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Spring 2003 | Volume 26, Number 2

Close to the Brokenhearted

Former victim of domestic violence counsels both the abused and their abusers.

At the center where Murphy first sought domestic abuse counseling, she counsels a woman, her granddaughter and her grandson (right photo).

NANCY MURPHY ’90 WAS a divorced mother of three — and all four were living out of her car — when she first heard the words “domestic violence.” In a class at Seattle Pacific University, a guest speaker described the continuum of violence in a relationship. The scale began with subtle put-downs and pinching. It progressed to pushing, kicking and hitting, eventually ending with murder-suicide. As Murphy recalls, “I looked at those behaviors and felt confused. I raised my hand and announced, ‘All those things have happened to me in my marriage, except the last one — murder-suicide — but I’m not a battered woman.’”

Her classmates laughed aloud at the contradiction. But the speaker looked at Murphy and asked, “All those things happened to you?” When she nodded, the speaker’s eyes filled with tears. Keeping eye contact, the speaker simply said, “I’m sorry.”

The two met for lunch after class that day, and Murphy learned more about the cycle of domestic violence. “For the first time,” she says, “I was given a name for my most painful experiences as a married woman.” Today, she is president of the Global Institute on Violence and Exploitation, and the executive director of Seattle’s Northwest Family Life Learning and Counseling Center, a private organization that helps both victims of domestic violence and offenders find healing. It is the same center where she first went as a client, a victim of past spousal abuse, in 1990.

“Finding my voice and being able to put words to my experiences,” says Murphy, “has unearthed opportunities.” That’s putting it mildly. Within the past two years, she has spoken out on issues of domestic violence at the United Nations in New York; for the Helsinki Commission in Washington, D.C.; and for the U.S. State Department in Warsaw, Poland.

During SPU’s Homecoming Weekend in February, Murphy was given the Medallion Award for her work as an advocate for abused women and children worldwide. Seattle Pacific Alumni Director Doug Taylor notes, “At the awards ceremony, people sensed what great Christian humility Nancy has. Some of them were crying as they came up after her talk and told her their own stories.”

The international human rights advocate has come a long way, she admits, from a tiny town in British Columbia. “Having grown up on a remote part of Vancouver Island, accessible only by boat or plane,” Murphy says, “this is a bit of a stretch for me.” But the truth needs to be uncovered, she says, because the problem is so widespread.

According to Murphy, domestic violence is a leading cause of injury and death to women worldwide. One in five women around the world is physically or sexually abused in her lifetime, and gender violence causes more death and disability among women aged 15 to 44 than cancer, malaria, car accidents or war.

“Regrettably,” she adds, “the church is not immune to this problem.” When Murphy found out at SPU that she had been a victim of spousal abuse, she was the Christian daughter of a missionary and a nurse. Divorced and living in her car with her three young children, she had fled a husband who was increasingly violent, but she refused to think that domestic abuse was the issue.

There had to be other explanations. “Domestic violence was what happened to ‘other people’ — poor people, unsaved people, alcoholics, uneducated people with low self-esteem and few opportunities,” Murphy rationalized. “I attributed the difficulties in our marriage to my own inability to be a ‘perfect’ wife or ‘good enough’ woman. I was convinced that something was so wrong with me that my husband had no other choice than to lash out.”

The following years were spent learning and healing. A community of friends took in Nancy and her children. For five years, says Murphy, “They encouraged us, provided safety and living space, listened over and over to some of the same stories, prayed often, and offered childcare and lots of good food and laughter.”

During that time, she worked on her bachelor’s degree at Seattle Pacific. Kenneth Tollefson, professor emeritus of anthropology, found Murphy to be a great student. “She could take things and run with them,” says Tollefson. “When she was going to SPU, she was taking care of her kids, getting counseling for herself and working at the Indian Cultural Center writing a manual for Native Americans on how to adjust to urban life when they got out of jail. She was getting and giving at the same time.”

Murphy went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling. In 1994, she remarried, this time to a “wonderful man and father of two,” and became executive director for Northwest Family Life. Most of her work at the center focuses on community development, training for professionals, and fund raising for a $2 million annual budget.

Sometimes, though, Murphy sits down and counsels abusive spouses. These male — or, rarely, female — offenders choose counseling over jail time. “First,” she says, “I tell them how thankful I am that they’ve come, because they are precious to us and to God. Then I ask them to tell their whole story.

“They have to plumb the depths of what they’ve done,” she says. “For forgiveness to happen, they need to understand and take responsibility for the pain they’ve caused. When you go to the depths, there’s the process of forgiving yourself, too.”

It is one thing to help those who are victims of domestic abuse, but it is a much different thing to help hold accountable and bring restoration to those who are the offenders. To explain why she has not run as far as possible from domestic abusers but prays with them instead, Murphy says, “If ‘God is close to the broken-hearted,’ then I want to be close to the broken-hearted. That way, I won’t be too far away from God.”

Editor’s Note: For more information about services and volunteer opportunities offered by Northwest Family Life Learning and Counseling Center, call 206/363-9601 or visit


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