Sarah Gallardo is a survivor as well as an advocate and counselor for victims of domestic violence. She founded Sarah Speaks Up, a nonprofit that promotes awareness about domestic violence and ensures that victims are given the resources and support they need after leaving an abusive relationship. She speaks at events and works with victims of domestic abuse. She is also the author of the book Hiding in Plain Sight.
Gallardo grew up in Berlin, Connecticut. Right out of high school, she attended Berklee College of Music for singing, and incorporates her love for music into her counseling to this day. After leaving a ten-year abusive relationship, she studied at Central Connecticut State University with a major in communications. She also volunteered at the Prudence Crandall Center, a service center in New Britain, Connecticut, for victims of domestic violence.
We sent Blue Muse staff writer Emma Nelson to discuss Gallardo’s experience as a domestic violence survivor, how it’s empowered her, and her current work with survivors.
“Sarah greeted me with a smile and we walked up the stairs to the second floor of the CCSU Student Center. Dressed in a blue blouse with little white deer and forest-green pants, she sat in the chair next to me, her legs pulled up in a crisscross position, and shared her lemon-raspberry hard candies from Trader Joe’s. After we finished with the interview and the pictures, she left and I sat in the aftershock, still taking it all in. She answered every question with a level of honesty I had not anticipated. She’s dedicated to spreading awareness to prevent anyone from becoming a victim. What amazed me most was all the laughter we exchanged throughout the interview. To carry such light after a decade of emotional and physical bruises is indeed a superpower.”
How was your homelife as a child?
It was difficult. I’m the oldest of three so I did a lot of the parenting stuff for [my siblings] while my parents worked. There was substance abuse on both ends, so it was kind of like trying to find normal all the time. As a kid that’s a difficult thing to do, so it was really just a matter of navigating things to the best of my ability. I know that shaped a lot of my decisions. I think that is common for abuse survivors but it’s not standard across the board. Some people find themselves in abusive relationships and they’ve had perfectly normal childhoods. I think it comes down to a lack of awareness about people who are toxic. There’s always an element of a lack of self-awareness, understanding, or self-love.
What was your idea of marriage when you were younger?
I never had a fairy-tale idea of marriage. I was always very hopeful. I thought I could love someone so staunchly that I could bring them around and help them and heal them and change them and make their life better. I saw my parents’ marriage and it wasn’t healthy, although I didn’t fully understand that yet. I wanted this redemption. I wanted to take something like that and fix it. That’s a common theme for people who find themselves in abusive situations. They think they can change the person. They can’t. You only have control over yourself.
Children are often left unprepared for experiences they may face as adults.
When you’re a little kid and somebody asks you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?,” nobody says they want to be a domestic violence survivor. You don’t know that’s a thing. As a kid, I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was abuse. I was just watching it happen as it was happening to me. It was just life. Normal. But now, with everything I know, I don’t think there was any way I could have avoided it. There was no education. In Girl Scouts we talked a lot about recycling and saying “no” to drugs. We didn’t really touch upon bullying. Time wise, I was right in front of that conversation coming to light.
What was the case with your former husband?
At first he was very attentive and kind. He made me feel like the sun rose and set with me. Now there’s a term for that: love bombing. In relationships, that’s actually typical of abusive people and one of the red flags about that is it’s more [affection] than your typical relationship. It’s very tough to tell. I can tell when I’m observing people, but when someone is in it, they think that’s normal. My ex-husband’s behavior escalated kind of slowly. First, it was breaking my things: the car, the phone, anything in my apartment, punching holes in the wall, and kicking the driver’s side mirror off my car. Then once they realize they can get away with breaking and harming your property, they’ll slowly escalate to harming you physically. That’s what ended up happening.
What types of abuse did you face in your relationship?
Pick a type. Emotional abuse, spiritual abuse. I wasn’t really allowed to read books because then I’m paying attention to something else. Another kind I talk about, because nobody really talks about it, is reproductive abuse. There’s two ways in which that manifests itself. One is when one person wants a child and the other person uses the possibility of pregnancy to control an outcome. So, “We’ll try for a baby if you do x, y, and z.” “We’re not ready yet but you have to do this and then we will be.” That’s just a tool of control and manipulation.
For me, I didn’t want to have a child with this person because I knew he was abusive. He wanted [a child] because in his mind that was something—someone—who would link us together and I would have less choice about staying with him, or so he thought. I wasn’t allowed to take birth control pills. I would hide them because I was trying to not get pregnant. He would find them and beat me and rape me and I would eventually get pregnant. Twice. I had two miscarriages before my third pregnancy which followed the same pattern: find the pills, get beat up, and get pregnant. By the third pregnancy, I was just not sure. I wanted to be excited. But I felt that nothing really was very different. I was still hit while I was pregnant with my daughter. In order to protect her, I would wedge my stomach in the corner of a room so he couldn’t reach it. That was the most difficult form of abuse for me: to use something as beautiful as a child in a pregnancy against a person. Then he would tell me I wasn’t strong enough to carry a child—it was my fault that I had the miscarriages. It just breaks you down.
Walk me through the process of leaving that relationship.
The statistics sort of waver, but it takes a person an average of seven attempts to leave an abusive relationship. That might have changed to nine, but I’ve always known an average of seven. For me, it was much more than that. I tried to leave so many more times. It was almost once a week at one point. He made it into a joke actually: “If the cat’s gone, Sarah’s trying to leave.” I always came back because he’d threaten my pets, he’d threaten my family, he’d threaten me, he’d find me. It was scary.
One of the most dangerous times is when a person is leaving that relationship because the abuser’s behavior escalates exponentially. My aunt called me on my house phone. I had a cat, a dog, a baby, and a live-in terrorist. He was standing in the room because that was typical. You don’t talk on the phone without him there. She told me to act like something happened, so I gasped. She said, “Okay, now say ‘Is Grandma okay?’ ” And I replied, “Is Grandma okay?” She said, “Now listen, the police are going to be coming to your apartment. Pack as much as you can, now. Get the dog, leave the cat, take the baby, and get out. They won’t show up until you’re gone. Pack what you can. Get them out. Drive to my house. That’s it, that’s all you do. Don’t think, just do it. Now say, ‘I will be right there.’ That’s it.” I said, “Oh my God, I’ll be right there.” And hung up. I was very frantic. Legitimately, I was shaking. My hands were shaking so much. I remember my breast pump falling apart when I tried to put it in the bag. I got dog food and the baby stuff but I packed nothing for myself. Nothing. I said I had to go, something about my grandma, and drove away.
Once I got to the house, my aunt called her friend who worked for the Department of Children and Families. They went to the apartment and in order to have no DCF involvement, I had to decide right then and there if I would help them find the evidence they needed to put him in jail. If not, I had a long list of consequences. I was on the phone with the officer and while she was in my apartment. I said, “Look here for this, and look here for this.” I told her everything. Then they arrested him and he went to prison for four years.
It’s important for victims of domestic violence to access the resources available to them to protect themselves.
His prison time saved me because that’s when I started to go to the Prudence Crandall Center. I never went back to him. He would tell me, “I’m supposed to come home to you. It’s your fault we’re not a family anymore.” Thank God I learned enough to know that that was just lies and manipulation. But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known. There’s a certain amount of due diligence you have to do yourself. You can’t just leave one abusive relationship and think you know what to do the next time because chances are, you don’t.
One of the most dangerous times is when a person is leaving that relationship because the abuser’s behavior escalates exponentially.
Going through such a horrible situation, what kept you going? Was there anything or anyone who gave you strength?
My daughter. I will never forget holding her for the first time and thinking I am not gonna let anyone hurt this little girl. And then I thought, if she learned that the way I’m treated is okay for her to be treated, that would be my fault. My responsibility. I would have silently taught her that was acceptable and I couldn’t let that happen. She’s kept me going more times than I can say.
Tell me about the evolution of Sarah Speaks Up. How did it start? What inspired the name?
Oh, this is a fun story. I got the name because I was doing a speech for the Prudence Crandall Center and one of the first ones was to an organization called Soroptimist International of the Americas. They were funding the Prudence Crandall Center. One of the women at the meeting was Kathy McAfee—she [calls herself] America’s Marketing Motivator—and she’s a wonderful woman. She was kind of like my guru. You have to surround yourself with smart, intelligent, resourceful people, and then listen to them. I remember being on the phone with her. I had just done a speech to eighteen hundred women at the Women in Business Summit. We’re on the phone and she says to me, “What are we gonna call it?” We eventually settled on Sarah Speaks Up. She was like, “Oh, it’s available! Go on GoDaddy right now and put it there! Buy it!” I got the rights, the email address, and that was that for the name.
In terms of how I got here, speaking for Prudence Crandall Center. People would wait and form a little line and say, “I really needed to hear that.” “I’ve been through that.” “Someone is going through that right now and I don’t know how to help them.” There wasn’t really a light bulb moment. There’s this need. You can either choose to meet the need or you can keep going in life and proceed as if this wasn’t something you could fill. I decided to fill it.
How did your personal experience going through domestic abuse empower you to advocate for victims through Sarah Speaks Up?
I saw it as a really unfortunate field experience. You can read all the books you want on abuse and domestic violence and that’s fine. If I got my doctorate and never experienced it, I would know things differently than I do now. I decided to make use of what I learned and do something good with it.
You created a program within Sarah Speaks Up called “Veterans for Victims” for survivors of domestic abuse once they face their abusers in court.
We did two pilots of the Veterans for Victims program. Two survivors used the service and they both said that what it did was free up their mind to be present in order to do the task at hand, meaning, “I’m there to tell this story of what happened and I didn’t have to think about if I was safe here and there. That was handled for me.” It’s about alleviating as much fear as we can and instilling as much support as possible.
Veterans seemed to fit perfectly because the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder in both groups of people is something that not really everyone connects to, but I know that veterans know what it feels like to open a door somewhere and not know if there’s a man on the other side with a gun. Their war is overseas. Our war is in our homes. Getting them involved in the community and feeling important and active and needed helps them because they come back and they have their own struggles reorienting and assimilating with civilian life.
How did you come to volunteer at the Prudence Crandall Center?
I attended a domestic violence survivor support group every week faithfully for four years until the facilitator said to me, “I’m happy you come every week still but you’re not getting anything anymore, you’re counseling the people now.” She told me I should really consider becoming a certified domestic violence counselor. It took me awhile to consider that. I wasn’t sure if I was ready and I didn’t know what it would be like. I also knew that once I made that decision, I was no longer a client of theirs so I couldn’t use their resources. But I didn’t really need the resources anymore. After a twenty-hour training through the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence (CCADV), I became a domestic violence counselor. I also started speaking for them and writing as well, then slowly branched off to do my own thing.
What did you do as a volunteer at the Prudence Crandall Center?
I took over the support group that I had been attending as a facilitator. First, I checked with the women because I wanted to make sure that they didn’t feel like I was now sort of preaching to them, whereas before I was one of them. But they thought it was great.
The Prudence Crandall Center prioritizes domestic violence victims’ safety above all.
They have a twenty-four-hour staff that will do anything and everything. They’ve located people out of the country. I know of at least one case where they had to. One great thing—and this is something I’m grateful for—is that while I was getting counseling, they had a room for the kids to go. So there’s childcare for free. The kids learn about safe touch, how to dial 911, where to go if Mom and Dad are fighting, and how to keep themselves safe. And it’s talked about in a way that’s not scary or invasive.
I was looking on the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence website and read that “On average, nearly twenty people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to nearly 10 million men and women.” What can be done to lower these numbers?
I think about that every day. This one minute passed and twenty people went through this. Every day. We have to tell people before it becomes an issue because if we’re playing defense, we’re automatically behind the eight-ball. We have to play offense. If your parents don’t know what healthy relationships are, they can’t teach you. If you’re looking at a culture of kids who were raised by people who weren’t healthy or didn’t know themselves, then you’re just creating this vicious cycle of people who don’t know. You have to tell kids and teenagers and prepare them because by the time they’re leaving high school and starting college, they’re fresh meat. They’re fair game. Your parents aren’t following you twenty-four seven knowing what’s going on. A lot of times, whoever’s abusing you has you lying, hiding things, and is isolating you. You’re a sitting duck, unfortunately.
Though statistically not as often as women, men have been victims of domestic violence.
Men think they have to fit in this box and if they don’t, then they’ll be perceived negatively by the people around them. I am very sympathetic to them because of toxic masculinity and society’s expectations of men being tough guys. I’ve worked very closely with men. They sounded exactly like what women have said in the past. Gender played no part in it. Domestic violence isn’t a gender issue. It isn’t a race or demographic. It’s not financial. It has nothing to do with anything. It is no respecter of persons. You can go through it anywhere, anytime, and the perpetrator can be anyone, from a janitor to a state’s attorney. It doesn’t matter. Behind closed doors, a person does not show you the face they show in public. Oftentimes, people think that person is the best. They’re great. Their public persona is extremely likable and that makes it difficult for the victims to be believed.
You wrote a book called Hiding in Plain Sight about your experience with domestic abuse to educate others on the issue.
It is literally a glimpse into the reality of domestic violence. I made it short because it’s a hard topic to read. I didn’t want to browbeat people with the terror—it was important for me to help people understand. I do plan on doing a second edition because when I was writing this, I was in a very different frame of mind and I really had to power through. There was a point at which I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish it because it was so tough. My editor and I worked hard to portray different scenarios that were different enough to not be like, “Every day I got home and got beat up.” The second half of the book provides resources and definitions just to give hope and direction. I have an outline started of another book about the healing process focusing a lot more on recovery because I think when you go through something like this you don’t always know what to do or where to go.
Another book I have planned is a series of other people’s stories. I have certain people who I’ve already connected with that are in the process of writing pieces of their experience. I’ll commentate, pointing out “This is manipulation.” or “When this part happened in the story, this was that.” I try to connect the dots for people so that if they’re in that kind of situation, maybe it can snap for them.
They sounded exactly like what women have said in the past. Gender played no part in it. Domestic violence isn’t a gender issue. It isn’t a race or demographic. It’s not financial. It has nothing to do with anything. It is no respecter of persons.
You’re giving survivors a voice.
It’s important to empower other people. None of this is really about me. It’s not my voice. It’s a topic that affects everyone. Other people should be heard and if they don’t know how to write their own book or if they want to say something, they should have the opportunity to do that.
The domestic violence movement began forty years ago, but we still have a lot of work to do. What steps do you feel need to be taken to protect victims, prevent abuse, and ultimately forward our progress?
We’re not preventing. We’re treating. The legal process still needs a lot of work. It’s so daunting for everyone who goes through this. Victims are usually a deer in headlights across the board. They don’t know where to go, what their rights are, and a lot of the laws. Everyone deserves due process, so they’re not going to assume that the abuser is abusive until they’ve gone through all the checks and balances to make sure that’s true. How that affects victims is that it makes them feel invalidated, overlooked, and not believed. It makes them feel not supported. And I know that CCADV works hard with legislators. They have the Connecticut Domestic Violence Fatality Review Task Force that meets, I believe once a month, at the legislative office building and they do a lot of work in the communities. Connecticut is one of the most progressive states in terms of domestic violence laws, so although people do struggle here, some places are very much behind. The two main things to forward our progress are education and the legal system, that way we can catch the abuse ahead of time.
Emma Nelson is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine.
Header Image by Emma Nelson for Blue Muse Magazine.