Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the amount of money that Transitions Family Violence Services spent on hotels in the pandemic. It has been corrected.
Balancing on a step-stool, Amanda reaches up behind the air-conditioning duct, skimming her fingers across the top of the exposed beams. She is 5 feet tall — and when her husband hides something from her, he usually tries to go over her head.
For the past 14 months, Amanda has hardly come down to the basement. Her husband claimed the space at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, covering the windows with pieces of cardboard. He would sit on his laptop in the dark, for hours, Amanda said, rarely coming upstairs. She would find pee in a cotton candy bucket on the basement floor.
Now that her husband is gone, forced out of the house with an emergency protective order, Amanda can finally look for the gun.
In the 19 years they’ve been together, Amanda said, most of the abuse has been verbal. Her husband would yell when she came home from work late, when the frosting on his birthday cake didn’t taste quite like he remembered. He tracked her steps through her phone, accusing her of sleeping around whenever she took a late night walk in their western Virginia town. She never thought her husband would be physically violent, she said, until he put a knife to her throat in 2012. Amanda’s sister said she got a text message from her that night: “If anything happens to me, you get my kids.”
When stay-at-home orders began in March 2020, her sister said in an interview, she immediately thought of Amanda, asking herself: “How is she going to get through this alive?”
With victims trapped inside with abusive partners, isolated from friends and family, many police departments reported a spike in domestic violence calls during the pandemic: Reports were up by 10 percent in New York City, 18 percent in San Antonio and 22 percent in Portland, Ore. It took a few months for hotline calls to start increasing, said Linley Beckbridge, communications and outreach director at Doorways, a domestic violence shelter in Arlington, Va. — but when they did, the reports were “much more severe” than usual. Confined to their homes, Beckbridge said, victims struggled to get away to make a call.
Now that infection rates have slowed in America, victims of domestic violence are trying to figure out what life looks like after the pandemic. Housing is a major issue, said Sanu Dieng, executive director at Transitions Family Violence Services, a domestic violence shelter in Hampton, Va. Many of her clients are behind on their rent after struggling to find work — unable to pay as eviction moratoriums come to an end. Like many other shelters, Transitions is strapped for cash. During the pandemic, she said they spent $75,000 on additional hotel rooms to meet demand, approximately double what they spent the year before. She’s had to call the shelter’s credit card company multiple times, she said, asking them to increase their credit limit.
Amanda tried calling a shelter in July, but they didn’t have room for her and her five kids. Since the start of the pandemic, Amanda has called the police six times, according to police records The Lily reviewed. Her husband has called twice. Amanda spoke to The Lily on the condition that she only be identified by her first name to protect her family’s privacy and safety. The Lily agreed not to name her sister.
Amanda called the shelter back in February, desperate for a spot after something her 4-year-old daughter said. They’d been in the kitchen, snacking on string cheese. Amanda was on the phone with her sister, who said she overheard the conversation.
The 4-year-old “told me that her dad told her a bedtime story,” Amanda wrote in her request for an emergency protective order. In the story, her dad had a gun hidden in the basement — and he used it to kill her mom.
When Amanda first heard that schools were shutting down, she wasn’t worried. “No big deal,” she thought — the kids would enjoy a few extra weeks of spring break. She ordered Play-Doh, paint brushes and a pair of binoculars so her 4-year-old could watch the birds pooping on the power lines.
“I was like, ‘It’s fine. This is fine. Everything is going to be fine. This is not forever.’”
Over the course of her marriage, Amanda had come to rely on her mastery of “positive thinking.”
“The whole house could be on fire. And I’d be like, ‘You know what guys? It’s going to be fine.’”
For the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was. Her husband tagged along on walks through the neighborhood, pushing the stroller as their older kids pointed out the houses they wanted to live in one day.
By late spring, the house started to feel small. While her husband spent most of his time in the basement, he could emerge at any time with no warning, storming into the living room to demand lunch or lashing out about the amount of dog hair on the couch.
Before the pandemic, Amanda’s husband worked about an hour away from home. He would leave in the morning and not come home until late. Amanda worked the night shift at a restaurant down the road. In leggings and a polo shirt, she’d serve up hamburgers, fried chicken and steaming plates of shepherd’s pie.
It was the kind of neighborhood restaurant where she saw the same people, at the same table, every Saturday at 6 p.m. They asked her about her kids. She joked about the glass of lemonade she spilled the week before. After her shift, she’d sometimes stay for a drink with the rest of the crew — knowing she would pay for it when she got home, but deciding to stick around anyway.
“It allowed me to escape the reality that was at my house,” Amanda said.
Most of the time, when her husband yelled at her, she could ignore it. She would stare at the wall, telling herself, “It will be over in a minute.” Her kids were always around and she didn’t want to make a scene.
But sometimes he would get “a certain way,” Amanda said: talking fast, repeating the same words — “liar,” “hypocrite” — over and over. That’s when she’d worry he might get violent.
Amanda met her husband at age 18, when he reached out to her on AOL Instant Messenger. She liked that he had a close family, hanging on every detail as he described their Christmas Eve traditions and weekend trips to his aunt’s house. Her parents divorced when she was young. After that, they never did anything as a family.
In her relationship with her husband, Amanda saw red flags early on. A few months after they started dating, Amanda had an anxiety attack, crying and struggling to breathe on the floor of his apartment. He slit his wrists to get her to “snap out of it,” she said.
“I should have just high-tailed it the other way,” she said. “But at that point, I had no home, nowhere to go. In my mind right then and there, he was the only one who wanted me.”
Soon they had their first child — then a second, then a third. They had their fifth baby in November 2019. When her husband wants to have sex, Amanda said, it can be hard to say no: If she doesn’t give him what he wants, he will berate and humiliate her the next morning. She has stayed all these years, choosing not to press charges, she said, because she can’t imagine raising her kids on her own.
She tried to leave once in 2018, after her husband threatened her in their basement with a piece of conduit pipe. “Say goodbye to everyone,” she remembers him saying, according to interviews with Amanda and her sister, and the emergency protective order.
Panicked, she texted a friend, who The Lily agreed not to name to further protect Amanda’s identity.
“I need to go buy some diapers,” Amanda wrote. As soon as she got the message, the friend excused herself from a work meeting.
“Diapers” was their code word.
Together, they called all the local domestic violence shelters. No one had a room for Amanda. One shelter asked her to come in for a counseling session. Amanda expected to hear from the counselor again, after their meeting, but no one ever called. She started thinking she might have overreacted. If the counselors there weren’t worried, she thought, “everything is probably okay.”
A police officer arrived at the house at 9:21 one morning in May 2020, two months into the pandemic. Amanda’s husband made the call.
He had been making brownies when they started to argue. She asked him why he was baking at 9 a.m. on a weekday. She said he called her an unfit mother.
“He just kept going and going and going at me, just sitting there at the kitchen table, stirring brownies.”
She flung the batter bowl across the room, according to the police report. Her husband hit her with a spatula. She slapped him.
When the police officer arrived, Amanda played him a recording of the argument they just had. Sometimes she would take out her phone and record, she said, just to get her husband to stop. The officer left without determining a “predominant aggressor,” he wrote in the report, obtained by The Lily. Before he left, he took Amanda into a different room so they could speak privately. He advised her to seek help at a domestic violence shelter, according to the report.
Amanda’s neighbor, who The Lily agreed not to name to protect Amanda’s privacy, said she’s grown used to seeing the police car parked outside Amanda’s house in the pandemic. Amanda and her husband would sometimes stand with the officers in the driveway, yelling loudly enough that people on the next street over can hear. Even when they were inside the house, Amanda’s neighbor said she could still hear the husband’s voice.
“He’ll tell her, ‘You’re stupid.”
Sometimes, the neighbor said, she would hear screaming.
In mid-February, Amanda finally got good news from a shelter: They had a room for her and her kids.
She called their hotline around 6 p.m., as she was simmering ground beef for dinner. She’d already reached out once earlier that day, recounting what her 4-year-old had said about the bedtime story. Her daughter wasn’t one to make stuff up, Amanda said: Sure, she said weird things sometimes — but weird like, “Your skin looks tasty,” she told them, not, “Dad is going to kill you.”
“You can come tonight,” said the voice on the end of the line.
Amanda told her husband they were leaving. As he screamed at her, she ran from room to room, stuffing duffel bags with clothes, returning to the kitchen every few minutes to give the meat a stir. If she stopped and listened, she thought she might collapse.
“Tune it out,” she told herself. “Don’t have a panic attack right now. Don’t let him get you on the floor.”
She herded the kids to the car as soon as they finished eating. Most of them were eager to leave, she said, desperate for their parents to stop yelling. Her husband confiscated the family iPad from her 6-year-old, who then refused to leave without it.
“If you don’t give him the iPad, I’m calling the police,” Amanda said.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she remembers her husband saying as she walked out the door.
Amanda and her kids spent two months at the shelter. She was granted an emergency protective order a few days after she arrived, preventing her husband from contacting her for three days. The protection ultimately stayed in place for two weeks as Amanda waited for a judge to consider her request for a two-year protective order.
The request was denied.
The court couldn’t take the word of a 4-year-old, Amanda remembers the judge saying at a hearing held in March. Even though the judge reviewed the emergency protective order, where Amanda described the incidents with the knife and the pipe, she said her husband’s history of violence never came up in court. Her husband denied owning a gun. Amanda has spent hours sifting through boxes and garbage bags in the basement. She hasn’t found a gun yet, she said. But there are still a lot of places she hasn’t looked.
While her husband is out of the house now, barred with a no-trespassing order Amanda got from the police, he still lives nearby. Anytime someone drives down her street, Amanda sits up a little straighter on her porch, craning her neck to see who is in the front seat. Her neighbor said she sees him sometimes, around 10 or 11 p.m., watching Amanda’s front door.
For the past few months, Amanda has been locked in a custody battle with her husband, who regularly threatens to take the kids away from her. Right now she is hoping for a joint-custody agreement, where she can rely on him to watch the kids at designated times, so she can work after her unemployment benefits run out in September. Even after the kids go back to school full-time — up from four days a week this spring — she will need someone to cover some nights and weekends. With the kinds of service jobs she’s looking at, she said, it’s almost impossible to find a 9-to-5.
Still, Amanda feels grateful for the new life that is starting to take shape. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, she said, she probably never would have left her husband. When he was at home full-time, she couldn’t ignore his threats and put-downs like she did when he went to work all day. The pandemic also left her with some degree of financial independence. With the weekly unemployment check she received after she had to leave her job in March, Amanda said, she was able to save more money than ever before.
Throughout the spring, Amanda has spent a lot of time thinking about the latest brood of cicadas, which burst forth across the eastern U.S. in May. Where she lives, they’re everywhere, coating the trees and the telephone poles. She ordered a children’s book, “Cecily Cicada,” to share the insect’s life cycle with her kids. This brood has lived in tiny holes underground for 17 years, the same number of years Amanda has lived with her husband.
When the book arrived, she first read it quietly to herself.
For seventeen years she waited day and night for time and temperature to be just right.
She wriggled and wriggled with all her might. But no matter what, her feet held tight.
She thought, ‘I have to get out of here!’ Her body trembled with outright fear.
Amanda started to cry. Then the crying turned to laughing. It was too perfect, she said. She wanted to stand up and yell: “I’m a freaking cicada!”
“Seventeen years of hell,” she said. “And I’m about to emerge.”