When Home is Not a Shelter

As the daughter of a single, depressed, alcoholic and abusive mother who barely kept us off welfare, I defied the stereotype of what it meant to be Jewish not only because we were poor but also because I was a victim of domestic violence. 

The abuse was largely emotional, but it was routine. The mildest disagreement with my boozed-up mother could unleash such cruelty, her calling me rotten and blaming me for ruining her life. Sometimes she gave me the silent treatment, emotionally cutting me off for days. Other times, she threatened to take off my head and occasionally followed through. In the end, she always brought me to my knees.

School vacations, with both of us home for days a time, were the worst. Without work to occupy her mind, provide limited income, and a modicum of self-respect, my mother brooded and drank. Instead of numbing her pain, alcohol made her raw and reactive. She grew surly and mean, and it took little more than a wayward glance to incite her. Survival meant staying out of her way, which was impossible. In our cramped one-bedroom apartment, there was nowhere to hide.

I shudder to think what would have happened had we been subject to months of quarantine.

Sheltering at home is critical to halting the spread of coronavirus but it can elicit danger of another kind by trapping women and children with abusive family members. Under ordinary circumstances, domestic violence climbs when families spend more time together, research shows. During these extraordinarily stressful times, with workplaces shut and schools closed, women and children are at heightened risk, having lost what little space they could once take from their batterers. Since the lockdown began, emergency calls to domestic violence hotlines in the United States and around the world have spiked. At the same time, The New York Times recently reported that domestic violence emergency calls are down in New York City, suggesting that victims lack the privacy they need to call for help. The Times also noted that social distancing guidelines have stopped police and social workers from conducting home visits, which are important both for gathering domestic violence complaints and providing support. 

Like coronavirus, domestic violence can go undetected.

Years ago, I worked with a mid-level manager, who was sharp and always handsomely dressed. One day, I noticed how loosely her designer clothes had begun to hang on her bony frame. I started watching her more closely and saw that her hands trembled. The first time I smelled booze on her breath I chalked up to a martini lunch; the second time was in the morning. That’s when I spotted the bruises on her matchstick arms, the fading yellow blotch beneath her eye, and a gap in her mouth where a tooth belonged. 

Eager to help, I wrote down the toll-free number for a domestic violence hotline and delivered it to her in the restroom where I knew she went to smoke. She seemed embarrassed and insisted in a quivering voice that she was fine. Then, with a shaking hand, she accepted the tightly folded piece of paper with the number on it.

My battered life was a secret too. No one who met my mother––who loved to hug and feed everyone––would ever have suspected her dependence on alcohol and the rages it fueled. Sober, she displayed no hint of her toxic relationship with liquor. Her complexion wasn’t ruddy. Her eyes didn’t have the yellow cast that suggests liver damage. Not drinking didn’t give her the shakes. But in her body, liquor was poison. Any amount was too much. 

Having to dress professionally for her office job, where she reported early every weekday morning, forced her to contain her drinking, but she didn’t stop. Indeed, the first thing she did when she came home, often before taking off her coat, was to pour a Scotch; on weekends, she often started at noon. Only when she was at work did I bring friends home. It was the only time that I – and my secret — felt safe.

Throughout my young life, I held my breath, praying for nights and weekends to end, when my mother would temporarily transform from a sorrowful, sloppy, stretch-pants wearing boozer into a well-outfitted woman in makeup and pearls, whose job was the only refuge I knew. 

The coronavirus pandemic is a tragedy. Yet, it is also an opportunity: to strengthen our resiliency as individuals and communities, as well as our ability to care for others by recognizing that home is not always the shelter it’s meant to be. 



National Domestic Violence Hotline: For any victims and survivors who need support, we are here for you, 24/7. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-787-3224 for TTY, or if you’re unable to speak safely, you can log onto thehotline.org or text LOVEIS to 22522. https://www.thehotline.org/

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: https://www.nrcdv.org/
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/
Shalom task force (Jewish org): https://www.shalomtaskforce.org/
Shalva (Jewish): https://shalvaonline.org/
Call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.


Andrea Kott, MPH, a freelance public health writer, is the author of the forthcoming memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness and Hope,” due in May from Blydyn Square Books.

One comment on “When Home is Not a Shelter

  1. Miriam Kalman Friedman on

    I am writing a memoir that deals with my life with a verbally abusive mother and verbally abusive first husband. This article helps free me from the guilt of telling. My mother was seen by the world as a saint. What would she say to my writing and publishing her mischief? During this Covid 19 pandemic, I am grateful to be sequestered with a wonderful, kind and dependable husband, both of us in our seventies. But my memory is long: I imagine how horrible it would be to be locked down with my former husband or my mother during teen years. I am grateful to be well (so far) but even more to be safe, loved and appreciated as a valuable human being. I look forward to reading Andrea Kott’s forthcoming memoir.

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