Mildred Muhammad gestured to an ottoman in front of the small couch in her Bluffton hotel suite Friday afternoon.
“Put your feet up,” she said.
“Put your feet up,” she smiled.
“OK,” I told her, “but you have to do it too.”
I stuck my legs out straight in front of me. She sat down, sat back and did the same.
Then we looked at each other and laughed as if we already knew each other.
And in a way we did.
Or rather, I knew her.
Muhammad is the ex-wife of John Muhammad, the man known as “the D.C. sniper.”
In October 2002, John terrorized the Washington, D.C., area, and was caught just miles from where I lived at the time.
Over the course of three weeks, he killed 10 people and injured three. And he did so in the most cowardly of ways, giving his victims — all of whom were going about their lives in ordinary ways — no chance of protecting themselves or fighting back.
He lined them up in his sights and popped them off as if they weren’t human and as if nothing matters.
At the time, I worked at a newspaper in Frederick, Md., and each day and night I would run from the office to my car in a zig-zag. It sounds funny now. It was not funny then.
It still ranks among the Top 10 most stressful times of my life.
And yet I was not shot. I was not hurt. I have no scars to show you to further illustrate this point of feeling harmed by someone else.
Which brings me back to Mildred Muhammad.
We sat in her hotel room for an hour and chatted about that horrible time, of course, but also about emotional abuse.
She had just flown in from Baltimore on what turned out to be a sunny but miserably hot afternoon in the Lowcountry last Friday. And she was planning to speak at a fundraiser for Hopeful Horizons in just a few hours.
Hopeful Horizons serves victims of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence in the Lowcountry. It is a new organization created from the merger of Hope Haven and Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse. It is an organization that Mildred Muhammad wishes had been around for her when she was suffering because of an abusive spouse, when she felt so alone and like she had nowhere to go.
John never hit Mildred. They were married for 12 years and at first he was a good husband and father, she said. But when he came home after serving in the Gulf War, he had changed.
He would sit in the corner and rock. He would threaten her, lash her with insults and play head games. He would disparage her in front of their friends.
“It’s mind over matter,” he would tell her when she’d question his attitude. “I don’t mind because you don’t matter.”
She had fallen in love with him because he was an Alpha male. He was strong and tough but also sensitive and kind. He was a fixer. And he was a man of his word. He did what he said he would do, which is why she did not doubt him one bit the day he told her, “You have become my enemy. And as my enemy, I will kill you.”
Mildred was John’s ultimate target. The body count was just the distraction.
The man, who has since been executed, planned to finish the job by killing Mildred, regaining custody of their children and cashing in on Mildred’s death, she told me.
People blamed her for the deaths. They blamed her for leaving him. They blamed her because she was alive.
“Nobody wanted to be my friend,” she said. Worse, she couldn’t trust anyone’s motives. People were cashing in however they could, and that didn’t exclude therapists.
Instead, she and her three children had to navigate this uncharted territory alone. She had to unpack all their emotional baggage, all the horrid feelings from the past, all the horrid feelings from the present, all the confusion and anguish and just talk about it until it didn’t hurt anymore.
And what she didn’t say out loud to her kids, she told to her journal.
“It helped me uncover the pain under the pain,” she said. “It took my anger. It took my emotion.”
Since that time Mildred has written books about her experiences and about what women who are being abused can do to get out of their situations alive. Her latest memoir “I’m Still Standing: Crawling Out of the Darkness into the Light” covers the time during John’s conviction and his execution.
She is also a life coach and speaks at events across the country to bring attention to domestic abuse. She wants women to know that the sins of their spouse are not their shame or guilt to carry with them.
“The guilt and the shame? That’s his. That’s John’s,” she said of his abuse and subsequent crimes. “I didn’t pick this fool. I picked his representative.”
That night at the Hopeful Horizons fundraiser, Mildred would share her story with around 200 people. She would hammer home the point that emotional abuse from a partner is, under every circumstance, domestic abuse. And she would instruct everyone in the audience on how best to help an abused friend in need.
It boils down to one question no one ever asks victims of abuse: How can I help?
“Not ‘You need to’ ... ‘or you should have’ ... ‘or you could have,’” she said.
“How can I help?”