Cynthia Swink Kostyk is on a mission. She is obsessed with a goal that is nothing short of monumental: She wants to make her religion safe for victims of domestic violence.
Kostyk is a Jehovah’s Witness. So is her ex-husband. The marriage, in fact, was to have been a supreme commitment to their religion; they would not have children in order to spend their spare time knocking on doors, serving God.
Instead of the blissful union Kostyk imagined, it began and ended in violence, and led eventually to her expulsion from the church.
Her ex-husband denies he was violent. “Everybody has marital problems,” he says, “but Cynthia was never abused or injured and these are false statements.”
Several people close to Kostyk, however, say they saw her bruises and are convinced she was battered.
The 35-year-old Palmdale woman seems to have everything a skeptical reporter could ask for: court documents, letters to church authorities and their responses, tapes from marriage counseling sessions with her ex-husband, statements from counselors and doctors attesting to her emotional and physical problems, and friends who will speak on her behalf.
What she doesn’t have, though, is what she wants most--membership in the church in which she was raised and has worshiped all her life.
Within weeks of their 1985 wedding, Kostyk says, her husband hit her. Her description of the next four years would not surprise anyone familiar with the cycle of spousal abuse: violent outbursts, extreme remorse, extravagant gift-giving, followed by violent outbursts, etc.
Like many abusive marriages, the violence was never reported to police. But it did not go unmentioned outside the home. Shortly after the first incident, Cynthia and her husband appealed to elders of their Reseda congregation for help, and would do so over the next few years.
She says the elders gave her a variety of advice on how to make things better: “Everyone agreed something was wrong. But they said these things happen in every marriage. One of the elders suggested I try making some different recipes and he told me some that his wife had made that he really liked.”
She was reminded in one letter from the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the church headquarters, that “fellow Christians should not take one another to court.”
She was also told not to discuss her problems with friends.
Steadily, she says, the abuse worsened.
When she continued to complain to the elders, she says, they told her it would be in her interest--and scripturally correct--to be submissive.
Finally, she says, they conceded she probably had married the wrong man, but that there was nothing to be done.
“I said, ‘What do I do with my pain?’ And they said, ‘You must forget.’ I decided I wanted to do God’s will, so I stayed with him. I tried to do what was right. So I prayed to Jehovah to fix my brain.”
Those who work with victims of domestic violence say Kostyk’s experience is not unusual.
“You will see this kind of thing more in churches that emphasize submissiveness,” says Kim Woods, who has a master’s of divinity degree and is outreach coordinator for a San Gabriel Valley domestic violence program.
“When churches hold onto that, then usually the pastoral counseling they will give is that the man is the head of the household. And we know that battering relationships have stereotypical roles: The man wears the pants and makes the decisions, the women are passive.”
When a battered wife turns to her elders for help, says Woods, she is often told that “Jesus had to suffer hard times, so you should pray like Jesus and God will deliver you like he did Jesus. But what happens is, it is the women who always do the suffering.”
Four years into the marriage, Kostyk says, she was depressed, unable to work and suffering a variety of spinal problems related to whiplashes and blows administered by her husband. (He blames her spinal injuries on a 1981 car accident.)
Still, she did not identify her experience as abuse until after he moved out in December, 1989. A friend suggested she call a battered women’s hot line.
Six months into intensive counseling at Lancaster’s Desert Oasis shelter, her rage boiled to the surface and she began writing long letters to church elders: “I would never have stayed with (my husband) if you had not threatened to take action against me,” she wrote. “But because of your counsel, I actually thought that Christian wives stay with their husbands until death, even if this death is inflicted by their own husbands.”
In her March, 1990, request to the court for spousal support, Kostyk stated: “I have been battered . . . at least 15 to 20 times since December, 1985. I suffered injuries . . . including a twisted pelvis and hip, and a sprained back and neck. Due to my severe emotional and physical disabilities at this time, I am unable to support myself.”
Kostyk felt that, as part of her healing process, it was important to talk. So she broke the silence imposed by church elders and began telling her friends--most of whom are Witnesses--what had happened during the marriage. Elders warned her to stop.
She did not stop, though, and was “disfellowshiped” by her congregation, a practice also known as “shunning.” To be reinstated, she must show repentance.
But Kostyk feels she was wronged. And she believes that God knows it and will help her win reinstatement. “In biblical times, terrible things happened,” she says. “People abused their powers. I know that the terrible, disabling things that happened to me weren’t from God.”
Merton Campbell, a Jehovah’s Witness spokesman in New York, said that Kostyk’s case was very carefully considered: “I can assure you that all of these cases are very thoroughly and very compassionately handled by those who deal with them. This matter was given a very thorough hearing.”
As for the church’s position on domestic violence, he said, “We’re absolutely convinced that if individuals follow Bible principles in their lives, these problems will not occur. And it takes two to have a fight, as it were.”
In a homemade floral print dress, her waist-length brown hair loose, Kostyk looks a good decade younger than 35. She lives alone in a modest Palmdale rental home cluttered with mementos and sadness. She has made elaborate pink brocade swags for the sliding glass doors in her living room, but the cheery effect is offset by a coffee table missing its glass top (shattered in anger, she says, by her husband) and several vases of dead flowers.
She has been able to return to work, as a stenographer, but sees a doctor several times a week for treatment for her injuries. The state Victims of Crime Program has reimbursed her thousands of dollars for her medical and physical therapy bills.
She has contributed a chapter about her marriage to a book about domestic abuse called “Finding Our Voices: Speaking Out Against the Violence.”
She tells whoever will listen what happened to her. Her intensity, like her devotion to her church, is almost overwhelming.
But nowadays when she prays, she no longer asks Jehovah to fix her brain.
She asks, instead, that He help others see the light.