Almost 30 years ago, when I was a newlywed fresh out of high school, my husband, Danny, who was 18 at the time, beat me with a motorcycle helmet. The day after the attack, which landed me in the hospital, I left our home and never saw him again. It was the first and only incident of abuse I experienced from him and no criminal charges were filed.
Danny reached out to me a few weeks ago for the first time in almost three decades to apologize, and I had no idea how much I needed to hear that from him.
The incident traumatized both of us, but now that so much time has passed ― and because Danny reached out to make amends ― I realize that what happened doesn’t have to define who we are today. As a survivor of assault, I believe that is an important and powerful realization that needs to be said ― and heard. People sometimes do awful things for all kinds of reasons. That obviously doesn’t make what Danny did to me OK ― or excuse it ― but I believe that if people admit what they’ve done and ask for forgiveness for their wrongdoings, they can grow and transform their lives and that gives me hope.
I have been heartened to witness so many women ― and some men ― sharing their stories of assault and abuse over the past year. Telling our stories is crucial to raising awareness and eventually, hopefully, bringing about change. But we also need to hear stories of ― and from ― men who have owned up to what they did and who have taken responsibility for their actions. We need more honest stories of healing and redemption, and I believe sharing them can be part of working toward fixing our severely broken culture.
What follows is our story told from each of our memories and points of view. Neither Danny nor I have ever publicly spoken about what happened on that day until now.
Warning: Some readers may find details in the below story triggering.
Donna: The day I met Danny, I was working at Kinney Shoes in Albany, Georgia. “Love at first sight” isn’t like you read about in books or see in movies ― at least it wasn’t for me. Music didn’t suddenly start playing and there wasn’t any kind of glowing light that suddenly appeared around him. Instead, it was an immediate feeling that I was safe and that I would be cared for by him.
Danny was a Marine stationed in town for training. He had the most beautiful eyes. I sold him some tube socks and we were barely apart after meeting that first day.
I felt like I couldn’t breathe without him. This many years later, I can’t recall many specifics, only how intensely I felt about him. My memories are like a montage of “Dirty Dancing” as Baby and Johnny Castle fall in love with “I’ve Had the Time of My Life” playing in the background.
Our romance lasted for six weeks! After training, Danny left for California. Our last night together was one of the best of my life. I will never forget it.
During the months that followed, we talked on the phone every day. I decided to quit my job and move to California to be with him. The day I left, my mom held onto the bumper of my turquoise Cavalier and cried. I assured her that I was an adult and she could trust my judgment.
The minute I arrived in California, Danny and I promptly went to Vegas and got married. I didn’t tell anyone in my family, especially my mom.
Danny and I were happy and in love for many months. We never had so much as a cross word for each other. Then “the incident” happened about a year into our marriage, and that was the day our relationship ended.
Danny: After high school, I enlisted in the Marine Corps and went to Georgia for training. One night while walking past Kinney Shoes, I was drawn to this girl with a beautiful smile.
I instantly fell in love with Donna. I only have a few memories from that time, but I will never forget the feeling that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I was only there for six weeks, but it was long enough to know I loved her.
Our last night together before I left for Camp Pendleton is still seared into my brain. We didn’t sleep that night because we wanted every one of our last hours together to count.
When we were apart, I counted the minutes each day until work ended so I could hear her voice. Then finally the day arrived when Donna packed up her car and drove across the country to be with me.
I remember waiting in a long line at the courthouse to get our marriage license and then getting married at the “Little Chapel of Love” in Las Vegas.
We lived in our little bubble for a year. I don’t remember us ever fighting. And then, suddenly, one day we did and my actions changed our relationship forever.
Donna: We’re arguing ― I honestly can’t remember what the fight was about. It may have been about money, but all of these years later, it’s the fight, not the impetus for it, that matters. Things are getting heated and I break away from Danny and run to our bedroom. My heart is pounding and he isn’t far behind me. The images from that day appear in my mind like I’m seeing them through one of those old viewfinders. He grabs me and throws me down. I’m terrified. This can’t be right ― he would never hurt me, I think. I scream and instantly regret it because he’s outraged. I remember his hand reaching out to the side of his body and it landing on his motorcycle helmet. He swings the helmet toward me and it connects with my body over and over again.
When he finally stops, he leaves, and I get myself to the emergency room. They put a long, thin rubber tube down my nose into my stomach because they’re worried that there is internal bleeding. It was horrible. I was hurt and I was utterly alone.
I want to go home to my mom, but I’m scared to tell her we are married. Still, I call her, and she’s on a plane within hours. When she arrives, she’s furious. She was a military wife and refused to leave California without telling Danny’s commanding officer what happened. She believes that my story was taken seriously by his superiors and that some action was taken against Danny.
She packs up my things, we get into my car, and we ride the 3,000 miles home in complete silence.
Danny: I don’t remember what started the fight or why all these years later I think it was because Donna told me she’s leaving me. I fly into a rage and will do anything to stop her. She runs out of the apartment, I catch her and forcefully drag her back inside. She pulls free from my grasp and runs to our bedroom. I bolt after her and burst through the door to try to make her understand that she can’t go. I grab her by both arms, shake her and slam her down.
I’m on top of her, pinning her down and screaming “You can’t leave me!” Why am I doing this to her? I love her.
I can see the terror in her face as I attack her and it still haunts me to this day. When it’s over, I don’t know what to do so I leave and go back to the barracks.
I tell myself, I will fix this and make this right, but I never get the chance because I never see Donna again. My actions were unforgivable and they caused me to lose the one person I truly loved then. My commanding officer sits me down and tells me that Donna’s mom had spoken to him. No action was taken by the military.
The Impact Over The Years
Donna: On that ride back to Georgia, my mom was clear that we would never speak about what happened ever again. I complied.
“That night changed how I related to ― and continue to relate to ― men. I have anxiety in relationships. I have trouble trusting men and letting my guard down. ... I’ve achieved so much in my life, but my dream of someone to love and a family has eluded me.”
I locked away my memories deep inside of myself. If I let myself think about Danny, I questioned whether that incident had ever really happened at all. I dreamed of him coming through the door in a rage and the sound of the motorcycle helmet connecting with my body.
That night changed how I related to ― and continue to relate to ― men. I have anxiety in relationships. I have trouble trusting men and letting my guard down. As a girl, I always wanted a family and children. I’ve achieved so much in my life, but my dream of someone to love and a family has eluded me.
Danny: I remarried and had a beautiful family. After 20 years of marriage, we divorced but we still have a good relationship and successfully co-parent our children.
My father was the only person that I confided in about what I did to Donna. Throughout my life, I’ve thought about her. Every time I would go through old pictures, the loss of her would surface.
Regret and remorse were a constant thread in my life. All of it was wrong. It was traumatic to remember and understand that it was my actions that tore us apart.
The incident with Donna is the only time I’ve ever put my hands on a woman. We were young when it happened and I have never had that kind of rage again. I carried the guilt around about it because that’s not the man that I am now. Hurting Donna is the one big regret in my life.
I wanted to find her and apologize but didn’t see how that was possible. Then social media happened. For years, I searched for her online but never found her. I feared I would die before I had a chance to make amends.
Donna: I found my mom’s journal after she died and read this entry: “Donna ran away from home to California. She followed a Marine there. He beat her up. She called me and asked me to come to get her. So, I did.”
A few weeks later I received a Facebook message from Danny. It said, “Hi Donna. How are you doing?”
After several hours, I responded, “I’m good. You?”
The next morning, I received another message from Danny that read:
“I’ve been looking for you off and on for a while now. Finally saw you on FB. I know it’s been many years since we’ve seen each other, I wanted to tell you how sorry I was for treating you the way I did. No man should ever put his hands on a woman no matter what. I know ‘sorry’ is a word often used with no meaning behind it, so I take ownership for my actions all those years ago. I was young and stupid. I can only ask for your forgiveness. We get wise as we grow old. Or at least I have. You did not deserve any of that. I needed to say it as much as you probably needed to hear it! You were the first love of my life. I’ve held guilt about my actions for all these years. That is not how I was raised and not the man I am today.”
Danny: I had given up on finding Donna. I recently got Netflix and one Sunday I was watching a football documentary, “Beyond the Lights,” that featured a player from Warner Robins, Georgia, and I thought, That’s Donna’s hometown! I went on Facebook, typed in her information and was shocked when this time her face popped up on my screen. I instantly wrote to her.
I was incredibly nervous, but I had a clear agenda and could finally take a chance in hopes of making things right between us.
Since we made contact, we’ve spent weeks piecing together our past. I could have never known how much tracking Donna down and apologizing would mean to her ― or to me.
When Donna and I first started speaking again, she asked me if I was compelled to find her because of the Me Too movement. I am aware of the Me Too movement, but it’s not something that I have followed closely, nor is it the reason I reached out to her. Donna and I have talked at length about what’s going on in our country today and why it’s important for our story to be told. I feel compelled to tell our story, but, sadly, I don’t hold out much optimism that change will happen in our culture today. Still, if my story can cause even one man to reconsider how he’s treated a woman ― or many women ― in his life, then I’m happy I’ve told it.
Donna: As we continued to reconnect, something beautiful happened. We remembered the love we shared so long ago. This love was formative in both of our lives. I felt his shame and remorse, and I forgave him. The first time we spoke, I was terrified, but a minute into the conversation I knew that only positive results would come from this reunion.
“Of course, an apology doesn’t change what Danny did to me and hearing it didn’t instantly wipe away the suffering I’ve experienced throughout my life because of it.”
Of course, an apology doesn’t change what Danny did to me and hearing it didn’t instantly wipe away the suffering I’ve experienced throughout my life because of it. However, Danny taking ownership of his actions, acknowledging how wrong they were and expressing his deep sorrow for what he did has helped to begin healing a wound I thought would never heal.
We aren’t sure where we go from here, but we are both better for having made contact again and the reconciliation that occurred as a result. My story is mine alone and every other survivor has their own personal tale to tell ― or not tell. That is up to them. And, if someone else’s abuser reaches out to ask for forgiveness, there should be no expectation that the survivor in that situation should accept the apology. Every experience and every survivor and every abuser is different and everyone needs to do what feels right to them.
However, Danny and I hope that as we as a nation continue to grapple with domestic violence, sexual assault and other incredibly personal and consequential traumas, our story might provide an example of what can happen when people take responsibility for their actions, even if it’s 30 years later.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Donna Thomas currently serves as senior vice president of Studio Sales at Vubiquity. Thomas has been named as one of the Most Powerful Women in Technology (CableWorld) for the past seven years. She is also the founder of the Thomas Angel Foundation. The foundation is partnered with Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles to award scholarships to women in comedy. Thomas is an improviser in Los Angeles and creator of the award-winning solo show “From Southern Belle to Mrs. Cartel.”