I cannot adequately define Ellen's expression as she stared at the painting she had made of the man she once loved.
It was a mixed expression that reflected a firestorm of conflicting memories and emotions. Affection, hatred, betrayal, trust, anger, sadness, relief.
She had, after all, once pledged her life to the man, and where there had been hope, there were now only gleaming shards of regret.
Tiny pieces of self-blame were also in the mix, a nagging, agonizing, persistent notion, however remote, that it might have been her fault.
"It's you!" the man had once roared into her face, his hands around her neck. "You caused this . . ."
He had beaten her badly many times in the 13 years of their marriage. And later, after she had left him, she had memorialized his face in acrylics: glaring reds and blacks and searing yellows.
We studied the face together one cloud-darkened afternoon, a face of such rage and madness that one might imagine it could, if stared at long enough, assume a life of its own, like the animation of Freddy Krueger from the "Nightmare on Elm Street."
The pitch-black eyes of the face created an almost palpable chill in the room. Ellen X, who had endured the rage imprinted on the face, had created the perfect terrifying image of marital violence.
She lives temporarily with her parents now in a picture-perfect house on a picture-perfect street in Arcadia. It is a neighborhood of such scrubbed symmetry that, at first look, seems lifted from a Disney back lot.
The roadway is wide and newly paved, the houses freshly painted, the lawns neatly trimmed, the gardens immaculate.
But inside one of these homes are memories of violence that bring tears to the eyes of the woman who otherwise seems strong and self-reliant.
Ellen X is 38 and is raising three small children. She e-mailed me to publicize violence against women, citing her own case of brutal victimization by her husband. She asked that her name not be used but was willing to describe in detail the beatings that the nightmare man in the painting had administered:
"He threw me across the bed then sat on me and banged my head against the wall. He slapped me, cursing and shouting. He said, 'Who do you think you are?' and when I tried to answer, he choked me. I said, 'I love you, why are you doing this to me?' He spit in my face. This was not a person I knew . . . ."
They were married in 1985. Mac (not his real name) was 6 feet 1 and 265 pounds with a tendency toward a short temper. Ellen thought she could change that. She could ease the anguish that remained in his heart from a failed first marriage. She pledged her love and her life to making him happy.
They were never enough.
A troubled man, Mac told her at the start of their marriage he had been sexually abused as a child and that once, on a rooftop, he had prayed to God to make him big and strong "to get back at everyone."
Ellen recited with photographic detail the incidents that built to cruelty. He told her he had called his ex-wife a bitch but promised Ellen he would never call her names. Then he called her a bitch. He told how he had slapped his ex-wife, who claimed he'd broken her nose, but he would never hurt Ellen. Then one day, as Ellen says quietly, "that line was crossed too."
As we sat in the perfectly furnished room of the perfect house, she told of chokings and kickings and slappings, of the stunning paralysis that gripped her during the beatings--"a deer in the headlights"--and of the question that nagged her through the days and nights of torment: Why would a man who said he loved me do this?
"I cried, I screamed, I told him to stop. He said, 'If you try to run, it will only get worse.' You could see in his eyes how much he enjoyed toying with my fear . . . ."
She stayed with Mac because she had vowed to do so. She stayed with him because he needed her. She stayed with him for the sake of the children.
Then one day he said, "I would never kill you." It was, to Ellen, the third promise in a trilogy, and one that she would never wait to see broken. She bore his last beating, grabbed the children and left.
A gifted painter, Ellen X lends her talents today to telling the story of spousal abuse through art. She wants to create a fund for women who can't articulate their pain.
"It's all about silence," she says, leaning the painting of the nightmare man against a wall. "I was too ashamed to tell anyone. But now I have a voice, and I won't be silent anymore."
The face stares into the room. The eyes are as dark as a night in hell.