He declared his father was the culprit—torturing him, his mother, and siblings and pleaded to the police to go arrest him. But the officers could only file a complaint and drive the boy back home to his misery. “That boy was me, and the year was 1967,” said Victor Rivas Rivers, author of ‘A Private Family Matter’, actor and advocate against domestic violence.
Speaking at the City Club of Cleveland on May 7, 2009, Rivers credited social service advocates for changing the landscape for families terrorized by domestic violence but emphasized it is still the least documented crime, and most often triggers the cycle of violence that spills out from the shadows of the home into schools, streets, and beyond.
“Domestic violence thrives in an atmosphere of shame, denial, and silence,” said Rivers, and he stressed ‘speaking out’ is the first step to breaking the cycle.
He shocked the audience with horrific details of his mother being dropped-kicked in the stomach while nine months pregnant. His father had no chemical dependencies, came from an affluent Cuban family with no apparent history of abuse, and Rivers said there was no particular trigger to his rage.
“If he told a joke and laughing wasn’t to his satisfaction, he’d fly into a rage,” Rivers said. His mother bore most of the burdens and scars. “She thought she had married into the Cinderella story—that changed on her wedding night.”
As a child, Victor placed himself in the path of his father’s rage to save his mother, siblings, and pets. “I learned to take it,” but watching his family suffer was unbearable.
“I am the spitting-image of my father; he didn’t like himself so he tried to beat it out of me,” Rivers said. He is grateful guns weren’t easily found because he came very close to murdering his father, even asked his family to support him. “Their words said ‘no’ but their eyes said ‘yes’,” he said.
Rivers became a spokesperson for the National Network to End Domestic Violence in 1999 and said men need to join the cause. “I am not a woman,” he stated, adding macho men are not defined by strength but by empathy and the courage to stand up beside women and children, to stop the violence. “Love should not hurt,” Rivers said and shook his clenched fist to emphasize, “This is not love!”
Rivers cited grim national statistics that indicate 94 percent of those incarcerated were originally victims of violence. “Rehabilitation in incarceration simply does not work in my opinion,” said Rivers, who advocates a proactive approach in identifying victims before they become abusers; better communication between agencies and better funding for athletics and art programs in schools that nurture healthy self-esteem and provide an outlet for rage.
Rivers credits his mortal angels for turning his life around, from trolling with a gang to a full athletic scholarship at Florida State University where he received a degree in criminology; he went on to play for the Miami Dolphins and later became an actor, landing roles in ‘The Mask of Zorro’, CSI, and Star Trek.
He said the simplest way some helped was by paying attention, and listening. “I was that child raised by a village,” Rivers said gratefully of the foster families who took him in, the coaches who honed his athletic talents, the teacher who secretly bought lunch tickets for a year when his father decided to ration his food.
Of all the pain his father inflicted on him and his mother, the verbal abuse was most damaging for Rivers’ psyche. “My father didn’t lift a finger against me that day,” explained Rivers; instead, his father smashed all of Rivers’ athletic trophies beyond recognition;
“And that is what happened to my self-esteem,” he said. “All I ever wanted from my father was to be loved,” he said. In his search to belong, Rivers turned to a gang and remembers he didn’t even flinch during the initiation beat down.