Theresa McIntosh, A Legacy Born from Domestic Violence
I met Theresa a few ago, we were both speakers for a Child Abuse event in New York. We connected instantly and became firm friends. We chatted about England, as she came from Northumbria, I from Yorkshire, and our pasts of surviving Domestic Violence.
I loved Theresa, she had strength and soul, devastated when I heard the news one day that she had passed away. As a survivor, she left a legacy behind her. She had been founder of Barrier Free Living's Speakers Bureau, a member of Voices of Women, a Mayoral Appointee for Domestic Violence, a member of Safe Horizon Domestic Violence Advisory Committee, member of Best Practices Committee of the New York Coalition of Domestic Violence Residential Service Providers. She campaigned for Freedom House and Barrier Free Living for the disabled.
Theresa had always wanted to tell her story, she had joked about writing a book and sent a brief summary of her life story to me, it was amazing how she had not only survived Domestic Violence but also a car accident! I told her one day I would share it. In honor of both Theresa McIntosh and October's Domestic Violence Awareness Month, here is Theresa's story of survival through domestic violence, prejudice and disability, in memoriam.
I wasn’t always in a wheelchair. I never knew my real mother. She gave me up at birth. If I did look into her eyes I was too small to remember her face.
When I was taken in as a foster child and arrived in the village of Tantobie in the north of England, I was the talk of the town. Let me take you back to my arrival when my foster mother took me out in the stroller the gossiping began. So, if you can imagine, the village was wondering: “when did Mrs Hanna have a baby,” as they peeked into my stroller. And I stared right back at them--a brown eyed, black baby. The look on their faces must have been priceless, a Kodak moment. I think they thought my foster mum had lost her rocker, thinking she had a little black doll, pushing me around. They couldn’t understand that I was real until my eyes blinked back at them.
I was special because I was chosen by someone who wanted me. My foster mother used to say that when she came to the orphanage I was sitting on a little potty and I suppose at that moment she fell in love with me. When she brought me home, my foster father looked at me and clearly was shocked! “What are you doing!” But through time I think he came to love me. But he did say to my mother, “That one's going to be much trouble.”
Maybe in some ways he was right. Growing up as the only black child in the village, I saw the white folks were a different colour from me. Children, as we know, can be very cruel. I got called names. Instead of the N--- word, they used to call me “Little Blackie,” or “Gollywog.” That was a little black doll that the white kids used to play with.
As I survived in the village, mischief seemed to follow me. I remember a group of kids and I were hanging around our neighbour's houses and we decided it would be a great idea to throw stones up in the air and see if we could catch them. We thought it was funny at the time. Until Agnes, one of my best friends, started to throw the stones lopsided and they landed near my neighbour’s garden, very close to the door. And all of a sudden we heard the breaking of glass. That was when I realised I could run real fast. Agnes was still standing, looking like a statue.
I eventually arrived home. Mum was waiting for me. I didn’t say anything. My mother looked at me sternly, “Theresa Ann…” The first word that came out of my mouth were, “I had nothing to do with it.” And before I could get any more words out, my mother sat me down and gave me one of those many long talks. “I know you were there,” she said. “Mrs Hill saw you running down the street.” My gig was up.
My foster mother used to tell me that I was a littler darker than some of the white kids because I’d stayed out in the sun too long. If there was ever trouble in the village, I would be noticed first. I was always got blamed even if I had not done anything.
I remember another Sunday and Mom dressed me up in my Sunday best. I just look like the cutest little doll. I think that was the biggest event of the week: “What is Mrs Hanna going to dress little Theresa in?” And she never disappointed them. I sat through the church service, wondering when this is all going to be over, scratching at my legs, rubbing my back against the bench, my legs swinging with my little black shoes and white socks, my mum constantly given me a slap, “Don’t embarrass me.” I was just a little kid. It was very hard to sit still and those new clothes weren’t broken in yet. I couldn’t wait for them to be taken off!
I had 3 foster brothers whom I always wanted to be around and still wearing the dress, I followed them to the farm. My brother Paul noticed me and took me by the hand. He was very protective of me. And then they started to do the haystack jumps. In a haystack jump, you slide down about fifteen haystacks piled on top of each other. It was like being in the snow with a sleigh but we had a cardboard box for the haystacks. At the end, you had to jump over the mud to the green grass. I wanted so much to do it. Paul whispered in my ear, “remember when you get down to the last haystack, don’t forget to Jump over the mud!”
They should have known better. As I sat on the top, with the cardboard box under me, I was ready to take off. I could see my brothers looking anxiously at me. I took a big push. I could feel the wind in my hair. I could hear sounds in the background. “Jump! Jump over the mud,” Paul said. In that next moment, I was spread like an eagle in the mud. All you could see of me was my white eyeballs. Everything else was dark brown and very muddy! My brothers tried to clean me up. They started arguing among themselves. “What’s Mum going to say?” Nobody wanted to take me home.
So I got on my little scooter while they were bickering with each other, and I headed back home. When I got home, I knocked on the door. My mother came to the door. Her face went pale white. “Can I help you?” she said. “Mommy, it’s me, your little Theresa.” There was silence. She was looking me up and down. All she could see were my panties and tee-shirt. The rest of the dress got caught in the back of the wheel of my red scooter, and the whole dress had unraveled. I remember my feet never touched the ground until I got into the bathtub. That night the boys were nowhere to be found.
The main event that really changed my life happened on a day that was like any other day. But something strange was going on in the village. There was gossiping, whispering. I lay on the top of the stairs listening for any information. When I went back to school I got the truth. My brother Paul, my favourite brother--had shot his best friend when they were hunting rabbits. Paul’s friend was dead. Of course, being only eight, this event was going to change my life. Kids ridiculed me and called my brother a killer. They were so cruel and I came home crying a lot.
Just when I thought things were settling down, my mother came to my room, brought me downstairs, not even saying a word. I remember that day so clear in my mind. She took me and put me in the back seat of a car. Child protective services had come to take me away because of what my brother did. I sat in the back seat of the car, as I watched my mother disappear into a small speck until I could see her no more. My brother did the crime yet I was doing the time.
I found myself at the doorsteps of St. Joseph’s Orphanage. The home was run by Sisters of Charity. I was given a bed, a side table and the belongings that I came with. We had a routine: breakfast, lunch, dinner and chores. The staff was a little hard on us. They really bullied me. I became very submissive, I had my ears boxed many times so I really tried to stay out of their way. I used to sit on my window ledge and look out at the beautiful orchard. They had a lot of trees--apples, plums and cherries. I remember in the evenings, when the staff was gone and the nuns were at prayer, some of the girls and I went down to the garden to pick the apples until our bellies were full.
At the orphanage, I went to regular school, and I joined the track team and I was really good! As long as I was number one and brought trophies home, I got any kind of excuse from class. I really didn’t get an education.
On the weekends and vacations, my oldest foster brother George and his wife would take me to their home. The summer I was about fourteen, I went to summer school in my brother’s village. I also joined the track team there and I was really good. My brother’s wife Margaret really didn’t like me. She was mean to me, behind my brother’s back of course. l remember that I was in the bathroom and my panties were bloody. I thought I had cut myself.
I was so scared, and Margaret came upstairs. I was crying. She didn’t tell me what was happening. She just picked me up and threw me into a cold bath and washed me up. The next day she said I couldn’t run on the track team. I thought I’d done something really bad. The next day she walked into my classroom and showed everyone my bloody panties. I was so embarrassed. The teacher took me to the nurse. I think they must have thought that this lady was crazy to embarrass the child in class. The nurse explained to me the birds and the bees and told me about a woman’s body.
I left the orphanage at about 16 and lived with my brother. My mother was just up the street, so a lot of times I’d visit her but the government wouldn’t let me stay there. I left the village when I was 18 and I went to London. I was a nanny, taking care of wealthy children of the aristocracy. I didn't really like it. but it was all I could do with no real education. I survived in London, 1973 I met my future husband who was an exchange student from U.S.C. he reminded me of the picture that I had seen in a magazine from America, Curtis Mayfield he really did, he came to see me in a play that I was doing called the cockpit Theatre at first, he thought I was American until I spoke! Our relationship developed and then came that first slap I shouldn’t run but I didn’t I came to the United States in 1975 it was a warm October evening as a flight landed in LA I got off the plane, excited little anticipation. Little did I know that I had just stepped into a 25-year nightmare.
As I stood in line, ready to step onto American soil I couldn’t wait to see him. I looked anxiously around for Carl and he was nowhere to be seen, I didn’t panic I went to get my luggage and still no car, l I found myself opening my suitcase at LAX looking for a number that he give me, I found it and called the lady ,on the other side of the line she directed me to her home, I suppose as a young woman I was fearless, that was the start of many clues, I arrived in Inglewood California, my first impressions of an American family extremely different, later that morning Carl popped in as if nothing had happened, I was just happy to see him and early that morning we took a cab to his apartment. LET THE nightmares begin.
We were married in 1976 and during the course of our relationship I was introduced to deception cruelty low self-esteem and I had fend for my children and self with little resources and this went on for years, I can’t say we didn’t have a good time but most of the bad memories stick with you, the violence escalated and the police were often called, my husband was so controlling that he wouldn’t allow me to be a good mother, a good wife there were times we had no food in the house, as the child grew up in the turmoil of our relationship. He had a 9-to-5 job when he’d come home he takes the kids out to eat and bring me back scrap maybe! I felt humiliated he treated me more like a maid. and refuse to be intimate with me I felt very depressed and distraught and wanted to leave but I had no place to go, one day we had another fight which was a regular occurrence and I was on the phone speaking to my mother trying to get a ticket home I believe she was going to help me, then I heard click on the phone, the screech of the BMW speeding out of the back of the garage I raced downstairs only to see the car leaving down the street that was the last time I saw my children, for the next five years, he kidnapped my children abandoned me.
I felt that I was disposable just like garbage. because I really had no friends. I became homeless and with the street homeless people they became my family, I didn't speak much I just blended in and, my addiction was in full bloom, twenty-four-seven, running for that next one. I became a real good panhandler, the streets were my ATM. Then I found out I was pregnant. I took a live-in job and went cold turkey, I was having a baby. I cleaned myself up working two jobs until Sarah was born,Christmas day, 1988. I saved up for my own apartment two bedroom for me and the other child to return, as a single mother and in a very unsavory neighbourhood I met a man who was a drug abuser and the drugs began again, his wife took care of Sarah while we were running partner.
I was living a dangerous game of cat and mouse, not sleeping for day then that next morning wore out, subsequently crossing this street I was hit by a car, I survived the accident but I lost my leg unable to take care of myself. I was in shock I really thought I would wake up soon, reality never really set in until years later. I pleaded with my mother-in-law, to help me come back to my family, I think she felt sorry for me and agreed to reunite me with my children. We got a little apartment, but surprise, my husband picked up exactly where he left off the only difference now was he was, using my disability against me calling me out of my name, insults continually criticizing me not trusting, jealous, possessive, controlling and refused to share money.
He punished me by withholding affection, always threatened to hurt me or take the children, again, I was one legged and damaged goods, slow but sure he was back to his old ways. I had been through a lot but this time I felt helpless, hopeless and not only the fact that I was being abused by my husband, but my daughter was abusing, me also, putting me down in front of her friends. She smoked, drank, she was so rebellious, and then the day came, I was hopping into the kitchen she pushed me and started to attack me I looked up and asked her why she was doing this, and with a smirk on her face, said because I can. That day changed for me, she had taken a knife to me, I had to do something quick I called the police had her arrested, I change the locks and got an Order of Protection and waited to see what was going to happen next, I was being evicted.
I had a visit from a social worker and she was very cold to me and put the cards on the table, summing it up, go into a shelter or they would put me and my wheelchair out on the street and she left. I stayed from 1992-1997, I really had to get it together, in my visit to Rusk rehab I met a lady in the hallways of the hospital, I had spoken about my situation, she offered me a place to stay, she would rent a room to me, I arrived at her doorstep, in an ambulate, I rented a room and stayed there from 1997-2001. I started going to Barrier Free Living, a none residential program, where I was getting the help I needed.
At Barrier Free Living, the struggle continued for the first time I was able to be in a safe environment and started to rebuild my life, I continued to get supportive counselling by the staff at Barrier Free Living and later secured an apartment. I slowly began to regain myself worth I moved from victim, survivor, and know I am a strong advocate for my community, I have been able to talk about the dynamics of domestic violence and how hard it was when trying to attempt to negotiate the system and leave, in putting forth my experience and making a difference I take better care of myself, to do whatever it takes in doing something that I enjoy bringing awareness and public speaking in the disabled community disabled woman and a victim of domestic violence. I was from England, and after 37 years in this country I was given the opportunity to apply for my citizenship through the help of BFL on June 7, 2009, I became a naturalized citizen and I’m proud to be a New Yorker. I waited and listened, I learned a new way of life every day is a blessing I have dignity and respect in becoming the whole women I am today,"
Theresa will always be remembered fondly in New York, for more information about Theresa's work and Barrier Free living, please visit the links below:
For more information on Barrier Free Living, please visit: www.bflnyc.org