Courtney Sanchez embraces her voice as a singer and an advocate for victims of domestic violence.
Photographs By Melanie Grizzel, Styling by Erika Cerda, Makeup by Tiffany Taylor
When Courtney Sanchez tossed her wedding ring in Lady Bird Lake, her first feeling was joy. As the family heirloom slid into the watery dark under a soft ripple, so did everything it represented. Then another feeling surfaced.
“Holy s**t,” she thought. “He’s gonna kill me.”
The gesture seemed to declare the end of a story that went on too long. After four years, her ex was in jail and she was safe, surrounded by friends on a lake in mid-spring. Sanchez knew, however, that some things never really end. They troll indefinitely in our subconscious. They can emerge years later, unexpected, when you’re happily remarried in a suburb, and dedicating your life to music and family and social justice.
As a domestic-violence survivor and out of necessity, Sanchez has learned to deal with the after effects. Her abuser is still in the city; she bumps in to him unexpectedly sometimes when buying milk and sometimes when she’s performing. Today, however, her attitude is much different. She has replaced fear with fighting strength and silence with a clear, soulful voice. She uses it for singing in clubs, delivering public speeches, writing self-help books and for telling me, squarely, that she’s found her life’s mission: raising her family and helping other survivors.
The stories Sanchez recounts are difficult to hear. The reason compelling women who stay in abusive relationships is a subject many people have difficulty comprehending. Sanchez had experienced abuse as a child. So why, as an adult, would she choose to stay with another man who hurt her? Julia Spann, the executive director of the largest sexual and domestic violence shelter in Texas, should know these things. There has to be a reason why one-third of women report being abused by a boyfriend or husband, someone who supposedly cares for them. If human impulse is fight or flight, why did Sanchez do neither? Spann hears these questions often.
“The warning signs aren’t obvious,” she says, adding that abuse tends to escalate, maybe starting with a slur, then a push and then a slap. Later, there will be an “episode.” and then the relationship often cycles between peace and violence until the victim seeks help. “We’re told that relationships are vital, and that we have to maintain them.”
When you’re hurt by someone you love, it’s confusing.
Although Sanchez never told her mother as a child, she was verbally, psychologically and sexually abused by her stepfather from the age of 9. Adults who were abused as children lose their ability to discern healthy relationships, Spann says. Dismissing all of the warning signs, Sanchez found herself five months pregnant and in the hospital after a brutal incident. And she returned to her ex, convincing herself that her unborn child deserved the intact family she never had. The relationship continued through the cycle of violence with four years of arguments, physicality, separations and remorse until one night Sanchez discovered a loaded handgun in his coat pocket.
“Him beating me up, I could recover from,” Sanchez says. “But a gun just seemed so final. I said, ‘That’s it, Courtney. You’re done.’” She quietly slipped out the door, put the children in the car and drove to SafePlace. Sometimes, the result of domestic abuse is grim. More than 1,000 women are killed each year by their partners. Sanchez’s story ended differently.
Ten years after leaving SafePlace, she and her family split Sun Chips and soda at a mom-and-pop diner. Her daughter bemoans the STAR test and begs to date boys; her husband of eight years, Paul, says it’s not going to happen. The children call him dad, and he refers to them as “my kids.” Paul plays a recording of the family singing together from his phone. As musicians, they have a propensity to break in to song like a Texas version of the Von Trapps.
Sanchez is a strong believer in fate.
“What’s supposed to be is what happens,” she says.
If she had never met her abuser, then Brendan and Kendall wouldn’t be chattering about white tigers and fantasy prom gowns, and Sanchez would have a different perception of her life’s work.
“I always felt like I was living a double life,” Sanchez say., “The life with my abuser, and the life I wanted.”
Now she lives a life she wants, a life that scarcely resembles her old one. It’s full of the things that create her identity: music, family and advocacy. At heart, she’s an artist and nurturer.
When Sanchez attended college at the University of Texas, her original intent was to study law. Now she can’t really remember why she wanted to be an attorney, and laughs off the memory like recalling a bad date. When the economy crashed in 2008, Sanchez was laid off from her day job in the high-tech industry. She took it as a sign
that she should pursue her callings instead of dedicating the best years of her life to a company that, in the end, didn’t know her name. She decided to make music, which had long been a source of joy and healing, a more serious priority.
Her first gig found her back when she was 22. She was onstage at Zach Scott rehearsing, and a producer asked if she could sing.
“I wasn’t really a singer, but I did. and I got the part,” she recalls, girlishly. About a year later in 1995, she was approached by The atlantics, a variety band that needed a female vocalist. From then on, music has fit in to her life, even if it meant schlepping travel cribs to shows and hiding them in overhangs above horn sections. The atlantics’ music swings between Motown and jazz, stepping in to soul, disco and funk as well. as a wedding band, the group has become well-recognized throughout Austin and
the United States. (Modern Bride magazine listed them as one of the top 150 wedding bands in the country).
Sanchez also lets her voice carry her independently. In recent years, she has booked solo performances at weddings, private events and at her fundraising efforts. Every Sunday, she has a solo show at Sullivan’s, where she covers everything from Aretha Franklin to Adele. The co-ed crowd seems to enjoy her enthusiasm. At the last show, six young ball-cap-clad men linked arms and sung along with her, swaying on their barstools. Currently, she’s organizing something of a “mini Lilith Fair” featuring her favorite Austin singers, which will take place at the One World Theatre in October.
Music has been the consistent thread connecting the brighter points of Sanchez’s life. It serves as a form of therapy, and led her to important people. A few years after she left the shelter, she joined the cast of Zilker Hillside Productions’ Fame. One night, she and the members were killing time, joking between sets around the piano.
“You know those jokes people tell at work that aren’t funny, but you pretend to laugh?” Sanchez says. She caught
Paul stone-faced during one of those moments, looking down and shaking his head. She thought, I could hang out with him.
Paul was not only a gifted tenor vocalist, but also a man who understood Sanchez’s past. Within a year, they were married and held a commitment ceremony. He was ready to be responsible for not only her life, but her children’s as well. What Sanchez needed turned out to be within her reach all along—respect, both for herself and from another.
Many women who suffer from abuse early in life never fully recover psychologically. I ask Spann what made Sanchez different. In Spann’s opinion, relationships with Sanchez’s family and friends were the single greatest factor in her healing. Sanchez may have borne some years of trauma, but it was only because she wanted so badly for her family to function.
Her children, who have a striking self-assuredness and are quick to smile, are a testament to her desire to be what she always strove for—to be a good mother. Within a few moments of meeting Sanchez for the first time, she will pull out her iPhone to show pictures of her family. Her daughter, Kendall, is now in high school. It’s easy to see why Paul is hesitant to let Kendall date; her fiery almond eyes exude her mother’s casual confidence, even in the photos Sanchez took after a silly, impromptu makeover. Brendan, Sanchez’s 12-year-old son, has an affinity for soccer, and for the girls who follow him in hoards. He likes to have one or two close friends, he says, and tries to look past their shortcomings. Together, they seem more balanced than a Normal Rockwell painting.
Paul’s presence has also helped to bring balance to both Sanchez’s life and her children’s. He has made professional sacrifices in favor of the relationship and the family, recently relinquishing a contract with the Houston Grand Opera to stay close to Courtney and the children. He continues to sing, working from home during the day and as a voice coach for students.
With Paul’s help, Sanchez has been afforded the flexibility to find ways to give back to SafePlace and help other domestic- and sexual-abuse survivors.
“When I walked into SafePlace after being out for a few years, I was such a hot mess,” Sanchez says. “But I knew I had to do something to give back.”
For two years, that meant helping to coordinate the SafePlace walk. For four years, it meant assisting with fundraising efforts of their board. Her involvement ultimately led her to meeting both the vice president and the president of the United States while working, lobbying and speaking for the Texas Council on Family Violence.
In between, she organized donation drives that gather everything from diapers to gifts, and helped to refurbish portions of SafePlace through the nonprofit Jonah, which she founded with Paul.
“When I first started helping SafePlace, I didn’t have a lot to give,” Sanchez says, referring to her then-tight financial situation.
What she could give was the gift of art, some thing that helped her and many other families in similar situations thrive. The most tangible evidence of her work can be seen in the shelter’s computer lab, which Jonah helped to restore. What was once a drab concrete room that survivors and children used to reconnect with the world is now a well-stocked center decorated with cheery murals and chalkboard walls scrawled with uplifting quotes.
Sanchez got an insider’s view of the financial stressors the nonprofit faces by serving on SafePlace’s board. When women have to be waitlisted for services, they feel discouraged and desperate.
“I wanted to develop a way to relieve that stress,” she says.
For the last two years, she’s been the fundraiser for her latest project, Survive2thrive, which ultimately will result in an information database that will help SafePlace survivors with community re-integration efforts. Survive2thrive will serve as an information hub that connects survivors with resources they need to re-establish their lives. Sanchez was inspired by the Susan G. Komen for the cure Foundation’s resource guide, in which resources are grouped online by city. Survive2thrive’s information on childcare, career placement, housing and financial assistance will be organized similarly, which will help relocation efforts. It is designed to help women navigate questions and build an effective exit strategy, and maybe help them from entering a shelter situation.
Sanchez spends her evenings writing, working on a self-help book, sharing her voice to help other survivors of domestic violence. “Even when your physical bruises heal, emotional ones linger,” Sanchez says.
Her book in progress is an interactive resource for survivors. In three parts, it will help readers identify abusive relationships, whether they are as glaring as domestic violence or as subtle as an emotionally abusive friend. The first portion, a memoir, shares her personal journey. The second section will feature a guide to help readers take control of their lives and finances. The final portion is a journal.
“Nothing helped me more than writing about my problems,” Sanchez says, remembering the nights she spent at SafePlace writing what would become songs she now performs. Writing, she feels, helps survivors take the first non-verbal steps to address issues, which can be the most difficult part of recovery.
“Courtney has found her voice, and she is using it,” Spann says. She isn’t referring to her public speeches or her lobbying efforts, at least not completely. “Instead of seeing a dark part of her life as something to be packed away, she used it as an opportunity to bring focus and meaning to her life and her family’s.”
“When I was younger, I always felt like I was sort of drifting through life,” Sanchez says. “But not anymore. I feel like I’ve found exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.”
SafePlace: Envisioning a community free of rape, sexual abuse and domestic violence.
More than anything else, Julia Spann wants to put herself out of work. Unfortunately, the work she does seems to become more important every year. The need for services has increased enormously; she reports calls to SafePlace’s hotline jumped 30 percent last year alone.
Established in 1977, SafePlace offers services to male and female survivors of domestic or sexual abuse. Services include one-on-one and group counseling, life-skills courses that range from parenting to personal empowerment, short- and long-term housing, daycare facilities and an on-site school, all of which also make accommodations for the deaf, handicapped and Spanish-speaking communities. Services are free of charge or heavily subsidized. It is one of the largest and most sophisticated shelters in all of America.
Unfortunately, it’s also bursting at the seams.
“We are almost always over capacity,” Spann admits.
There is some room in group counseling, but only if you can come in immediately. For all other services, applicants must sometimes wait months. SafePlace is forced to give priority to men and women who have the fewest options and face the greatest danger, situations that are determined by staff.
Tight economic times have tested the nonprofit. They’ve watched donations drop as needs have increased. Layoffs and financial hardships are stressors that make individuals with violent tendencies become explosive, and the incidences more severe.
“It’s opportunistic,” Spann says.
However, the economy isn’t the cause of an increase in violence; many families experience layoffs without resorting to violence. Spann believes SafePlace’s constant, aggressive outreach is simply reaching more people who are now coming forward. Statistically, domestic- and sexual-violence rates are difficult to track since less than 25 percent of such crimes are reported. But nonprofits and economic setbacks go hand in hand, and Spann, who has served for more than a decade, understands the ebb and flow of funding.
SafePlace’s main strategy isn’t post-trauma care, but prevention. Through educational programs in schools that target at-risk youth, and life-skills classes, she and the staff hope to curb abusive behaviors in adolescents and help people distinguish healthy and harmful relationships. Even though the shelter’s rooms are frequently full, Spann and her associates can help make connections to helpful resources.
“People recover when they have support, when they break their isolation,” Spann says, “either by coming to a place like [SafePlace], or by having loved ones tell you there’s another way. With a little help and information, people are amazingly resilient.”
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual or domestic abuse, call SafePlace’s free 24-hour hotline for advice on your first steps to healing.
“It’s not our job to take care of battered men and women,” Spann says. “It’s everyone’s.”