I had never met Victor Rivers before this week, although I was pretty sure I had seen his face.
Maybe it was the “Zorro” movie with Antonio Banderas. Or maybe it was “Law & Order” on TV.
Either way, when I heard Rivers talk about domestic violence the other day in Ridgefield, the connection was immediate and visceral.
This is more than a story of busted lips and broken hearts, you see.
For me, it’s a story that hits too close to home.
The Cuban-born Rivers, whose real name is Victor Rivas, spent 15 years terrorized by his father, a man who would beat his wife and kids just as quickly as he would change the channel on a TV.
“So I learned to take it,” the 56-year-old Rivers said at the Leir Retreat Center. “But it was much harder for me to witness it against a family member.”
Rivers remembers seeing his father, Antonio, kick his mother in the stomach; Olga Rivas was nine months pregnant at the time with Victor’s brother, Robert, who was later born with severe birth defects.
Robert Rivas never made it past 9 years old, Rivers told the crowd of nearly 40 police chiefs, prosecutors, social workers, victim advocates and others from around the state.
Another time, Rivers said, Olga was so weak from the beatings she collapsed in the street while pushing her laundry carts home. She spent the next two weeks in the hospital as “Jane Doe” because she was afraid of what Antonio would do if he found her.
“I don’t remember my father ever hugging or kissing my mother,” Rivers said, “only hitting her.”
Once as a boy, Rivers said, he walked into the police department and took off his clothes to show cops the welts, burns and bruises inflicted by his father.
The police were sympathetic, Rivers said, but they didn’t arrest his father. Instead, the cops sent Rivers home and wrote off the case as “a private family matter,” a gross misnomer if ever there was one.
Rivers borrowed the loophole phrase for the title of his 2005 book, “A Private Family Matter,” which details his dark childhood and his rise to a successful acting career, thanks to friends, teachers, coaches and others who saved him.
Domestic violence affects everyone, Rivers will tell you, not just those with the courage to pick up a phone and call 911.
As the national spokesman for the National Network to End Domestic Violence, Rivers refutes the popular, convenient notion that this is a woman’s issue.
Clearly, it is not.
Domestic violence is the most under-reported crime in America, more than one official said Tuesday in Ridgefield. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, one in four women is a victim of domestic violence at least once in her lifetime.
Maybe that one in four is your mother. Or your sister. Or your daughter.
Maybe, it’s even you.
It’s the same for kids.
No child should have to grow up in a home where B-E-L-T is a four-letter word. Instead of standing up for his boys, the father I knew had them stand against the dresser.
More often than not, he poured rage from the bottom of a beer bottle. Even as little kids, my brother and I knew crying would only make the beatings worse.
“Be a man,” my father used to tell us.
He had no idea what the word meant.
Domestic violence doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t pick and choose its victims.
It can affect the trailer park family in upstate New York just as easily — and just as profoundly — as the Fairfield County family living in the million-dollar home.
“All I ever wanted was for my father to love me,” Rivers said.
I know the feeling.
To read more about the campaign to end domestic violence, check out my “Take on Life” column Friday.
Exclusively in the print edition of The News-Times.