The publication date for the Tiger Woods biography has been moved up to March. It’s been a long haul, but last week my partner and I finally finished the last pages. The next day I boarded a plane with my wife and headed to an island in the Caribbean for a long-overdue vacation.
When we landed, news broke that White House staff secretary Rob Porter was resigning on the heels of published reports that he had physically and emotionally abused both of his ex-wives. A pit formed in my stomach, and I immediately started reaching out to my contacts and gathering information. Like me, Porter is a Mormon. When he was a teenager growing up in Belmont, Massachusetts, I was a law student in Boston and sometimes attended his congregation. Our families have close mutual friends, and I admire Porter’s father, Roger, a distinguished professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School who served in the Reagan administration.
I don’t know Rob Porter’s ex-wives. But I believe them. Completely.
Before becoming a journalist, I did extensive research on violence against women, which included conducting hundreds of interviews over a period of years with victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, male perpetrators, criminal investigators and prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, medical experts, and jurors. I wrote my first two books on violence against women and ended up working as a victim’s advocate and an expert witness in civil cases for women who had been abused by prominent men. While in law school I also worked in the District Attorney’s office in Boston, where I helped prosecute men who assaulted women.
That’s a long way of saying that the statements from Porter’s ex-wives rung true to me. Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, said she was kicked, choked and punched. She has pictures of herself with a black eye, and she described living in “constant fear of Rob’s anger.” Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, said her abuse started immediately after they got married. “The first time he called me a ‘f---- bitch’ was on our honeymoon,” she said, adding that within a year of marrying Porter she was “a ghost of a person.” They eventually separated and she obtained an emergency protective order against him.
Porter has been mum since the allegations became public. But according to President Trump, Porter says he’s innocent. Predictably, Trump tweeted: “There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone.”
Prior to joining the Trump administration on Inauguration Day, Porter was Utah senator Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff. Hatch managed to trump Trump in his dismissal of the victims’ accounts. “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” Hatch said. “Shame on any publication that would print this – and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.”
What a warped view. I wonder how the parents of Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby felt when they read Hatch’s despicable words.
The Porter controversy raises legitimate legal and procedural questions. Days after Porter resigned, F.B.I. director Christopher Wray testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee that his agency had interviewed both ex-wives over a year ago – in January 2017 – while vetting Porter for his security clearance. The F.B.I. then told the White House about Porter’s problems last summer. Now South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor who chairs the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has launched an investigation into Porter’s security clearance. “I am interested in how someone with credible allegations of domestic abuse, plural, can be hired,” Gowdy said.
But for Porter’s ex-wives there’s a deeper, more intimately painful reality here. Long before the F.B.I. came knocking, both women had revealed their abuse to a member of the clergy. But they said they had trouble getting their respective bishops to understand, much less address the abuse.
“When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career,” Willoughby said, adding later, “Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed.”
That statement doesn’t surprise me. Mormon bishops are not professional clergy. They are lay ministers. And many of them are not experienced in recognizing or dealing with the insidious nature of spousal abuse. I’ve never been a bishop, but I’ve had more than one concerned bishop ask me to provide pro bono legal advice to a woman in the congregation who is at risk. In that capacity, I’ve helped women get into counseling, find a safe place to sleep, talk to law enforcement, file restraining orders, and retain a competent divorce lawyer.
But not all bishops are as proactive in helping women out of abusive relationships.
One reason for the reticence is that plenty of bishops, like most men in general, can’t relate to a woman’s state of mind after years of emotional and physical abuse. Further complicating matters is the fact that women who go to a bishop for help are usually too ashamed to give a blow-by-blow account of their experience. Think about it – if a woman has been called degrading four-letter words and obscene names by her husband, do you think she’d be comfortable repeating these terms to her spiritual leader?
Yet, dehumanizing verbal abuse is a prelude to physical violence. Without the ability to separate the Sunday church attire from the abusive man whose wearing it, bishops can unwittingly expose a victim to more abuse by encouraging her to work toward saving her marriage. Suits and ties are actually good cover for a man with a violent temper.
When I worked on civil or criminal cases involving women at risk, my first priority was always to protect the victim, not save the marriage. When I know a woman in my church is being abused, my approach is no different.
Recently, a Mormon woman on the west coast called me for assistance. She’s my wife’s friend and she’d been mistreated by her husband for years. I know her husband. In public places like church, he may appear jovial, fooling people into the false sense that he’s harmless. But behind closed doors, he’s been brutal to his wife. Finally, she went to her bishop, who initially encouraged her to stick with the marriage. Then my wife contacted her friend’s bishop and described to him in detail what exactly was going on in her friend’s home. The bishop immediately changed his approach. “Get the best lawyer money can buy,” he counseled my wife’s friend. That’s when she took my advice and allowed me to put her in touch with the most respected divorce lawyer in Seattle.
For the first time in a long time, our friend is safe, healthy, and rediscovering what it means to be happy. But here’s the rub – it took validation from her bishop before our friend felt it was okay to leave her abuser.
It’s hard to change culture. I wrote this piece in hopes of influencing more men – particularly those in the clergy – to take a simple approach the next time a woman in an abusive relationship seeks your help. Just ask yourself a question: what would I do if it were my daughter?
Things might have turned out a lot differently if that approach had been followed when Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby first sought help.