When Violence Hits Home

updated 04/04/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 01:00AM

When Rep. Dan Burton rose on the floor of the House of Representatives last fall to urge the creation of a National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, few of his colleagues were prepared for the intensely personal nature of his remarks. Burton, 55, an Indiana Republican, told of growing up in a household terrorized by his father's violence—of lying awake at night listening to his mother's screams as his father inflicted yet another savage beating that would leave her bruised, bloody, even unconscious.

Sadly, the experiences of Burton's mother are not uncommon. Every year, an estimated 4 to 6 million women in the U.S. are assaulted by people they know—-acquaintances, boyfriends, current or former husbands. As a supporter of domestic violence amendments to the omnibus crime bill now working its way through Congress, Burton hopes to toughen federal laws dealing with violence against women and to allocate more resources for victim services.

Dan Burton 's mother, Bonnie, now 74, was fortunate. Eventually she managed to escape her violent husband, Charles, and, after their divorce, marry a man who provided her and her three children—Dan and his younger siblings Sylvia and Woody—with a stable, loving home. Burton left the family to enlist in the Army at 18. Later he attended Cincinnati Bible Seminary and worked in the insurance business before running successfully for the Indiana slate legislature in 1966 at age 28. In 1982 he was elected to Congress.

Dan Burton, married 35 years and the father of three children, ages 18 to 29, decided to speak for publication about his childhood to encourage other victims to break free from domestic violence. In this emotional interview with correspondent Rochelle Jones in his Capitol Hill office, he talked about traumas suffered during his boyhood that he has never before spoken of publicly.

ONE OF MY EARLIEST MEMORIES IS OF being awakened in the early morning hours by a terrible noise. I was 5 or 6 years old and my father, mother, younger sister and I were living in a duplex house in Indianapolis. I heard the sound of furniture being shoved across the room and a lamp crashing to the floor. Then I heard my mother's bloodcurdling scream. Every nerve in my body stood on end. Terrified, I lay there thinking, "My God, it's happening again."

For almost a decade, my father beat my mother nearly every week. Anything seemed to set him off: jealousy, rage over something that hadn't gone his way. He'd start by saying horrible things to her. He'd rip her clothes off and throw her down. Sometimes he literally knocked her unconscious. Afterward, her face and eyes would be swollen and bruised. He'd put wet cloths on her face to wake her up. I'd hear him consoling her, saying he was sorry, that it would never happen again. But of course it did.

Sometimes I'd try to stop him. I remember going partway down the stairs and yelling, "Stop, stop!" but my father would say, "Get back upstairs." Physically, there was nothing I could do. My mother would scream and holler for help, but nobody ever came. I was afraid to tell anyone. I thought my father would attack me.

Dad was 6'8" and a vicious guy. I don't think he was born mean, but when he was growing up he was picked on by other kids. But after he learned to fight back, lie realized lie was strong enough to inflict pain—and he used that to his advantage. It carried over into his marriage and his family.

Dad wasn't dumb, but he was a vagabond. He never held a job for very long. We lived a ragtag existence, moving from trailer parks to cabins to motels. By the time I was 12, we had lived in 38 stales, in Mexico and in Canada. I remember once enrolling in school in the morning, only to move that afternoon.

Mother wasn't the only object of his violence. She told me about a time when I was 6 months old; my parents took me to the movies, and I started crying, as babies will do. He took me out to the lobby. Later my mother saw that I was black and blue from my shoulder to my ankles. Another beating, I remember vividly, took place when I was 10. We were living in a small motel in Niles, Mich. Dad gave me a list of groceries and ordered me to go to a little store a few blocks away. It was snowing like crazy when I started back to the motel with the groceries. The bags got wet and broke, spilling the groceries everywhere. I gathered up whatever I could carry in my hands. When I got back, my father beat the hell out of me. He was embarrassed to have to go pick the groceries up out of the snow.

I was so terrified of him I would try-to stay out of his way as much as possible. When things got really bad, my mother would sit me down and read inspirational poems aloud. Occasionally she would move out. She'd take us and go to her relatives, but she was afraid to leave him for good. He threatened to come after her if she ever did. In those days, there were no shelters where battered women could go for safety. There was no place to hide. The beatings got worse. Finally my mother decided that if she didn't leave, he would kill one of us. In 1950, when I was 12, she went to the police and got a restraining order, then moved us to her mother's house on Division Street in Indianapolis. It was a very small old house with no indoor plumbing. I slept in one twin bed with my brother. My mother and sister slept in another.

A few months later, my father made good on his threat. He broke into the house through an attic window. I remember him kicking the bedroom door open. He had a sawed-off shotgun and dragged my mother away. I had a baseball bat next to my bed, but it happened so fast I couldn't do anything.

For several days we didn't know if she was dead or alive. Because my grandmother was too old to take care of us on her own, law enforcement authorities placed us in the Marion County Guardian Home. My mother managed to escape when Dad pulled the car over to get some sleep. He had taken the knobs off the doors and windows on the passenger side, but somehow she managed to climb over him and get out. He was arrested and charged with kidnapping. I remember being called to testify at his trial. The prosecutor told me, "You don't have to be afraid now," but when I saw Dad sitting there I was scared to death. He went to jail for two years.

My mother divorced him and later remarried. My new stepfather was a wonderful man. He only made $75 a week before taxes working at a foundry in Indianapolis, but he took us into his house and gave us love and guidance. He never resorted to physical punishment. When we would get rowdy, he'd just tell us to simmer down. For the first time, I felt safe.

But I never stopped worrying that Dad would come back after he got out of jail. One day, when I was 13, he did. I was baby-sitting my younger brother and sister when I saw him come up the front walk. I was petrified and veiled, "Don't come up here!" He said, "You don't have to be afraid of me." I grabbed a shotgun we kept beside the front door. When he saw the gun, he turned around. I'm glad he did, because I might have shot him.

After that, I didn't hear from Dad for many years. In 1967, when I was an Indiana state legislator, he called to tell me his mother had died and asked me to come to the funeral. When I said I couldn't, he made threatening remarks. I said, "Listen, I'm not 6 years old anymore. If you come near Mom or me or my family, I'll have you arrested. We aren't going to live like that anymore." There was a long silence. He said he understood and hung up. I never heard from him again. He died in 1969. After debating a long time, I went to his funeral.

I know now that violence is a learned response. People who have been abused as children often end up abusing their own wives and children. Growing up, I had a tendency to lash out too when I was angry. Fortunately, my mother and grandmother helped me with love, kindness and encouragement. When I got married and had my own family, I made a conscious effort to control my anger because I recall what it was like in that house.

I also learned that unless an abusive man gels professional help, he is not going to change. He may make promises for a few weeks, but then it will start all over again. My message to women with abusive husbands is to get out. It was only when my mother escaped my father that we could begin to live a normal, productive life.

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