For decades, Julie Levine has been a fierce advocate for coercive control legislation, speaking at New England rallies with Dr. Evan Stark long before most people had learned of the concept. She bravely shared her experiences in her blogs Until You Say Uncle and Until You Say Uncle Again, providing precious insight to survivors. When Narcissistic Abuse Rehab launched, Julie submitted the op/ed The Use of Isolation in Coercive Control and became our first contributing writer.
My recent reporting has focused on Catherine Kassenoff. She and Julie share striking similarities: two gifted women who married and raised their families in Westchester. Both entangled with controlling partners, from whom they fled, only to face post-separation abuse in the family court system. Tragically, Catherine and Julie suffered relentless punishments from their ex-spouses, who took away their beloved children. After years of dehumanizing abuse, Julie, like Catherine and many other survivors, developed cancer. She is battling MPN (Myeloproliferative neoplasms) and she needs our support.
Nancy Panes Dudas was kind enough to set up a GoFundMe campaign. Describing Julie’s current situation, she wrote:
“One of our very dear artists, friend, customer and fellow neighbors has fallen upon hard times. She is battling a rare blood cancer and cannot work. She is struggling to stay afloat with her rent, medical bills, treatment, and food. If you would be so kind to donate to this truly amazing individual it would mean the world to her…”Nancy Panes Dudas
The Role of Financial Abuse in Julie’s Current Circumstances
In her blog, Julie shares her experience of coercive control and the years of post-separation abuse that ensued. She describes how her ex-husband, Robert Levine, President of FoodDirect, used his substantial wealth to employ damaging legal tactics against her. Unable to match his resources and connections, Julie struggled to defend herself effectively and, like Catherine, Julie lost custody of her children, home and financial sustenance.
However, she won her freedom. Although her divorce was initially denied, Julie persevered. In 2003, she won on appeal by presenting credible evidence of “cruel and inhuman treatment” by Robert. Sadly, her suffering did not end there. After the divorce, Julie wrote in her blog that Robert continued to subject her to ongoing vexatious litigation, using “motion practice” as a means to intimidate and threaten her. This, in turn, prevented her from obtaining the financial judgment she was awarded during the divorce proceedings.
According to Julie, Robert menacingly asserted that she would never receive the financial judgement she won and would be forever estranged from her children.
The Link Between Coercive Control and Cancer
Twenty years ago when her divorce was granted , Julie was already diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Since then she has had to live with the perpetual anguish of being estranged from her sons, Jared and Jason, and her grandchildren, who she has never met. It is difficult to imagine the emotional pain she has suffered.
I have previously written about post-traumatic stress and depression comorbidity with female mortality because the research is finally catching up with the reality of the many slow-burning femicides caused by coercive control. I know far too many survivors who are the embodiment of resilience, and yet, as Bessel van der Kolk astutely pointed out, our bodies keep the score.
Those who work with survivors are aware of the alarming correlation between coercive control and cancer. There’s not enough research on the topic, but existing studies show that intimate partner violence increases the risk of cervical cancer. I know far too many survivors who developed cancer in the grip of coercive control and during post-separation abuse, including Helen Midgley-Bryant and now Julie.
Why is Cancer Prevalent Among Coercive Control Survivors?
I believe that cancer is prevalent among coercive control survivors because even when we save ourselves and escape from entrapment-based relationships, we are forced to endure fear without end.
Fear of our children withdrawing from us because they are frightened of their abusive parent’s vindictiveness and potential retaliation. Fear of never holding our grandchildren because of the abuser’s endless power trip. Fear of the erasure of our existence in families we gave birth to but who are too given to Mammonism to show a granule of mercy.
Too often, it all catches up with us: chronic depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress steal years of our health and productivity.
“Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function. Stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer.”Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., Professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science, and Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson.
As we scramble to rebuild our lives, find jobs, and finance costly therapies out of pocket to recover, the abuser’s threats and punishments remain a fact of life. To appease the abuser, sometimes our children choose to harden their hearts and abandon us, triggering a toxic cocktail of fear, sadness, anger, helplessness and hopelessness. For many survivors, birthdays and holidays are celebrated alone. We endure debilitating illnesses in solitude. We are excluded from family milestones, even by those conceived in our wombs. The stress of these experiences can be crushing.
“Chronic stress also can help cancer grow and spread in a number of ways. Stress hormones can inhibit a process called anoikis, which kills diseased cells and prevents them from spreading. Chronic stress also increases the production of certain growth factors that increase your blood supply. This can speed the development of cancerous tumors.”Anil K. Sood, M.D., Professor of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine at MD Anderson
Though it is absurdly unjust that abusers are enabled to cause further harm their victims after they leave, this is what is happening to countless mothers in caught in the grip of coercive control today and it is why so many of us are terrified of leaving violent men who are hellbent on destroying our witness of who they are behind closed doors.
We live in a world where Allan Kassenoff and Robert Levine can abuse the mothers of their children with impunity because society still blames women for men’s violence. Even within our families we are often scapegoated and ostracized for disclosing abuse. Echoing Leviticus, we are driven out into the desert by the wicked tribe.
I think Catherine Kassenoff and Julie Levine are testaments to why many women are terrified of leaving violent men: the price many coercive control survivors pay for freedom is the loss of our children, homes, livelihood, reputation, and health. Entrapment-based relationships are punitive because abusers know that their expressions of micro-patriarchial violence in the household are supported in meta-patriarchal institutions like the family court system.
Those on the receiving end of coercive control are never more in danger of femicide than when we leave what Sandra L. Brown eloquently describes as “relationships of inevitable harm.” We do so amidst threats to our lives, risking the loss of all we hold dear. Now that you’ve read this, my hope is that you have a better understanding of what we are up against.
To quote Marie Skou, “In case you were wondering, we call ourselves survivors because not all of us make it out.”
To donate log on to GoFundMe.
- Reingle Gonzaleza, J.M., Jetelinaa, K.K., Olaguea, S., Olaguea, J.G. (2018) Violence against women increases cancer diagnoses: Results from a meta-T analytic review. Preventative Medicine. Pages 168-179.
- Cumming, C. (2018) West Orange Resident Being Sued For 10 Million Dollars By Ex-Husband. Tap Into West Orange.
- Cumming, C. (2023) Former West Orange Resident & Inspirational Volunteer Diagnosed with Rare Blood Cancer Needs Help. Tap Into West Orange.
- Julie Levine v. Robert Levine, NY Slip Op 19284 [2 AD3d 498] December 8, 2003 Appellate Division, Second Department As corrected through Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.
- Heid, M. (2014) How stress affects cancer risk. University of Texas MD Cancer Center.