SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (AP) — Lynn Reilly moved to South Carolina in 2012, a few months after the state topped the national list of places where women were murdered by their husbands and boyfriends.
“It’s kind of a contradiction, isn’t it? That we’re the friendliest city and have the most (domestic violence) murders,” she said. “We’re all polite to strangers, but we take it out on the people we’re closest to.”
Having survived an abusive relationship with a man who’d go on to become a domestic killer, she said, made the numbers more real.
A year after the slaying, with her abuser behind bars and her fear beginning to subside, Reilly is ready to help other domestic violence survivors join her in the healing process.
She could have used a place like My Sister’s House, a Charleston-area domestic violence shelter and resource center.
Reilly met her husband when they were in middle school, she said, and they married in their 20s. She fought back the first time he hit her, she said, which just made him more vicious in later attacks.
The first time she tried to leave her abusive husband, Reilly remembers, she struggled to find a way out. One day she managed to slip out of the house and use a friend’s phone to dial a shelter, worried all the while that she’d be caught.
But without money, transportation or a phone of her own, she couldn’t make it to the address they gave her.
“I would’ve left that day,” she said.
Instead, the abuse continued. Her husband starved her, shattered her jaw, broke into her father’s house and left her covered in bruises, she said. When he went to jail, he’d leave messages on the answering machine promising to kill her upon his release.
It’d be years before she’d stand up to tell a stranger her story. By then, the tale would include years of abuse, a difficult escape, and her abuser slaying his new partner.
In October 2018, her fears came true. Her ex-husband ignored a protective order, barged into his ex’s home and murdered his former partner, police said. But Reilly wasn’t the victim.
After their divorce, he dated a man whom he was convicted of threatening in June 2018, according to court records. He pleaded guilty, served 30 days in jail and was prohibited from threatening the victim again.
But after his release he went to his ex’s home and stabbed him several times, police said. According to police records, Reilly’s ex-husband told officers “I hope he dies” and “I got him as many times as I could.”
In shock, Reilly traveled up the coast to meet investigators and see for herself that, finally, the man who’d haunted her for so long was behind bars.
The news brought waves of guilt and relief, she said. For the first time since she left him, she felt safe knowing he couldn’t track her down. But why had a man who’d already been convicted of abusing her and threatening another been allowed to carry through with his threats?
Reilly said it’s sometimes overwhelming to think of how narrowly she escaped that fate. After she divorced, she said, he told her he’d kept track of the times he tried to kill her: 459.
After several years in South Carolina, she got the number tattooed on the back of her right wrist, a reminder of the strength that kept her going. Should she ever begin to give into suicidal thoughts and turn her wrist to pour too many pills into her right palm, she knows the number will give her pause. She’s thwarted 459 attempts on her life, and doesn’t plan to throw away all that she’s fought for.
“It’s not a reminder of what he did,” she said. “It’s a reminder that life is precious.”
Reilly can think of a dozen laws and standards that would make her feel confident in survivors’ chances of escaping their abusers, but what she needed to break free was understanding.
It was a therapist who introduced Reilly to My Sister’s House, encouraging her to attend the survivors’ support groups. She did, and loved it, but it would be months before she could see herself in the role of the women who’d helped her. She was still too angry, she said.
That’s common for survivors who want to give back, volunteer coordinator Amber Cook said. About 60 percent of the shelter’s volunteers have pulled through abuse themselves.
“But it fixes my soul,” Reilly said. ”(It) helps me to help someone else.”
Now she helps watch children at the shelter, volunteers at events and serves on a committee of other survivors.
Along the way, she’s gotten more comfortable telling her story. When Medical University of South Carolina officials closed out Domestic Violence Awareness Month with an Oct. 30 rally, she agreed to be the keynote speaker.
“It’s not about my story anymore,” she said. “It’s about fixing this for all of us.”