Read Esme Bianco’s grueling, unedited testimony as a domestic violence survivor in support of the Phoenix Act
On July 9th, 2019, I testified in front of the California Assembly Public Safety Committee in support of the Phoenix Act; a bill I co-created to increase the statute of limitations on domestic violence crimes. Here, for the first time, I share my full, unedited testimony about the abuse I suffered
(content warning: graphic descriptions of domestic violence)
Before he succeeded in his seduction, my abuser carefully groomed me, manipulating and gaslighting me over a number of years of “friendship”. He knew that I was easy prey. I had neither power, nor control over my life. A previous intimate relationship had stripped me of both and so I was led from the frying pan into the fire.
Initially he was charming, intelligent, funny. He told me I was his soulmate, he seemingly understood and saw me in a way no-one had before. But by the time I was living with him, he controlled every aspect of my life. He had a dress code I was expected to abide by, a weight I was expected to maintain. He controlled what I ate, decided if my friendships were acceptable, and when I called my family I did so hiding inside a closet. He completely controlled my comings and goings from the apartment, to which I was not allowed a key. Frequently I was sent away, expected to stay gone all night with nowhere else to go, while he carried out his numerous affairs. If he didn’t want the bother of asking me to leave, I would be locked in the bedroom. The apartment was kept in complete darkness, frigidly cold, which had the effect of completely disorientating me. I never knew whether it was day or night, which was compounded by the fact that he controlled when and if I slept. Fueled by drugs and alcohol he would stay awake for days at a time and I was expected to also. I was often violently shaken awake should I go to sleep without permission.
On one occasion, after four days of not sleeping and not allowing me to sleep, he became angry with me. He thought I had put cockroaches in the walls to upset him. He took an axe and started smashing holes in the walls to prove the insects were in there. As I was trying to calm him down, he began to chase after me with the axe. It was at that stage I realized my life was in danger.
I was a prisoner in his hell, and yet I thought I had done something to deserve this, so I just tried harder to please him. The verbal abuse and name calling was a daily occurrence, but the physical violence was most often disguised in acts of intimacy, and was coerced, not consented to. I was bitten until my body was covered in bruises, on another occasion cut with a knife during sex, inflicting wounds up and down my torso. He took photos of my naked, mutilated body and posted them online without my knowledge. I still have this photo, along with photos of my body covered in welts inflicted with a whip, wounds which he then proceeded to electrocute with a violet wand.
I kept these images, which I now look at with shame and repulsion; not because I saw them as evidence, for at the time, absurd as it may sound, I had no idea it was abuse. I would, in fact, looks at these images with pride. They were trophies, testaments to how much I loved him. Look at what I was willing to tolerate to please him and show him my devotion, making my best effort to make the relationship work, my best efforts to survive. Because this behavior, at the time and for years after, seemed normal to me. In order for a person to survive traumatic events, especially those that continue over a number of years, the brain normalizes the horrific truth. In such situations you are biologically incapable of grasping the true nature of these horrendous acts. This survival mechanism is as old as the human race and is the same for us all. My trauma had normalized the abuse to enable me to survive. It took me 7 years to get to the stage where I could see these acts for what they were — domestic violence.
After a diagnosis of PTSD, the symptoms of which I had been living with for years, I started the incredibly painful process of healing from my trauma. I am incredibly lucky to have good health insurance which covers therapy and the medications I need to take to treat my PTSD; but many survivors are not so fortunate. The process of healing has been so destabilizing, there are days I long to once again live in the ignorance of not understanding what happened to me.
The night terrors are the worst part. I was plagued with insomnia for many years after I left my abuser, and then finally when sleep came, the night terrors began, and I was terrified to fall asleep. The worst dreams are not the ones where he is chasing me or hurting me, but the ones where I dream I am in love with him again, he has lured me back and once more I am “under his spell’ and trapped inside his apartment. I wake from these dreams screaming, soaked in sweat mid panic-attack, and once the panic subsides it is replaced with a crippling sadness and shame.
The shame is overwhelming. The fear that I might somehow repeat past patterns and find myself back in the cycle. For that’s what abuse is, it’s a never ending wheel. And we have got to give survivors, and their abusers, the chance to get off the wheel and break the cycle. When I finally found the courage, 7 years later, to seek legal advice, I was told, as thousands of survivors before me, that it was too late, nothing could be done. So I live with the daily knowledge that my abuser is still spinning that wheel, inflicting irreparable damage on other women.
The Phoenix Act gives survivors the time they need to break the cycle for both themselves, and their abusers, who we know are statistically most likely to continue abusing if left unchecked. I know I will never see justice for what happened to me, but I am here, risking my safety and that of my family, to respectfully ask you to vote yes on this bill and give thousands of survivors a chance to seek the justice they deserve. Thank you.
The Phoenix Act passed unanimously in 2019, strengthening the legal rights of survivors in California by nearly doubling the statute of limitations for felony domestic violence cases.
Watch video of my testimony here
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