This morning I did something I thought I’d never find myself doing. Watching the TODAY Show, I screamed at a woman who had been emotionally abused by her husband. And if I could scream at her in person, I would.
There was Bernadette Sugrim, blow-dried and made-up and smiling, seated on the interview couch with her two children, talking to an empathetic Matt Lauer about how she had claimed the courage last summer, after years of marriage, to turn her husband in to the police–not for beating her, which he didn’t unless she got in the way while he was beating their children, and not for tying their 11-year-old daughter to the family dog and beating her to ribbons with a martial arts stick, which he did, but for the brutal murder of a prostitute he had committed in the family van and told Bernadette about . . . in 2003.
Besham Sugrim wouldn’t be in prison today for that murder, or even for scarring his child because she failed to discipline the dog to his exacting standards, had the daughter not had enough. She managed to escape the beating and ran to a neighbor’s house. The neighbor called police, the first time authorities had been involved in the Sugrim marriage. Afraid not for her children–whom she hopes will maintain a relationship with their father because he was always so good at getting them to excel academically–but for her own safety (she says Besham told her he would kill her if the police were ever brought in), Bernadette told police they should look into the unsolved murder from 2003.
That 8-year secret is bad enough. Women, even very smart, very capable women who profess to love their children, stay with abusive and violent men all the time, relying on the flawed economy of victimhood that says there’s too much invested in the relationship to disturb the pattern of abuse. But that wasn’t the only secret Bernadette Sugrim was carrying for her husband. Way back in 1996, when they were first dating, she watched him break her brother’s nose and break both legs of another brother. And she listened as he confessed to killing a man–a homeless man in the last stages of AIDS whom his parents had taken in to care for–just because he felt like it.
It wasn’t fear that drove her to keep that first secret, or to go ahead and marry Besham. It was, she told Matt Lauer solemnly, love. “You know how it is when you love someone,” she smiled, as the camera cut away to show photos of the young couple nuzzling. “He loved me so much. He really needed me.” That’s when I started screaming.
It gets worse. In an extensive interview with Kalamazoo Gazette reporter Ursula Zerilli in February, Bernadette goes into her motives for staying with Besham at great length. The fear is utterly unconvincing. What rings true is romanticized, self-aggrandizing crap like this:
“For the first 10 years of our marriage, I felt I was put into his life,” Bernadette said. “It was my responsibility to make him a better person. I thought my love would be enough to break that. It bothered me for a long time that I wasn’t able to do anything for him or change him.”
Throughout those years, this is how Bernadette Sugrim helped her husband become a better man: She let him try to pin the blame for the 1996 murder on his father, whom they both disliked. She watched him beat his foster mother into unconsciousness after the foster mother kicked the young couple out of her house, and then stepped over the woman and complained because she was going into labor with their first child and they had nowhere to live. She looked up at the police information photo of the murdered prostitute while applying for a handgun permit so her husband could elude gun-control laws, knowing she was aiding in arming a double murderer. She stood by while he regularly beat their children bloody with a whip. She concealed her husband’s status as an illegal alien, because if he were deported what would happen to her? She wrote a letter to her best friend to be opened in the event of her own death, suggesting that if there was suspicion of foul play the police should look at Besham for her murder (but making no mention of his other crimes). When asked how she was able to justify all this, Bernadette said, “I learned not to let it eat away at me. I put it out of my mind. I couldn’t survive if I thought about it all the time.”
Besham Sugrim is, by his own admission, an evil man. But what made me scream at the television is the fact that no one seems to be admitting Bernadette’s cooperation in that evil, which may even outdo his. By putting the knowledge of his crimes out of her mind–consciously, continually, for the sake of her own ability to live with herself in the comfort of an anesthetized conscience and to sustain the fuzzy teenage dream of love–Bernadette is complicit. She abused her children more viciously than their father did. She as much as murdered the young woman Besham battered to death in 2003, by not immediately reporting the 1996 murder. But of course those two victims–an old man dying of AIDS, a drug-addicted hooker–weren’t really people. They weren’t worthy of love or saving. They weren’t worth letting it eat away at Bernadette, who now sits on Matt Lauer’s couch and talks about how great it is to finally live stress-free and enjoy herself.
If it weren’t for Bernadette Sugrim’s 11-year-old daughter, though, who knows how many more disposable victims this “love” would have claimed? The problem is, I don’t think the daughter escaped far enough. She’s still with Bernadette, who wants her and her brother to have good memories of their father. When Matt Lauer asked the girl this morning what was going through her mind when she ran to the neighbor’s house, she licked her glossed lips and stammered. “I don’t really remember,” she finally said. “It was really just a fast blur.” It’s not likely to get less confusing, as Bernadette now thinks her daughter’s testifying against her father in court was “good practice” in overcoming stage fright for the singing career she has planned. The girl has already written a song about her father’s crimes.
It’s tempting to generalize from this story, to talk about how our society makes it so easy for a woman to prioritize a man’s love over a child’s welfare, so easy to justify even the most heinous crimes on the basis of “what’s best for me.” It’s easy for me to scream at the media’s making Bernadette Sugrim a victim and and a heroine (she’ll be the focus of an NBC Dateline episode tonight), when what she is is a monster. But that won’t do much good. All I can do is refute, with every fiber of my being, Bernadette’s message.
When Matt Lauer asked her this morning what the “takeaway” from all this is, what words of advice Bernadette Sugrim might have for other women in similar circumstances (even Matt had to catch himself–he started to say, “in the same circumstances,” but realized quickly that no one is), she smiled into the camera and had the audacity to say that she just wanted to tell women “not to let fear paralyze you, like I did, even though you have no choice.”
Women, sisters, mothers, daughters, you always have a choice. Even if your ability to choose freely becomes limited over time by the pattern of abuse, by drugs, by violence, by literal captivity–which was the case for Bernadette’s children, but not for herself–you have a choice at that first moment. When Bernadette’s boyfriend first told her he killed someone, she had a choice. She chose wrong. And kept on choosing wrong. That wasn’t love, ladies. That was sin, and once you nuzzle up to it it’ll paralyze you worse than fear, and hurt you and your children worse than any beating.
I just hope Bernadette’s daughter can hear me screaming. Run for your life, sweetie, and keep on running.