11.11.135:45 AM ET

Reliving Her Mother’s Terror

In her new memoir, ‘Diamond in the Dark,’ Phyllis Hain recounts leaving the abuse of her childhood only to find a new type of violence in her first marriage.

JJ’s uncle’s job was delivering newspapers, so I looked forward to going through our paper page by page every day. I would read and share the local news with Granny. We would sit and talk about the strange things happening in our world. I listened to her—she had a very interesting perspective. I avoided telling her much about the Vietnam War because I felt sick thinking of it and so helpless to make any difference.

On a Sunday in the fall of 1969, an advertisement appeared in the classified section of the paper. I read it. I read it again. It said something about government assistance to first-time home buyers. Qualified buyers could get a three-bedroom home with only $200 down. According to your income, the government would subsidize your payment so your actual payment would be much lower than otherwise. The ad gave the real estate company’s name and phone number to find out more.

I read the ad over and over. I had just turned 18 years old, and I was pretty naïve about business, but I did get my horse loan and paid that off. This was just too good to be true. I waited impatiently for Monday morning to come so I could call the number. I was on the phone as soon as it hit 9 a.m. The voice on the other end assured me that if I was a first time-buyer, my husband had a job, and we had a dependent, then we would qualify. I just needed to come into the office to see the available floor plans. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. When I told them, JJ and Uncle Buddy were skeptical of the whole thing and laughed at me.

I borrowed my uncle’s car and started out for Mobile, Alabama. I had never driven into Mobile alone before. I carefully took down the directions and started out knowing that Nathan would be just fine with Granny until I returned.

The meeting went well. They took our information and did a preliminary analysis, which indicated we were well within the income range to qualify. For a three bedroom, 1 and ½ bath, 1,700 square foot house, we would have to pay only $109.00 a month and the government would subsidize the difference. The realtor explained the whole process. He told me that each year, they would reassess our income and the payment could go up if we made more money. I couldn’t believe it—I drove home riding on a cloud.

It was difficult to get JJ to agree to go with me into Mobile. He thought I was pretty much full of crap and there had to be some kind of catch to it. I pushed and pushed until I got him to go with me to see the model home. He had no intention of moving to Mobile, so they agreed to not only let us choose a lot anywhere in Mobile County, but pay a maximum of $2,500 for the lot and then build us a house. All we had to do was give them $200 to start the ball rolling. We scraped the money together and launched the project.

Directly across the street from our uncle’s home, a developer had constructed a paved dead end road, but it was only about one-quarter mile long. Nearby the entrance to Saxon Manor were two nice brick subdivision markers. Each lot was about 100 x 200 and for sale at $2000. We started our paperwork. It was November 1970 and I was 19 years old when they finally approved us for this special loan. I was ecstatic.

They had purchased the lot in Saxon Manor and the building process started in the beginning of 1970. It seemed to take forever but it was finally happening. The thought of a new home was so exciting. We were also trying to have our second child. We wanted children three years apart, and Nathan was now over two years, so no birth control after January 1970. By March, I was pregnant. My sister and I laughed at our genes—we both were as fertile as cow manure.

I walked over to the new house each day. I enjoyed the walk, only about one-fourth a mile away, and it was such a thrill to see each step of the process. The guys framing the house were paying too much attention to me, because the first time JJ walked with me to the house, he became angry about the way the construction guys talked to me. I thought they were just being nice to talk about our home and the construction process, and I honestly did not think I had been flirting. I just wanted to see our home being built. JJ threw such a fit that he said he would kick everyone’s ass, and tear the damned house down, if I went again without him. He started with the name-calling and berated me every time he saw someone look my way.

By the end of the summer, our new house was almost finished. We had to go through the loan-qualifying process again to make sure nothing had changed since we had been deemed eligible the previous November. We really didn’t understand that the mortgage was totally dependent on meeting the income levels again. JJ had received a cost of living raise at the first of the year, and in May he had received his annual merit raise or step increase. The raises had put us over the income limit. It was crazy. We had qualified, and had been approved. Now we didn’t qualify.

After my long struggle, the committee in my head was yelling, “You’ve got to be kidding!” JJ now made in excess of the allowed amount for a couple with one child. “But I’m pregnant,” I told them. “My baby will be here in October.” The house would be completed soon, so the same realtor came to Grand Bay to see how it was coming along. He then came to our house to bring additional papers for us to complete which would let us count our second child to qualify. When the realtor came in and sat down in the living room, Nathan was playing on the floor and I walked into the kitchen to get something. I could feel his eyes on me. He said, “When are you going to start looking pregnant?” The way he said it was making me very uneasy. I said something back like, “Believe me, I’m pregnant,” then ignored the remark. We finished our business and I was glad when he left. I told JJ about it and we both laughed at the guy for being such a jerk.

After they recalculated our loan application, we still made about $50 a month too much, even with two children. JJ actually went in and asked for a pay decrease so we could qualify for the house. After the government gave him the cut in pay, we waited for his leave and earnings statement to reflect the decrease, resubmitted the application, and the income ratio finally worked. The realtors came back again. Now they said they couldn’t hold the home until after our child was born in October. “It’s August,” I argued. “Even if you put the house on the market, a buyer most likely could not close before October or November. So why can’t you wait for our baby to be born?” I was using every argument I knew of to keep the contract from collapsing. JJ was sick of it—all of it.

The realtor told us if we paid $200, he could hold the house. It’s funny, but we didn’t even have $200. We signed a note and paid him $50 a month to pay off the $200 note. In retrospect, it was most likely illegal for him to do that, but we didn’t know any better and we were willing to pay it. Our baby was born on October 31, 1970. We closed on our home in November and moved in soon after that. I felt victorious.

Our new brick house was larger and nicer than any home either of our parents had ever owned. It was truly the nicest place either JJ or I had ever lived. I had left home at 16, married, had two children by age 20, established my credit, and now we had a beautiful new home. Most of the time, these accomplishments were satisfying to me, and I credit them with sustaining our marriage. At times, things were bad, but I was not about to strike out on my own, and I sure wouldn’t go back to live in the house under my dad’s rule again. It probably helped that I was no longer in touch with my friends at school. That left me not much to compare myself to.

My days back then were spent caring for my children, sewing—I made drapes for the entire house—painting, refinishing furniture, and caring for our horses. We fenced in a small plot behind our house that backed into the woods. If you went into the woods, the land rolled down gently to the creek. No one was ever back there, so no one cared, or seemed to care, that we were using a small piece of their land.

I had sold Star Dancer, and after we settled in at the new house, I bought Brandy, a huge black quarter horse. I rode her often and hard, until one day when I was trying to do a fast figure eight in our back yard. She tripped, completely fell, and rolled over on the ground. Thank goodness I had gone in the opposite direction so she didn’t roll on me. The old girl was a good horse, but not as agile and athletic as I needed, so I sold her pretty soon after that.

We purchased an adorable pony for Nathan when he was four. We named him Buckshot. I wanted so much for Nathan to enjoy this pony, the one I never had as a kid. From the start, he did. I saddled Buckshot each day and let Nathan ride. On his own, he finally was able to ride to the end of our little street, turn around, and return up the hill toward home. “I can ride by myself, I’m a big boy,” he’d say. I let him ride to the bottom of the hill as I stood keeping a watchful eye. One time, after Buckshot made his turn toward home, he took off like a blue streak up the hill. Nathan was doing a great job of staying on and, though I tried to catch him, Buckshot dodged me like a fullback and ran around the far side of the house on a path headed right under a television antennae wire. That wire caught Nathan and flipped him backwards off the pony. Nathan hit the ground with a thud. He cried—can’t say as I blame him.

Watching this episode had scared me to death. Nathan was both scared and hurt a little. He walked over to Buckshot, now standing by the paddock fence, grabbed his reins, and led the pony over to me. He was all red-faced and teary as he blurted out, “You take him. I want something that runs off gas.” And he stuck to it. Nathan never again had much use for horses. Buckshot then became Jamie’s pony. At 18 months and in a diaper, she would try to climb up his leg to get on. Her love affair with horses had just begun. I couldn’t have been happier.

As before, JJ was having a hard time finding his way home. He had developed some expensive hobbies, which took both a lot of money and a lot of time away from us. He went scuba diving with a friend who had a wife and six kids. We enjoyed their company fairly often. He also decided to join the Pascagoula Country Club so he could learn to play golf. That gave him an excuse, almost every day, not to come home until late, and it was a constant drain on our budget.

Outside our home and family, church was my only outlet. I attended regularly and taught Sunday school to the four-and five-year-olds. It was very important to raise my children in the church, but that always proved difficult with no help from their dad. It didn’t matter. I had always gone to church and I wanted my children to have the same religion as I did. At that time, I felt it was the best thing my parents had done for me.

By the time Jamie was three years old, both JJ and I had horses—an Appaloosa for JJ and a gorgeous black and white Paint for me. I bought “Lucky” when she was a two year old so I could break and train her myself. She was gentle broke, never bucking once. This was a young, athletic horse that allowed me to ride like the wind. I left my troubles behind me while we flew through the woods at breakneck speeds.

But the horses became another way for JJ to inflict pain on me. If he was angry at me for anything, or if he got angry because the horse was afraid of him, he would go into the pen and meanly “shoo” the horses away. They were terrified and ran for their lives. It was fight or flight, and for them it was flight at top speed in a very small pen. He would yell and chase them until I begged him to stop. He was going to kill or hurt them really bad by running them into a fence. This didn’t even take into consideration what he was doing mentally to the horses. His Appaloosa would be absolutely “wall-eyed” in fear. I was so angry that I ran to the fence and challenged him, “You bully, you hateful bully! Stop before you hurt them!”

He came away from the fence, walking toward me until he stood just in front of me. I can’t remember what I said, but he grabbed the front of my shirt in his right hand, and his big hand twisted the fabric as his fingers dug into my chest under my shirt. Then with one hand, he lifted me off the ground, which amounted to strangling me. The pain was streaking through my chest and neck as he shook me. I couldn’t breathe. “Keep your damned mouth shut. Do you hear me?” he warned. He pushed me back as he let me go. I was barely able to keep my feet. I heeded the warning and kept my mouth shut.

I soon recognized that I was reliving my mother’s life. She knew it, too. Mom pointed out to me that I had “one just like your dad.” Clearly, she was referring to JJ. Worse, I now was putting up with the same things she had endured all her married life. I wanted to be a better person. I wanted better for my family.

I prayed harder.

I had quit school early because of my pregnancy. In the 60’s, the thinking was that young, unmarried pregnant girls should not stay in school with other “children,” because your pregnancy would somehow scar them. At 16, I had only two choices. The first was to have a baby out of wedlock and become a disgrace to my family. I just couldn’t see myself walking down the aisle to beg the forgiveness of the church. The second was to marry the father of my child and try to make the best of it. There were no other options for me, so I chose to marry my mistake. Making that choice left me without a high school diploma. Mobile had an adult high school that was part of Murphy High School. I was able to go for just two weeks to prepare to take the GED test. I took the test and passed all five segments with flying colors. I was so happy that my best score, a 98, was in mechanical logic. I was now 22 years old, I had two children, the adult high school was 32 miles away, and it offered classes only at night. I did the best I could under the circumstances. I didn’t know how I would do it, but I always knew I would continue to further my education beyond the high school equivalency.

The most significant of the many violent events that took place in our Saxon Manor home started about 2:00 a.m. JJ entered the kitchen and turned to quietly close the door, as if I wouldn’t know he was slipping in. I stood across the room, in the den, and I yelled at him with all the intensity I could muster, “I hate you! I hate your guts!” It could have been a scene from a Lifetime made-for-television movie. I had summoned all the bravery I had to confront him because I knew I would end up paying.

I wouldn’t speak to him and went straight to bed. The argument started again as soon as he was out of bed the next morning. He actually wanted me to screw his sorry ass after his outing the previous night. I had no idea where he had been, or with whom, and I wanted no part of him. I told him, “Every time you stay out and do this to me, you kill a little more of my love for you. Do you understand what you are doing?” He tried to pull me in for a kiss. The children were in the den and he was starting this shit again. I pushed him. I was hurt and upset, and I didn’t want his hands anywhere near me.

JJ didn’t just one-up the ante, but he raised it even higher. He reached into our closet, where he kept his .22-Colt revolver, hanging in a western-type holster. I stared at him as he grabbed the pistol, which was always loaded. So now what was he going to do? I tried to turn, but he grabbed me with his left hand, clamping down hard on my arm. I tried to get him to let me go while trying to keep my voice down, so the kids wouldn’t hear. I couldn’t believe that he had cocked the loaded .22. Holding the gun with his right hand, he buried the barrel into my stomach.

Feeling that barrel sink into my belly, I figured he was really going to shoot me. My tears spilled involuntarily. I was paralyzed by fear, and my body folded as my knees gave way. I thought, He is really going to kill me. Oh my God! My children are in the other room. My brain protected me as it took me into this dreamlike, surreal place. I accepted the reality that I was going to die. There was no more fight in me.

When he felt my body completely succumb to his threat, he let me go. Then, turning toward the closet, he fired that revolver either five or six times (I don’t know if one was in the chamber when he grabbed the six-shooter). He emptied the gun through my clothing and through the wall. He turned to me with a threatening grimace. “You keep your mouth shut or I’m going to kill you,” he said. I believed him.

As soon as he walked away, he went out the door and out of the house. I ran toward Nathan, who was coming down the hall after hearing the noise. I consoled him. Somehow, Jamie was still asleep on the floor pallet the kids had in front of television. The Saturday morning cartoons were blaring. I turned the sound down and walked back into Jamie’s bedroom.

Our master bedroom and Jamie’s room backed up to each other at the end of the hall. The closets both shared the center wall. I can’t remember if the bullet holes went through the doors on the other side, or if the closet doors were open. However, my treasured suede coat, with the luxurious mink collar, now had bullet holes running through it. I loved that coat, and now it was not worth wearing. I turned from the closet to look at the full bed in Jamie’s room. The bullet holes had gone into the bed at about a child’s height. Bullets were now embedded deep in the mattress. Jamie’s baby bed was on the other wall, and she and Nathan often played in that room. I suddenly realized for the first time that he could have killed our children.

It was my fault, according to him. I had made him do it. And he never apologized. To make up, his usual mode of operation was to pester me until I let him have sex. However, after this episode, he now had a new line. Whenever he wouldn’t come home, he would always mock me by saying, “Well, I guess I killed a little more of that love tonight, didn’t I?” He’d throw his head back and laugh like hell. At that moment, I truly believed the devil lived inside him.


Excerpted from Diamond in the Dark: Leaving the Shadow of Abuse by Phyllis Hain (Bancroft Press, November 2013).