'I want to help women in those situations': Domestic violence author also a survivor
Working on her Ph.D. after earning two master's degrees gives Grayslake native and National Louis University professor Beth Schaefer the academic credentials to write a book about domestic violence. She also has the personal experience.
Of the 32 survivor stories in her oral history book, "Women Are With You," Schaefer, 44, spends one chapter examining her own abusive relationship, when, as a wife, pregnant woman and mother, she was verbally assaulted, choked and punched. As did the other 31 women in her book, Schaefer eventually took back control of her life and moved on without her abuser.
"I wrote the book because of the associated stigma attached," Schaefer says, explaining how it is important for women to be heard. "I'm not ashamed of what happened. I want to help women in those situations."
The daughter of Ted Schaefer, a College of Lake County professor, and Tricia Schaefer, a well-known cabaret singer, Schaefer blended her parents' talents. As the award-winning lead vocalist and acoustic guitarist of the "Elizabeth Schaefer Band" in the 1990s, she regularly performed in Madison, Wisconsin, where she went to college, as well as Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Bloomington, Indiana, New Orleans, St. Louis and New York.
She completed her college education in Germany and worked in Paris for two years before returning to Illinois in 2003 and taking a job as a manager in corporate communications and marketing.
"For almost a decade, I didn't do anything creative," says Schaefer, who left her husband after the birth of their son, is divorced and raising her 11-year-old son, Tony, by herself. Her life changed in 2012 when her dad died at age 73, six weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Five months later, her father appeared to her in a dream.
"I couldn't understand him, but I woke up and knew what I was going to do," says Schaefer, who quit her job, went back to school, started her Books on a Whim publishing company in 2014 and began teaching in 2015 at National Louis University, which has campuses in Wheeling, Lisle, Elgin, Skokie and Chicago. Her father won at outstanding teacher award at the College of Lake County in 2008, and a decade later, Schaefer won the distinguished teaching award at National Louis University.
Wanting to write a book interviewing victims of domestic violence, Schaefer literally found her first source by accident.
"I was driving back from teaching at the College of Lake County in Grayslake when someone rear-ended me," she says. "She was the first woman I interviewed. Sadly, it was easy to find more women."
The women she interviewed range in age from 18 to nearly 80, from people living well below the poverty line to a wealthy lawyer whose work required her to live in other countries. "Every woman I interviewed wanted to tell their story," Schaefer says, explaining how she put up fliers asking people to contact her. "Some were extremely shaken and cried during the interviews. I deliberately did not edit it because I wanted it to be authentic."
One of the common themes that surprised her was that abusive men often became more violent when the woman was pregnant. Often it was concern for a child's safety, not their own, that made women leave their abusers, Schaefer says. The cycle of women accepting their abusers' apologies and hoping things would improve is universal.
"I hope women start to see the red flags before it accelerates," Schaefer says, adding that she hopes her book spurs conversations about abuse, especially since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. "I don't need sympathy or want it. But I would like people to understand."
In addition to thanking her father and her mother, Schaefer says she was inspired by oral historians Studs Terkel and Anna Deavere Smith; and mentor Joanne B. Koch, director of the Master of Science in Written Communication Program at National Louis University. In this climate where giving voice to women can be seen as being anti-male, Schaefer says that isn't true, as evident by her children's book, "Sometimes I Wish I Had a Dad (and an Xbox)."
"It celebrates the men who are present in a child's life," Schaefer says, "demonstrating to fatherless children that positive male role models exist all around us."
• For information and support phone the National Domestic Violence Hotline 800 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org website.