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I’m A Domestic Violence Survivor. The Way You Talk About Gabby Petito Matters.

Moments before a security guard stopped to knock on the window of the black SUV I was sitting in, I had been sobbing uncontrollably.

The date night that my fiancé and I had been enjoying less than an hour before had ended abruptly, when one of the movie trailers playing in our theater sent him spiraling into a jealous tirade. Embarrassed, I begged him to lower his voice, then gave up and just pleaded for him to take me home. By the time we snuck out of the theater and into the parking lot, we were arguing loudly.

Once we were behind the closed doors of his truck, the argument escalated into violence. He punched the dashboard and screamed into my face that he was going to kill us both.

He pulled the vehicle away so quickly, and so erratically, that we never even made it out of the parking lot. Instead, he took a turn too fast and almost flipped his truck. The SUV didn’t roll over, but it did blow out its tires.

I don’t think the security guard saw any of what happened before he noticed our car stalled out in a poorly lit section of the lot. I imagine that all he saw, by the time he made his way over to our car, was a slightly irritated man sitting beside his hysterical fiancée.

By that point in our relationship, I was so familiar with the threats and the violence that I didn’t explain everything that had led up to that moment. I just nodded when appropriate, and even apologized for being so upset by the flat. My fiancé played his own role during that interaction, and put on a smiling and apologetic face for the guard.

Gone was the man who’d grabbed my arm to keep me from fleeing as soon as I realized I was in danger. There was no sign of the person he’d been only moments before, so consumed with rage that he’d been willing to kill us both just to prove he could.

Instead, he took an almost conspiratorial tone with the security guard, as if the two of them were in on some joke, as he explained away our situation.

Gabby Petito went missing on Sept. 11 during a road trip with her boyfriend. She was found dead eight days later. On Aug. 12, just over a month before Gabby’s family reported her missing, police in Utah pulled her and her boyfriend over. They’d been speeding, and their van had hit a curb.

When the police camera footage first leaked from Gabby Petito’s missing person case, something inside of me recognized something inside of her. I immediately found myself back in that SUV, trying to rein in my emotions, my terror, while the man I loved pretended nothing had happened.

I remembered everything that had led up to that moment in the car, and everything that came after it — the arguments and jealousy that continued to escalate into further violence until it almost cost me my life — and I hoped for a happy ending as I watched Gabby’s story unfold. 

But, as with so many women, Gabby’s story ended in tragedy. And while we don’t know all of the details yet, enough information has been released for people to start speculating about what was going on in her relationship before her disappearance.

Everyone from horrified spectators to amateur internet detectives began analyzing every bit of information they could find. They publicly rehashed the police footage, social media posts, and Gabby’s own words, jumping to conclusions and placing blame.

And as people took to Twitter and Facebook to discuss their views, the rest of us got a front-row seat to the kind of victim blaming that so often accompanies cases of domestic violence.

I quickly found out who in my social circle thinks Gabby’s problem was that she had a thing for “bad boys,” and that she would have been better off giving a “nice guy” a chance. I know who thinks she should have left sooner. I know who thinks we need to wait until we have all the facts before we brand her boyfriend an abuser. And if I know these things, then so do the other people who have stood in my shoes.

One woman in four will become a victim of domestic violence at some point in her life. If you’ve never experienced it, chances are high that you know someone who has. It’s easy to forget this, when we talk about these public cases that feel so far removed from our own lives. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

And sadly, it’s very likely that somebody currently living through that same horror is going to remain silent because of the way we talk about domestic violence.

After the security guard finally left us that night, I sat in terrified silence, trying to decide if I’d made things better or worse by not telling the truth about what had happened ― not just in that parking lot, but in all the other places where my fiancé’s anger and jealousy had boiled over into violence. 

What if I had asked for help? Would I have been freed? Or would I have been met with indifference or disbelief from the security guard, and then left alone with the man who would surely kill me for betraying his secret?

On that night, the blown tire and the security guard acted as a reset button of sorts. It’s a routine my fellow survivors know all too well. There were apologies, promises of change, and a brief period of calm — the man I had fallen in love with was back, and this time, he assured me, things would be different. But of course they weren’t, because they never are. 

I finally worked up the nerve to leave him for good a few weeks later. Had social media been as popular then as it is now, I don’t know if I would have been able to do it. Knowing what I know now about how people view victims of domestic violence, I might have been too embarrassed to ask for help.  

The comment sections on news articles about domestic violence are always full of people complaining about cancel culture, and saying that we need to “hear both sides” before we jump to any conclusions. But once the other half of the story comes out, it’s usually met with additional criticism.

Instead of offering up words of support, we say things like “Well, it takes two to tango,” as though domestic violence is a dance with two willing partners, rather than a crime.

How we talk about these situations can actually help keep the cycle of abuse rolling right along. That’s true for high-profile cases as well as the quieter ones like mine, cases that usually only spread through a whisper network, that have to make their way through a thicket of disbelief and refrains of “But he seemed like such a nice guy!” and “How could you let someone treat you that way?”

Abusers count on their victims being too ashamed and too afraid to ask for help. Isn’t it time we change the way we talk about these victims, so we can stop making it so damn easy for their abusers to get away with it? It’s too late to help Gabby. But maybe there’s still time to save someone else.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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