In anticipation of her appearance at the 20th Anniversary Domestic Violence Clinic Gala and Fundraiser, Tonya Harding talks with the UO School of Law about her experiences with domestic violence.
Note: The content of this interview includes themes of violence, which may be distressing for some readers.
Why share this part of your story now?
I have never truly spoken just about domestic violence. I have gone through so much in my life that it is really such a hard thing to talk about. But by doing this, I’m hoping that I can help someone else.
Why do you think it’s so hard for people to believe abuse happens – or that it happened to you?
Domestic violence happens everywhere but a lot of times, abusers are great at hiding in plain sight. One of my exes could speak to other people and be perfectly normal – but he wasn’t. He was one way at home with me and another way with others.
People often forget that abuse isn’t just physical. It can include coercion, threats, isolation, denial, blaming, emotional abuse and even economic. Which did you experience?
All of the above. Abuse happens in so many forms. It doesn’t matter which abuse it is – it all hurts. With physical abuse you may have broken bones and bruises but the emotional abuse hurts just as bad as being bruised and beaten and broken. In fact,from the inside you are bruised and broken.
You’ve said in the past, that “No one ever believes you ever…for being abused.” How do you speak to women who are currently in situations where no one believes them? What do you say to them?
The only thing I can say is “Don’t ever give up.” There will always be that one person who will listen. If you are able to – get out. Because usually the abuse –from my point of view – never goes away without help.
You have shared your experiences with your mother in other interviews. How did she abuse you?
My mother would fill up a thermos with real brandy – not flavored brandy - and drink that until she took me to the rink. The verbal abuse was constant. ‘You’re fat.’ ‘You’re ugly.’ ‘You’re never going to amount to anything.” It started at a young age and those words have stayed with me my entire life.
What were your other family members like?
My dad was my mother’s fourth or fifth husband. She had three boys and one girl from previous marriages. One died in birth – which was the twin of the one that turned out really bad. My half-brother was always in prison and doing bad stuff. But my mother still allowed him to come around.
Did anything happen with your half-brother?
I was getting ready for my first date. I was 15. My dad was going to take me to the movies to meet the guy after he got off work. He actually sat in the back row during the date. My half-brother came by the house in a stolen car. He was drunk and had a warrant out for his arrest. He broke into our house and once in the house – he tried to do things to me. I burned him with my curling iron because he wouldn’t listen. And then I ran and hid and shut the doors and locked them. The police showed up and they arrested him.
How did your mother react to this happening to you?
My mother had the gall to say, “He’s your brother. You can’t have him arrested. He needs help that is all. You need to drop those charges.” I was 15. And what was I supposed to do? Not listen to my mother? So, my mother had everything dropped and it was shortly after that he went back to jail.
Wow, and that wasn’t the first time something like that happened?
The physical abuse started when I was five from my half-brother. And it worked its way all the way up. I remember when I was very, very young he made me do things to him. He molested me for years. I didn’t know it was bad because he was the eldest – and you listen to your elders. You do as your told or you’re going to get into trouble.
And your parents, where were they when this happened?
My dad worked all the time. My mother worked too. Parenting had a lot to do with it.
You mention parenting, how did parenting impact your other siblings?
My half-sister was a prostitute at 12. My other brother – the youngest one was in and out of foster homes. He tried living with us when he was younger – but that didn’t work and my mother sent him off again.
How did you cope in this type of environment?
Skating was my biggest thing. I always tried to go to the rink. I would ride the bus or wait for my dad to get off work and then he would take me to skate. I would do anything to stay away from the house.
Describe your dad.
My father was an excellent man and father. He was abused by my mother and he never raised a hand to her.He always turned around and walked off. I always said to him, ‘Dad, don’t you go and leave me here.’ And he always said, ‘I’ll be back. I just need to go get a cup of coffee.” So that was always how it worked.
How was your relationship with him?
My dad came to all my competitions when he could. We talked everyday – he never abandoned me. My dad was there for me the best that he could be. He was there when I needed a shoulder to cry on.
When you look back on that decision to follow your dream – and to stay – was it worth it?
I found out the hard way that sometimes your dream isn’t worth reaching for. At least, that’s what I felt for so, so long. Should I have let the dream go, so that I didn’t have to go through all the abuse?I had my house ransacked. I had my truck stolen and dropped off of a cliff and burned. I’ve been stalked, restrained and beaten. I’ve had my face slammed into cupboards, slammed into the floor.
So, you stayed. Did you ever have access to, or were you ever able to afford legal services?
I couldn’t afford legal services. What I tried to do was find a close person to talk to and let them know what my plan was. That’s how I ended up with my friend’s family. So, I had somebody else that could be there to back me so I could get out.
Most times, when I asked for help, people never believed me. I’ve had restraining orders and when the police were brought in, they would say, “Well, your restraining order is not legal in our county, so you should just go home.’ I honestly believe that the police chose not to help me because my name was Tonya Harding. That is how I feel to this day. Now, there were some officers in our local area that I have known for a long time. Those men and women helped with some situations when I was being abused – and they’ve been my friends ever since.
Domestic violence perpetrators make their victims feel as if they have to make an impossible choice. The abuser says, “If you leave, you will never see your children again.” That can immobilize a woman.
It’s really hard to know when to get out and when not to get out – especially when you have children. I didn’t have children then, but I have a child now and I guarantee you, right now, I would fight tooth and nail for him. I don’t know what else to say. No one is going to hurt my child. Whether it would hurt me or not – he would become number one.
I know that you have a child, and you are married now. How do you create healthy norms for your family?
My son is literally God’s gift to me. I wasn’t supposed to have children because of the medication I’ve been on throughout the years and so many physical issues. With him, I just always want to make sure that I am better than anybody ever was in my life. That is what drives me to be the best mommy that I can be. And together, my husband and I are raising our son to be a happy, nice, gentle and loving little boy – so that he can grow up to be a good, loving, and gentle man.
How have your previous relationships and experience with domestic violence impacted your relationship with your husband?
The feeling of not being good enough is always there. It doesn’t go away. Prior to meeting Joe, who is my husband, I dated many men and each one of them was abusive. I attracted weirdos – it’s the only way I can say it. But, I finally met the man of my dreams. We just started our eighth year together and this is the first time I’ve been in a healthy relationship. It’s very strange sometimes – how loving he is with me.
How did you and how do you push through these feelings of not being enough?
I was 38 years old when I finally understood that I didn’t deserve to be treated badly. I mean, talked to counselors for years and still wasn’t able to tell them everything that happened to me because I was ashamed. Women, who, like myself have been raped – those things will never go away. I will always look at a man and think, ‘What are you planning?’ I immediately want to protect myself. As a survivor, it’s just something that you have to realize: That it happened, but it wasn’t your fault. I have to love myself and tell myself that ‘I’m a good person.’ ‘I have a good heart.’ That’s the only way that I can make things good for me and make the best life for my family.
What do you want other people to know – especially those who have never experienced domestic violence?
If you’ve never had to deal with any abuse just pay attention to the way you treat people. To you it may not be a big deal – but the way that you look at or speak to people is huge to victims. If you’ve been abused and someone looks at you wrong, then you automatically start blaming yourself and thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ or ‘What did I do wrong?’ It’s like this for me even today.
Because of who you are, you are bound to get looks and comments. How do you deal with that?
You know, I read my Instagram, but I don’t reply to everyone. I see all these great things that people say and then there are a couple that are so negative. There might be 100 great things and then you see the one that says, “Go kill yourself!” and that one person gets into your heart again and it hurts. It was so bad in ’94 that I didn’t want to be here anymore. I couldn’t deal with all of the hate and the abuse. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
Did you try to take your life?
Yes, I did. You know, maybe there are some things we shouldn’t put in this article, but I guess I can leave that up to you.
What you’re describing is so traumatic – and I want to let you know that you by sharing your story, are giving hope to those who may be contemplating suicide.
Ok. I’ll continue. I don’t like needles and I don’t like knives. So, I knew that I wouldn’t do either of those to myself, but I tried to take my life. I truly have to believe God saved me. A higher power took over and I was able to pull myself together. From that day on, I realized that life is too precious to throw away. There was a reason why I was alive and I just had to figure it out. There were other things I could do to earn a living – to earn respect from people. It’s been a long journey since that day and it wasn’t until I was 38 years old when I finally realized that I am worth something. Life is precious and I have to push forward no matter what is thrown my way – that’s really hard to do.
You’ve shared your story – but how do you respond to critics who bring up your past and say that you were violent or even the aggressor?
I hate violence! I hate arguing and all that. If people call me the aggressor – it is because I said, ‘No, I am not going to take it anymore!’ ‘Get off of me!’ ‘You can’t treat me like this!’ So, I hit back. These men are like 6’ and I am like 5’1”, but yet I am the aggressor. No. I am fighting back. And because someone fights back does not mean that they are the aggressor. It means that they finally had enough.
You are a polarizing figure. Some people love you. Some people hate you. It’s rare to find someone in the middle.
People want to put me down or say bad things to me. Either I don’t say anything back or I laugh. I’m like, ‘I’ve heard all of that before. Maybe you should come up with something new.’ And then I turn around and I walk away. But every time it still hurts. I’m human. I have a heart. I care what people think. But you can’t please everybody – and that is the hardest thing.
Do you think that people will see you differently now that you have shared your story?
The one thing I want people to realize is that it took a long time for me to ask for help because I was ashamed. I felt small and belittled that I didn’t amount to anything just like my momma said I would. But if you want to succeed at just living life every day you have to take it one step at a time.I’m just not going to let anyone, or anything stop me from being the best person that I can be for my son and for my husband. And if people don’t like me that is ok. It took a long time to get here – and that’s ok.
To hear more of Tonya’s story and to support the work of the Domestic Violence Clinic, people are encouraged to purchase tickets now through March 3, 2019.
Domestic Violence Resources:
- Lane County: Lane County, Womenspace, Sexual Assault Support Services, UO Domestic Violence Clinic
- Oregon: State of Oregon, Oregon Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse
- National: The National Domestic Violence Hotline, Domestic Shelters