Drop Out and Disappear

Reflections on the domestic violence movement

A woman with long hair concealing her face. She is holding on to the steering wheel of a car with one hand. Photo by Cory Bouthillette.

Underground, the pressure of the earth transforms fossils into oil, coal into diamonds. I used that metaphor once while introducing a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. The pressures survivors experience may transform them, may make them strong enough to withstand a host of tensions and stressors—or sharp enough to cut through life as though scratching glass.

I read recently about the burgeoning underground of people, women especially, working to continue to provide safe access to abortion. It’s not the first time such action existed in this realm. Women have consistently worked together to bring others to medical care, to safety, or even to freedom.

Around the same time of the first abortion underground, in the 1970s and 1980s, another underground action was taking place to secure the safety of women and children who had been victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

I got involved in what was then called the battered women’s movement while I was in graduate school in the 1970s. Shelters were being opened across the country to better assist women fleeing domestic violence. Historical information available today pinpoints the start of the movement to efforts by Erin Pizzey and the Chiswick Women’s Aid in the UK. The opening of what is considered the first shelter in the US—Women’s Advocates in Minnesota, in 1974—and subsequently other activist work and books like Del Martin’s Battered Wives, brought the issue to the fore.

By the mid-1970s there were over 150 shelters and programs open in the US. By the late 1970s, 300 programs and shelters were operating. In Portland, Bradley Angle, the city’s first domestic violence shelter, opened in 1975. It operates today along with sister programs such as Raphael House.

It was an explosion in response to the issue. Something that had gone on behind the closed doors of a house or apartment was now out in the open.

But even with crisis lines, shelters, improved police response, restraining orders, and all the rest, some women were still not safe. And for those women, leaving home but staying in the same place was not an option. Sometimes the situation was so severe, the abuse or threat of death so dire, it required the woman to leave her city or her state, abandoning her life and even her connections to family, friends, and community. She had to go underground—to pick up again in a new place with a new name.

We’re so connected and interconnected now. The internet mostly prevents us from hiding or staying anonymous. But in the early years of the domestic violence movement, women and children took to the road and left home to find a new life, a life safe from abuse.

You could, if you needed to, drop out and disappear. It was of course more difficult if you had children, since there were custody issues to consider and accusations of kidnapping if you were found. But still, women did leave.

It was not an easy road to take with so much disruption and change. For the few women I knew who took this radical step, it took equal parts fear and courage. There existed an informal network and equally informal advice about where to go and what to do. How to change your name. How to get a new social security number. How to communicate with family and friends without giving away your new location. How to keep your abuser from finding you.

Shelters, safe houses, and crisis lines all played important roles on this clandestine path to safety. We would provide the space for a woman’s initial landing in a community or give her a night or two of respite on her way to her final destination. We would pool information and resources, the names of sympathetic landlords who would not require too much by way of references, sometimes even cash for deposits.

Even at the time, it was truly difficult to make a new start without leaving a bread crumb trail of identifying information that an abuser could use to track you. For instance, in applying for an apartment most landlords wanted an application that had references. They could and can require rental history, credit history, and criminal history. And enrollment in Portland Public Schools required extensive documentation, including address verification.

If you wanted to go deeply underground, you needed to figure out how to do these things without using the information that could be used to trace you. Then you had to remember these nuances in keeping your whereabouts hidden. A perpetrator could sometimes easily figure out where a woman had gone. These days, that task is multiplied given the online availability of all kinds of information that can be used to trace you.

We call some of what happens 'stalking' now, but women escaping domestic violence have always had to be on the alert for danger even after having moved to presumed safety.

The danger women faced also touched those of us working in the shelter and safe home systems—no matter how we tried to control our circumstances. Whether your shelter had a confidential address or not, there was always a risk of being found and threatened.

One year, we had been sheltering a woman and three children from another state. It was an arrangement we had made many times before. I don’t remember if she flew or drove, but it doesn’t much matter. Either of those options could have left enough of a trail to her whereabouts. Working with a shelter in her local area, we arranged for her to stay with us at our confidential address. We met her some distance away from the shelter, as we always did when admitting a new family. She was calm and determined, the kids were adorable, and she settled into shelter life.

It was November, and I think she’d been with us a few weeks. I was at home hosting a Thanksgiving party. The women and children in shelter, including the new family, were also cooking a turkey.

The phone rang—my personal landline. Thinking it was my extended family, I answered to a strange man’s voice demanding to know where we had put his wife, since he knew she was there. He had somehow traced her to Oregon, to our shelter. He had then figured out that I was directing the place and found my home phone number and address.

Needless to say, this terrified me. I called the shelter immediately and we moved her to a more secure location. For weeks after, I took circuitous routes to work and paid special attention to who might be following me in my rearview mirror.

The danger my coworkers and I faced, real as it was, was nothing compared to what women and children faced and continue to face in escaping abuse. And women must rely on themselves, on their own wits and whatever support friends, family, and those in the nonprofit shelter movement can provide.

The Federal Witness Protection program has relocated approximately 8,500 witnesses and 9,900 family members since its inception in 1971. It has existed longer than all of the safety programs for battered women in the US. Those in the program are relocated and supported and protected due to threats of death and bodily harm related to testimony in significant government cases.

Depending on what sources you look at, upwards of 1,000 women a year are killed as a result of domestic violence—roughly 40,000 women since 1971, when I became involved in this work. There is no witness protection for survivors of domestic violence.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece stated that Bradley Angle opened in 1976. In fact, it opened in 1975.


2 comments have been posted.

Linda, a thoughtful, well-written, and probing piece. I had no idea you were involved in this work. My admiration grows. Lee

Le Norris | May 2023 | Portland

I found the REFUGE Movement and realized almost immediately. The domestic violence is not never has been a gender issue. I have argued for years that we also need shelters for men and so far there are very few we need to address the problem.

ERIN PIZZEY | May 2023 | Uk

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