Karen’s dark days with an abusive monster – and how she now inspires other domestic violence survivors
As International Women’s Day approaches, YBNews talks to Liverpool mum Karen Johnson about her horrific seven-year relationship with a violent, controlling bully. Tony McDonough reports.
Karen Johnson’s relationship began with a moment of old-fashioned chivalry – and ended with a brutal kick to her back that several years later has left a legacy of daily, excruciating pain.
Hers is a harrowing, and sadly not unusual, story of domestic abuse at the hands, and feet, of a man who was able to switch from irresistible charm to rage and violence in a single, chilling heartbeat.
“It was seven years of hell, of torture,” she said as she related incidents of extreme mental abuse, vicious acts of violence and even him spitting in her face.
FACT: One in four women in the UK will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime
But Karen’s tale is also one of inspiration and optimism – about how a strong, single-minded woman is now helping to transform the lives of others who have also emerged from the darkness and apparent hopelessness of abusive relationships.
Karen, from West Derby in Liverpool, runs workshops that help women move on to the next stage of their lives and she has written a book of her experiences called ‘Out of the Corner’, which is due to be republished shortly.
Her story begins in the early 1990s. Karen is a striking, confident, determined woman who, in her teenage years, had worked as a model. At 16 she was a pin-up for soldiers at 156 Regiment in Mather Avenue in South Liverpool.
She later forged a successful career as a member of a long-haul aircraft cabin crew.
The emergence of budget airlines have, perhaps, made such careers appear more accessible and even mundane. But 25 years ago it was still a career that many viewed as glamorous and the young Karen loved every minute – flying to exotic and far-flung locations.
A heady encounter
And it was on one such trip to Kenya that her life would change forever.
“I was staying in Kenya when I met the man who would become my husband,” she said. I was working long-haul routes and sometimes you could stay out there for a week at a time. It was an amazing job to have.
“One night I was in a nightclub, socialising with the rest of the crew, when there was a power cut and we were plunged into darkness.”
FACT: On average, two women will be murdered every week by an abusive partner
Nightclub staff gave out candles but it was still dark and confusing and Karen got herself into a bit of a tizzy when she became desperate to go to the toilet.
What happened next could have come straight out of a movie – with Sean Connery in the lead role.
Karen explained: “I really needed the loo and, suddenly, this tall, dark handsome Scottish man appeared out of the crowd and grabbed my arm.
“I was a bit shocked, to say the least. He said to me ‘It’s ok, I will escort you and show you the way’.”
And so began a whirlwind romance. Karen was still flying across the globe from her airline’s base at Manchester Airport and her suitor returned to his native Scotland.
So each get together was like a mini holiday. After 12 months the relationship had become more serious and Karen decided to up sticks and move to Scotland to live with him and his mother. It was at this point that her life fell into shadow.
She explained: “This is when a different side of him began to emerge. When you are travelling a lot and you don’t see each other all the time you don’t see the real person.
FACT: Domestic violence accounts for 16% of all violent crime in England and Wales
“I noticed, for the first time, how heavily he drank and also how easily he could become angry. His behaviour through drink was very loud and aggressive, both towards me and to other people, and I didn’t like that.
“You always think you can deal with that and help them get through – although now I know different.”
Her partner’s angry episodes became more frequent but Karen isn’t a quitter by nature and she resolved to make the relationship work.
Heated arguments between the couple became more frequent. She said “any small thing’ could ignite his temper. And things were about to get much worse.
Violence and tragedy
“I fell pregnant but that didn’t curb his aggression,” said Karen. “He used to goad me and say such horrible things to me. I was very close to my mum and dad and, for some reason, he really hated my dad and the strong, loving relationship I had with him. He wanted to try to destroy that.
“I would go towards him and plead for an answer as to why he was talking like this. One day he just booted me out of the way – in the stomach.”
This was the first time his anger had turned to violence and, unbeknown to Karen, she was actually carrying twins. The kick was so severe that she lost one of the babies.
It was assumed all round that it was the end of the pregnancy. He was extremely apologetic, even taking Karen on holiday.
“This man, 6ft 2 and 15-and-a-half stone was crying like a baby … ‘I’m sorry, sorry, sorry’ he just kept saying over and over,” she said.
FACT: Police in the UK receive a domestic violence call every minute
But she had the sensation she was still carrying a child and her instinct was correct. The second child was stuck in one of her tubes and had also perished.
“They literally milked the baby away to save my tube,” she added. “I was distraught and it was at this point I really started to go downhill. But his behaviour towards me just got worse and the abuse and violence escalated.
“I didn’t tell my parents the truth. I kept what was happening to myself. Inside I was looking at him in a different light. But he was clever and manipulative and he convinced me the problems were all my fault.
“‘Look what you made me do,’ he would say. And I believed him.”
Karen fell into the pattern common to many abuse survivors – she would acquiesce and appease in the vain hope of preventing his anger. She stopped flying long-haul and secured a job in short-haul. But the abuse continued to escalate.
“He bought me a little dog – a miniature Yorkshire Terrier. When he was in drink he would make threats saying things such as he was going to throw the dog out of the window,” said Karen.
“The mental abuse was gradually driving me insane. That kind of abuse is, in many ways, worse than the actual violence.
“At last with a punch or a kick it would be over and done with. But mental abuse chips, chips away at your confidence and self-esteem.”
The couple got married and moved into their own home and Karen fell pregnant again with her now eldest son.
“When we became intimate there was no closeness or affection – it was just a sexual duty of mine that I was required to perform. The drunken rages continued. He would push me into the spare room telling me I was useless and worthless and a terrible mother. Sometimes he would even spit in my face. That was just horrible.”
Again, in common with many abuse survivors, Karen became expert at anticipating when incidents of abuse were going to happen.
She explained: “We might be out in a pub in company with other people. If I said the wrong thing he would give me this glare and I knew straight away what was going to happen when we got home.”
Karen was isolated from her own family who were back in Liverpool and she was often cold-shouldered by his family as he had told them that it was her that was responsible for their marital rows.
“I was the mad one because they believed him – I was the abuser,” she said. “He even convinced my dad – he got everyone on his side.
“My self-esteem was destroyed at this point. The person I had been before, strong and very confident, was gone and replaced by a zombie who left the house as little as possible.
“I was convinced one day he would kill me. He always threatened to break my back and I thought in my head either he would kill me or I would kill him.”
Return to Liverpool
In one small but, as it proved, very signifiant victory, Karen persuaded her husband to move to Liverpool. She had grown up in comfortable surroundings but her husband insisted they move into a rundown, boarded-up house in a deprived area of the city
“All around us there was just dereliction – rats and used needles,” she said.
With the help of her father, Karen turned the house into a habitable home. By this point she had given birth to her younger son.
FACT: On average, a woman will be assaulted 35 times before calling the police
The abuse and violence continued to get worse but, like so many abusers, he was a Jekyll and Hyde character.
Karen said: “He was the life and soul and everyone loved him. This happy, big-hearted Scottish guy.
“He made an absolute show of me everywhere we went, putting me down, calling me names. And he would do it in a funny way that would make everyone around laugh. And when we got home the abuse would just get worse. I felt I was in a padded cell and no one could hear me.”
Then came a watershed moment. An incident so horrendous that it brought Karen to her senses – and also gave her a permanent legacy of what is, some days, unbearable pain.
Karen said: “He was was in the Territorial Army and one day he had his army boots on and an argument got out of hand. He kicked me in my lower spine with these heavy boots and something went click. I have never experienced pain as I had in that moment – I knew he had done something serious to me.
“Later I heard that neighbours down the road heard my screams. He had finally carried out his threat to break my back.”
An x-ray showed the kick had chipped her pelvic bone and damaged the bottom of her coccyx (the triangular bony structure located at the bottom of the vertebral column).
For the first time in their seven years together Karen called the police. He was thrown out of the family home and a court injunction was put in place to keep him away.
A monster returns
Despite help from her mum, the excruciating pain meant Karen struggled to look after her two boys and so she did something that to this day she still finds hard to believe – she asked her husband to return.
“I know why women do that now because their self-esteem is shattered,” she said.
“He loved that I was struggling with the pain but, for a while, his behaviour towards me was really nice. He promised never to hurt me again but it wasn’t long before the abuse returned.”
Karen knew the situation could not continue – and was now fearful not just for herself but for her two young boys and she began plotting her escape. He worked away a lot and she started to put her plans into action.
One day, he came home to find Karen was out. He went to the pub and later returned in a drunken rage.
She courageously stood up to him and said to him calmly: “It’s over now, please leave.”
He reacted with extreme violence, grabbing Karen around the neck until, she said “I could feel the life ebbing out of me”.
To her relief he stopped and got up to leave but not before he had issued one final and chilling threat. He told her: “I will make sure our elder son hates you and I will make sure you will pay a price for this for the rest of your life.”
And, with those words still ringing in Karen’s ears, he walked out of her life forever.
FACT: Domestic violence has a higher rate of repeat than any other crime
In the years that followed he made half-hearted attempts to stay in touch with the elder son – and Karen never stood in the way of that relationship. She added: “He would only see him, not our younger son. He denied he was his and would have nothing to do with him.”
Despite the trauma that blighted their early years, Karen’s efforts have ensured the two boys have grown into intelligent, well-adjusted young men.
Strength and confidence
The constant pain of her back injury means Karen cannot hold down a full-time job but she has a number of voluntary commitments.
She said: “I am permanently on morphine – I have severe arthritis and my spine is crumbling. On bad days I have to use sticks to walk. But I keep my mind busy.”
As well as writing the book, she runs a Wirral-based support group for domestic violence survivors and has devised a programme designed to help them rebuild their lives. It gets referrals from the police, courts and social services.
She is also an honorary deputy minister of a global charity called World Humanity Commission and via social media is helping women and girls as far afield as Zambia and Nigeria. Karen is also involved in a project that could see her presenting her own television show.
Of her work with the Wirral group, she said: “I don’t want anyone to suffer like I did – to be as isolated as I was. I am so honoured and proud that I am able to help them.
“They trust me because they know I understand what they have been through. I offer them my strength and my confidence to give them the freedom to move forward.”