by Amanda Kippert | domesticshelters.org
Kristina* was 33 and a single mom working in IT for a medical clinic when she met James through an online dating site.
“I had been alone for a while and one of my coworkers convinced me to join. They said I needed a date and helped me set it up. James was one of the first people I spoke to.”
She was surprised by how much they had in common. Practically everything.
“I’m a geek,” she says with a laugh. “A gamer. I like alternative music, and this is a country music place,” she says of her small Texas town. James, too, apparently liked sci-fi culture and video games, which was immediately appealing.
Looking back, she recognizes he was grooming her, parroting her every like as his own. She missed it, she says, calling herself a “naïve trusting person” with a “small-town mentality.”
“I’ve never really had exposure to anything other than good kind people.”
James was upfront about the fact that he’d recently been shot by his second wife, Robin. That was in November 2013. Kristina met him the following May, 2014.
“He gave me this whole sob story that his alcoholic ex-wife, who he wanted to help more than anything and whose son he loved more than anything, how, when he tried to get her help, shot him in the face.
Kristina says, “It hurt my heart that this man loved this woman and kid and it had gone so badly.” She had no reason to doubt his side of the story in the beginning, especially after he sent her links to news articles about the incident, which failed to mention any details of domestic violence.
“It doesn’t say that it was self-defense. It doesn’t say anything other than, basically, Robin shot him,” remembers Kristina.
James told her that Robin was in prison and that he was afraid for when she got out, that she might come and kill him. He told Kristina he had PTSD. He also said he’d “never really experienced love.”
“Coming from a dysfunctional family myself, I thought, I could love him better.”
Later, her boss would tell her, fixer-uppers are for cars, not for people.
“I think that’s a very good bit of advice we should all take to heart.”
In the beginning, “Everything was just really fun,” she says of their relationship. James started coming over to her house frequently—he had moved in with his parents after the shooting— and seemed genuinely devoted to bonding with Kristina’s then-9-year-old daughter.
“He showered her with adoration and attention,” she says, though in hindsight, she recognizes it as love-bombing, a term she didn’t know then.
She started having high hopes that her and James would work out. After two failed marriages, Kristina was ready to find that “hopelessly romantic love” she says she knew must exist.
“Less than six months later, we got pregnant. It wasn’t necessarily on purpose, but if it happened, it happened.” Eight weeks in, they were told it was identical twins. Kristina was over the moon, but she says something changed in her once-devoted boyfriend.
“He let his mask start to slip a little bit. He began getting really frustrated, really angry, easily. I chalked it up to the stress.”
James was unemployed, waiting for his disability claim to go through after the shooting, and the couple didn’t know what they’d do for money once the babies were born and Kristina had to take an extended leave from her job.
“I began pressing him to look for a job—anything we could do to save money—and I would get frustrated that he just didn’t seem to have any desire to help with that.”
When she was four months into the pregnancy, James moved in. Kristina paid all the bills while James stayed home, spending copious amounts of her money on things like computers, video games and clothes. Even when Kristina was relegated to bedrest near the end of her pregnancy to prevent complications before birth, James wouldn’t care for her. She still had to get up and make food, do the laundry and dishes, and pick up her daughter from school.
James was approved for disability two weeks before she delivered, but it didn’t ease the tension. When he got mad at Kristina, he’d throw things in the house.
“He didn’t actually put his hands on me,” she says, “but he’d get close and block me with his body to keep me from leaving.”
When the twins were six weeks old, Kristina booked a cabin as a getaway for her, James and the kids. One evening, she left James with the babies while she and her daughter ran to the store. But when the GPS in her car malfunctioned, they found themselves lost. It was two hours later, nearly 10 p.m., when they walked through the cabin door to fussy babies and an irate James.
“My daughter went to bed and as soon as she shut the door, he just lost his mind,” says Kristina. “He pulled out his gun and said he was going to kill himself.” Kristina went for the phone to call the police, but before she could dial, she saw James go outside. He threw himself down a nearby embankment. When he stood up, his clothes and hair a mess, it appeared like he’d been in a fight.
“Go ahead and call the police,” he challenged her. “I’ll tell them what you did to me.”
That’s when Kristina knew she needed to formulate an escape plan. When they got home, she reached out to a friend who worked at a domestic violence shelter. Surprisingly, her friend was expecting the call—she had been waiting for Kristina to come to terms with the fact that James was abusive.
“I was floored. It was literally to the point where I was convinced I was the crazy one,” says Kristina, before she started googling words like “gaslighting” and “narcissist.” When she landed on the latter, she found herself glued to the computer for nearly three nights straight while James slept.
“I thought, oh my god, this makes sense! I called my friend on the way to work and just cried and cried. I realized… I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.”
One barrier Kristina faced was that she relied on James to care for their twins while she worked and was unsure how to leave him when she couldn’t afford daycare. At the same time, she knew he wasn’t doing much more than keeping the children alive during the day. She eventually installed cameras in her house and saw James lock himself in the toddlers’ bedroom, falling asleep on the floor of the room while they entertained themselves.
She says she soon felt herself on the verge of a nervous breakdown, working up to 20 hours a day and dealing with the tumultuous homelife. When his mom passed away, James abuse ramped up.
“He would say the most terrible things. [In the car], he once turned to my 2-year-old baby girl and screamed in her face, ‘Shut up, stupid!’ It was all I could to not open up the door to the minivan and push him out the door.”
She also found out he was talking to other women online, trying to garner sympathy. He would tell them he couldn’t speak because he was shot.
“When we were home, he could yell at me just fine,” says Kristina.
While she was at work, James would often try to pick fights by texting her repeatedly, sometimes upwards of a few hundred times a day. Kristina decided she couldn’t take it anymore. After safety planning with her friend at the shelter, she put her plan into place. She told her friend she was going to end it with James and if her friend didn’t hear from her in an hour to call 911.
“I told James, ‘Your anger is not my responsibility. And I’m done. I’m out of empathy for you.’ He just kept screaming, ‘My mother just died!’” He threw his e-cigarette at Kristina’s head. He went outside, picked up a porch chair and flipped it over. He accused Kristina of cheating, which was a common accusation. Kristina ran inside the house, locked the door and called the local sheriff’s department. By the time they arrived to her rural home, James was gone.
“The officer said, ‘Well, there ain’t no blood on you,’ and wouldn’t help me,” remembers Kristina. “I was hysterical, sobbing, with my small children at home, terrified he’d come back and kill me.” She had recorded their earlier fight, for evidence. The officer refused to listen to it, telling her it was a civil matter, not a criminal one.
Distraught, Kristina says she reached out to a former friend of James that night, via social media. She told him what was going on. He connected her with Robin, James’ ex-wife who had shot him. He also gave her Lindsey’s number, James’ first wife.
“I made a group text and said, I’m really scared. I just need to know the truth.’ They both told me, ‘You’re in danger. You need to be careful.’ It was instant.”
From there, the three women began to form a bond.
The next day, Kristina took her children to her mom’s house in Houston some 250 miles away—she had to fly to a work conference that had been booked months prior. James tried to apologize via text for the evening prior and said he was going to get help. Except he didn’t get help—he reported Kristina’s mom for kidnapping his children. Police came looking for them at the church where Kristina’s mom worked as a preacher.
“I told her to go to a hotel. I flew home at 2 a.m., got my kids and went to a friend’s house and hid.”
Her boss gave Kristina a gun. She filed for an order of protection. She didn’t go to work for three weeks. Finally, she had her day in court.
“I pulled out all of this evidence [of abuse]—phone calls, threats he’d made, a Facebook post where he showed woman getting hit by a bus and saying, ‘This is going to be you.’” But the judge was hesitant to rule against James, Kristina says. “James was a former Marine and I had purple hair. That made me a horrible mother. I was under fire the minute I walked into that courtroom.”
Robin was willing to give Kristina evidence from her court case to use against James. “She met me in the middle of the night to bring me the box. She was so empathetic. I could tell that her heart was just broken.” She told Kristina that she’d wanted to warn her about James so badly, but that James had blocked her on all social media.
Still, James was never charged with domestic violence. Two years of court hearings and custody battles ensued. The first year, James was granted supervised visitation with the twins, every other Sunday. The second year, Kristina ran out of money trying to fight for sole custody, even after taking a second mortgage out on her house. James wanted a jury trial, but it cost $50,000, which she didn’t have.
“I had to give him everything he wanted. He gets them two weekends a month.”
She says she fell into a “very, very dark place” sending her kids to James the first year, in 2020. “I didn’t sleep, I didn’t eat, just cried.”
She started going to counseling at her local domestic violence shelter and doing EMDR therapy, which helped. Her night terrors dissipated. She’s still always worried, though, that he’ll hurt her children.
“The girls idolize him. I’ve never spoken ill of him. I can hear the things that he’s groomed them to say. He has them ask me why we’re not together. That’s hard. I feel like they’ll see through that eventually.”
James still tries to tell Kristina he loves her and wants them to try again, even though she’s in a new relationship now. She commiserates with Robin and Lindsey, the only two who really know what she’s going through.
“Whenever James gets drunk, he sends all three of us the same email,” says Kristina with a laugh. “It just helps to know it’s coming in all directions. It helps me feel like I’m not crazy.”
* Name changed for safety