Thursday, June 23, 2016 | 5:01 p.m.
Las Vegas is a very charitable city and its residents generous to a fault. But it also is a brutal and tough place, and the charity The Shade Tree plays a key role in helping victims of domestic violence and homelessness.
More and more often, regrettably, the numbers it helps are on the rise. More and more often, thankfully, there are people and groups who organize fundraisers and/or take part in them. Strip entertainment industry members support its work.
At a recent unveiling of the Studio 54 MGM Grand memorabilia that had been discarded in the trash and was rescued for the Neon Museum and an art photo exhibit, it was a benefit for The Shade Tree.
In serving as a guest speaker to recall memories of the notorious disco club, I met a remarkable woman who was now running a Thai food catering company after rescuing herself from homeless straits.
It made me want to investigate further, and The Shade Tree put me in touch with Jane Griffin (not her real name for safety) who told me one of the most remarkable stories in my 16 years of living in Las Vegas. Here’s our incredibly candid conversation:
What did The Shade Tree do for you, how did you find The Shade Tree, how did they help you?
I actually did an online search for a place to go to get away, and The Shade Tree advocates helped me enormously. I was there with them for a little while, and I’m now relocated to another part of America because of safety concerns. But they certainly, I would say, are responsible for the fact that I’m alive today.
Alive and free, I guess, yes?
How long did this terrible relationship last? How bad did it get?
Only about three years. Well, I would say he nearly killed me a few times. He definitely strangled me virtually every day that I was with him. So, beatings and financial abuse, he was a master of all of it.
It may seem strange for me to understand this, why could you not get away, why could you not leave, why not call the police, why could you not escape?
My ex-husband was for years at the top of a large crime syndicate, and not only did I have to be concerned about him coming after me and finding me, but all of his associates, too. He also threatened to kill my children if I left. He used a lot of manipulation there, but I got away.
Try to help me understand as a man, why did it take so long for a woman to escape those clutches? Why can you not just go to the police?
One time that the police were called in for a violence issue for me, before the police even arrived at my door, I got a phone call from my husband telling me the name of the officer, the time that he would arrive, and if I said anything to him, he would know immediately, and he would kill me.
So, you know, I think that the first thing to understand is that a woman who is in the midst of that being not only physically abused, but emotionally abused, and I think a lot of time, they rob us of any kind of self-confidence or security. They isolate us from our friends and family, so there may not be a safe place for a woman to go if she isn’t aware of a shelter or that sort of thing.
So, you know it’s not always just a pick up and leave kind of thing. In some situations, it certainly can be. But for me, there were a lot of other safety concerns that were involved in it before I could actually make an escape.
I take it because you went to The Shade Tree here in Las Vegas that a lot of this vicious, vile, violent behavior took place here in Las Vegas?
Yes, it did. But I’m now relocated far away from the city.
You talk openly about the awful relationship that you were in to inspire other women. Are you amazed at the number of other women who are in similar circumstances?
Yes, over the time that I’ve been in this program, I have met hundreds of women, and not necessarily the same circumstances but certainly abusive relationships. Statistics say that 1 in 3 women will experience violence in her life. You know those are pretty overwhelming statistics when you think about how many women you know, that out of those women that 1 in 3 have experienced that.
It’s a terrible number — frightening.
When it happens the first time, why does the woman forgive the man for the incident?
That happens a lot. No. 1 because they are very good at convincing you that you somehow were the reason that the violence was necessary in the first place. But, also, they’re very apologetic in a lot of circumstances. They make you believe that it was a one-time thing, that they’ll never do it again. My husband, BTW, never apologized for it, and never showed any kind of remorse.
I didn’t experience what they called the honeymoon phase. But I think also there are other factors. Women get into these situations, and he may control all the finances, so she doesn’t have options to just walk away. Forgiving him becomes easier than the alternative, which is poverty and struggle.
I took a cab to The Shade Tree. I was actually there twice during a very short window of time, but the first time I took a cab there, and the second time the advocates actually came and picked me up.
What happens at The Shade Tree that returns you to “a normal life”? What do they teach you, what do they give you for strength and self-belief?
The first thing is that they give you a place to get your wits about you again. Because, many times, those first few days in a shelter, you are like the walking wounded. Your life is in shambles, you don’t know who your friends are. But you have friends there.
The people who are at The Shade Tree, not only the women that live there, but also the advocates and staff are remarkable at making you feel like you have some power in your life again. I think that’s the first thing. They give you a place that you feel and find yourself again. They give you resources to be able to get started on your journey.
There are classes of all kinds that you can attend to educate yourself more about what goes on in these situations but also again to work on that healing process to find yourself and maybe for the first time in your life know that you’re strong enough to make it through this.
The teaching process to return you to normal took you how long?
It’s an ongoing process. I have been out for about a year and a half or so now, maybe slightly longer than that, and I still work at it every single day. Financially it is one of the most difficult things to recover from in these situations. Before I met my husband, I had a successful business, I traveled the world, I taught all over, I raised two children alone.
I don’t know that financially I’ll ever recoup what I lost because he took it all. But, by the same token, I think that my life today has a new purpose. I feel always that we find ourselves in the darkest of times, and I think that this has been true for me.
I’ve met some exceptional women that I would never have had the opportunity to get to know had it not been for this situation, and I think we provide remarkable support for each other. There’s a long-term process to come back from something like this.
Have you actually met women, as you’ve gone through your own healing and talked about the darkest depths you were in, have you met women in worse circumstances than you?
Yes. There’ve been a few who were in worst circumstances, certainly, women who have been stabbed and shot and gone to prison for having stood up for themselves physically against their abuser. I think that I’ve been spared pretty well.
My scars are healing emotionally and physically, and I’m still alive and I’m still fighting out there to change how people look at the face of abuse and help people to understand that there are a lot of things to these kinds of relationships that are not apparent on the surface.
I’m sorry to rehash this, but you were beaten, sexually abused, sold as a sex slave, held hostage?
Yes, all of those. It went on for almost three years before I escaped. It was six months before it first happened. We talked without going out. But from the time he asked me out the first time till the point where he moved in was three days. He showed up on my door with his suitcases with an excuse for why he was there, and the beatings started within two weeks.
One of the things that The Shade Tree taught you is self-esteem and strength, right?
Yes, The Shade Tree helped me to find it again. I think the thing that people don’t understand is there are not choices when you’re with somebody like that. You’re in over your head before you realized what was going on. He used sleep deprivation from the beginning.
I would go days without closing my eyes because he would be emotionally abusing me for hours every night, and I still had to go to work while I still had a job, and ultimately he cost me my job. He started being on the cycle of abuse as quickly as he possibly could.
You are a brave woman for walking out of it, you’re a brave lady for speaking to me, I admire you for it, and I thank you for it. How long do you think before you are back 100 percent to where you should be? Will you ever be that?
I don’t know. I am 61 years old. I’m older than a lot of women would be in that situation starting over. But I have been successful in business, I intend on going back to work that I am passionate about. But recouping financially is a very long process, and I’m not sure that one at my age can start over again and get back that — what you lost in that situation.
Your children, I take it, are thoroughly supportive of you?
They are, but it’s difficult for them, too, because their lives were threatened during the process, too. We don’t get to see each other very often. In fact, I’m going to be seeing them soon for the first time in a very long time. I think it’s a very difficult thing to be supportive when you’re scared, too.
Are you still scared?
Yes because he said that if he spent a day in jail for what he did, then he would hunt me down and kill me. That’s why they moved me when they released him from jail. I’ve changed my Social Security Number and taken steps to ensure that I am in a location that no one knows about. There are still things that I have to be concerned with.
What did he go to jail for?
He got four months in jail for two of the six charges that were against him, and they were misdemeanors, they were battery charges. The DA’s Office dropped two felony counts of strangulation, and there were two counts of attempting to dismay the witness that they also dropped.
It was a plea bargain, but it shows what a lousy legal system we have. Terrible, and he still walks free with misdemeanors on his record when he destroyed my life.
Was the DA’s Office aware of what he’d physically done to you?
They never spoke to me before they dropped the charges. I made them aware, I sent them a letter explaining to them, I told them before they even filed the charges against him that if they didn’t intend to pursue it that I wanted them not to bother because I knew that my life would be in jeopardy if he spent time in jail.
So the four months he spent in jail were enough to make him angry, but not enough to really stop him from continuing this kind of behavior in the future. He has a 15-year history of domestic violence. They know that he’s done it before.
All here in Las Vegas, right?
Yes, the most recent time. One of the women he got involved with told the police that he put a gun in her mouth and told her that if she didn’t recant her story to the judge that he would come back and finish the job. He uses intimidation to frighten his victims, and I’m the only who that stood up and talked to the police and testified in the preliminary hearing.
How do you feel today?
I’m very optimistic. My personality is returning, and I have a new picture to paint.