Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
July 12, 2000. I woke up with one thought in my head. I am going to die.
I don’t know where this conviction came from, unless it was the cracked ribs. It hurt to move; it hurt to breathe. I was also dizzy. I had awakened dizzy for five months straight, ever since Maggie was born. I never went anywhere without a cup of crushed ice to chew on. This, too, had lasted for five months. Maggie—exclusively breast-fed—looked puny and pallid.
I knew Nate was going to kill me unless I did something to save myself. I guess I should explain that Nate didn’t crack my ribs. They had been cracked in the accident on the day before, July 11, my 33rd birthday. Nate had angrily quoted Scripture and accused me of “spiritual adultery” for half an hour in the van until I cried myself blind. He said we were leaving our church to “home-church” again. Then Nate stopped at his law office, got out of the van, and let me take the wheel.
I didn’t see the Ford Explorer coming at 60 miles per hour. I pulled out right in front of it, still sobbing. My rib cage hit the steering wheel. My six children—Maggie, the baby; Samuel, two; Rachel, four; Moriah, six; Jack, eight; and Daniel, nine—were miraculously unhurt, except for small cuts from flying glass.
The next thing I remember, I was lying in the hospital. Nate was pacing the floor in front of my gurney, a strange light in his eyes. “Baby,” he said, looking at the wallpaper, “this is financially good for our family.” Nate practiced personal injury law.
On the 12th, the next morning, I sat up in bed and put my head between my knees until the dizziness cleared. I am going to die, I thought again. I only have one chance.
I stumbled down to our garage-converted-to-a-home-office. Nate was on the internet.
“I am getting a tubal ligation,” I said.
“No, you’re not,” Nate replied smoothly, not taking his eyes from the monitor. “I will cut off your health insurance.”
“I am getting my tubes tied and there is nothing you can do to stop me,” I said.
Nate turned to me, his blue eyes ablaze. He opened his mouth and preached me a long sermon. The gist of it was the usual. My sin. My guilt. His authority. His righteousness. My rebellion. What women were put on earth for—to “be fruitful and multiply.” How can you defend this? he would ask, smirking. Let’s hear your rational defenses from the Bible, if you don’t mind. My mind fogged beneath the verbal barrage, but for once, my resolve held firm.
This was life or death.
Nate wanted me to cut back Maggie’s feedings, even though she needed more milk, not less. He wanted me to be fertile. One thing could not happen, even if Nate assaulted me again: I could not get pregnant.
I must have repeated my decision to get sterilized (or maybe I just stood there), but in any case, Nate upped the ante: “I’ll take your keys. You will go nowhere until you repent and submit to God and to your husband.”
I didn’t back down.
Nate decided it was time for home-church. Our ex-pastor and ex-assistant-pastor had told Nate he was an abuser. To be exact, the pastors told Nate this just before Nate bawled me out, which was just before I wrecked the van. With no biblical churches with real Christians to be found anywhere in the entire Virginia Beach/Norfolk area, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do: set up his own church with himself as the pastor over his family. And Nate had a mutiny on his hands.
Time to gather his little flock of the “faithful”—his five oldest children.
“Children, come down here, please.”
The children, ages two to nine, assembled in the office. Their eyes searched their parents’ faces for clues. Something about Daddy’s eerily sweet voice—Mommy’s frozen face—even Sam, the toddler, sensed a crisis brewing.
“Children, I’m very sorry, but your mother is in rebellion against God and Daddy. She wants to go to a doctor and have her body cut on the inside so that you can never have any more brothers and sisters. Daddy does not want Mommy to mutilate herself and the Bible is very clear on this, but Mommy will not listen to Daddy or to God. She is determined. Your Mommy is in sin and will not repent and she needs to leave this house. She cannot live here any more.” Nate hung his head.
Moriah, Rachel, and Samuel (6, 4, and 2) burst into tears and were gathered into Nate’s embrace. He tenderly kissed the tops of their heads. Daniel and Jack grew wild-eyed and red in the face. “Mommy! What is he saying?” Daniel demanded.
Jack, ever practical, already had the solution. “Just say it, Mommy, Just say it!”
“Say what, honey?” I mumbled, my shoulders slumped, tears streaming down my face.
“Whatever he wants you to say.”
Half an hour later, Nate went to work, looking smug and unperturbed. I had not repented. But he had won. I was beaten. And in my condition, I wasn’t going anywhere, even if the van had not been totaled and in the shop. Nate would come home to a nice, hot, meat-and-potatoes meal and a bevy of babies vying for his attention. He would check his e-mail and a few favorite porn sites, and maybe, if he was particularly favored by God, get his wife pregnant for the eighth time in 11 years, before sundown.
Seven hours later, Nate came home. Vanished were his wife; his six children; four bread pans; six trash bags and four pieces of luggage stuffed with clothing; seven sets of vital records; four photo albums; one life insurance policy; and one tattered Bible with all of the passages about childbearing underlined in green. Green for fertility. Green for life.
I had left Nate, for the third time, and this time I wasn’t coming back. I didn’t love him any more. My name is Tess.
In other news, on that day, membership in the world’s one true Biblical Christian church, headed by Nathaniel Willoughby, Esquire, P. C. (a limited liability corporation) saw its membership decline by a stunning 86%.