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Telephones and Tender Voices

July 13, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN | Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays

One month ago today, the grisly discovery of two brutalized bodies on a Brentwood sidewalk planted the seeds of a long overdue national discussion about domestic violence that has yet to reach full flower.

On Monday night, a group of women who are more than mindful of this gather in a second-floor, windowless room in Hollywood at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. The women, volunteers for LACAAW's Rape and Battering 24-Hour Hotline, are the ones who give up their mornings, their afternoons, their middle-of-the-nights to listen.

They listen to women whose husbands bust down the bathroom door as their wives cower next to the toilet with portable phones, women who wonder if getting beaten up three times and raped once by their husbands means they are battered, women who announce they have taken a handful of pills and just want a friendly voice on the line as they slip into a coma because it's easier to die than to face another closed fist.

Here, under the harsh fluorescent lights, the "counselor-advocates" share their stories. They talk of triumphs, frustrations and pain. They talk about the extraordinary increase in calls following the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the release of the 911 tapes and the barrage of stories about O.J. Simpson's history of domestic turmoil.

They talk about feeling burned out.

"They've been through hell and back in the last few weeks," says Patti Giggans, LACAAW executive director. Calls to the hot line ((310) 392-8381, (213) 626-3393) more than doubled during some shifts in the weeks following Simpson's arrest--from about six or seven in a four-hour period to as many as 16.

Where callers also used to want help and information in dealing with rape, incest, child abuse or suicide, now all they want to talk about is abuse and battering. Many talk of not wanting to "end up like Nicole."

Referring to a guide as fat as some telephone books, the volunteers make referrals to the 18 shelters in L.A. County. They direct callers to therapists, clinics and legal services. Mostly, they listen.

It is tempting to say that these women are on the front lines of the battle against domestic violence. After all, they jokingly refer to their 65 hours of training as "boot camp." And they are often contacted long before a woman considers notifying the police. But the military metaphor tarnishes what they are all about.

What they are is a vast electronic safety net strung together with telephone wires, top-notch training and tender voices.


Amber is describing a typical hot-line call from a battered woman who has decided to leave: "I have no friends, no family, no neighbors, no job, no money. Can you help me?"

Adds Gail: "I can't believe how many women have no friends or support. It just blows me away. Lots of my calls are from phone booths: 'I have my life with my, my kids, my van and no money.' "

"I feel so much frustration," says Marta. "I get so many calls and there is no place to send them. I had a woman with six children, the youngest still in diapers, calling from a church basement. They were trying desperately to find a shelter for her. She was trying so hard. And there was nothing. As a last resort, I told her to go to a bus depot or an airport."

Kimberly received a call from a honey-voiced woman on behalf of a friend whose wife was in a shelter for battered women. "She wanted to make sure the wife had the husband's phone number, so when she 'got out' of the shelter, they would be able to get back together."

Some of the most chilling calls end abruptly. A hot-line volunteer hears a door slam and her caller's voice run cold with fear, then a click.

"The hardest call I ever got was last week," says Sonia. "It was a 16-year-old girl who, two weeks before, had watched her father shoot her mother. He threatened to kill her if she called the police. At 13, her father raped her and she became pregnant. It was really hard. She said she was going to call back, that she had to go. And she never called back. Her name was Monique."

"I just got a call from Monique!" says another volunteer. "She sounded very young, and she stuttered and sobbed for five minutes. Then she said, 'There's someone coming, I have to go."

Monique's is the kind of story that haunts, the kind of story that makes the women remind each other that they are doing their best, the kind of story that reinforces the importance of letting go at the end of their shifts.

Fortunately, not all the tales are so dreary.


Jan says four groups of office workers called last week asking where they could send money they had collected for battered women from colleagues.

She also took a call from a woman who wanted to talk about God.

"I told her I didn't have enough experience on the subject," said Jan. "And she said, 'You people on that hot line are always saying that!' "

Indeed, sharing information about the cranks, the "chronics" and the nuts elicits a few rounds of much-needed laughter. And no one apologizes for it.

Several volunteers have spoken with the transvestite who dresses up as Nancy Kerrigan and wants to know if "you think I'm weird."

There is the woman who is always incensed because the hot-line staffers cannot give her advice about "financial abuse."

There is the man who claimed to be suicidal when he began calling the hot line, says he is now in counseling and has proposed marriage to the horrified counselor who takes his calls.

She will change shifts, and his calls may be traced and reported to police if he continues to harass her.

The safety net that comprises her warm voice, after all, should be there for her too.

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