Survivor lost personal identity

FAIRMONT – The red silhouettes of women and children circled an area of Five Lakes Centre on Thursday. All had a name and a story of how their lives came to an end in an act of domestic violence in Minnesota.

“These are only a few of the many lives lost,” said Martin County Victim-Witness coordinator Becky Bentele. “Last year in Minnesota, there were 14 women, three family or friends, and one man killed in an act of domestic violence. This year, we’ve lost a total of 36. So that number is already doubled and we have two months left. Even one life lost is too many.”

It is a frustrating point for officials who work with the end results of domestic violence on a daily basis.

“We keep coming back year after year to hear a similar message,” said Martin County Judge Robert Walker. “Despite our efforts, every day we’re seeing the headlines of another adult or child killed or harmed by domestic violence. … It’s discouraging that we come together annually and look around the room, and we know 85 percent of you because of your profession and working with us, or you are a family member or friend of someone killed.”

The message, Walker said, needs to be absorbed by society as a whole.

“The biggest obstacle is the public has an impression that ‘it doesn’t happen here,’ when this is exactly where it happens,” he said. “We are not unique.”

There are numerous factors that can contribute to domestic violence, such as alcohol or chemical abuse, mental illness, or economic stress and strife.

“We’re treating the wounds after injury, but instead we should be preventing the wounds from happening in the first place,” Walker said. “There are not enough mental health facilities; instead these people are being sent to jail and prisons. … We need to be proactive, not reactive. This problem is not going to go away until society is willing to take the time and money to work toward a solution.”

Thursday’s featured speaker was Jessica Pufahl of Gaylord. She spent 10 years with a man who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and he was also an alcoholic.

“At first, he was attractive and charming,” Pufahl recalled. “At the time, he lived with his mother, but when she realized he was in a relationship, she told him he couldn’t live there anymore. She knew I would take him in.”

Then, as Pufahl recalled, the manipulations and abuse sneaked up on her.

“My personal identity was stripped away,” she said. “He would tell me, ‘Oh, you don’t need to wear makeup, you’re so pretty.’ And he threw my makeup away. Then my clothes began disappearing, and he’d bring me these plus-size clothes that were giveaways that were much too big.”

By the time Pufahl realized she was in an abusive relationship, she was already beaten down mentally.

“When you’re in an abusive relationship, you don’t realize that you are; you think it’s normal to argue and to be controlled. Once I realized things were bad, I was already exhausted and he had me believing everything was my fault.”

Pufahl remembers the first time she was physically abused, as he drunkenly hit her from the back seat while she was driving on a 15-mile trip.

“He was with his 5-year-old son in the back seat,” she said. “His mother saw and took photos, but she never said or did anything with them.”

Pufahl attempted to leave the relationship and moved back to her homestate of Michigan. Her abuser followed her.

“He wined and dined me, convinced me he changed, and begged me to come back,” she recalled.

When she did come back with him, things got worse.

“He took away my birth control pills and said we weren’t going to have intercourse again until we got married,” she said. “A month later, he forced himself on me, and I got pregnant.”

Pufahl did marry her abuser, and the couple moved to Gaylord.

“He was abusive throughout the pregnancy, and continued to abuse me more and more,” she recalled. “He would strangle me and it was a game to him. He’d squeeze my throat tight enough and long enough to be scary, then let me go, only to do it again a few minutes later.”

The final straw for Pufahl was when she saw her husband kick her then 3-year-old son across the room into a wall when the child tried to protect her.

“I saw my life and his life flash before my eyes at that moment,” she said. “I knew we had to get out.”

She reported the incident to police the next day, and it led to a six-hour standoff.

“I don’t know how to capture the emotions of that night,” Pufahl said.

While her husband faced some serious charges from the standoff – including first-degree criminal sexual conduct and domestic assault by strangulation – he was able to get a plea bargain and only served 10 months in jail.

By then, Pufahl was facing a new set of problems.

“He had been a stay-at-home father, and I made enough money that I didn’t qualify for child care assistance,” she said. “Then he had supervised visits with the children twice a week. This put the financial burden on me to drive them to Mankato. … I also had to pay for the custody evaluation, because he didn’t have any money. It was frustrating having to pay for and bend over backwards to someone who abused us.”

Pufahl had been approved to relocate back to Michigan, and there were still worries of the custody arrangement. But before any final decisions were reached, Pufahl’s husband committed suicide.

“Even after all the help and treatment he received when he was in jail, it didn’t help at all,” Pufahl said.

Following her speech, several women spoke up about some of the issues Pufahl touched on. One woman in attendance was living the nightmare.

“Even as I’m sitting here, he’s texting me,” she cried. “The restraining order expired and I can’t get a new one. … He’s trying to get full custody of our son, and my son doesn’t want to see him anymore.”

“Each case has its own set of circumstances, and there is a need for better consistency,” Pufahl said. “There is a lot of navigating the court system in attempts to become independent and recover.”

But again, this means dealing with the wounds once they are inflicted, rather than a preventative approach.

“It’s like being by a river, and you see someone being carried away by the current,” said Fairmont Police Sgt. Lowell Spee. “You rescue that person and before you know it, there’s someone else out there. And someone else. Before you know it, you’re exhausted, and you can’t catch them all. What we need to do is go upstream and catch who’s pushing these people into the river.”