The Woman Who Wouldn't Die
The first-person story of a woman who survived years of abuse and hours of torture by her husband. Originally published in the Palm Beach Post on December 6, 1998.
"I keep all my little horrors in this suitcase," Sandra Manning says in the dim light of her living room.
The American Tourister - bright red and solid - keeps everything locked up tight. She flips it open, reaches in.
"Here," she says, matter-of-factly, fingering a faded Polaroid, "is the monster." He is a handsome man, with mahogany skin and a big white smile, and at the moment Sandy snapped the photo, he was perched on the edge of a park fountain, hugging his three small children. The very image, Sandy says, of "a regular guy."
Except now, in the American Tourister, is another picture - the regular guy's booking mug. No big white smile, just two glassy eyes confronting the police camera. Then there's more. Tucked beneath the mug shot are the police reports, which detail exactly what he did to her, on the winter afternoon she almost died.
Beneath the police reports are the court papers, which assign Sandy Manning's monster to a brief prison term - over, it seemed to her, before the ink dried on the tabloid stories.
And here is a picture of Sandy, in her hospital bed, oxygen tubes curling up to her nose, a blue pillow resting lightly across her chest, covering the bandages that bind the holes her husband made when he stabbed her over and over in the marsh beyond the railroad tracks way out on the Beeline Highway.
The stab wounds healed.
That was the easy part.
"My children, my babies, they're everything to me. They have been through so many traumas in their short lives. One day life was one way, and then it was just total upheaval.
"Lindsey's 9, the oldest, she saw the most violence, so she carries the most pain. She still dreams her father's going to stab me, shoot me. I was in the tub one night and she came in, sat down on the toilet seat, said, `Mommy, what will we do if Daddy Mike kills you?' And I told her, `Only thing we can do is pray, baby,' so that's what we did, right there on the bathroom floor.
"Mikey's 7, looks just like his daddy. When he started kindergarten, he was real moody. Lately, he's been worse. One night we were lying on the couch and he kept holding his breath, putting the covers over his head, saying he didn't want to live in this world, that it was too painful. Mikey's counselor thinks the night terrors are tied in with the fear he's going to grow up like his father. Mikey has told him, why does he have to have the same name as the murderer?
"Courtney's the youngest, 6. She's very withdrawn. Courtney will not talk to you. I mean, she will not talk to you. She was not even a year old when all this happened, but I feel like the after-effects have gotten to her.
"My kids, they're angry because they don't have normalcy like other kids do, not by a long shot. And they worry just as much as I do that he's going to come back. One time Lindsey thought she saw him at the Texaco and she ran home screaming, `Mommy! Mommy! I think I saw Daddy Mike!' She just freaked out. I know just how she feels because sometimes I think I see him, too."
There is no simple way to explain what happened.
Sometimes, in the shorthand people use when they have talked about something too many times, Sandy will say, in a single breath, to dispense with it: "My husband kidnapped me and stabbed me and tortured me and I almost died and God knows why I didn't." And unless you already know the story - perhaps you opened the morning paper six years ago and saw the headline, or watched the TV news accounts - you think surely she must be exaggerating. Because who on Earth could survive all that?
Other times, if she's in an upbeat mood and doesn't want to bring herself down, Sandy will refer to "The Incident," pause a bit for emphasis, and let it go at that. Only the very curious will inquire further.
To really understand what happened to Sandy Manning you would have to know 100 little things:
That one morning after a weekend of domestic abuse, she finally got up her nerve to flee - straight down Interstate 95 in her pink nightgown with nothing but her three groggy children and the promise of shelter in a safe house.
That a few weeks later, while living an underground life, she went to court in the morning to renew a restraining order against her husband, and that very afternoon he abducted her at knifepoint.
That the restraining order was on the front seat of the old green Chrysler when he held the butcher knife to her throat and ordered her to drive, north and west through Palm Beach County, toward nowhere.
That when they crossed the long, high bridge on the Beeline where she could see the tree tops blowing in the wind like unruly mops of hair, she thought about jumping out, but he said drive faster, Bitch - and she fought back tears as her chance disappeared in the rearview mirror.
That eventually they parked on a lonely stretch of road and he dragged her across the railroad tracks, and it was here that he stabbed her and held her face down in the brackish water and she said the Lord is my shepherd until her mind went numb.
That after he stabbed her, she pulled the knife from the spot near her heart and nearly sliced her fingers off, and still today she can't use her right hand to pick up a pencil.
That afterward he dragged her back to the car, where he drank Pepsi, and smoked Marlboro reds.
That he wasn't done.
That he beat her with a tire iron, picked her up and kissed her on the forehead. "I love you," he said.
That when the cops came, he blamed the crime on two masked men.
That throughout all of this - for 17 ungodly hours - Sandy Manning felt herself slipping away. But then her three children would visit some small, still-alive place in the back of her mind, and she would tell herself, again and again, taking up a mantra, "Sandy, don't you dare die. Sandy don't you dare die."
But even if you knew 100 little things, you still would not know the whole story, or even the most important part. Because after The Incident there was an investigation, and after the investigation there was a plea bargain, and after the plea bargain there was a brief prison sentence, and after the prison sentence Mike Jones went free, but the woman who had been his wife did not.
After The Incident, Sandy Manning wasn't Sandy Manning anymore, she was somebody else. Somebody who heard the monster's voice in her head. Somebody who hid in the bathtub every time a floorboard creaked. Somebody who three years later still could not chop fresh vegetables for her children's dinner, because chopping fresh vegetables means picking up a knife.
Maybe you've seen Sandy Manning. She is the woman staring blankly at the cereal boxes in the grocery store; the incapacitated soul in the welfare office trying to string together enough benefits to keep the lights on in her small, dim apartment; the weekly regular at group therapy, looking for magic answers when of course there are none.
She is the woman who drops out of the work force so he can't find her, then fights her way back. The woman who swallows too many pills and has her stomach pumped, and who in despair practices holding a revolver to her temple. The woman who wants to clear out of town because she's terrified - and who wants to stay put because she has a right to.
"I'll be looking over my shoulder forever," Sandy Manning says. "Because that day he hurt me, he killed me."