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Stories of Courage: Sil Lai and Brooke
Sil Lai’s Story
By all accounts, Sil Lai was an ideal employee. She worked hard at her job, providing administrative support for three vice presidents at an international investment bank. She lived with her two young children and her boyfriend, a handsome fashion model who is the father of her youngest child. Other employees noticed the assortment of family photos she proudly displayed on her desk, and commented often on her beautiful young family.
Unknown to those around her, her happy home was an illusion. Her boyfriend verbally abused her daily and cut her off from her friends. She thought if they were able to get help that he would change, so they went to couples counseling, but it didn't work. His emotional violence escalated and he beat her several times, once while pregnant with their child. "I was terrified of being alone and raising my children without a father in the home," she said. "I just wanted a 'normal' life."
When his modeling assignments stopped, her boyfriend refused to get a job. Sil Lai struggled to make ends meet, stretching her small secretary's salary to provide for their family of four. Finally, after being out of work for a year, her boyfriend took a job in the mailroom of the bank that she worked for. Things looked like they were getting better. But they didn't.
Now that they worked at the same company, he started exerting his control over Sil Lai there as well. Her work began to suffer more and more as her relationship spiraled further and further into violence and chaos. On occasion, Sil Lai would call in sick, too emotionally frazzled to concentrate on her work. After three or four of these "sick days," her supervisor started to suspect that something was wrong. Yet even after coming to work with bruises around her neck from her boyfriend's attack the previous day, Sil Lai found it difficult to speak up. "I was ashamed of my situation and didn't want to risk losing my bosses' respect. I thought I would lose my job if they knew what was going on."
Eventually, once her boyfriend began menacing her on the phone at work, Sil Lai opened up about what was happening at home. "My supervisor reported him to the security department. And that's when things really got crazy."
Sil Lai's boyfriend was fired from his job in the mailroom, and he threatened to kill her. Sil Lai got help from Safe Horizon and was able to successfully move on and rebuild her life. Today she works with Safe Horizon to educate corporations on how to recognize the signs of domestic violence. "I am fortunate to have had a supervisor who was supportive and didn't judge me because of what my boyfriend was doing. If she had reacted differently... if I had lost my job because he was a threat to my coworkers, I would have ended up battered and homeless."
Brooke's life seemed a quintessential corporate success story. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa and Magna Cum Laude from Smith College, married an Ivy League graduate, lived in a brownstone just off Fifth Avenue, and belonged to a country club.
She was on the management track at Time, Inc., and her husband worked across the street at one of the city's leading investment banks. Yet, her life was a perfect hell.
"My husband regularly tied me up, beat me, locked me out of our home, isolated me from family and friends, and blamed me literally for everything," said Brooke McMurray. One night on their way home from their country club, he stopped on the Long Island Expressway, opened the car door and pushed her out. He stalked her at lunch and before and after work.
She began to take the freight elevator to avoid her husband lurking in the lobby of her midtown office. The elevator operator became the only person at work to know of the real danger her own spouse posed to her, and possibly, to her coworkers as well. Thankfully, building security stopped him from reaching her office. "It was my only safe haven," McMurray said. "It was a place where I came to rest."
In the 1970s domestic violence didn't have a name. There were no hotlines, no emergency shelters. It was never written or talked about. One night a police officer came to their home, told them to "keep it down," then left. Once, as an officer climbed the stairs, McMurray heard him tell his partner, "It's just a domestic."
"I hurt all the time and felt convinced I was useless. But no matter how terrified I was to leave, I thought – what could be worse?"
Eventually, McMurray summoned the courage to escape – and survived. She was lucky. She didn't lose her job and was able to rebuild her life. Today she takes every opportunity to help others in similar circumstances.
"Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, 'Sunlight is the best disinfectant,'" said Ms. McMurray. "I hope that my story will not only help other working women seek help, but also inspire corporate America to recognize the real impact of domestic violence on their employees and their financial stability."
The elevator operator shouldn't be the only employee empowered to support a victim of domestic violence in the workplace. Through SafeWork, all of corporate America can lead change to protect employees and the corporations for which they work.