Editor’s note: The following story contains graphic descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Norvelle Holyfield’s earliest memory of abuse was at age 5. While on a family drive, she was raped in the back seat of the car by an older cousin.
When questioned later at the hospital, she was coached into saying that it was an accident; that she’d played cowboys and Indians earlier that day and used a broom for her horse, on which she’d fallen.
The cousin was present, and Holyfield said she felt threatened, and “just knew what to say.”
Holyfield, of Miami, said she later heard older family members whispering, “She’s bad, really hot; soon to be out of control. To start her period at that age, she’s asking for it.”
That began Holyfield’s life of low self-esteem and accepting abusive relationships as normal behavior—a lifestyle that years later would bring her close to death.
To kick off Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Holyfield, now 58, and a volunteer for the Safespace Foundation, Inc., (SSF) spoke out against domestic violence at the first annual Domestic Violence Awareness Walk.
The Oct. 4 event took place at the Senator Gwen Margolis Amphitheatre in North Miami Beach. All money raised in the two-mile walk will benefit Safespace’s direct relief fund, according to Roslyn Parker, president of the foundation’s board.
“Many times, women leave with nothing but the clothes on their backs,’’ Parker said. “These funds are released as emergency money to them, whether they are in need of financial assistance, relocation, housing or food.’’
Safespace Foundation, which serves men, women and their children, is a non-profit organization that provides support for two Miami-Dade County shelters: Dade County North and Dade County South. The exact location of the shelters, for the safety of the women, is not disclosed, Parker said.
The shelters provide counseling and other services to help victims recover from abuse.
A woman need not have filed charges against her abuser to be accepted into a Safespace shelter, Parker said.
“If a woman feels that she is in danger, and we have the space, she and her children can come to the shelter.”
If Safespace is unable to house them, it will provide emergency housing for up to 12 weeks, Parker said. “We also work with The Lodge, which is another private Dade County shelter; police departments and social organizations. If that’s full, we can get them to a hotel. One way or another, we get them out of harm’s way.”
In South Florida, there is a strong influx of immigrant populations.
“Among them are cultures in which this behavior is common. In many cases, the woman will not say anything because she fears being deported or even having her children taken away,” Parker said.
The language barrier is another problem with reporting the abuser.
“It’s a vicious cycle and it’s unacceptable. Until we can begin talking about it, people cannot become educated,” she said.
Safespace advocates the empowerment of domestic violence victims and survivors through collaboration and support of the Miami-Dade County agencies. It also supports other entities that provide emergency shelter, transitional housing and financial assistance to these individuals.
Safespace's main beneficiary and collaborator is the Miami-Dade County Advocates for Victims Program (AVP).
The first shelter opened in 1977; the SSF’s board was formed in the late ‘80s.
“We hope this event will galvanize the community,” Parker said. “This is a kickoff, not for this month, but year-round. Our goal is to do more than make people aware, but to end the violence.
Unfortunately, we have a ways to go. It’s such a taboo subject that people don’t want to talk about it or understand it.”
According to a study performed by the American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence, African Americans, especially African-American women, suffer deadly violence from family members at rates decidedly higher than those for other racial groups in the United States. But research concerning family violence among African Americans is inadequate.
Holyfield’s life is but one example.
In June of 1995, she became involved with a man. It was a relationship she described at the time as being “everything I wanted. He was single, treated me well, and didn’t drink. He enjoyed buying me gifts and running my bath water. But that was then.”
Holyfield admits that what she learned since then about abusers is that “psychologically, they are better than a psychiatrist. They figure out what you need, support your weaknesses, and then feed you everything you could ever want. They are experts at it. You don’t even know you are bait for the trap.”
Holyfield, an only child, grew up without her father, and had no relationship with her mother. She was abused most of her adolescent life by family members; her stepfather on several occasions attempted to rape her.
Of her two failed marriages, one ex-husband abused both her and her unborn child throughout her pregnancy.
“He had his hand on my stomach; the baby kicked, so he hit her back,” she said. “To this day, that’s why I feel my daughter was born with an underdeveloped kidney.”
Judge Karen Mills-Francis, who has practiced law in Florida for 13 years, both for the state in the Office of the Public Defender, as well as in private practice, stressed that “women need to listen and pay attention to the signs. If he has isolated you from your family, banned you from going out with friends, wants to know where you are all the time, those are the psychological beginnings of abuse.”
Mills-Francis added that if the only contact you witness your parents having is violent, you’ll have less of an understanding about love.
“If there is no father, a girl will grow up looking for love in all the wrong places; accepting the unacceptable,” she said.
Studies show that the women who report domestic violence have been involved in several abusive relationships, Mills-Francis said.
Shortly after her involvement with her abuser, Holyfield said the relationship took a turn.
“He lost his job, started drinking,’’ she said. “That’s when the signs that he would hurt me became clear.”
Holyfield said that the couple had gone out one night, and he had been drinking heavily.
He “cursed me out in public,’’ she said. “He came back to where I was sitting on the bus and said, ‘I’m going to whip your a- – because you have embarrassed me in front of everyone.’ I had done nothing but accept his abuse.’’
Later that night, in his mother’s home, the man beat and attempted to rape Holyfield, but was too drunk to follow through on his threats. When he fell into a deep sleep, she tried to get out.
“But his mother was sitting at the table drinking coffee, and asked where I was going. I told her I needed help, I was in pain. He’d broken my hand when he beat me.”
She then said that her son had been in trouble before, and that if she told anybody about the beating, he would go to jail. She said she thought it was best that Holyfield stayed in the house for a while.
There were bars on the windows and doors, everything was locked, Holyfield said. After five days, she was released from the home to get medical help, but only after agreeing to state that she “became drunk, and then slipped and fell on the sidewalk.”
Holyfield then returned to her home in Overtown. Her abuser moved in with her.
“It’s so hard to teach the warning signs,” Mills-Francis said. “In my experience, I have found that most women that are victims of domestic violence came from a home where it [violence] existed, or a home where there was no father. They never had a clear understanding of what love is.”
Many times, women will return several times and continue to forgive before leaving, Mills-Francis said. Many women in the most dangerous situations never seek restraining orders.
“They are afraid; he is violent and a piece of paper is not going to keep him away,” she said. “He is willing to kill her, and then himself.”
In most murder-suicide situations, the victim is female.
Eventually, Holyfield said she asked her abuser to leave. His abuse of alcohol was a problem, he was unemployed.
“I was afraid of him and wanted him out,” she said. “I knew he could hurt me and no one could stop him. So I pretended everything was OK, but it
According to Holyfield, the man agreed to get the help he needed by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
By September of the next year, he had cleaned up and was employed, Holyfield said. “That’s when the telephone calls started coming.”
She said the man left messages on her answering machine that started with, “I want to take you on a trip so we can be alone.”
Holyfield said she was “terrified,” and sensed that if the couple were alone, “he would kill me.”
The final message that evening was, “Ok b–, you’ll see what you did, you’ll see what happened,” Holyfield said.
One morning, he pushed past Holyfield’s houseguest and forced his way into her apartment.
“He had a knife and stabbed me once behind the right ear, once below the left eye, and then the left shoulder, where the clavicle bone bent the tip of the knife on entry. And he kept coming at me, angry because the knife, then broken, could no longer penetrate my flesh.”
Holyfield said he told her that the entire incident was her fault, and then asked her to kill him. “But every time I tried to take the knife, he pulled it back.”
Holyfield’s houseguest had gone for help; the police, building security, and a neighbor were able to enter the apartment, where the man, according to Holyfield, surrendered.
He served a full eight-year sentence for kidnapping and attempted murder, she said.
Even after that, Holyfield admitted that she would have “stayed with him no matter what. Still, I felt he loved me. He gave me attention I never had. I felt I was losing my mind, I missed him so much.
Even when it was bad, I was hoping to go back to when it was good.
“I felt fear, hate and pity for me, but love for him. But that was then, before I got help and began to heal.”
After that ordeal, Holyfield began to heal herself through writing. She has a box full of poetry.
The healing did not take place right away. There were other abusers, she said, though their abuse was more emotional and financial than physical.
She never was a Safespace client, and did not visit a psychiatrist. But one day, she said, she “simply looked in the mirror, and what she saw scared her.”
Now, she shares her story and listens to others as part of her self-therapy.
For more information on Safespace, call 305-758-2804, ext. 221. For the 24-hour Crisis Hotline, 800-500-1119. English, Spanish and Creole. www.safespacefoundation.org.
Photo by Elgin Jones/SFT Staff. Norvelle Holyfield
THE MORE YOU KNOW
• One in three women will be a victim of domestic violence at least once in their lifetime.
• Every nine seconds, a woman is battered.
• A woman is murdered by her husband or boyfriend every six hours.
• Forty percent of women who die every year do so as a result of domestic violence.
• In 80 percent of domestic violence cases, children are the witnesses.
Source: Safespace Foundation, Inc.
Reported domestic violence incidents in 2007
Palm Beach: 6,267
Source: Florida Department of Law Enforcement