Fran Reed’s first husband screamed a lot.
His rage — often triggered by minor grievances, such as not being able to find a serving spoon on the dinner table — confused her.
She had been raised in a home where arguments never amounted to more than an occasional fizzle — usually over intellectual matters, sociological ideas or even silly trivia, as in “Which New Zealand city is the country’s capital?”
Her husband’s rage also surprised her.
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She was 16 when they met.
He was a student at the nearby University of Texas.
And though her parents had made the young and in love couple wait three years to get married, Reed was only permitted to see him for six hours every other Saturday during that time.
Those six-hour increments, as it turned out, were not enough.
She had married a stranger.
After her husband’s temper became a regular part of their relationship, Reed experienced a moment of clarity one day.
“Wait,” she thought. “Marriage isn’t this.”
But divorce seemed like a very dark corner to turn.
It was the early 1960s and the couple now lived and taught in Colombia, where he was from and where she was not.
And they had two kids.
“I was so scared of being divorced,” she said recently. “I thought it was the lowest form you could take. I thought no one would talk to me and I would have to wear a scarlet letter.”
But this was before he nearly killed her.
And before she fled the country.
Reed, who has lived on Hilton Head Island since the 1990s, holds the memories of this first marriage close to her as she does the thing she has wanted to do for a very long time.
And that is to make it better for everyone else.
She is determined to see to it that the women of Beaufort County are protected and that there are true consequences for the men who physically harm the very people they claim to love.
Which is why last fall, at age 79, Fran Reed enrolled in law school.
The last straw
Reed made a mistake in her first marriage.
She had the audacity to write an opinion piece for a Bogota newspaper, calling on sugarcane companies to pay their workers a decent wage, without first getting permission from her husband.
He made his anger clear.
Reed’s husband beat her until she was bleeding from both eyes.
He choked her to the point she was sure she would die.
When he stopped, she hid with their two children in a locked bathroom until she heard him leave for work the next morning.
After he was gone, she picked up the phone.
She couldn’t call her parents in Texas. Back then it took days for a call to go through.
And she had no access to money.
But she had something most of Bogota did not: an upright freezer.
And she knew who to call.
“I thought who would need a freezer? A restaurant.”
Within hours she had the money for three one-way tickets to Texas and was on her way home, where just a few years later she would find herself in the same position.
Her next escape, however, would prove to be more difficult.
‘He beat me purple’
Reed’s second husband, a professional who seemed kind — then again, it was the 1960s and they had only gone on a few dates before he proposed — began his abuse as though he had been studying a manual on how to do it.
He slowly closed her out of any life she had beyond him.
He stopped allowing her to have friends over.
He took scissors to their phone line so she couldn’t call out.
He barred her from talking to their neighbors.
He controlled everything, and what he couldn’t control, society took care of for him, right down to when Reed could seek medical care for something as banal but acutely painful as an earache.
Wives couldn’t get treatment without the permission of their husbands back then.
Her husband seemed to take pleasure in having a leisurely shower and giving himself a very slow shave before taking her to the emergency room to have her ear lanced, she said.
“You couldn’t do anything anything without a man.”
In the short time they were married, “he beat me purple.” To this day she still feels pain on the right side of her head from a particularly bad blow, she said.
“I never understood why he hit me,” Reed said. “I thought I was the only one in the world this was happening to. I thought I was the only woman in the world.”
One day — after her third child was born and after she was caught talking to a neighbor — she thought, “My God. I’ve got to get out of here.”
She had the momentum she needed.
She plotted her escape.
Then she ran.
‘I know where you live’
Right away, Reed knew she was in trouble.
She had two children and a baby with her.
She was still breastfeeding.
She didn’t have a job.
And, once again, her parents were not an option.
She was sure her husband would kill her or have her arrested for taking half their money and she didn’t want to put her mother and father in harm’s way.
She told them she was OK, but not her location.
This is how their relationship would be conducted for years.
“That was the saddest part,” Reed said.
She had her degree so she walked into a school and said “I have to get a job. Today.”
“Can you speak Spanish?” they asked.
She was hired.
But that was just one challenge met.
Her husband was out there.
He was looking for her and every once and again he would find her.
“I know where you live. Hahahaha,” she said he would threaten her over the phone when he caught up to them. “I’m going to come get (my daughter).”
The police were of little help to Reed.
She came to this conclusion, she said, when she reported that her husband had a gun and was planning to kill her.
The police responded the only way they could back then: “After you’re dead, have your daughter call us because there’s nothing we can do.”
“It’s just fighting amongst themselves,” Reed said of the attitude toward domestic violence at the time. “What’s the big deal?”
So she kept running.
For years, Reed moved around.
She wanted stability for her children, but was so frightened of her second husband and felt so limited by a world that ranked a man’s word above a woman’s that she thought running was her only and best option.
Eventually, she sent her two oldest children, a girl and a boy, to live with friends so they could finish school.
She changed her name. She changed her daughter’s name.
Over and over.
She was adventurous. She was entrepreneurial.
The two traveled the country and to Puerto Rico.
They lived in their car or in campgrounds to avoid having an address.
She made up report cards with the ever-changing new names so her daughter could attend school wherever they were.
Reed found work teaching and in public health.
And along the way she clipped newspaper articles.
About domestic abusers.
On the road, she had discovered that she was not the only woman in the world who suffered at the hands of her husband.
Far from it.
The ‘token’ law student
When Reed took the LSATs, she thought, “Everyone’s laughing at me like it’s a complete waste of time.”
“Surprisingly, I passed,” she laughed.
Reed, who will be 80 in May, is the oldest student Savannah Law School has had and she takes great delight in watching her much younger classmates puzzle over why the plaintiffs in some of the older cases didn’t just “call someone.”
You don’t understand, she tells them, there weren’t cellphones.
“There weren’t phones!”
Technology has changed drastically. So has society.
When Reed was her classmates’ age, she couldn’t apply for a loan or a credit card.
“A woman’s signature had no value,” she said.
Women couldn’t get their maiden names back after a divorce.
Pregnant women had to give up their jobs.
And not every profession was available to women.
Today, she said, there are more women in law school than men.
This makes her happy, but she hopes her story can serve as a reminder to the women in her classes that it wasn’t always this way and that there’s more work to be done.
While on the road, Reed found her passion in educating migrant workers on birth control and reproductive health. She eventually earned a master’s in public health and threw herself into helping the immigrant community.
After she graduates from law school, Reed plans to use her degree to help immigrants and abused women navigate the legal system.
In the meantime, she has a lot of flashcards to make.
“I have to study 24-7,” Reed said. “When my professors ask if we want extra credit, I say ‘You better believe it.’”
Her daughter, Liz Haslund, helps by quizzing her on cases and driving her to and from school.
“I think she’s their token,” Haslund said, laughing.
That doesn’t bother Reed one bit.
“Ever since I was 50, I’ve wanted to go to law school,” Reed said. “It was on my bucket list.”
Life got in the way, though.
She went to Hollywood to try her hand at character acting. She took care of her mother. She had a few serious health scares herself.
She told herself, “Maybe someday.”
“As long as you’re physically and mentally healthy,” she said, “you’re not too old.”
You just have to stay focused on the here and now and not on the age you’ll be when you graduate, she said.
“I never think about that. If I thought about that I’d quit. You have to think about it one day at time or else you would cry.”