Tar Heel of the Week

Danita Davis gives voice to those silenced by abuse

Staff WriterOctober 12, 2008 

  • FAMILY: Married to Jeffrey Davis, mother of three daughters; one grandchild.

    EDUCATION: Jordan High School in Durham in 1983; certified nursing assistant through Durham Tech.

    HOMETOWN: Durham

    ACTIVITIES: N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, member of Women of Color against Domestic Violence board, member, Greater St. Paul Church in Durham.

    HOBBIES: gardening, cooking

— Danita Davis knows the burden of a secret.

During a decade of abuse, she hid a slashed finger, a fractured pelvic bone, cigarette burns on her forearm -- injuries unleashed by a man she had once loved enough to marry. It was a nurse at a hospital emergency room who detected Davis' secret and insisted she flee her abusive marriage.

That was nearly 20 years ago, the span of her youngest daughter's life. Since then, Davis, 44, has been shouting her long-kept secret from stages and lecterns in hopes of helping other battered partners.

"I hear the voices of domestic violence victims, and they need to be heard by others," Davis says. "God saved me for this reason."

Davis, a Durham native, dropped out of college in Maryland when her parents died in a car crash. She became a guardian to her brothers, the youngest still in diapers. She settled down, married her high school sweetheart and started a new family of her own.

At 23, she was a mother to three girls, surrogate to a brother and walking on eggshells through the home they all shared.

Her marriage and her eventual desperate escape shapes most everything in Davis' life. It colored her prayers, crippled her nursing career and inspired her new career helping victims of domestic violence.

In 2003, Davis transformed the years she spent beaten and terrified into powerful performances that have inspired other battered partners to gather the courage to leave. "Storms of Life" is a raw collection of poetry, songs and dialogue so disturbing and realistic that some domestic violence victims can't sit through the entire show.

Davis had never written a poem before; she felt something bigger than she moving the pen the day she began writing "Storms of Life." For inspiration, she turned to a volume of journals she began keeping after she left her husband

On Oct. 25, Davis will introduce her newest project at a vigil at the Durham Farmers Market dedicated to the victims who died in combat with those they once loved. "Hear Them" captures the turmoil other victims have shared with Davis through her advocacy work against domestic violence.

Two different Danitas

It's hard to picture Davis fearing anyone. She's a straight-talking grandmother who insists visitors leave their shoes on a mat by the door. Instead of a handshake, she greets with a full-body hug. She named her Chihuahua "Killer." Her smile is wide and warm.

But as a young bride, Davis locked herself in bathrooms, her pregnant belly aching from strikes with a two by four. She jumped through a bedroom window, fleeing the gun her husband had pointed at her. And after she had the courage to leave, her estranged husband kidnapped her family, holding a gun to her young brother's head, threatening to kill him and their daughters as Davis looked on. Afterward, Davis says, her husband was committed to a psychiatric hospital but is now free. Davis said she no longer fears him and has found a way to forgive him.

That graciousness, advocates say, is part of what makes her testimony so startling and powerful.

"Her journey is so spiritual and it involved forgiveness," said Marie Brodie, an advocate who met Davis when she worked at the N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "She never dictates that to other survivors, but she lets them know it's possible."

Davis admits that forgiveness took time. Her marriage cost her much, including a long-coveted career in nursing. Davis' former husband went to UNC Hospitals, gun in hand, to stalk her one day. She lost her job when supervisors decided her estranged husband could endanger patients. With that, she lost a scholarship to study nursing at the university.

Davis' travails enable her to capture the attention of other victims, advocates say.

Beyond her own pain

"She puts a face on domestic violence," said Aurelia Sands Belle, executive director of Durham Crisis Center. "She's been able to work beyond her own pain. She gives women hope that they can not only survive but can get beyond it and make it." Davis sought emergency shelter at the center in the late 1980s.

It took her three tries to leave her husband. A devout Christian, she feared betraying the sanctity of marriage. She worried about her three girls growing up without a father.

Telling stories of her marriage still makes Davis shudder. But she tells them, again and again, to give words to the silent embarrassment of other victims.

"I've revealed my shame, my pain to help them be free," Davis says. "I was so ashamed, so afraid of what my husband would do if I told the truth."

Davis is now happily married to a gentle man, a guy she liked in junior high school but never let him know. Reintroduced by a friend years later, Jeffrey Davis stepped in as a surrogate father when Davis' girls were young. It took her two years before she agreed to have a date with him, another two before she agreed to marry again.

For Davis, it is the bridge between leaving an abusive partner and finding happiness again that eludes most domestic violence survivors. Crisis programs shelter women in immediate danger and help them stand on their own those first few months. It is the lonely, sleepless nights years later, during which mothers blame themselves for the emotional scars on their children, that Davis wants to help women conquer.

"It is so hard to love yourself again," Davis says, "but you can't move on unless you do."

She leads workshops in which she guides woman through the steps she believes they must navigate to move on: forgiving themselves, forgiving their abuser, loving the parts that remain.

mandy.locke@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8927

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