Upbeat and straightforward, Betty Hafner is a writer and published author, artist and retired counselor. She is also a domestic violence survivor.
Her new book, “Not Exactly Love,” explores how anyone can become caught in an abusive relationship, why it can be hard to leave, and how to heal once the relationship is over. “There is no easy answer for why people stay,” she said. “There’s no easy answer for ‘Why didn’t you just leave?’ … I really wanted people to understand the complications.
“What I wanted to convey was how you shut yourself down when you are in a situation that completely overwhelms you. I was clueless. I had nothing in my past that helped prepare me to have an angry, abusive husband—nothing in my past.”
“Not Exactly Love” will be published Oct. 11 by She Writes Press, an independent publishing company offering books for, by and about women that are distributed through Ingram Publisher Services. A book launch party was held Oct. 14 at the Kentlands Clubhouse, in her Gaithersburg neighborhood where she resides.
Hafner has already received positive reaction to her work from those who have written about and/or experienced domestic abuse like Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of “Crazy Love,” Lizzie Skurnick, author of “Shelf Discovery,” Lynn Fairweather, MSW, author of “Stop Signs: Recognizing, Avoiding, and Escaping Abusive Relationships,” and Barbara Esstman, author of “The Other Anna,” “Night Ride Home,” and “Sure Thing.”
“For the literally millions of women who are physically abused and emotionally terrorized, ‘Not Exactly Love’ clearly explains the attachments, fears, and rationalizations that keep a woman trapped in a toxic relationship. Better yet, Betty Hafner writes beautifully about how she took charge of her life and grew strong enough to break free. Both a gripping story and a manual for survivors,” wrote Esstman.
According to 2015 statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. … On a typical day, there are more than 20,000 phone calls placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide.”
Hafner said that she has been surprised that people “are talking to me or whispering things to me or emailing me or Facebooking me and saying ‘Oh, when I read about your book it sounds just like what I lived with but he never hit me.’ A lot of people have come forward and said that.”
People have also said, “‘Well, I bet it was cathartic,’” Hafner shared. “And it wasn’t because I had a lot of therapy in the end of that marriage that helped me tremendously. … Plus decades have gone on and I’ve made my peace with what I was at the time and I learned some new things about myself.
“I had no intention of ever writing about this,” she emphasized. “Why would I? I hardly ever thought about it.”
The memoir happened almost by chance. Hafner was taking writing classes at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, “writing these funny little things from my life,” and in one of her classes a group decided to meet afterwards every few weeks at La Madeleine Café on Wisconsin. One week, Hafner was running behind and needed to write something quickly for the group. She opened a writing book, found the prompt, “If only …” and “the piece that I came up with for that group was about the day that I married my ex-husband in the summer of 1970. It was a tiny wedding in my parents’ little house with only his immediate family and my immediate family … something happened that I think was a voice inside me saying, ‘Don’t do it, like a sign … ‘”
Her writers’ group said, “’Oh, my God. This is great. Can you tell us anything more about it?’” Hafner recalled. So she wrote about the day that she left, and they loved that, too. Her group urged her to write the entire story of the marriage, an endeavor that took about five years.
“For a long time as I was writing it, that’s where it ended, the day I left,” Hafner said. “But actually what I realized when I began getting feedback from readers and people in workshops and so on, it really was more helpful for me to talk about the stuff that happened after I left.”
Hafner discovered that her purpose in sharing her story is to help others survive similar situations. “This is really what my North Star was: Can I write something so clear and so honest about that time of my life and that situation that I was in that it will help other people?”
But she didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process, and she did what she could to conceal the identity of her ex-husband. She changed his name, changed the name of the school where they both worked as teachers, and changed the configuration of his family. She took a three-hour class at Politics & Prose taught by an attorney to make sure that she was doing everything necessary to preserve his anonymity.
Her ex-husband has been happily married for years, Hafner noted, and did therapy after the breakup of his first marriage. “I’m a counselor so I’m always looking for something positive,” Hafner said, “and he of course was abused horribly as a child, and I let people know that (in the book).
“It has a very forgiving end,” she said. “It’s a very positive end. It’s not a ‘he did this and she did that.’ I’m very analytical about what part I played in the whole thing and how I had choices that I just didn’t know I had at the time.”
Hafner’s hopes for the future include speaking on domestic violence at state and national conferences, sharing her perspective as a survivor.