Chest of Hope, a support group for abused women and men, partnered with Versailles on Oct. 12 to offer hair styling and manicures to abuse survivors, all while trying to increase the group’s profile in the community.
Chest of Hope founder Merlyn Pittman pointed to statistics from the World Health Organization that one woman in three encounters domestic abuse.
“Everyone knows what domestic violence is about,” Pittman said. “Someone in their family, if not themselves, has been affected by it.”
It starts with little things
Mayra Merlos, a survivor of more than six years of abuse, said that at the beginning of her relationship with her boyfriend in 2006, his treatment of her wasn’t all that bad.
“It escalated as time went,” Merlos said. “It started as little things: little slaps, hair pulling, spit in the face. It progressed to verbal and throwing remote controls. It went from there (to) sitting in the car, him smashing my face into the deck of the car. Or the steering wheel if I was driving.”
Merlos said her boyfriend mixed abuse with affection.
“He would do it and then say, ‘I’m so sorry. I love you a lot. It won’t happen again,’” she said. “He would say, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t know how to control my emotions around you. I love you that much.’”
Control as abuse
Merlos lived in a nice house in Livermore with plenty of money and cars. But she had access to none of those assets.
“I didn’t own anything when I was with him,” the mother of two said.
Even after enduring a near-fatal beating in February 2010, when her boyfriend repeatedly kicked her in the head, Merlos didn’t leave.
“They told me that if he had kicked me one or two more times, I would have been dead,” Merlos said. “I recanted my story, because his mom told me, ‘What are you going to do? Where are you going to go with no car? You got no money. You got no job. You got kids. What are you going to do if he goes to jail?’”
Merlos said her boyfriend’s control trickled down to how she spent her free time.
“I had no friends,” she said. “I didn’t know anything outside my household.”
For two more years, Merlos didn’t break away from her abuser. She says her childhood in foster homes made her want an idyllic family at any cost.
“I accepted it because I wanted that family I didn’t have growing up,” she said.
Merlos has a lot of guilt about keeping her children in that situation and said her 9-year-old son remembers the abuse more than his 5-year-old sister.
“I should not have let my kids see that,” Merlos said. “Sometimes I feel like I failed as a mother because I allowed that to happen. I allowed him to see that when I was supposed to be protecting them.”
Now she tells her son never to wrestle or lay a hand on a girl.
She has a more personal upbringing in mind for her daughter, who she said is already a sassy firecracker.
“I don’t want her to ever feel like she has to have a man to stand on her own two feet,” Merlos said.
No one to help
Jeanette Hernandez, 20, now a stylist assistant at Versailles, moved to Tracy just before her 16th birthday because of what happened the morning of May 29, 2009.
“Because my dad murdered my mom,” Hernandez said.
She and her brother lived with their mother, Rose Goulart, in Castro Valley. Hernandez’s mother and father were together 18 years, and all that time, her father abused everyone in the family.
“He was always hitting us all the time,” Hernandez said. “No matter how many times we did cry for help, I felt like no one ever listened and no one ever believed us, because we were kids.”
Hernandez said a lack of money made leaving her father a difficult choice for her mother.
“Everyone knew what was going on,” she said. “They were in the loop and they were trying to help us escape. Money was an issue at the time. There’s only so much people can do.”
Showing no weakness
Hernandez said she tried to never show how upset she was by what her father did, because he would use that against her.
“If you show any sign of weakness, he will use that forever,” the 20-year-old said. “When he had trial, I didn’t want it to look like he ruined my life and that I was suffering, because he likes to see that.”
Pittman, the Chest of Hope founder, calls emotional and psychological abuse almost worse than physical abuse, because it doesn’t leave a visible mark others can see.
“If people don’t see stuff, they don’t think that it’s happening,” Pittman said. “Your mate will tell you you’re fat. You’re ugly. No one will want you if I leave you. You can’t get anywhere without me.’”
Hernandez said abuse of that kind is burned into her memory.
“The night before my mom died, he came to my mom’s house and he said, ‘You’re an ignorant, immature and inconsiderate daughter.’ And he poked me,” Hernandez said. “I told him, Don’t you ever touch me.”
That abuse finally ended with Luis Hernandez stabbing the mother of his children several times in the chest with a sharpened screwdriver outside her workplace at Bay Valley Medical Group in Hayward. He is serving a life term without the possibility of parole, and Jeanette Hernandez and her brother are living with their aunt in Tracy.
Using the pain
Both Merlos and Hernandez want to help other women understand how insidious abuse can be.
Hernandez said she tells girls her age who complain about their boyfriends not to accept anyone being mean to them. She said even children can make a difference in an abusive household.
“You do have a voice,” Hernandez said. “When I was 10, I told my principal, even though I was scared out of my mind.”
Merlos became a Chest of Hope volunteer to support other survivors of abuse.
“I wanted to give back to help other women. Because I had no one to talk to,” she said. “It’s not our fault. We don’t deserve it. But we can get out of it. It’s going to be hard and it’s scary, especially when you don’t have anything. A car. Money. But you eventually get there if you stay focused on making yourself happy. Your life means more. Why die in the hands of a man when if he loved you, he wouldn’t even be hurting you.”
Merlyn Pittman said she hopes to someday open a Chest of Hope shelter home in Tracy.
“Ultimately, a woman needs a safe place for her to get back to the recovery or to be self-sufficient,” Pittman said. “She has to have the support. With the shelter, she can go out, learn a job, learn a trade, get her career going while we take care of the kids or monitor them when they come from school.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at 830-4231 or firstname.lastname@example.org.