Tough Love

By Tom deMers

Home was the third floor of a house with a balcony out front. It was the top floor a few blocks from one of Denver’s busiest streets. It was secure. Three locked doors separated the apartment from the street below. But it wasn’t safe. Renee had keys to none of those doors. She was allowed out once a week when they went to Wal-Mart. She wore oversized sunglasses to hide the bruises and always walked behind him. He pointed to things, she put them in the cart. If the damage to her face wasn’t too bad, they stopped for lunch. He sat between her and the exit.

This was Renee’s life for more than a year. Allowed to call her mother on his cell phone and in his ever-watchful presence, she was isolated from all friends except one, a fellow prisoner named Buddy, a big husky. Buddy spent his days hiding in a closet and came out only when the man had left through the three locked doors. Then he would jump on the bed and curl up next to the girl. The dog comforted her, often licking blood off Renee’s face. When you think of the “war on terror” and its victims, think of these two, waiting through the day for the terror that came every night.

One night when the beating and screaming were particularly intense, Buddy lost it. The dog bolted through the French doors and jumped off the balcony. The man charged down the stairs, and in his utter concern for the dog forgot to lock the doors. Renee had her chance. She ran down and out onto the sidewalk. As bad as life had been, when Renee saw the man bending over the whimpering dog, she wanted to help, wanted to know if Buddy would survive. They were her only family. Instead, she ran the other way, down to the busy street and through the door of a restaurant. It was 2 A.M. on a January night, and she was wearing only a tee shirt, but that was not what made the waitress scream the moment she saw Renee. Several police officers were in a booth having breakfast. The last thing she remembers that night was hearing one of them say, “This is the girl we’ve been looking for. Thank God we found her.”

Renee grew up on a small farm north of Denver. With ducks and goats as family pets it was an idyllic life. “Most people on the street have a bad beginning,” Renee tells me, “but my childhood was great. She calls it “life backwards.” The bad part began when her dad died. Always close with her father, Renee’s relationship with her mom began to deteriorate noticeably after his heart attack. It did not improve when at sixteen, Renee gave birth to a baby girl, Kelly. The child’s father was sporadically present, and the couple was not married. Gloria, Renee’s sister, did the same thing a few years later. Renee calls her mother “proper;” single-motherhood was clearly not what she had in mind for her daughters. Renee said her mother practiced “tough love,” and while she doesn’t elaborate, the mom did not want Renee or her daughter around after Lenny was gone, the man she remarried after her husband died, then divorced because he was an alcoholic.

Renee and Kelly were separated, Kelly living with her father’s parents. Renee met and moved in with Richard, started working with a restaurant chain in a managerial capacity. They lived in one of Denver’s southern suburbs. Richard was a programmer at the right time. Internet companies were booming. He was sought after and developed programs to do all sorts of things. He and Renee had a large house, a big outdoor barbecue. They drove the latest Harley to rallies at Sturgis, S.D.. Richard went fishing in Alaska and brought jewelry back for Renee from his various trips. Their lifestyle included a lot of social drinking. After two years together and growing affluence, Renee wanted Richard to slow down. They talked about marriage and having kids. Family again seemed like a reality. Richard agreed and wanted those things too, but he had loose ends to wrap up. One of them was work he’d been doing for a man named Mark in Miami, so much work that Mark owed Richard a lot of money. Richard went to Miami to complete the work. Two weeks later he was found floating face down in a shallow lake. Renee thinks there was foul play, but she will never know.

Richard’s family got lawyers, and although Renee was a wife in the eyes of Colorado law, there was no will. “Richard’s family came in and tore through the place,” Renee said. She “flipped out” and started drinking heavily and sleeping late. She rented a condo when the house was sold out from under her. Abruptly and without notice, her life with the man who loved her ended, much as her dad’s heart attack had taken him when she was thirteen. She stumbled through her days in a kind of shock, self-medicating and completely cut off from her psychological moorings. Her mom would not allow her back, she said, judged her drinking and said she screwed up for losing her “millionaire husband.” It was then that a sympathetic friend showed up, a guy she and Richard had known. He helped her find a little job, later offered her a room in his house. It was platonic, later romantic. The pushing and shoving began just after they moved to the “mansion,” the third floor with three locked doors to the street.

 Then beatings without mercy. The man hit her so hard he needed surgery on his hand.  Renee has seizures and permanent neurological damage. He served time for attempted manslaughter, but he’s out now, whereabouts unknown. He is a dark and uncomfortable shadow in Renee’s narrative. She calls him, “mean as sin,” says he went to jail the first time at age 12 and probably spent that many years behind bars before meeting her. All through their relationship she called him “Monster,” never by his name. He liked that.  He told her, “I believe in chaos, hate and destruction, not love.”

The question had to be asked, “Why did you stay when you could have run? Why did you endure this for a year and a half?” Renee doesn’t hesitate. She says the “fear factor” was immense. “I was being so extremely beaten that I was in a state of fear and terror. I couldn’t think properly. Because of my head injury I spoke slower and moved slower. Many times in Wal-Mart I wanted to scream out, ‘Help me!’ but he would have said, ‘Leave her to me. She has problems.’ He would have made me look stupid.” Renee pauses, grasping at pieces. He knew where her daughter was, she says, and her mother. She hesitates again. “I hate to say this about people. I don’t want to blame them, but I looked at the people around me, and didn’t believe they would help. They’d be too afraid or look the other way because it was too scary. I was terrified, and quite frankly I thought it was normal for someone to treat me that way. I thought that’s the way my life would turn out.”

Some of her cries reached her mother. A few letters and phone calls. “She said I was a strong person and would find a way,” Renee told me. “She said she couldn’t help me.”

Renee became officially homeless for the first time in Texas. She fled there after the man threatened to “cut her up and throw her body in a ditch.” He’d spotted her in the front yard of her mother’s house. With almost the last of her money Renee bought an $800 Jeep and some camping equipment and headed south. She spent the summer living in a tent, cutting firewood and surviving two brown recluse spider bites. She became friends with a homeless family living nearby in an RV and later got a job at a fitness club to earn food money and take showers. In the fall the campground closed. It was hurricane season. The police warned her the flooding could be severe. The RV family left, and Renee moved her camp, but the police again told her to move on. Through Friends of the Family, a battered women’s shelter, she found a room in the home of an elderly woman. She lived there for the winter, helping around the house and getting a job at a Quizno’s. Richard had once told her, “As long as you can get up in the morning and put on your shoes, you’re gonna be okay.” Renee told me she said that every day in Texas as she put on her shoes. She still says it.

Renee wrote her mother when she was in Texas. She told her how alone and afraid she was. Her mother barely responded. Now, after almost three years of homeless living, Renee has found safe and permanent housing. She trades work for rent and is applying for jobs. Recreating relationships with family is part of coming back, but it’s not easy. Her mother has visited, even bought her a cell phone. “Why now,” Renee asks, “When she didn’t respond before? I wrote her letters, called and she hung up on me. Now she wants something, but she hasn’t said she’s glad I’m back. I’m not going to let her push or pull me. We still haven’t even talked about it. She won’t go there.”

Isolation of the victim is a familiar pattern in cases of domestic abuse. In this case the isolation began long before Renee met Monster, and it’s hard not to find something almost sinister in the refusal of Renee’s mother to protect her daughter. Certainly there’s more to this family than meets the eye. The outline revealed in Renee’s telling reveals a young woman set up by events and personalities in her own family for some very tough love.

Homeless was the best home she could find. •