My parents had been married for 26 years before my father killed my mother one Saturday afternoon in 2013 in the alley behind his computer shop where we used to live. I was 18 when she died and I remember it vividly.
He had struck her just minutes before, leaving a mark to bloom on the right side of her face. After he attacked her, mama and I agreed to meet outside and leave for a while. Going on walks was what we usually did to gain some sense of relief from my father’s rage, and it was often our only option when we needed to escape his abuse, however temporarily.
My father followed closely behind us and when we were all outside together, he blocked our path. He insisted I go back inside the shop. “I just want to talk to your mother,” he gently repeated to me. After resisting for some time, I finally walked a few yards away from where we were standing and watched in horror as my father pulled his gun from behind his back. Mama only had enough time to shout his name before he began repeatedly shooting at her chest.
I screamed so loud I heard it echoing in the street. The birds flew out of the tree branches above me. Mama laid in a pool of her own blood. My father did not stop shooting until the seventh bullet entered her body.
After mama was killed, I was overtaken by guilt: guilt for leaving her that afternoon when perhaps the only thing that would have saved her was my continuing to stand in between her and my father, and guilt for not recognizing that my father could be capable of such extreme violence because his primary method of abuse had always been psychological. For many years after my mother’s death, that realization is what left me the most bewildered.
My first exposure to my father’s physical violence occurred in February 2009 while we were living in the middle-class suburb of Fairfield, California, when he had called mama to the family room where he was watching TV. He demanded she sit down on the floor so he could talk to her about something and, when she did not, he stood up from his seat and shook her furiously, pressing his fingers so forcefully into her skin that purple and black bruises snaked up and down her arms for the next two weeks. He let go only to grab the wooden chair beside him and then lunged it at her. Mama barely escaped the chair’s impact by shielding her body behind the nearby bookcase.
I woke up the next morning and busied myself by folding my clothes and organizing my room. My father walked by my open door, smiling. When I did not smile back, he stood in my doorway and continued to smile at me until I forced myself to smile back at him. After what occurred the previous night, I simply could never see my father the same way again.
I grabbed my journal from my closet and documented my rage. ‘I wish my father was someone I felt protected by, rather than someone I need protection from,’ I wrote.
I grabbed my journal from my closet and documented my rage. “I wish my father was someone I felt protected by, rather than someone I need protection from,” I wrote.
While I was shocked by the physical violence I had witnessed, my father’s emotional and psychological abuse was nothing new. In fact, in the space above where I had written that statement sat a list of things that had recently angered my father, including the following: Why is my eldest brother number one on mama’s speed dial instead of father?; Why didn’t we let father sit at the head of the table one night?; Why isn’t dinner prepared and waiting on a plate by the time father arrives home from work?; Why don’t we open the front door for father when he gets home (even though he has his house key)?
Mama followed the advice of a friend and filed a police report after my father had grabbed her. When my father found out, he approached mama at the stove and threatened to murder her if she ever contacted the police again.
Soon after, things began to change. Mama prepared his dinner on a plate before he came home at 6:15 every night and covered it with saran wrap so, when he arrived, she could just uncover it and serve it to him at his table in the living room. She made him his favorite pastries ― panettone and pasta flora ― more frequently in the hope that it would calm him and lessen the abuse. I, and oftentimes my little brother, waited by the front door until our father pulled into the driveway and then we would rush to open the door before he had to knock. I would hug him and, when he told me he loved me, I had to tell him that I loved him, too. My life at home began to feel like a performance.
For many weeks after that, my father did not lay a hand on mama, but he regularly lashed out at her in other ways. He became more controlling of her. His moods were more extreme and unpredictable. Mama, who was a remarkably social person, was coerced into isolation. My father argued about trivial things. All of this created an environment that forced my three brothers and I to keep a hyper-vigilant watch over our mother. As things grew even more unpleasant, the instability I faced at home began to disrupt my studies. In a matter of months, I went from being an honors student to falling asleep during class and failing courses.
The 2008 recession hit us hard, and in 2009, the summer before I started high school, we moved out of our middle-class suburb into my father’s computer shop in Vallejo. My brothers and father laid their mattresses on the floor in the main room and mama and I shared the storage area next door. We put up a thin piece of wood to hide the back of the shop, where we were living, from the customers who came in. I spent the first three months there sleeping at my brother’s desk or sleeping on beach chairs in silent protest of this new “living” arrangement. My father told us we would only be there for that one summer. It became the first of five.
It was rare for my family to have any time away from my father while living at the shop. He was two different people from one moment to the next and we got to observe both of them. With his customers he was patient, generous, seemingly warm-hearted ― the total opposite of who he was at “home” much of the time. With us, his mood changes were alarming: he was impatient, cold, frightening, and impossible to please. We came to be thankful for his customers and the momentary distractions they provided. It was the only brief relief we got.
How do you tell someone you’re afraid for your mother’s safety if there is no physical evidence of the abuse she’s suffering? How do you explain your fear of someone who has only physically lashed out at her a few times? What I had not grasped then was that physical violence is merely one method of accomplishing an abuser’s objective: to gain power and control over their victims. My father never had to hit mama for me to fear him or for me to fear for her safety. He did not routinely use physical violence because he did not have to. In an abusive relationship, the dynamics remain mostly the same whether it includes physical violence or not.
I often marked my father’s abuse as beginning during that moment I saw him get physical with my mother in 2009. It wasn’t until five years after mama’s murder when I was having a conversation with my best friend that I realized my father’s physical violence had actually been an extremely rare occurrence throughout my life. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually witnessed my father put his hands on her.
It wasn’t until five years after mama’s murder that I realized my father’s physical violence had actually been an extremely rare occurrence throughout my life. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually witnessed my father put his hands on her.
I thought about the notion that so many people have of abusers ― of men who kill their intimate partners. There is a widespread misconception that an abuser’s capacity for extreme violence is something that takes little effort to distinguish. People imagine a man who is physically violent in every waking moment. They imagine an abuser who beats their partner to a pulp for the tiniest infraction. But so often ― too often ― that is simply not the case.
My consciousness about the danger of psychological abuse alone was not going to save my mother’s life. I was adamant about getting mama to leave my father, even without understanding then that non-physical abuse can become lethal. In fact, research shows that for nearly one-third of domestic violence victims, a homicide or attempted homicide was the first act of physical violence in the relationship. The subtlety of psychological abuse is what makes it so particularly insidious.
I intimately recall the day my mother died. I am held captive by the memory of my father’s gun no longer firing and him casually walking away from her body. I wondered if he stopped shooting because there were just no more bullets left or if maybe he had finally had enough. I ran away from the alley, but I did not know where I was going. I ran into the street and stopped two cars on the road. I had forgotten how to speak. A woman tried calming me down until the police found me with her and took me back to the shop. The ambulance came for mama’s body ― and for my father. When the police interviewed me at the station later that evening, they told me my father had been fatally shot by the responding officer after my father aimed his gun at him. I sat there in front of three officers, as angry as I had ever been. I need him alive, I thought. My rage needed its source ― it needed my father.
It was difficult handling a host of emotions that I had never felt before. It was like welcoming a new person into my body. When people ask me how I managed, I tell them there were times when I don’t think I ever really managed at all. I dropped out of college, I lost my job, I moved around a lot. I tried medication, I tried therapy and, when nothing seemed to work in the way I needed it to, I became extremely desperate for peace. I stopped eating. Days would pass but I would never feel hungry. Even drinking water became an impossible task. I was convinced that my grief had a life of its own, that it was growing through my anguish, that it was stronger than the person underneath it all. I tried bargaining with God to bring my mother back. Late at night I would walk down to the alley where she was killed and replay the incident inside my head. I would drive my car around Vallejo every night for months until the sun came up because my grief made me delusional enough to believe that if I just looked hard enough, I would find her again.
My brothers and I grew distant in the wake of our parents’ deaths, as each of us dealt with our grief in our own solitary way. We never spoke about what happened with each other.
For the first few years after mama was killed, I was extremely apprehensive about talking about what happened. I felt like I was always under a microscope and that this experience would color the way people spoke and interacted with me. The first time I confided in someone, they called my what my father did a “crime of passion” and tried to assure me that he only killed her because he loved her. The next time, I was asked if he was drunk when he did what he did. People would ask me personal questions about what I saw and ask me other things that I couldn’t possibly answer, like what his motive was on that day. Some wondered what mama did to make him so angry. These responses pressured me into silence.
I was convinced that my grief had a life of its own, that it was growing through my anguish, that it was stronger than the person underneath it all. I tried bargaining with God to bring my mother back.
What I finally realized, however, is that silence is lethal. I could not continue to hide my experiences, especially if I had any chance of helping others who were grappling with abuse, which was something I desperately wanted to do.
I now volunteer at two domestic violence shelters in the Bay Area and do outreach work in the community. I make it a point to educate others to recognize psychological abuse as being just as dangerous as physical violence. My hope and goal is that I can be the person I needed and that my family needed ― but that we never had ― for others facing violence.
Mama has always been my inspiration ― first in life, and now, in death. The grief I inherited in the wake of murder and her resulting absence has motivated me to advocate for others like her ― and like myself, or, at least, some version of my former self.
My mother named me Nour ― an Arabic word meaning light and one of the 99 names of God. I believe my name was a gift from her and with it came something special: a light that that I will not let die. I love her and I miss her and I’m grateful for the love she gave me ― a love that is now my power.
Nour Naas is a Libyan writer and domestic violence advocate living in Vallejo, California. She is currently at work on a collection of essays exploring her grief in the aftermath of her mother’s death and the Libyan revolution. You can follow her work at nournaas.com.