Mary Margaret Scharf P’21 was the keynote speaker for the first-ever Love Better Week, co-sponsored by the Brace Board, Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), and Youth Educators for Sex Positivity (YES+). On Friday, February 21, Mary Margaret Scharf spoke about her experience with domestic abuse at the hands of her former husband, and she outlined the warning signs of an abusive relationship.
Mary Margaret Scharf was recently honored by the Knock Out Abuse organization for her work raising awareness about domestic violence. Abigail Scharf ’21 shared about how even prior to the night her father became physically abusive, she felt unsafe around him. Abigail Scharf recounted that night, and how her mother rushed to get her and her younger sister out of the house.
“I thought it was natural to tiptoe around your father always scared that something would trigger him and he would detonate. I thought it was normal to deal with a bomb… [My father] erupted on January 6, 2010. ‘Sweetie, wake up. Daddy’s trying to kill me. We need to leave now,’ [my mother] said. I ran downstairs to the car, and my mom grabbed my little sister. I didn’t notice she was covered in blood until she collapsed on a neighbor’s marble floor,” Abigail Scharf said.
Mary Margaret Scharf underscored how many perceptions of domestic abuse and victims don’t necessarily align with how abusive relationships may progress. Drawing from her own experience, Scharf emphasized the importance of looking for non-physical signs of abuse. She recalled being blindsided by her ex-husband’s abusive behavior because she hadn’t thought to look for verbal or emotional abuse. She also emphasized how women are vulnerable to domestic abuse regardless of circumstance.
“What I like to do is share my story because I think people have a preconception about what domestic violence is and what a victim of domestic violence is. I think sharing my story will give you some context. Perhaps you can learn from my mistake in just having the knowledge to avoid getting deep into a relationship with someone who has this type of behavior,” Mary Margaret Scharf said.
Mary Margaret Scharf continued, “I think there’s this misconception that domestic abuse or relationship abuse happens to weak women without resources. We know that there [are] not many weak women here at Andover. People are strong and successful and happy, [but] I was happy and successful and it happened to me. I had resources…There was no past abuse. The day of the attack, I learned that, in hindsight, you can’t determine your risk of physical [abuse] from past violence alone. Experts told me that violence is a pyramid shape. At the bottom [are] violent words. Then there’s violent gestures. It culminates in physical abuse,”
She urged people to get out of toxic relationships early. Scharf described the incident of physical abuse she endured, where her husband repeatedly shined a flashlight into her eyes while screaming obscenities and expressed regret about not leaving her husband then. Mary Margaret Scharf was attacked by her ex-husband and abuser John Michael Farren in 2010, where she sustained severe injuries to the point of losing consciousness. The night she almost died, her husband became uncontrollably angry after being served with divorce papers by Scharf, and struck her in the head and face with a heavy metal flashlight at least ten times, according to Mary Margaret Scharf. Farren was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2014[a].
“I said, ‘You know what? We’re done. There’s no further discussion about you and I. There’s something wrong about the way you think’. Then he just begged me, begged me, begged me to reconsider. I said to him, ‘You’re eventually going to hit me.’ He said, ‘How in the world can you say that?’I said, ‘Because you’re this close’ He was literally that close. Then he acted nice for a while… Fast forward two years. It was like ‘Why didn’t you file for divorce then?’” Mary Margaret Scharf said.
Mary Margaret Scharf pointed out how her ex-husband’s high-profile case—Farren worked as Deputy White House counsel to George W. Bush ’42 from 2007 to 2009—brought visibility to the issue of domestic violence, and urged Andover students to recognize the widespread nature of domestic abuse and its life-threatening ramifications.
“Once this happened to me, it happened to me so publically. It was in the New York Times and the Tokyo Times. It was on ABC and NBC because he had been in the White House, working in the West Wing. People were very aware of what happened. Women shared their stories with me of their own private hell that they were living. We were in school in Connecticut at the time. Abigail was in first grade,” said Mary Margaret Scharf.
Mary Margaret Scharf continued, “This mom, this beautiful mom with five beautiful children and a seemingly great, charismatic husband spoke to me privately of the hell that she was living in. That’s continued to happen. Women have come to me. After this bad thing happened, we moved back to DC, people there too. At least once a year, somebody comes up to share what’s going on. It’s way more prevalent than I ever realized.”
Mary Margaret Scharf emphasized the indiscriminate nature of domestic violence, and referenced the normalization of gender-based violence.
“I would have never gotten away from [my husband], and that’s the thing. So many other people who are the subject of violence don’t get away…. This afternoon when I got here, on my phone popped up a story of some woman out in California, I believe, who was texting and saying she was terrified of her ex-boyfriend. Two hours later, she’s dead. It’s all too common,” she continued.
According to Flavia Vidal, Director of the Brace Center, Love Better Week was meant to raise awareness about toxic relationships on campus. Vidal emphasized the importance of Andover students recognizing dangerous behavior among friend groups. During Friday’s presentation, she encouraged struggling students to visit either the Brace or Sykes Wellness Center.
“I think [it’s] really important for people to think about their role as bystanders and try to be upstanders when they can. If you notice [any] kind of unhealthy behavior going on among your friends, for example, then you [should] feel empowered to say something, to try to disrupt those patterns if it feels safe to you… Come to the Brace Center, talk to a Sykes counselor, [or] reach out to a trusted adult,” Vidal said.