Interview: A look at domestic violence with Tonya Harding

Tonya Harding

On Thursday, March 14, Tonya Harding, a domestic violence survivor, will share her story at the Domestic Violence Clinic’s 20th anniversary Celebration Gala and Fundraiser at the Ford Alumni Center.

Largely a grant-funded entity, the clinic is one of two agencies in Lane County that provide free legal services to low-income survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. And in 2014, the clinic established Student Survivor Legal Services, the nation’s first on-campus legal office devoted entirely to serving campus survivors in civil, criminal and campus disciplinary matters. Services are free to survivors on six campuses in Oregon, including the University of Oregon.

“I learned more about being a lawyer in the Domestic Violence Clinic than I did in the other three years of law school combined,” said Brendan Kane, a 1999 law school graduate who was part of the clinic’s first cohorts. “The clinic was where I learned, stumbled and succeeded in providing direct access to justice to those in need.”

When Merle Weiner, Domestic Violence Clinic director and Philip H. Knight Professor in the School of Law, approached Harding and told her about the work being done by the clinic, Harding said she knew she wanted to be involved. For most of her life, Harding experienced domestic violence, and for the first time she wanted to use her platform to bring awareness to the issue.

What follows is a portion of a recent interview with Tonya Harding:

Q:Why share this part of your story now?
A: I have never truly spoken just about domestic violence. I have gone through so much in my life that it is really such a hard thing to talk about. But by doing this, I’m hoping that I can help someone else.

Q: People often forget that abuse isn’t just physical. It can include coercion, threats, isolation, denial, blaming, emotional abuse and even economic abuse. Which did you experience?
A: All of the above. Abuse happens in so many forms. It doesn’t matter which abuse it is; it all hurts. With physical abuse you may have broken bones and bruises, but the emotional abuse hurts just as bad as being bruised and beaten and broken. In fact, from the inside you are bruised and broken. 

Q: You’ve said in the past, that “No one ever believes you ever … for being abused.” How do you speak to women who are currently in situations where no one believes them? What do you say to them?
A: The only thing I can say is “Don’t ever give up.” There will always be that one person who will listen. If you are able to, get out. Because usually the abuse — from my point of view — never goes away without help.

Q: Did you ever have access to, or were you ever able to afford, legal services?
A: I couldn’t afford legal services. What I tried to do was find a close person to talk to and let them know what my plan was. That’s how I ended up with my friend’s family. So, I had somebody else that could be there to back me so I could get out. Most times, when I asked for help, people never believed me. I’ve had restraining orders, and when the police were brought in, they would say, “Well, your restraining order is not legal in our county, so you should just go home.’ I honestly believe that the police chose not to help me because my name was Tonya Harding. That is how I feel to this day. Now, there were some officers in our local area that I have known for a long time. Those men and women helped with some situations when I was being abused, and they’ve been my friends ever since.

Q: Domestic violence perpetrators make their victims feel as if they have to make an impossible choice. The abuser says, “If you leave, you will never see your children again.” That can immobilize a woman.
A: It’s really hard to know when to get out and when not to get out, especially when you have children. I didn’t have children then, but I have a child now and I guarantee you, right now, I would fight tooth and nail for him. I don’t know what else to say. No one is going to hurt my child. Whether it would hurt me or not, he would become No. 1.

Q: How have your previous relationships and experience with domestic violence affected your relationship with your husband?
A: The feeling of not being good enough is always there. It doesn’t go away. Prior to meeting Joe, who is my husband, I dated many men and each one of them was abusive. I attracted weirdos; it’s the only way I can say it. But I finally met the man of my dreams. We just started our eighth year together and this is the first time I’ve been in a healthy relationship. It’s very strange sometimes how loving he is with me.

Q: How did you and how do you push through these feelings of not being enough?
A: I was 38 years old when I finally understood that I didn’t deserve to be treated badly. I mean, talked to counselors for years and still wasn’t able to tell them everything that happened to me, because I was ashamed. Women who, like myself, have been raped, those things will never go away. I will always look at a man and think, “What are you planning?” I immediately want to protect myself. As a survivor, it’s just something that you have to realize, that it happened but it wasn’t your fault. I have to love myself and tell myself that I’m a good person. I have a good heart. That’s the only way that I can make things good for me and make the best life for my family.

Q: Do you think that people will see you differently now that you have shared your story?
A: The one thing I want people to realize is that it took a long time for me to ask for help, because I was ashamed. I felt small and belittled that I didn’t amount to anything, just like my momma said I would. But if you want to succeed at just living life every day you have to take it one step at a time. I’m just not going to let anyone, or anything, stop me from being the best person that I can be for my son and for my husband. And if people don’t like me that is OK. It took a long time to get here, and that’s OK.

Read Harding’s full interview on the law school website. To support the work of the Domestic Violence Clinic, people can purchase tickets through March 6.