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Domestic violence (cont.)

By Betsy Morris, senior writer
Last Updated: November 20, 2008: 11:51 AM ET

You get a sense of that in a chilling study of a group of batterers conducted by the state of Maine four years ago to assess the implications for occupational health and safety. Many of the 152 men surveyed described a consuming need to know their wives' whereabouts. They felt compelled to check up on them constantly - by calling or leaving work to see if their wives were where they were supposed to be. The urges were so overwhelming that half said they had trouble on the job, making mistakes or causing accidents, and that the feelings intensified when their wives tried to leave them.

Forget any notions you might have about what makes a person vulnerable. She doesn't have to be weak or somehow masochistic. There is no "type." People we interviewed for this story included an employment lawyer in Kansas City, a Red Cross administrator who worked alongside North Carolina Senator Elizabeth Dole, a Yale MBA who handled a groundbreaking project for GM, a New York University MBA who's chief of staff to the Bronx borough president, even an FBI agent. (She disassembled her gun when she got home every night and left it in the trunk of her car, having made, she says, a conscious decision: "We were not going to have live fire in the house.")

Anybody, even the strongest, smartest, most talented women - your highest producer, your rising star, your daughter, your granddaughter - can fall victim. "I've met Ph.D.s who say, 'Yes, I was in love with the guy. I got doled out just enough money for food for the kids,'" says Allstate's Tom Wilson. "Money is the weapon of choice, often in combination with other things, because it keeps the victims locked up. It's the keys. If you don't have a car, you can't run away. If you don't have credit, you can't get an apartment."

That's what makes the workplace so central to the struggle. "Economic independence is the strongest indicator of whether or not a victim can leave a batterer," says Stacey P. Dougan, chief professional development officer at the Atlanta law firm Powell Goldstein, who advises companies on how to handle domestic-violence issues.

That means you can count on the abuser to "relentlessly try to interfere with that employment relationship." Work is the one place a stalker can be absolutely sure he'll find his victim. Sometimes it's a target. It's nearly always a flash point. It's the site of a surprising amount of activity in these struggles, as the stories of the women we interviewed demonstrate in chilling detail.

The dazzling colleague

Nancy Salamone used to dazzle her colleagues in the marketing department at U.S. Life Insurance with her efficiency and can-do spirit - traits that probably helped her keep her domestic abuse private right up until she could no longer endure her marriage. Then, as she walked away, she knew she had to tell her office mates - or one of them might let her enraged and unpredictable husband onto the elevator.

"I was the girl next door who grew up to become the vice president of a company, and I had this dirty little secret I was hiding the entire time," she says of her Wall Street days, first at New York Life and then at U.S. Life, now part of AIG. (She is currently president and co-founder of a Las Vegas-based outsourcing firm.) She marvels that "there's a part of you that can be so competent in the office, and another part of you that's a complete mess emotionally."

As a 19-year-old newlywed, she'd been flattered by her husband's possessiveness. "I thought, 'How wonderful,'" she recalls. "'He only wants to be with me.'" Soon after their wedding in August 1972, though, the criticism began - about things like how she hung the bathroom towels.

Coming from a big Italian family, she thought a certain amount of yelling was normal; growing up Catholic, she believed in the adage "You make your bed, you lie in it." "Work was where people treated me like an adult," she says, and she thrived there.

When others talked about their kids and spouses over lunch in the cafeteria, she was quiet ... until one morning in April 1992, when she stunned her colleagues by baring her soul: She'd been severely beaten up by her husband the night before. She was leaving him, she told them, and she didn't know how he would react.

"I had a picture of my husband that I gave to the company security guards - it was not just me but to protect the people I worked with," she says. "The company had to help me with that."

The tipping point, Salamone told her colleagues, was a frightening fight at the couple's apartment. The brawl - and several other incidents that spring - would become grounds for an uncontested divorce a year later. That night, according to the suit filed in Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn, her husband, who'd been gone a month, returned to their co-op and attacked her. He smashed bottles of wine and glasses against the living room wall and assaulted Nancy, slapping her and choking her, the divorce filing said.

"He had his hands around my neck, and I remember thinking, 'This is it. You are going to die.' And then like a miracle, he just let go" and left, she recalls.

Co-worker support

Salamone rented an apartment in her mother's maiden name and got a phone under another. Her colleagues turned out to be her biggest support system. She warned them they might get calls from her estranged husband, and they did. She was given time off to meet with her attorney. She got promoted.

"I was terribly embarrassed," she says. Yet, "what blew me away the most was the support I got from every co-worker. I don't know if they knew how progressive they were being."

The stigma surrounding domestic violence is still so huge, however, that stories like Karen McGuinness's are much more common. She was scared that if anybody ever found out about her abusive relationship, it would cost her an opportunity, if not a promotion, if not a job.

Her finance career began after her junior year at Fordham University, when she landed a teller job at a Chemical Bank branch in the Bronx. She was thrilled, but her boyfriend, she believes, was threatened by seeing her in a business suit. When she stopped in to see him at lunchtime during one of her first weeks of work, "he punched me so hard I could see stars, literally," she recalls. "He grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the room and started to accuse me of all these things. I didn't understand."

At first she was scared, then she panicked as she realized he intended to keep her from returning to work. "Oh my God, I just started this job and I'm going to lose it," she thought.

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