Warning: This story series contains descriptions of physical abuse.
by Tess Willoughby
September 11, 2001. This dark day united all Americans in horror, in terror, and in pain.
With at least one exception: Nate Willoughby.
I found out that our country had been attacked using our own commercial aircraft when my mother called me from town and said, “Turn on the news.” Her tone of voice suggested the worst of the worst of the worst: so awful that you didn’t ask “what channel?” because it didn’t matter what channel. The president had been assassinated. There was some horrific, unthinkable natural disaster, probably in Virginia. Something so bad she couldn’t say it.
I hung up, turned on the TV and watched the Twin Towers burn, holding the phone in my hand.
The phone rang. I hit the answer button. Nate lit into me about how I needed to come back to him and I was in rebellion against God and would probably go to hell.
I swallowed and sat on the floor and said, “Are you aware that terrorists have attacked New York City? The World Trade Center is burning!”
Nate said, “Who cares. We’re talking about my life.”
I hung up on him and sobbed and choked in front of the TV until I didn’t have any more strength to cry. How mean and insane was my husband? How would I ever get away from this vindictive bastard without being destroyed? Was Nate even human? Was my country’s government about to fall? How many more planes had been hijacked, and what would blow up next? It felt as though my own personal hell had unleashed national horrors and worldwide chaos. The lid had blown off life itself and nothing venerable, nothing precious, nothing good could stand. My own personal, religious zealot terrorist had gone global somehow and the world was burning and crumbling to the ground; nothing and nobody was safe from crazy men with extreme religious agendas.
Post-traumatic stress does funky things with your brain. That September, I believed that I had landed in a world without personal boundaries, without national security: a world of merciless anarchy where freedom was not only impossible but a joke and and an illusion. A world where terrorists could strike anywhere and nightmarish, ruinously expensive court hearings never ended, but God was silent. I believed that I could lose absolutely everything, even my nation. If not for my parents, I would have lost my sanity.
My divorce lawyer had been worn down by Nate’s bullying to the breaking point. She was pushing me to agree to a no-fault divorce with all legal issues reserved for later. She would do nothing to get me any permanent alimony, nothing to get me any property, nothing to get me permanent custody of my children, nothing to help me with the personal injury suit, nothing at all except to sign a no-fault divorce decree now that the year-long waiting period was over. She made it clear that I had no choice in this—in order to continue to represent me, she would have to hire additional staff to keep up with Nate, who had her completely buried in paperwork.
My lawyer was quitting, and she hated to bring it up but. . .I owed her $30,000.00. When my dad and I couldn’t pay any more, she put me on a payment plan. When we couldn’t make the payments, she turned me over to a collection agency. That collection agency, Chase and Citibank (Nate had credit cards in my name, remember?) called me every day.
Nate paid no child support, of course. He had a child support matter filed in court (the first of six), and was appealing the alimony, so would not be sending a dime while a decision or appeal was pending. Because the children and I were on public assistance, I got Legal Aid in Virginia Beach, but they would only help with the equitable distribution matter because of limited resources. On the custody/alimony/ child support matter, and the personal injury matter, I was on my own; I would have to drive six hours and represent myself. Another lawyer in Virginia Beach was unaffordable.
Why so many matters? Why so many cases? you may be wondering. The judges found it more economical for the court to farm out the matters to multiple judges rather than one judge hearing the whole mess, since Nate files multiple motions per hearing and rants and raves for hours. Every separate matter in turn quickly became a legal swamp with its own morass of motions to respond to, discovery to answer, and subpoenas to move to quash. Litigating with Nate has always been like fighting the Hydra. You lop off one hearing but that hearing spawns three more hearings; answer one motion and get three more in the mail; quash one subpoena and get notice of three more. In Virginia, a lawyer can file his own subpoenas without going through any court, so Nate subpoenaed everything and everybody he could think of for every hearing. He quickly overwhelmed the whole judicial population of the Virginia Beach Circuit Court. The first judge, who returned Moriah to me after her dad kidnapped her out of school, stepped down after Nate filed a writ of mandamus against her with the Virginia Supreme Court.
Legal Aid got me nothing in equitable distribution except the stuff I ran away with. The judge ruled that I kept what I had in my possession and Nate kept what he had in his possession. Nate had taken out a second mortgage on our house without my knowledge, plus run up the debut on the credit cards, and so Nate persuaded the judge that in order to split the property 50/50, it was only fair that the marital debt also be divided 50/50. The judge bought this argument, and I got nothing. Not even the children’s toys.
This is going to sound idiotic but I’m going to say it anyway: even though I’m moderate now and voted for Barack Obama and probably will vote for him again, I can’t hate George W. Bush like so many of my good friends do. I detest the Patriot Act and hate the war even more, but I was on welfare with six little kids when the terrorists attacked and about to lose everything I owned in the courts. After 9/11, it was the president who gave me the reassurance that I might lose everything else—all my belongings and even eventually my children—but I wouldn’t lose my country. I’d still be American, and Americans have always been bullheaded enough to hang onto the faith that they can get free. No matter who or what is standing in the way.
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NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce