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Commentary: I was married to Rob Porter - here's what John Kelly doesn't get about abuse

From left: White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Senior Adviser Jared Kushner at the White House in Washington, Aug. 4, 2017. One week after Porter resigned amid spousal abuse allegations, President Donald Trump on Feb. 14 said he was “totally opposed to domestic violence,” his first condemnation of the alleged conduct behind a scandal that has engulfed the White House. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times/Copyright 2018/New York Times)

It has been one month since the story became public of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my ex-husband, Rob Porter, along with accusations from his first wife, Colbie Holderness. Yet the White House has still not acknowledged our names or apologized to us for mishandling the situation.

In fact, just last week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly added insult to injury when he explained that he had discounted the allegations against Rob as "just the accusation of a messy divorce," including "some level of emotional abuse." Kelly said he came out with a strong statement defending Rob because I "made no mention of any type of physical abuse."

I can barely contain my indignation.

My problem with Kelly's remarks is twofold. First, he and other senior White House officials defending Rob disregarded substantial evidence of physical abuse - even leaving aside that photograph of Colbie's black eye.

I described to FBI agents and to reporters how Rob dragged me from the shower during a fit of rage early in our marriage. I told police - and repeated to the agents who interviewed me - how, when we were separated, Rob punched through the glass on my front door in anger, resulting in a temporary protective order being issued against him. Information about those episodes was contained in the first stories that appeared about Rob's behavior. All that came before Kelly issued his laudatory statement.

Second, and just as important, Kelly's comments serve to diminish the significance of emotional abuse. Granted, it is difficult for any outsider to understand what takes place in a marriage. But Kelly's dismissive remarks about my having suffered only "emotional abuse" grossly understate the seriousness of this conduct and the traumait inflicts.

The constant and repeated insulting, degrading, ignoring and undermining of someone's intelligence, looks and choices is abuse. So is persistent name-calling, lying and manipulation. This abuse represents an extreme and targeted form of bullying, one that damages the victim's sense of self-worth and creates a fear of retaliation for standing up for oneself. It is insidious, demoralizing, paralyzing. It is real.

These behaviors, if cited in a divorce proceeding or raised during an FBI background check, would certainly be considered abuse. Too often, however, they are not made public because victims fear - based on reactions such as Kelly's - that such conduct is not considered serious enough.

Movies and television also tend to depict only the most traumatic of domestic abuse scenarios. This contributes to the skewed understanding of abuse. Though not everyone who experiences emotional abuse is physically abused, almost all who are physically assaulted by their partners are emotionally abused first. And to minimize and ignore certain types of abuse while sensationalizing others further isolates and silences victims. This type of disbelief, minimization and ultimately denial is devastating - even more so when it comes from those privileged to work in the White House. Perhaps Kelly was blinded by the talents and professionalism of his colleague. That is no excuse.

When people in highly visible positions deny or play down the details and impact of such abuse, their behavior perpetuates the inaccuracy that abuse constitutes a minor problem or occurs only in certain communities. And we, as a society, accept this narrative because, deep down, we need to believe it cannot happen to us.

Instead, when someone comes forward in a moment of bravery to share his or her story, we tend to question the victim and to ask what he or she did or failed to do. We subconsciously console ourselves that it must be the victim's fault, rather than face the uncomfortable fact that we may be at risk.

But we are all at risk, and not talking about it allows this situation to fester.

We have been here before with the National Football League in 2014 and #WhyIStayed. We are here again with the White House in 2018 and #AndSoIStayed. Domestic violence is a pervasive societal problem that thrives in secrecy. Silence normalizes the abuse and allows it to continue.

We owe it to each other to raise awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence. We owe it to victims to tell the stories of successful and healthy recovery after abuse. We need to acknowledge that no one is invulnerable to such horror and that avoiding it does not make it go away. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said after the reports about Rob that "domestic violence in any form is abhorrent." President Donald Trump himself said that he is "totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that."

If we truly believe this, let us prove it in our actions.

Author information: Jennie Willoughby was the second wife of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter.

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