Her daughter wouldn’t tell her anything over the phone. It wasn’t until L.Y. Marlow drove from Maryland to her daughter’s Philadelphia apartment and saw the bruises on the young woman’s neck that she learned the full truth.
Her daughter had become just like her. And her mother. And her grandmother.
Three generations of women in the family had been physically battered and almost killed by the men they loved, and now here was Marlow’s daughter, the fourth generation, describing how her boyfriend had tried to strangle her. How she began to black out when she heard her 6-month-old daughter on the bed next to her screaming. How that sound made her fight back.
Marlow listened that day in 2007, cried and decided then she needed to do something — if not to save her daughter, then to save that baby on the bed, a girl whose name spoke to what she would come to symbolize: Promise.
The nonprofit organization Marlow started days later has grown alongside the long-legged girl it was named after. And this year, as both the organization and Promise turn 10, Marlow has new allies in the long, formidable fight that her group and many others have waged against domestic violence. Saving Promise is bringing together executives from major companies, academics from Harvard and others — all united by an ambitious goal. They don’t want to just help women get out of abusive relationships. They want to prevent that abuse from occurring in the first place.
“I feel Promise was born for a purpose,” said Marlow, who’s 50 and lives in Bethesda, Md. “I want her to know what it means and feels like to not have to endure what four generations of mothers endured before her. She could really be the first in our family not to be abused.”
About 1 in 3 American women will experience intimate partner violence at some point in their lifetimes, with the majority becoming victims before their 25th birthday, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Women are far more likely to be killed by a spouse, an intimate acquaintance or a family member than a stranger, the Violence Policy Center found in a recent report. Every year their slayings — sometimes witnessed by their children or after they tried, to no avail, to leave a relationship — generate headlines and anguish in communities throughout the country.
In Maryland, a teacher and her 2-year-old daughter, still strapped into her car seat, were killed by the girl’s father. In Florida in January, a man choked his wife to death after a fight, then posted to her Facebook page to convince her family that she was alive. In New Jersey in December, Tara O’Shea-Watson was stabbed to death a month after domestic violence charges were dismissed against her husband. Her obituary read: “Tara is in Heaven now and is no longer afraid.”
Kathleen Basile, a behavioral scientist at the CDC, calls this form of violence “a public health crisis.” A CDC public survey found a relationship between domestic violence and increased health problems, including asthma, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches and difficulty sleeping.
“If this was a contagious disease, a lot of effort would go to preventing it,” she said. “We need to address it as such.”
This year, Saving Promise launched a partnership with Harvard University to start a Learning Lab, where students and researchers can develop “evidence-based prevention strategies, programs and policies.” On Feb. 20 — Promise’s birthday — Marlow also released a book about her family’s history with the title taken from advice her granddaughter once gave her during a particularly low moment, “Don’t Look at the Monster.”
Marlow said people often ask her how domestic violence could affect so many generations of one family and, after years of self-reflection, she said she finally has an answer.
“One word: Silence,” she said. “My grandmother didn’t talk to my mother, my mother didn’t talk to me, and I am not ashamed to say it, I didn’t talk to my daughter, not until Promise screamed.”
The morning after she learned of that scream, Marlow turned to the one person she thought might help: Oprah Winfrey.
She had heard about a woman who bought a pair of Oprah’s shoes and stood in them whenever she got depressed. That day, she said, she needed to stand in “any shoes other than my own.”
“Dear Oprah,” she began a long letter that laid out her family’s history and her fear that her daughter would be killed. “Why am I writing to you about this? Well, I’ve decided that although my daughter won’t listen, I must do something to save Promise and hopefully by saving Promise I will save my only daughter as well.”
Oprah didn’t write back. And Marlow, who quit a job at IBM to focus on the organization, says now that was probably for the best.
“Sometimes when people don’t respond, it helps you,” she said. “It gives you a voice.”
It was that voice — one of a grandmother and a victim turned advocate — that struck Dean Michelle Williams of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health when Marlow approached her about forming a partnership. Before that moment, Williams had worked for years as an epidemiologist studying women’s health but felt limited in her ability to take her work to the general public.
“My frustration turned into real enthusiasm and real exhilaration the day I met L.Y., when I saw a way I could have a real impact in my lifetime,” Williams said. She said she sees the partnership as a way to “change the narrative from managing victims of violence to preventing violence in the first place.”
Williams said participation in the Learning Lab will run throughout the university and involve the business and education schools.
“Many think it’s just the acute bruises and broken bones,” Williams said. But intimate partner violence has documented health impacts and comes at a financial cost to the public, she said. It also has a far reach. During a research project in Africa, Williams said she was told that only uneducated women suffered from such violence. But she found that a fourth of the women in college there also reported familiarity with it, a number she said also holds true for women in U.S. colleges.
“It’s not just the women in the bush,” Williams said. “It’s all of us.”
Marlow said she hopes the Learning Lab will draw funding from corporations, foundations and philanthropists. This year, Saving Promise expects a budget of $1.8 million, which Marlow said will go toward launching the lab’s initiatives.
In the book, Marlow writes openly about her financial struggles after she quit her job to focus on Saving Promise, which has a board comprising executives from major companies, including Xerox, Johnson & Johnson and Amazon (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post). She also writes in painful detail about her family’s abuse, starting with her grandfather, who not only showed his wife regular brutality but often forced his children to strip nude and beat them with a belt until they bled.
“Ma said by the time my daddy showed up and picked up where Granddaddy had left off, her nerves were so bad that she shook like a leaf,” Marlow writes.
Her mother, in turn, forbid her to date until she turned 16 and when that time came, Marlow already had the 17-year-old boy picked out: “He knew just how to say the right things to make me feel special. So months later when he went into a jealous rage because he thought I was seeing another boy, I didn’t see the punch coming.” She forgave him again and again — “Until I found myself knocked up and shaking like a leaf too.”
In those pages, Marlow also admits the shame she felt in playing dual roles: an advocate for abuse victims and the mother of a daughter who went from one abusive relationship to the next.
“He’s going to kill her! Please, you have to hurry,” Marlow begged D.C. police after her daughter called her after her boyfriend slammed her head into the side of a bathtub. The next day, Marlow attended an important meeting with the Case Foundation. “Not once did I break stride as I talked about Saving Promise as if my life counted on it, as if my daughter was not at that very moment sitting in some courtroom with bruises on her face and neck,” she writes.
After that meeting, she sat on a toilet and sobbed. Then she rushed to the courthouse.
The night of Promise’s 10th birthday, the girl darted through Dave & Buster’s in Silver Spring in a pink lace dress and white tennis shoes. She stopped at the Skee-ball machine and rolled her first ball up the lane.
It plopped in a hole worth 100 points.
Behind her, applause erupted from her mother and grandmother, two women who want more than anything to protect her — even if she doesn’t yet know all they are trying to protect her from. There is much they haven’t told her about the family’s history.
She doesn’t know that Marlow’s mother was once beaten so badly that both her lungs were damaged and that although she survived, she bore a scar for the rest of her life from the top of her chest to her navel.
She doesn’t know that Marlow was kicked in the stomach and then spit on when she was eight months pregnant.
She doesn’t know about her own father and mother’s tumultuous history.
“I’ve just told her that her dad doesn’t treat me nice,” said Promise’s mother, who asked not to be identified because of safety concerns. She also asked that her daughter’s last name not be used for those same reasons.
When her mother approached her about starting an organization in her daughter’s name, she said she was against it. “That’s the honest truth,” she said. She’s by nature a reserved person and, at the time, she was still deep in the relationship with Promise’s father. “I really didn’t want it to happen, but I said, ‘If you think it’s going to change things, then go ahead.’ ”
Now in her 30s, she said she has worked hard to make sure she doesn’t repeat the mistakes she made in her 20s. She is careful about whom she dates and is protective of Promise, who is different from her in many ways. The fourth-grader is high energy and outgoing — the type of girl who walks outside and returns with two new friends. Her mother said she aims to keep her active in a way she wasn’t as a child. This month, Promise starts soccer, and when she can afford it, her mother hopes to enroll her in a dance class.
“When it comes to the cycle being broken, I think it can be broken,” she said. “I do want to educate her and make her aware of what a male should and shouldn’t do to you. I think we’ll definitely have to sit down and have those talks when she gets to those preteen years.”
Or maybe sooner. The day after her Dave & Buster’s outing, Promise had a slumber party with four friends. They did facials and watched scary movies. They also used FaceTime to call a boy, one the girls agreed likes Promise.