I was arrested for domestic violence. Here’s why.

by Jenn Louis

On April 29, 2016, I was charged with domestic violence and arrested. I was pressed against the back of a police car outside my restaurant, handcuffed, and booked in the downtown Portland jail around 10pm. I punched my husband in the face and he called the police.

We were in the midst of a difficult divorce and we were working together at our restaurant. There was an error in the kitchen and upset and intoxicated he stormed the pass. My chef de cuisine stepped in for me and expedited, but my husband wouldn’t relent. He was cursing and chasing me around the back of house — I was terrified for myself and my staff. He pinned me in a corner. His face directly in front of mine; his rage palpable. I took my chance. I hit him in the face. And I ran.

Years of repressed anger and fear brought me to a moment I can’t take back. I’m a gentle person; I don’t condone violence of any kind. For a total of 17 years, I had been in a relationship with a person who regularly drank to excess, who verbally berated and emotionally abused me, who ultimately became a person I no longer recognized nor loved. I was losing my ability to communicate with my friends and family, and slowly becoming a shell of myself — irritable, short tempered and weighted down by the intensity of my fractured relationship. I hit my own breaking point.

We met at a restaurant in July of 1999. I was a line cook. He was a busser. We kissed for the first time after a work party. I made carbonara at midnight and we sat on my balcony overlooking NW Portland. We had a lot in common and we had fun. He balanced me; I was always active and running around; he was softer and slower. We never fought, and enjoyed trips abroad to eat and learn about new cultures and places. Eventually, we opened a restaurant together. Three years later, we opened another one. Owning a business is hard work, and it seemed to me he wasn’t dealing with it well. He was wasted at work, holed up in our office watching TV on his computer all day; he’d pass out without warning at the dinner table with friends. Things worsened and every-so-often he’d break his ribs falling down the stairs drunk. He would blackout every night. Not even shaking him or yelling in his face would wake him. I’m sure I turned the other cheek more frequently than I should’ve before things escalated and, in some ways, I enabled the behavior I came to fear and loathe. Abuse and addiction ebb and flow, and I wish I had the confidence to be the person he needed me to be in both good and bad times. Sometimes, I was oblivious. I wish I was a better communicator. But, I never gave up on him.

I scheduled an intervention with his mom and his aunt. Right before it was going to happen, they told him. Our bond of trust was shattered. His behavior affected our business. He’d take employees out back, during service, and scream at them for no reason. I stopped using our office. I was afraid to be alone with him. He was manipulative and pitted me against some of my dearest coworkers and friends.

I still cared for him, and I made excuses for his behavior in public and at work because anything else would be a betrayal. I was taught growing up that marriage was a sacred union, that it must be protected and honored and all infractions handled privately. I never told anyone what happened at home. I was shutoff, my temper short. I traveled as much as I could because home wasn’t safe. People wondered why I was so nomadic back then, and now they know why.

Through all of this, I was beginning to rise to prominence in the culinary world and on the Portland dining scene. I was a Food & Wine Best New Chef, and a James Beard Award Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest. I inked two book deals. The spotlight was both a blessing and a curse, as it propelled me forward to the things I loved while documenting my every triumph and defeat. As I continued to rise, our relationship continued to plummet.

I remember precisely when I asked him to leave. It was Hanukkah, and I had spent the entire day cooking — latkes, brisket, the works. He went to one of our restaurants on our day off to train staff. He came home completely loaded and passed out on the couch. I knew he had driven back that way. I couldn’t wake him up for dinner, and I began to eat by myself. He awoke and started screaming at me for starting the meal without him. The next morning, I told him I was going to the gym and that I needed him to be gone when I came back. He moved into a hotel for a month, but we continued to work together. It’s incredibly hard to separate personal from professional when every facet of your lives are so interconnected. Over the course of the next few months, I received an ambulance bill for unknown charges and he totaled two of our cars following heavy binges.

On the day of the incident, he appeared drunk and was in a terrible mood at work. After I hit him, I fled to the bathroom and locked the door. The fear, the shame, the overwhelming sense of release for having physically pushed away what was suffocating me brought me to tears. I cowered in the bathroom until the police arrived. I spent the night in jail and was released on bail posted by my loving friends prior to picking me up and tucking me in. I stayed in their guest room several nights.

On Monday, before the court session for my case even began, it was dismissed. According to the Oregonian, the District Attorney issued a statement saying, “This case was no complaint because this office believed that a claim of self-defense could not be overcome beyond a reasonable doubt.” I was counseled to be silent in light of my divorce proceedings. It was incredibly hard to see my name plastered across all the local Portland publications, speculating why I did what I did, insinuating I had let success get to my head, incessantly persecuting me for what happened, linking every move I made from thereafter to the one night of my life I wish I could forget.

Google my name and you’ll see a laundry list of pieces about my arrest. I’ve spent twenty years in the restaurant industry, fighting an uphill battle to realize my dreams, spending countless hours developing and working toward achieving independence. It breaks my heart that the focus is on this one deeply personal and humiliating moment in my life, and every day I struggle under the weight of that judgement to continue to do what I love. For nearly a year after my arrest, I couldn’t sleep more than five hours a night. I cried walking in public places. I relied on others more than I ever had before.

A year after the incident, I woke up after a nine-hour sleep under a warm down comforter to the classic pitter-patter of Portland’s winter rain. I realized then, in the three hours of conscious stillness, that I had finally started to heal. Therapy, exercise, and staying close to the community of people who have surrounded me with immense support and love was my prescription. I’m grateful to them in ways I can hardly express.

Today marks exactly two years since this moment, and I feel compelled to share my experience. It’s part of who I am, and has shaped my journey in an undeniable way. I hope in reading it, people will find the strength to ask for help when they need it. To leave abusive relationships, no matter how hard. To be compassionate to others, because everyone harbors their own pain. To feel confident in who they are, and know that they have a network of people to support and care for them. To learn from my mistakes, as I am still learning from them. To remain steadfast in their hopes and dreams, as I have in creating my beautiful restaurant Ray, a place I am happy to be every day.