Abusers, who are they and what do they look like? Not what you expect. They are the charmers; they appear as engaging, considerate, and charismatic. They find your weaknesses and use them against you, preying on your fear, manipulating your mind, and breaking you down until you feel isolated and out of control, sucking all of your self-worth dry. These personality traits and abuse patterns are ones that award-winning journalist Janine Latus knows oh too well. In a recent interview Janine shared her journey of how she escaped from rape, a broken nose, and an uncompromising marriage. But it was the murder of her sister that took the biggest toll and later fueled her passion to speak out to the world.
Me: What was life like, Janine, growing up as a child?
Janine: I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, when women couldn’t get a credit card or mortgage in their own name. I was raised Catholic and my mother gave birth to six children. My father thought it was funny to gaslight and degrade us all the time and so I internalized a lot of messaging like, “Your chest is so flat we could iron clothes on it,” and “Your feet are so big it’s surprising that you don’t quack when you walk.” He had a reputation for fondling my classmates and teammates; my father was a piece of work.
Me: Wow, what a way to have to grow up. Were you ever sexually taken advantage of?
Janine: I was sexually assaulted at the age of twelve. It was a man whose children I babysat for and I got away by taking his hair and yanking it but then later I had to get in the car with him because he was my ride home. He threatened me and said; “We won’t tell anyone what WE did, will we?”
When I arrived home I ran upstairs and I told my parents. My father said I should never tell anyone or they would know that I was a slut.
Me: Oh gosh, I can’t even imagine, as if being sexually assaulted wasn’t enough to deal with. What age were you when you finally left home?
Janine: I left when I was 18, seven months before finishing high school. I lived in a basement apartment with a roommate. I ate tomato soup with popcorn floating in it for meals; I worked two jobs and went to school. One day my roommate and I went out to a disco and we were dancing, flirting, and drinking. When I told my roommate I was ready to go she said, “I will catch a ride with someone else.” So I drove home and as I was opening the door to the basement apartment, this hand hit me on the back of the head; a man had followed me home, and he smacked my face into the door, dragged me into the apartment and raped me on the coffee table. It was a cheap, sharp-edged table, so my back got torn up really bad. When my roommate got home she helped me into the bathtub and to wash off; she put merthiolate on my wounds. We both swore we would never tell because that’s the thing we thought should remain a secret; I internalized that I should be ashamed of being the victim.
Me: Yes, lots of women internalize rape as shame. What happened with college?
Janine: I went on to grad school and I was working in a pharmacy. I met this guy who appeared to be great; he was good-looking, intelligent and in medical school. But then as time went on he told me that my jokes weren’t funny and that I laughed like a hyena. He would pick on the clothes I would dress in and say, “You are going out with me in public dressed like that?” So I learned not to laugh and feel comfortable in my own clothing. He would say things like, “nobody else is going to want you and you are lucky I will go out with you.” He would do anything to knock me down.
We had been dating for nine months when we decided to go on a ski trip. That’s when he beat me; he broke my nose and my ribs. I had to stay with him after that for three days because he had our plane tickets; he had paid for everything. He said he was sorry and he promised to never beat me again. After the three days we arrived at the airport, my back was to my boyfriend and the airline staff asked if I was ok and if she could help me. I could not admit what had happened to me because I was full of shame.
Me: So what did you do after that? Did you ever tell anyone?
Janine: One day I was speaking to my youngest sister, Amy, and I told her that he hit me. I made excuses for him and said he didn’t mean it; it was my fault, we had been drinking. Amy said, “Are you going to wait until he kills you?” That was it. I left him.
Me: Did you end up dating after that?
Janine: Yes. I couldn’t go to the hospital and get care because I worked at the hospital and everyone would know I was a battered woman, also he was a medical student so I had to avoid the hospital or it would have ended his career. I called one of the guys from my softball team who was a doctor and he came over and diagnosed me with a broken nose and ribs. He brought me chicken noodle soup and we fell in love. He brought two children into the relationship and then we adopted a third child. We had been together for two years before we got married.
Me: How was the relationship before you got married?
Janine: You know how it goes, it was high drama. At one moment I was high on a pedestal and he couldn’t love me enough; he was terrified I would fall for another man so he banned me from speaking to guys. He referred to my female friends as just a bunch of man haters and our relationship was the only family we needed, so my world became small. I was constantly walking on eggshells.
On one level our relationship was wonderful; Christmas with the kids and coaching little League, we also went on canoe trips. On another level I was constantly being watched because he was terrified that I would leave him for another man. Any accomplishment I ever received he would say, “That’s just because he wants to f*** you.” This was the same messaging I had received from my father. So I just kept repeating what looked like love to me.
Me: With all of this going on, what made you decide to marry this man?
Janine: I was in love with his children. I was madly in love with him but not in a healthy way. If it weren’t for the kids we probably would have only lasted six months. I was 30 years old when we got married.
He put a keystroke tracker on my computer so he could see every outgoing message, every email and journal entry. He put security cameras on the house and I would catch him at 4 a.m. fast-forwarding the footage to see if I had let any men in the house during the day. He wanted me in stilettos, push-up bras and short dresses everywhere we went. He weighed me in every single day; my life was literally, go from the gym, to little league, and then to the grocery store.
Me: What made you decide to adopt a child after living with nine intense years of control?
Janine: I felt like the thing we did best was parent children and I had never had a child of my own, we tried fertility treatments but they didn’t work. The adoption opportunity leapt into our laps and I went for it; there hasn’t been a day I regret it! My daughter is now 20 and she was three when we separated.
Me: What was the last straw that caused you to separate?
Janine: It’s interesting; the last straw was really minor. I had gone to my alma mater to give a talk and when I came back I was levitating. I said to my husband, “They think I’m funny.” He said, “You met a man.” I realized I had, I had met this other guy who was on the speaking panel, so my husband was right, I had cheated. “Wait,” I thought, “this isn’t cheating. Meeting a man innocently is normal.” It was like someone flipped a switch, I started to see everything clearly.
On May 4, 2002, my husband moved out of the house, I was 42 years old. I remember the day because it was two months to the date that I got a call saying my sister Amy was missing.
Me: What do you mean, by Amy was missing?
Janine: Amy had a live-in boyfriend and I had never met him because he tried to keep her from family functions, so any of the ones that she attended were alone. She was no longer obese, she had lost 85 pounds and applied to graduate school and was accepted. She had applied for a mortgage in her own name and had gotten it, she had bought a condo and met a cowboy, which turned out to be a lie.
Amy was with him for eight months before she came up missing. She had told me things, like they would set the alarm 30 minutes before she needed to get up for work so they could snuggle. I asked, “Doesn’t he go to work?” Amy said, “Well, he has priors, but nothing bad. There was a time when he drove a pick up truck and forgot to bring it back. There were checks on other peoples’ accounts and there were three DUI.” So Amy bought him a pick up truck and trailer, ladders, tarps, and sprayers, everything he would need to set himself up in a house painting business.
It was the 4th of July and I asked Amy if they were going to watch fireworks and she joked saying, “We are going to make our own fireworks.” I said, “I love you.” She said, “I love you too.” We hung up the phone and four days later my big sister called and asked if I had seen Amy or knew where she was.
So for two months I was trying to bring my family around to accepting that the marriage was over and then Amy died and my divorce was suddenly not important. I was overwhelmed, I had a three-year-old, a big house, and I was self-employed.
Me: So how did you end up finding Amy?
Janine: Amy had taped a letter to her desk drawer at work, addressed to the sheriff’s department, that said, “If I am missing or dead, pick up Ron.” He of course was her boyfriend. The letter was found a few days after she was missing and it listed the debts, it described their fights and it said, “I hope some day to find this and think it’s funny, but if I don’t, don’t let him get away with it.”
It took 18 days to find her body. Her boyfriend had strangled her.
Me: Where was your three-year old daughter during all of this?
Janine: I had left her with my ex, who called me and said, “I know you think what you are doing is important, but you need to come home and take care of this kid.” So I did, I flew home and took care of my daughter. I then got a call on a Monday from my mother, saying, “They found Amy’s body.” It was one of the most awful things I had experienced.
Me: How did you function through all of this?
Janine: Honestly the only clear way to function was to deal with what was immediately in front of me. My daughter needs breakfast, ok make breakfast.
I was journaling because I’m a magazine writer and I was constantly writing to try and get it all out of my head. That and friends are what helped me make it through.
My husband and I were separated for six months, which was Missouri’s law before getting a divorce; I remember clearly it was November 4th, just four short months after Amy came up missing.
Me: How did you take all of your pain and fuel it into your passion?
Janine: I was in the American Society of Journalists and Authors, so I had a bunch of other non-fiction writers around me and I said, “I have to write about this so I can save other people from going through what happened to Amy.” I wrote an essay, which got picked up by Elle magazine but it got held for a year. So I asked for the rights back and resold it to Oprah magazine. While I was trying to place it I had sent it to the New Yorker and one of the editors said, “This needs to be a book and it needs to help people understand why abused people stay.” So I wrote a book proposal, which got purchased in the U.K. by Random House and in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster; I turned that book around in 10 months flat. This all happened three years after Amy got murdered, it was 2005. The book, If I Am Missing Or Dead, which came out in 2007, became a New York Times, London Times, and Toronto Globe & Mail bestseller; it was translated into multiple languages and it was a fairly big deal, which was great. I figured the more people we could get talking, the more people we would save.
WOW what a warrior Janine is. She has overcome so much and now she travels around the world giving speeches to the Navy, universities, shelters, and Major League Baseball. Janine is an award-winning journalist and advocate, a true definition of a SHERO.
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The #SHEROproject will include stories of SHEROS from around the world throughout the rest of 2019. In an effort to support our thriving SHEROS, there is a panel that will be selecting the most inspirational story for the 2019 SHERO of the year award, which will be announced on 12/1/2019.
The SHERO of the year award winner will receive a 4-day/3-night retreat at Multiversity. An opportunity to explore their potential in an environment like no other; get away for rejuvenating downtime and immersion learning on their state-of-the-art campus in the redwoods of Scotts Valley, CA and experience the perfect blend of learning, vacation, and space for reflection.
1440 Multiversity is a place to experience time differently—exploring what matters, while surrounding yourself with fresh air, delicious food, many ways to unwind, and opportunities to connect with yourself and others. SHERO, during your stay, you can look forward to daily 1440 specialty classes such as yoga, meditation, qi gong and Pilates. Or enjoy hiking in the 75 acres of redwood forest surrounding the campus and finish off your day with a soak in their signature infinity tub.
The creation of 1440 Multiversity stemmed from a desire to establish a beautiful and nurturing physical location where people of all walks of life could come together in community—to explore, learn, reflect, connect, and reenergize.
Each featured SHERO will receive a private invitation to The B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. Foundation annual Gala in Las Vegas 2/8/2020 where they will be interviewed on the red carpet. B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. foundation’s mission is to provide resources needed to support, sustain and empower young girls and women under the age of 25 who have been abused, abandoned, and exploited. We intend to accomplish this mission by bringing other agencies with similar missions together and being a resource center for these organizations.
Also, each SHERO featured will receive a relaxing mix of Nectar Bath Treats’ most popular bath and body treats. Nectar Bath Treats is a cruelty free bath & body company that creates bakery inspired treats for deliciously smooth skin. Their delightful handmade treats range from adorable cupcake soaps and milkshake inspired coconut milk bath soaks to stress blasting bath bombs, all natural sugar body scrubs, ice cream shaped bubble bath scoops and so much more. If you need to relax after a long day or give yourself smoother more kissable skin, Nectar Bath Treats has you covered head to toe. Each treat is handmade with love by their team of professional soap artisans and skin care specialists for skin so soft and smooth you’ll swear you just left a luxury spa treatment.
Each featured SHERO will also receive a Rustic Cuff representing Joy & Courage. Celebrities such as Miranda Lambert, Giuliana Rancic, Kristin Chenoweth and Gayle King to name a few, wear founder Jill Donovan’s designs. Her bracelets have been featured on a multitude of national talk shows and in magazines including Elle, People, In Style, etc. For Jill it’s all about the inspired connection that is made between two people.
The SHEROs will also receive a candle by Sugarboo and Co…Dealers in Whimsy, reminding them that they are a light in the world. Sugarboo believes in putting good out into the world whenever possible. Their hope is that each Sugarboo piece sent out into the world will add a little good! Rebecca Puig’s (artist and owner) inspirations are family, nature, animals, old things, children’s art and folk art. She loves juxtaposing old and new, light and dark, serious subject matter with fluff and anything with a message! Sugarboo’s Motto is “Put Good Things into the World”