Why doesn't she just leave?
It's a common question asked in individual cases of domestic violence. Of course, it's rarely an attempt to actually understand a situation. It's rarely even a suggestion.
It's a dangerous platitude, one that places the onus of a bad situation on the victim and doesn't reconcile the various pressures that make independence feel unattainable.
Domestic violence is commonly expressed as an attempt by an abuser to maintain power over another person. Although physical violence is the most primitive demonstration of power, it's hardly restricted to such.
Abusers use children against mothers. Money against low-income victims. Even immigration statuses are leveraged. Often, these alternative methods are exercised to control a victim's ability to report the abuse.
Leaving does not guarantee an end to abuse.
When experts say that leaving is the most dangerous time for a victim, it's not hyperbole: 75 percent of women killed by their batterers are either murdered while leaving or after doing so.
An attempt to leave is an attempt to strip an abuser of power; it takes an average of seven attempts, which speaks to the lengths an abuser will go to maintain that power.
It took Reyna seven attempts to leave.
We met her 12 years after she took her kids to a local shelter with nothing to her name. Now, she runs an established catering company with hopes of opening a family-owned restaurant with her and her children. She wears a permanent smile, one that makes you hesitant to ask about memories that precede her happy ending.
Reyna isn't hesitant at all.
A volunteer at the same domestic violence shelter that housed her family, she endeavors to be a resource for other people facing the steep road ahead.
She's able to recount her own journey with authority, laughing at the times she cowered when fellow survivors would try to talk to her. Or when she finally did confide in someone, but that information was used against her by others at the shelter.
She talks about how uncomfortable she was on her first date and about her new boyfriend -- the local ice cream man -- who absolutely loves her kids.
Reyna was inspiring not just in the way she pieced her life together, but because she was able to attain the sense of power over life -- both the good and the bad -- that her abuser never could.
More than that, she did so without losing her faith in people.
She's the first to credit all her successes and happiness to those surrounding her: the volunteers, social workers and fellow survivors at the domestic violence shelter, neighbors who helped start her catering company, and even her son who stood up to his own father.
Probably because they weren't the kinds of people who ask, “Why doesn't she just leave?”
Instead, they were the kinds of people who gave her a place to go.