Couple breaks vicious cycle of domestic violence
Chuck Switzer came into his marriage with anger bottled up inside him since childhood. He unleashed his rage against his wife, M'Liss, for 20 years before he finally accepted responsibility for his actions and got help. The couple shared their story with the community this week as part of Domestic Violence Awareness month.
In conjunction with President Obama's proclamation of October as Domestic Violence Awareness month, area advocacy groups joined together to increase awareness in Alexandria and Douglas County.
The "Taking Steps Against Domestic Violence Walk" on Tuesday drew a crowd in excess of 200 people according to Susan Keehn, Douglas County outreach advocate for Someplace Safe. Someplace Safe, United Communities Advocating Non-Violence (UCAN) and Wings organized the walk and Domestic Abuse Awareness Luncheon that followed on Wednesday.
The Switzers, of St. Paul, were featured speakers at both events. The first 20 years of their 48-year marriage M'Liss was a victim of domestic violence, Chuck was the perpetrator. The violence began on the eve of their honeymoon.
Chuck and M'Liss took turns sharing their story of how they broke the cycle they both had been accustomed to since childhood.
The first time Chuck remembers experiencing violence, was when he was 3-years-old. Chuck grew up on a farm and said when the stresses of the farm would become too much for his father, it would trickle down to the family in the form of violence.
Chuck told a story of when he wanted to fit in with the kids at school. He saw his mother's wedding ring on the sink and took it to one of the bullies. His punishment was a 10-minute long beating with a wooden board. No one ever said they were sorry or wrong for being abusive in Chuck's family.
"At 12, I learned to start hitting back," Chuck said.
He was in the field one day and heard screams coming from the house. When Chuck entered he found his mother beating his siblings. He raised his hand to his mother and found it wasn't difficult to do again when similar situations would arise.
His friends had experienced abuse at home as well. There were no child protection laws at that time. "Spare the rod and spoil the child," Chuck recited.
M'Liss was raised by her eldest sister after her father died when she was 12 and her mother two weeks after him. Her sister would yell, push, pull her hair and hit M'Liss. As with Chuck's family, no apologies were said, nothing was acknowledged as being "wrong."
M'Liss met Chuck at college. They had many of the same classes together and became friends. After learning of her situation at home, Chuck encouraged M'Liss to get out. She did.
Chuck joined the Armed Forces. When he returned home, the two were married. Then came the honeymoon when he was physically abusive.
"I was bewildered, shocked and hurt," M'Liss said.
Unlike their families previously, Chuck was immediately apologetic and remorseful. But it happened again, and again.
"There were times when I would choke her either with my hands or a belt," Chuck confided. "I came to my marriage full of anger."
M'Liss had tried getting help from the church and was told to "be a better wife." She said there needs to be more messages coming from the pulpit against domestic violence to help get the message into the community.
In 1979, the Minnesota Legislature passed the Domestic Abuse Act. M'Liss tried reaching out to Chuck's psychiatrist and was told to call during business hours. He did, however, inform her of the new law passed.
She went to the police station and was told to come back later (they were rearranging furniture and couldn't be bothered with her at that time). M'Liss came back and was able to give her statement to a "kind" officer, she said.
Once he was charged, Chuck was in disbelief. He threatened divorce, to make M'Liss' life miserable or to take away all her money. Chuck had to accept responsibility for his actions.
"I didn't believe I could learn a new behavior," he said.
But he did. M'Liss, Chuck and their children all attended therapy. First individually, then as a family. The sessions took 18 months and a lot of discipline but eventually paid off.
"Today our family is happier and healthier than we ever though we could be," M'Liss said.
The Switzers were able to remain together through their recovery. They admit this may not be the ideal fix for every family.
"The real ideal is to stop the violence," Chuck said. "That may include separation or even divorce."
Called to Account is a book M'Liss has written about their experience. The couple has also appeared on many television shows as well as being featured in magazines.
TAKING STEPS AGAINST DOMESTIC VIOLENCE WALK
Tuesday's walk was chilly and well attended. As the crowd paraded down Broadway, it received honks of approval by passing cars and semis. Walkers lifted their signs a little higher and cheered in response.
Although domestic violence is a very personal subject for many people, these advocates had no reservations about showing their support in public. They just wanted to increase awareness to help stop the violence.
"It's not often we all get together but we were able to come out today," Margie Kleven said as she joined Pat Thimmesh, Marie Jubert and Jennifer Nelson at the "Taking Steps Against Domestic Violence Walk."
Following the walk, Chuck and M'Liss told their story at Calvary Lutheran Church. Along the walls hung 28 shirts representing those murdered in 2010 in Minnesota as a result of domestic violence. Two of the shirts were baby onesies.
One of the onesies was for Rowan Richardson, of Eden Prairie, who was 6-months-old when his father, Randel Richardson, drowned him in a laundry tub on July 31.
Randel was charged with first-degree murder, however, his attorneys are planning on using the insanity defense stating that he is mentally ill.
"Children who witness domestic violence have permanent changes that occur in their brain chemistry," said Mike Klein, father's resource program coordinator for Wings.
Many of the walkers were children. A lot of men also attended, which is not common in most communities. Chuck Nettestad, with UCAN, emphasized the need to get men involved in domestic violence awareness during the reception at Calvary Lutheran Church.
A number of law enforcement students were also seen, possibly proof that times have changed since M'Liss' visit to the police station years ago.
DOMESTIC ABUSE AWARENESS LUNCHEON
Twenty-six purple silhouettes and two teddy bears stared back at those who attended the Domestic Abuse Awareness Luncheon at Arrowwood Resort Center on Wednesday.
"I'm glad to be a mayor for a city where people turn out year after year - it's fantastic," Mayor Dan Ness said of the support Alexandrians continue to show for domestic violence awareness.
Mayor Ness presented the Mayor's Award to a teary CJ Juenger for her contributions toward ending domestic violence. Juenger is a survivor of domestic abuse herself.
"We have babies up here," Juenger said referring to the silhouettes and teddy bears. After her sentiment, a baby cried in the audience.