Memoir at its best with practical advice to battered women

Gwendolyn Plano

By Gwendolyn M. Plano
Published by She Writes Press, $16.95

In the United States, a woman is assaulted by her husband or male partner every nine seconds. Of those who assault their partners, 65 percent also physically and/or sexually abuse their children. Anywhere from 1 million to 3 million women are battered each year by their intimate partner. Each day, four women die because of abuse. Domestic violence happens to all types of women -- poor, middle class, wealthy, educated or not, old or young, regardless of race or religion. As Gwendolyn Plano aptly puts it, the situation is "staggering."

A Roman Catholic educator and recently retired college administrator, Plano knows the territory firsthand. Her husband, Ron, a professor of religion at a prestigious Catholic university in Connecticut, abused her for 25 years. Plano tells the harrowing story in her book, Letting Go Into Perfect Love. Part memoir, part self-help, the book aims to put Plano's suffering into words and offer advice to other battered women.

The story begins with 5-year-old Gwen Plano living on a farm in Brawley, Calif. Her father lost his arm in a farm accident. Her mother had lost her own mother in a fatal car accident and believed herself partly to blame. The trauma of both events left an indelible sadness on the family. Gwen, the oldest of nine, absorbed the family's unhappiness and was vulnerable to abusive relationships. She tried to escape her family life by going away to college. But there, she made her life even more difficult by marrying a young man who was later diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Their marriage ended with him hospitalized in a straitjacket and Plano with a 2-year-old son, Matt.

Needing to provide for herself and her child, Plano soon fell in love with Ron, and in six months, they married. At first, Ron was charming and solicitous toward her and her son. But soon he showed his Mr. Hyde side. There were signs from the past that things were amiss with Ron's relationships, such as the fact that his former girlfriend passed away unexpectedly while she and Ron were traveling through France. There was also such friction between Ron and his parents that he was not welcome in their home.

Plano later learned that Ron had a friend take a college exam for him and that he had stolen from neighbors. But Plano ignored all those signs. As she says, she blinded herself to Ron's faults. This trait of deliberate blindness is also one that affects other battered women. Soon Ron began to lose control over his temper. He attacked Plano verbally and physically. He tried to choke his own son.

Plano knew she had to end the marriage. Yet she held back out of fear and even blamed herself for bringing on the abuse. As she later learned, most battered women do the same when trying to survive domestic abuse. In addition, most cases of domestic violence are not reported because of fear of retaliation and because reporting a violent partner irrevocably destroys the family unit.

As Plano attempted to process the experience, she sought advice from counselors and spiritual advisors. One of them, Jesuit Fr. Simon Harak, helped her through a retreat program called the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life.

Plano was working with Harak when Nicole Brown Simpson was killed in 1994. Every network carried news of the story as well as a list of the signs of domestic abuse, including belittling, controlling behavior, constant blaming and actual violence. When she read the list, Plano froze. She had "experienced every sign personally with some regularity." She felt as though she were "tumbling through space without anything firm to hold on to."

But she did have something -- this retreat with Harak that offered an approach to problem-solving through prayer, Bible studies, spiritual reflection and journaling. Plano also joined an eight-day program of personal discovery at the Hoffman Institute, where she realized that sadness and fear had controlled most of her actions. Some of the information in this book came from the journals she kept during this time.

As Plano tells her own story, she offers spiritual reflections -- some of which approach the shaky ground of possible supernatural experiences. The book is better when Plano gets back to earth with suggestions of helpful book titles and discussions of practical matters like how to survive divorce -- both emotionally and financially.

The memoir never achieves its full potential, partly because Plano seems overwhelmed by her experience. But it offers a needed perspective for the many desperate women who are or who know someone in an abusive relationship. It also gives Plano a chance to air her grievances. Plano's story is not vindictive, yet it easily could have been. That feature alone suggests some sort of spiritual power behind the book. Call it perfect love or what you will.

[Diane Scharper has published two collections of memoirs, Songs of Myself and Reading Lips and Other Ways to Overcome a Disability. She teaches a course in memoir writing in Towson University's graduate writing program.]

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