The Think Piece Interview: Dianne Schwartz

In 2000, Dianne Schwartz wrote one of the most terrifying books ever published: Whose Face Is in the Mirror? It documents her marriage to a violent, controlling husband who beat her horribly, nearly killing her several times. It’s an upsetting book to read. Yet, if you are the victim of domestic abuse, it can be a life-saver. And in its own way it’s uplifting. It’s a survival book. We communicated via e-mail recently about the writing of this landmark book and how her life has been since it came out.

TP: I have to say that was an extremely difficult book to read. How hard was it to write?

DS: Not as difficult at all as most people assume. I could have never written my story unless I was completely healed. My publisher, Hay House, told me that was the main problem with manuscripts they received on domestic violence. The writers only told about their experiences but didn’t explain how to escape and then heal. I didn’t really want to write about the violence because I had reached a point that I found it negative and boring to go back in time, but I had to so it would validate any woman who might read it.

TP: How many years has it now been since the abuse? Do you still feel yourself, at times, gripped with the terror?

DS: Gosh, 23 years! Yes, the fear does lessen but I have to be honest—there is a street in Scottsdale, Arizona, that still causes tightness in my chest when I have to drive near it. I also have a problem sitting on the shoreline of any lake. It’s not just the horror of the memories but the sadness of remembering where my life once was.

I had horrible PTSD right after leaving John. I went on a hike with my neighbor, and as we walked along an embankment, I suddenly saw in my mind John behind me shoving me off the steep side. It was very real. The nightmares were beyond terrible. John strangling my little dog, Oreo, and then trying to kill me. I started to dread bedtime. I was having mental health issues.

TP: I was fascinated with your insights into the need to rid oneself of shame to get to healing. That’s a hard thing for a lot of people. You write about how essential therapy was to your healing. Do you still work with Dr. Mosby?

DS: Ah . . . Dr. Mosby, the man who saved my life! He is now retired and has a vineyard in California and is enjoying a well-earned retirement. His form of therapy (Gestalt) was essential for me because I had such strong familial damage and I could have never, and I mean never, gotten to the bottom of those deeply ingrained beliefs without his guidance. It took quite a while, but he was a very patient man. I’ll always be grateful to him.

TP: You start the book with that phone call between a victim of abuse and a 911 operator, where the operator asks the victim to name a number between one and five to identify with their abuser was in the room. I’d never read something like that. Did you have a call like that?

DS: Many years ago I was driving in my car, listening to a radio program on domestic abuse. They played an actual 911 recording of a woman who made that call and it sent chills down my spine. I never forgot it because it was so impactful, and I felt like I was suddenly transformed and standing in the room with her, watching her husband standing over her, glaring.

Although I never called the police for help, I know that fear. We have to be very scared to pick up the phone to ask for help because it’s going to change our life. I never reached out for protection because, once I did, the secret was out in the open to my neighbors and the local police. You see, I wasn’t ready to admit to myself that I was an actual victim. I was a woman who just couldn’t get it right and infuriated her husband! If I admitted to the problem, I would be expected to do something to change it and I was too afraid to do that. The fear of the unknown was overwhelming, and sometimes the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, so you decide to live with the devil himself.

TP: I was also so struck with the hostility you received from some people in your life, where one could usually count on support, namely your family and clergy. You must have felt so lonely. You mention later in the book the need to let go of relationships, not just abusive relationships but any relationships that aren’t adding to your happiness. Can you speak to how liberating it felt  to suddenly have this empowerment that you can let go of people and renew?

DS: Here is what happens when you begin to get mentally healthy and learn to love yourself: You can suddenly see the truth in your friendships. It was like I had been blind for many years, and my female friends weren’t that much nicer than my abusive husband. They didn’t hit; they just took me down with words. I had simply accepted their behavior, but after therapy I slowly let these women slip away.

I mention in my book that like attracts like, so if my friends weren’t kind and loving, that was because I didn’t believe I deserved that in my life. I was living at a very low vibration, accepting anything. When I lived like that, it was exactly what I received in return.

When you learn what runs your own clock, you will easily be able to see what makes others tick. You can see motivations—good or bad. It’s almost comparable to being psychic! And one of the most exciting things about this lifestyle is that suddenly—like magic—new friends arrive who are seeking exactly what you are . . . love, kindness, advocacy, spirituality, nonjudgment, and the desire to heal our world. What you’ve lost or let go is more than replaced but with healthier people.

TP: How important is writing still in your life? Are you working on anything new? It seems like writing is cathartic to you, therapeutic even, perhaps. Can you speak to the importance of writing to you?

DS: I am not a person who can write about a happy life or any other issue that I’m not living myself. Before I can address any self-help topic, I have to really work at getting to a place where I am guided by a Higher Power, guides or angels. I know this will sound out there, but I say this because while writing my book, I would ask myself, Where did that come from? I didn’t learn that from Dr. Mosby, and I’ve never read it anywhere. But I prayed every morning before writing that my ego would be left out of my story and only the truth would be written, because battered women exist on lies, because the truth hurts too much. I felt very strong guidance while writing. The entire journey was one of love.

So, writing has become a spiritual time for me. It’s an opportunity to open up to possibilities and perhaps learn new ideas. I always do yoga and meditate before attempting to write anything. This is so different from when I wrote my book. I was like a tornado entering my office every morning, equipped with hot coffee and a ton of energy! I would pound on my keyboard for hours and loved every second of it.

Currently, I’m working on an idea about our soulful voice and if I tell you more, I’ll have to kill you . . .

TP: With some distance now from your nightmare, when you think of John, do you imagine he was capable of making any progress toward ridding himself of his compulsions and violence? Have you observed where abusers do turn their lives around? It seems unlikely, sadly. But is it your sense there’s been progress?

DS: I think he was much too sick to even try to get better. He wasn’t able to see things clearly. He might have great compassion in one area but unable to have it for another. He knew he was desperately ill, but his good looks served as a buffer for him. He used them as his front man and pushed for a very quick relationship, because he was unable to hide the true man for very long.

There is a program in Boston that is making great strides in working with batterers by making them accountable to each other in weekly support groups. At first, I balked at this, but the truth is in the numbers, so there are men who can be helped but, sadly, most of them seek it only when court-ordered, but if that works, so be it!

TP: Those numbers you quote at the time of publication—half of all women will experience physical violence in intimate relationships—are just heartbreaking, and I admire your insistence in interviews in using numbers. Everyone wants the dramatic stories, but what you’re saying is the numbers tell the social tragedy. So my question: How are the numbers today?

DS: Numbers don’t tell the truth because it has been determined that many incidences of domestic violence go unreported. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault each year, but trust me, it’s much worse. Ironically, when the numbers decrease, the severity of the violence increases, so are we improving?

This is what happens: If I’m living on a minimum-wage salary and my husband assaults me, I will call the police. But if I’m married to a wealthy and possibly well-known man whose career might be harmed by a public report, I will call my attorney so my domestic violence statistic will never be recorded. This fact explains why it’s believed that only poor women are victims.

TP: The stories you shared about the physical toll the stress took on you is striking—when you would pull your eyelashes, for instance. Do you find that women attack their own bodies as a result of the dysfunction and horror they’re feeling?

DS: Because victims tend to blame themselves along with the perpetrator also blaming them, they will usually go inward with shame and depression. This will be outwardly exhibited with too much smoking, drinking, eating or not eating, picking on their skin, eyelash pulling, grinding of teeth, and sometimes drug use. Self-hatred is a killer.

When I give talks, I always tell a story about scorpions. I met a man from Tunisia who, as a young boy, captured scorpions for a local lab that developed anti-venom. When he first started catching them, he placed them in a clay pot but quickly saw that they easily escaped, so he dug a hole in the desert floor and set dry grass around the outer perimeter and then set it on fire. The scorpions weren’t able to understand that once the grass burned away, they would be free to escape so they would dangerously poke their stingers at their own backs in an attempted suicide.

Many battered women aren’t able to see the smoke screen the abuser has built around them. They can’t see a way out, and mentally they aren’t able to look for resources to help them. Many have been severely isolated and don’t hear the encouraging words of a friend who might help them. When there is no hope, there isn’t much motivation to try, and possibly a good reason to stop trying.

TP: Have you encountered many instances of female-on-male abuse? And do you find yourself giving the same type of advice to men?

DS: I led a female inmate support group in our local jail for over one year and many of them were the offenders. It was interesting to listen to their reasoning and, as always, it was learned behavior from their mom or dad, and sometimes both.

Male victims face much more shame than female. They stay silent much longer. A real man would never allow a woman to abuse them—right? Their gender would laugh at them, not try to help them!

The advice for men is exactly the same as with women. You just have to give it in a different way, using different words so they won’t feel so alone and shameful. Remember, many of them are the sole source of income, so the wife is probably going to grow much more aggressive when she discovers he’s leaving her and, no doubt, taking the children with him. Then it can become an extremely dangerous situation, so they need resources before they actually leave.

TP: Can you tell us about your life now and your work as a court-appointed special advocate?

DS: My husband and I had moved back to Arizona and I wanted to get involved in volunteer work at shelters but, strangely, nothing was working out. Now, I could blame the lack of organization by the staff, but I know when something like this happens, it’s my Higher Power leading me toward something different where I am needed, and this was the case, as it has been at other times.

Our county has over 8,000 children in foster care, and most of them have been removed from their homes because of abuse or drug use by their parents. The system is terribly overburdened, and the ones who suffer the most are the kids.

Children in the court system don’t really have a voice. Their attorney will legally take care of them but won’t address what the child wants. They are appointed a guardian ad litem to protect them and ensure that their placement home is up to par. Still, they don’t have anyone to speak up for them.

A judge developed the CASA program. We spend time with the children to learn about the challenges they face and what they would like to happen and if it is reasonable. We create a court report for the judge, and let me tell you, judges are extremely appreciative of our role. Children who have a CASA have an easier time getting through the system, and usually faster too.

After intensive training, I was given case files to read so I could choose my child. Of course, there she was . . . the thirteen-year-old girl whose mother abused her but not her three siblings! You see, I was always treated differently than my sister, and I never understood why until after much-needed therapy. So, to be able to sit with her and explain what I had learned, and for her to sob because someone understood how much she hurt, was a miracle in the works. She could have been another teenager whose life was ruined because of never hearing the truth, which was . . . it wasn’t her; it was her mom. It’s been so amazing to spend time with her and remind her how special she is.

TP: What would you say is the very first thing a victim of abuse should do?

DS: Tell someone, but let that someone be a person who can actually help; otherwise, they will be stuck in venting. In order for an object to be guided, it has to be moving and in the right direction. Call a shelter and talk to one of the volunteers or employees who most likely have been abused at one time and who understand. We’re only as sick as our secrets.

TP: I was so struck with the dynamic of abused women returning to what they know, what is familiar, which seems to go back to their childhoods. You wrote that battered women leave seven times before leaving for good. My goodness—that’s so upsetting. How are the numbers on that these days?

DS: I don’t think these statistics will ever really change, because it’s a mind-set based on false beliefs. But I began studying what was happening during this period of time when the victim would return, using my own thought process while married to John.

After the physical abuse has exploded, the offender is then apologizing, begging for one more chance, or maybe buying gifts. What is happening with the victim during this time? She’s watching this man who stood over her with hatred in his eyes while abusing her, now groveling at her feet. The shoe is on the other foot. She suddenly has the control and power in the relationship, and trust me, when you haven’t had a voice in your life, this can be a very heady feeling! This can become a repeated event, almost like an addiction. But one day, she realizes he has quit participating in the game. There isn’t a whisper of wrongdoing from him. Now what? She is faced with the possibility, actually the promise, of continued abuse with no break in the cycle. There are no more mind games to play with him. It becomes the opportunity to closely examine her life and understand he isn’t going to change, but she can. That’s usually when she leaves for good.

TP: You note that you had done voluminous reading to understand your situation, but real movement didn’t take place until you began working with a professional. Is that your sense of what’s needed for most victims?

DS: I read many books on domestic abuse, control, and learning to love myself while I was in therapy with Dr. Mosby. But my self-hatred was so deeply embedded after a lifetime of being told I was worthless, because after all, I had continued to try to have a relationship with my parents who wanted and probably needed me to play the victim role. If it hadn’t been for Dr. Mosby, I don’t think the reading material would have been enough to make me see I needed to break family ties to save myself.

Once, I was talking to some people after giving a speech, and a woman approached me, asking if I would sign her copy of my book. It was clear it had been read many times. I looked at it to see what she had highlighted, and it was all about what I had written on the abuser, not the victim. Exactly what I didn’t want to happen! When we read material to get better, we have to apply it to ourselves, not our offenders, or we will never grow.

I’m going to tread into territory that might not be appreciated by some but needs to be addressed. My book was one of the choices for the National Domestic Violence Hotline book of the year. But there were whispers . . . she went to a psychologist. Sadly, there is a great divide between a doctor of psychology and a social worker, who is usually employed by a shelter. Also, there is a jealousy among psychologists! Let me add, there is antagonism between shelters! Guess who is forgotten in this mess? The victim!

TP: Breaking unhealthy patterns: that seems like a theme for the book. Yes?

DS: Yes! I desperately wanted women to learn to love themselves, which would lead to breaking unhealthy and repeated patterns, but more importantly, I wanted them to protect their precious souls.

We can tell women about the signs of an abuser, but if they come from a background like mine, they will ignore them. We easily accept bad behavior because it’s all we know. And, after all, abusers act kind in the beginning, so we are easily duped. Once we learn to truly love ourselves, a beautiful wall of self-protection will be erected, and deception isn’t able to pass through. This is why it’s imperative to walk away from bad relationships even if it means turning loose longtime friendships. We must change before our surroundings will.

TP: Can you speak to the feedback you’ve received from the book through the years?

DS: Many times, I have to emotionally remove myself because it will wear me down. Just when I think I’ve heard everything, some different kind of cruelty is exposed. It’s almost like mankind can’t stop finding ways to hurt and destroy. You cannot help but wonder what kind of background the abuser must have experienced to turn into such a monster.

The letters and emails that tell me that, if it hadn’t been for me, they have no doubt they would now be dead are the ones that make me cry. It is very humbling to be used in this way. There are no words to explain how this makes me feel, so I just thank God for saving this woman’s life by using my book to help her.

TP: You made mention of some occasions where John didn’t seem to remember his violence—throwing the ring, for example. Were these rage blackouts? 

DS: I studied this for a short time and eventually decided John should be the one investigating his problem. I was always focused on why I stayed with him. But I believe he did remember but pretended not to, just like he conveniently forgot to tell me he had once been on trial for rape. Convenient amnesia. I don’t think he knew why he would go into these rages, but I’m convinced he remembered.

TP: I was so fascinated with the role dreams played, and perhaps still play, in your life in terms of portending situations and threats. Do you counsel women to pay close attention to what their dreams are telling them?

DS: Oh, wow, did you ask the right question! It is my belief that when we can’t hear or refuse to listen to our inner voice, we will see them in our dreams. The unfiltered subconscious can speak to us when our defenses are resting. What we can’t stand to deal with during the day is faced head-on in our sleeping state. We see the truth but in a different form. My dream about John was a warning as to just how sick he was. I took it as a warning to tread lightly when dealing with him.

My dreams have led me into exciting adventures. In 1976 I had a dream where I was standing on a stage, celebrating because I had just won a singing competition. Later that year, I won the Arizona Grand Ole Opry talent search—and I didn’t even sing country! In 1984, again, a dream where I was standing on a stage, holding flowers, and had just won the Mrs. Arizona Pageant. Keep in mind, I didn’t even know there was such a contest, but sure enough, the next week I was attending a junior beauty pageant and . . . yes, that’s right . . . one of the judges was the first runner-up to the Mrs. Arizona title. And I won that title later that year.

Now, a beauty title and some loose change will get you a phone call, but Hay House Publishing used the fact that I had been Mrs. Arizona and was still a victim of abuse, so do you see how all of these dreams played a key role in my life? My dreams are just another way for my soulful voice to reach me.

I always try to convince women to listen to their inner voice because it will never, ever lead you down the wrong path. When we try to create a life based on what we want to happen, when all of the evidence is clearly pointing to take a different direction, it is time to stop and listen and take our time. When we ask for guidance, it will come. It leads to a wonderful, blessed life—just like we were supposed to live.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.

For more information on Dianne Schwartz, go here.

The Domestic Violence Hotline can be found here.

Adam Wahlberg

Founder of Think Piece Publishing