her name was viola

Woman's back, facing sunrise, with quote "I couldn't talk back. I could barely breathe."

She worked in the Human Resources department of the same large county government that employed me as a lawyer.

At least half of the legal questions that pop up in a large local governmental body like that are employment-related, so I spent a lot of time in the HR office, usually speaking with the Director or his deputy.

But every time I’d wander over to answer another “Can we fire this person?” or “Do we have to approve FMLA leave here?” question, Viola would be the first person I saw when I pulled open the large glass door. She sat directly in front of the door, behind the faded formica counter that ran the length of the main room.

And her eyes would light up.

I write this not to show how close we were. We weren’t, not really. Not at all. This wasn’t some once-in-a-lifetime, instant-BFF kinship.

This was just how Viola greeted the world. With large, dark, lit-up eyes.

A few years after I began working for the county, I was transferred to the Public Safety division. One afternoon, I headed out to the detention center operated by our sheriff on the outskirts of town. We’d been sued by a man who’d deliberately shoved his fingertips in between the automatic locking door of his cell and the door jamb, neatly snipping off the ends of his fingers. We called it the “Jolly Rancher” case, because the CO on duty that day had heard the man yell out, and turned around in time to see two small, red, squarish … things in the corridor, and for a split second had thought “Who the hell threw Jolly Ranchers on the floor?”

As I walked into the large lobby of the center, I saw her behind another counter. I hadn’t known she’d been transferred, too. She saw me, and those remarkable eyes lit up one last time for me.

“How are you?”

“Great! You look good! How’s that baby?”

“Fine, sweet as sugar. When’d you move out here?”

“Few months ago.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yes.” There was emphasis behind that word, and it made me wonder what had happened back in HR. I remember thinking idly I’d have to pump one of my other HR contacts for the backstory.

And then I forgot about her for another six months, until the day I was driving to work and — for some strange reason —  decided to turn the radio station from NPR to a local news/talk channel I rarely listened to.

I know this next part will sound made-up, but it isn’t: literally the very first words I heard were:

“…murder-suicide at a home on Highway 544. The bodies of a man and a woman were found in the residence. The man’s identity is being withheld pending notification of next of kin, but the female victim is identified by HCPD as Viola Quiles…”

There was more, but it was just so much buzzing in my ears.

Viola Quiles?

Could there possibly be two Viola Quiles in the county?

Immediately, I knew the answer had to be “no,” but I couldn’t accept what that meant. So I called the detention center and asked to speak with the deputy administrator of the jail, who confirmed what I already knew.

There’s no point to this, besides the obvious. There’s no feel-good wrap up — “and that, folks, is why I dedicated my life to saving women from domestic violence…”

There’s nothing but the blank spot on the canvas where someone who lit up at the world used to stand, and no longer does.

All because the man who was supposed to love her decided one morning to take her life, and then his own.

Maybe that’s the point.

I’ve known other women whose lives were threatened by the people who were supposed to love them, too. Women who are only alive today because either they somehow found the strength and the resources to do what seemed impossible for so long and leave, or because their abusers somehow managed to wind up killing themselves before they could get around to killing my friends.

But when I think of domestic violence today, it’s Viola’s face I see first.

This post was inspired by Tamron Hall’s piece for the Today show this morning about DV. It’s worth watching. She also wrote a companion piece for the web, here. Tamron’s sister was also killed by her partner, also in 2004. The words on the image above are a quote from one of the survivors of domestic violence interviewed in that Today clip.

My friend’s name was Viola Quiles. Here’s part of her story; page 2 is here.


Photo credit: Leon Biss

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