In late April 2017, Jennie Willoughby hit publish on a blog post. It was titled “Why I Stayed.”
Without naming names, the 362-word piece described Willoughby’s experience in an abusive relationship, while also deconstructing many of the misconceptions (Why not leave right away? Didn’t you see he was violent before getting involved?) abuse survivors face when trying to explain the pain and complexity of a frightening marriage.
“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed,” she wrote. “Abuse is indifferent to education level, socio-economic status, race, age, or gender.”
This week, the 2017 post is receiving a flood of new attention. On Tuesday, White House staffer Rob Porter, who was married to Willoughby from 2009 to 2013, was revealed by the Daily Mail to be the husband described on the blog. As The Washington Post reported this week, both Willoughby and Porter’s first ex-wife had informed the FBI about Porter’s abusive behavior as part of his security clearance. The allegations have cost Porter his position as White House staff secretary while also injecting another scandal into the chaotic Trump administration.
On Thursday night, Willoughby expanded on her writing in a powerful interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“That’s a question I get asked a lot, ‘Why did you stay if he was such a quote-unquote monster,'” Willoughby told Cooper. “And the reality is he’s not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man. And he’s deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.”
The story in Washington continues to snowball, as new questions arise about when administration officials learned of the abuse allegations.
But online, attention to Willoughby’s post has exploded. In her talk with Cooper, Willoughby explained she had published the blog “with the intention of reaching people who may need to hear that message and see what it’s like on the other side.” As of late Thursday night, the piece had nearly 200 comments, many coming in the hours just after the CNN interview. The digital space has become a de facto platform for the stories of supporters, survivors, and spouses trapped in abusive circumstances.
“This could have been me writing the article,” one poster wrote. “OMG, your story is mine also . . . for 19 years. Yes, we stay, and we hurt, and we try,” another added. “And others don’t see it, so we are alone.”
Many of the commenters keyed in on Willoughby’s description of the loneliness and isolation of abuse. A beautiful couple with the right social status and résumés can be a smokescreen for a darker reality.
“Outside the house he was Mr. GQ, an Associate Director at one of our federal agencies,” one poster said. “At home, he terrorized me and our children. He belittled me, called me names, told me I had no friends, told me I was stupid, unattractive, evil, that I’d never make it on my own, a lousy mother, a lousy wife, a crack addict (never seen it), ad nauseum.”
Another stated: “I was attractive, well educated and confident; people can never understand why I stayed. He was charming, in a boy next door kind of way, and everyone loved him; people have a hard time believing that he wasn’t always so wonderful. Your ability to explain that he was not just some horrible person and you were not just a victim, was very accurate and left me in tears.”
Another theme threading through the comments is the difficulty in getting others to believe the abuse is happening. “I stayed with my abusive husband for 20 years. The first time he assaulted me was right before our wedding,” one person wrote. “His sister asked what I had done to deserve it. Everyone loved him, constantly told me how lucky I was.”
“I was abused by a woman,” a commenter said. “I felt alone and still do because this is not something men talk about very much. I admire your conviction and wish you peace and love.”
“The not being believed is the worst part of all of it,” one wrote. “It makes you question your own sanity when you already have a tenuous grasp of it as a result of the gaslighting that inevitably comes with being in a relationship with one of these disordered individuals.”
Others shared the moments when they had to leave.
“He threw me down a flight of stairs where my 6-year-old was playing,” said one. “He sent me to work with finger bruises on my arms from grabbing me. He got mad when I wouldn’t do cocaine with him.”
Another explained: “I finally left when I witnessed my ex verbally terrorizing my 12 year old son. My son’s screaming “STOP” repeatedly triggered in my mind the exact thing I had done when my ex first attacked me.”
In her CNN interview, Willoughby explained she had stood by her piece since it was published last year, including in the days leading up to the scandal. Before reports about the abuse allegations, Porter had asked her to play down the assertions in the piece, she told Cooper.
“He was asking me to release a statement about my blog post,” she explained. “I went back and forth with him for an hour about what language I would be comfortable with, and ultimately the language that he asked I wasn’t comfortable with,” she said.
“I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of the post does not accurately depict my marriage. . . . That just didn’t feel right to me, because it does accurately depict my marriage.”
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