cuddled together at the bottom of a bunk bed, my son underneath my chin, my daughter lying across my back, but it was the best night of sleep I’d had in four years.”
Today, after seven years of silence, Helton shares her story every chance she gets.
“A lot of people see domestic violence as a private problem,” she said. “People don’t want to get involved, and because they don’t, victims continue to be victims instead of survivors. I’m a survivor.”