Domestic Violence Survivor Kahshanna Evans Talks About Her Experience & Recovery

kEVANS-IMG_1210.jpg

“I went to bed. I was really excited about this field trip that I have been sort of waiting for weeks and weeks and weeks. We were going on a field trip to the beach the next day. And, I was asked if I had homework. At the time, going to private school, you always had homework. So in my mind, we had the field trip and the night of the trip, maybe, that’s when we are doing our homework. And this person, who was my then caretaker, I guess, got a phone call.

Now 'it,' as we used to call him, asked me before I went to bed: do you have homework?'

And I was like no, I don’t. (I’m a 4th grader, I’m going on a field trip. What homework?)

Are you lying to me? 'it' replied.

And I was like: no I don’t have homework.

So this person burst through the door, assaulted me with all his might after I drifted out to sleep without even bothering to wake me, chastise or tell me what was going on, and just really unleashed the breadth of his might with this really thick police belt to the extent I felt like I left my body. And I just remember at some point, kind of feeling really hot, like my body was on fire. And sort of hysteria hiccupping and crying. And then the next day, I had to wear long sleeves to cover the bruising and hot, raw, raised flesh from the top of my neck all the way down the bottom of my ankles rather than the bathing suit that I was so excited to wear. “

While it has been estimated that 35 percent of women worldwide have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence, some studies have shown that this number goes as high as 70 percent (ref. UNWomen). And it is with these staggering statistics in mind that I interviewed Kahshanna Evans to speak to her experience as a domestic violence survivor and to share some of the factors that enabled her recovery. She is the founder at Kissing Lions, a Public Relations boutique based in New York City with the mission to advance social good through artistic projects.

Fatima: Please describe your upbringing and familial context. 

Kahshanna: I grew up as the youngest in a predominately single-parent household with my mother and sister in the suburbs of Southern California. With stigma surrounding identity, appearance, hair, culture, classism and gender bias looming in that era, we struggled to hit our stride as a family. We enjoyed typical norms of the American childhood experience. We visited relatives, went to family reunions, attended summer camp, had sleepovers and celebrated typical American holidays like Easter and Christmas. I loved to sew, something my mom taught me. I also enjoyed drawing, playing with dolls and barbies, and watching Transformers, Thundercats, and Tom & Jerry. My sister, who was older than me by three years, hogged Michael Jackson and Prince to herself, as if there could only be one fan per household.  We played together and played games like crayon wars and listened to The Wiz soundtrack on her small record player.

My mother was both mother and father to my sister and I, which seemed to make more sense to me than my sister who longed for her absent father. We were fragile, though, and hit troubled times. Love was complicated by things I didn't understand, like grief, depression, rage, bias, racism, hueism, crisis, and corporal punishment. School became a much-needed relief and safe haven.     

Fatima: What happened that night when your soul was crushed? 

Kahshanna: It was like I separated from my body. A short while after my mother accepted a marriage proposal, we found ourselves a family of four, living in the home of our then caretaker, a Rialto police officer with dark skin, a hint of a Jheri curl, and an 80's mustache. We secretly called him “It,” refusing to say his name after it was slowly revealed he was not who he seemed to be, but rather a grim, troubled, and menacing person with uncontrollable, violent tendencies.

With the promise of a highly anticipated field trip the following day, I headed home from Catholic school excited that our fourth-grade class was off to the beach for a day of fun for a change—a much-needed change from rules and the stink-eye you'd get from walking in a puddle accidentally on the way to the library from joyless private school teachers. I contained my excitement to avoid attracting any unwanted attention in my home, but my bathing suit was a perfect fit. “It” casually asked if I had homework. I told him no. I didn't. In my mind, I had homework after the field trip prior to returning to school. He asked again, which I thought was weird. "Are you sure? You don’t have any homework?" Yes, I'm sure. I was.  

I went off to bed and drifted to dreams of the big day. The phone rang shortly after. Apparently, our teacher gave a round of calls to remind students their homework was due the day following the field trip. I went from the most tranquil, blissful REM to hysteria. “It” kicked my bedroom door open screaming, striking my back, neck, legs and bottom with all his might repeatedly without bothering to wake me up first. I couldn't understand anything, he was yelling and in a furious rage. At some point, I was out of my body to avoid the assault. I remember it was hot and I couldn't breathe. I couldn't catch my breath. My entire body burned and ached. Until that day, “It” only struck, beat, and assaulted my mother and sister. At some point, my mother came in, navigating to calm him without setting him off even more. She put me back to bed and shut the door. I was gasping for air, hoping it would hug and hold me. The next day, I had to go to the beach in long pants and long sleeves to cover up black and blue bruising from the top of my neck all the way down my back to the bottom of my ankles.  

Fatima: How old were you and who did you tell then?

Kahshanna: I was in the fourth grade. I tried a few mediocre attempts to approach teachers, but most teachers at my private school didn't want to be friends and it showed. I'm not sure what was said to the teacher but I knew I couldn't tell her—he'd gotten to her already and filled her with fiction as a safeguard against retaliation. The day of our field trip, the moment arrived when we were free to go off in pairs to the bathroom to put on our swimwear. I walked with Leslie, one of my best friends who chirped and chatted with excitement. I remember her asking "aren't you going to put on your swimsuit?" "I can't," I replied. She chuckled for a quick second before she really looked at me and sensed something was wrong. I told her "something bad happened." I'll never forget the look on her face when I rolled up my shirt to show her my back, which was black and blue from my neck all the way down to the bottom of my ankles. She covered her mouth with both of her hands. I made her promise not to tell.

Fatima: When was the first time you openly spoke about the violences you endured growing up, and how did you feel?

Kahshanna: I think Leslie is the first person I told and showed. She may never know that by being a witness, my witness, completely loyal to me, really saved my life. I will never forget knowing someone loved me and felt a profound empathy for me. It made me feel like I wasn't some piece of filth, who somehow deserved to be assaulted with such brutal, raw fury.

I've selectively told loved ones over the years and ultimately revisited some of the most difficult memories when I studied wellness. It feels different every time. Speaking openly about my experience has always been liberating, although painful. After some time, I didn’t mind the tears that come up during raw, honest moments. Those are healthy. The worst part about recovering from domestic violence is that feeling of the story being stuck and unable to move through the myriad of really complicated emotions.

Fatima: What was the one thing you needed to break free from this situation?

Kahshanna: I needed an ally, loyal only to me—a savior, an Angel, a protector, a friend. When families are in crisis, they are often mired in their own stories. It becomes easy to justify cruel behavior, or point blame at those on the receiving end when you are in trouble with no perceived lifeline. When you can't call the police, who do you call? The precinct was called and eventually covered up what they knew was happening.

Kashanna.jpg

Fatima: What event shifted your personal narrative?

Kahshanna: I had to drift for a good long while, emotionally, in an attempt to just live, forget, and process everything. After being bullied during my first year of college, I shifted my sights to fashion. Being immersed in fashion, film, television and the entertainment industry and traveling definitely helped me. I encountered my dreams of being seen, and confronted the nightmare glass ceilings of feeling stuck. I landed a role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” a safe place for drama to play out; it was a perfect playground for me. After years of unanticipated success, I was feeling burned out and exhausted. My deepest shift took place as a result of studying varied forms of wellness to include shamanic healing through The Four Winds, Reiki, and movement.

Fatima: From that point on, what has been your process towards healing?

Kahshanna: Healing is different for everyone. Recovery comes in stages and takes time. The performing arts was a life saver as being immersed in scene-studies with non-traditional teachers and ensembles made of other creatives was inspiring. It really was the experiences of exploring the conscious and subconscious, human behavior, patterns we inherit, and ways we can rewrite a new ending to our story in workshop settings that brought me back to life. My process is now influenced by a little of everything. Taking personal inventory to understand the root experience is something I can't live without. Being well also means cultivating empathy.

Fatima: Can one forgive such situations, and what does forgiving truly mean?

Kahshanna: There is a collective urgency with the concept of forgiveness that has more to do with perceived values rather than real people with real stories.  

Having an agenda for other people rather than discovering and supporting their process is counter-intuitive and often the opposite of helping to heal. I think the power of forgiveness is in addressing circumstances, not necessarily abusers. We are encouraged to forgive to feel better, to do better, and to get out of our own way. I'd encourage processing over forced forgiveness any day, because you can't get over some things, but you can get through them. That's how you grow. Our focus should be on supporting families and children in crisis to process and understand generational destructive patterns, domestic violence, and post-traumatic stress disorder rather than rushing them to "forgive" to force a happy ending. Not everyone has a happy ending, so why not hold space for those recovering from domestic violence by honoring the truth?    

Fatima: If you could say anything to this man, what would it be?

Kahshanna: Nothing. Shame on you Rialto PD. You failed to protect my family from one of your own home-grown monsters, who took a liking to routinely assault my mother and my sister. Remember your oath. Revisit it. Know when to drop that pathetic blue wall of silence. Know when your fallens are a part of the problem.

Fatima: What is your stance on the current socio-political and cultural climate pertaining to women?

Kahshanna: There are many number of structural biases that threaten equal opportunity for women. We'll have to fight to level the playing field for life. Our identity is what really matters. I think when we have a more expansive network of empathy across different cultures and classes towards each other, and when we create a culture where it's ok to be a warrior without divisive extremes, we will gain both balance and power. Outdated laws that allow corporal punishment, assault, rape, and cruelty towards women and children need to be completely annihilated. We need to revisit self-defense and zero tolerance laws. 

Fatima: How has your experience shaped your current work?

Kahshanna: All of my life experiences shape who I am, what I do, and how I do it. I am a storyteller, a communications strategist, and an ally. In 2018, I was excited to join Debora Balardini in co-producing “Mend: Listen Now & Listen Good, a Women's Anthology on Gender, Age, Culture, Motherhood and Being a Woman.” The evening of live and staged performances took place on Mother's Day within ModestEAT, a Mother's Day weekend long installation curated by Sandie Luna. Rather than producing an event based on masculine rules of theater, we conceptualized it based on PUNTO’s mission, the venue Debora and Sandie co-founded, inclusion in the arts and collaboration, and the need to see women artists own their story. It was amazing.

Fatima: What has been the best part of that journey?

Kahshanna: I waited for a lifetime to understand one thing about myself. I am a storyteller. This anchors my work, it gives my work direction and steeps it in intuition, creativity, and purpose.  

Fatima: What would you like to say to other women surviving domestic violence?

Kahshanna: Don't take the credit for grown partners, who never learned to keep their rage or toxic behavior in check. Remember that some who are on the receiving end of assault and domestic violence have inherited patterns of cruelty that were normalized in the name of religion, chastity, or discipline for 'our own good.' Don't blame yourself if you didn't understand it perfectly or identify it more quickly. The forest of feelings may feel impossible to navigate but what really matters is being free from being bound to someone who harms you or your children. If you forgive violent partners or choose to practice empathy towards them, that's noble, but don't ever give your life to someone who willingly assaults you, they may just take it. Honor your own fire-breathing dragon and rely on your survival instincts if you need them, abusers can be unpredictable and downright dangerous. Set fierce boundaries for how you're treated. It's ok to make a mess as you process and grow through tough times. Take threats seriously and protect yourself. Don't be afraid to walk out forever.

Cover photo courtesy of Kahshanna Evans, second photo courtesy of Adam Bouska for No H8 Campaign