There is not a single second of the recording that Neha Rastogi made of her abuse at the hands of her husband that is less than utterly harrowing. In the nearly six-minute video that she recorded in her home on May 17, 2016, she tearfully pleads with her husband, Silicon Valley CEO Abhishek Gattani, to “please, please stop.” He interrogates her, belittles her, goads her during a conversation about a technical bug. Offscreen, he yanks her hair as Rastogi whimpers in pain, still pleading and struggling to pacify him. And then, calmly, between questions he won’t let her answer, he begins to beat her.
Domestic violence prosecutions often hinge on documentation. It is why victims are encouraged to take photos of their bruises, to write down every incident, and to alert as many people in their life as possible. Neha Rastogi went a step further, and recorded the abuse — just one incident of the many she says happened during their 10-year marriage.
The video, published by the Daily Beast this past April, haunted me for weeks after I saw it. And that is largely because Neha Rastogi’s story has more than superficial parallels to my own mother’s: Both women are Indian immigrants, both moved to the same Bay Area city with abusive husbands from arranged marriages, and when police stepped in and arrested their husbands, both found themselves in the same Palo Alto courthouse, advocating for leniency for the men who terrorized them.
The difference is that where my mother didn’t press further charges, Neha Rastogi did. And after the court was presented with the video, indisputable proof of the horror her husband inflicted on her and their young daughter for years — this is Gattani’s second domestic violence conviction — prosecutors cut an astonishing plea deal that was upheld by a judge on June 15, 2017: 30 days of incarceration (only 13 will actually be served) as well as the opportunity to have the felony charge expunged from his record.
For years, I hated my mother for her complicity in the violence my siblings and I grew up with. I fantasized about someone calling the police on our behalf, and prayed that someone would step in and act where my mother wouldn’t. But the extraordinary miscarriage of justice in Neha Rastogi’s case has made me realize that my mother’s mistrust of the system wasn’t unfounded. Domestic violence victims might overcome life-threatening physical, psychological, and financial obstacles to seek help, only to be revictimized by an unforgiving legal system. And when the system fails one of us, it fails us all.
Like most children, I have always struggled to see my mother outside of her parental context, as an actual person with a full, complex life. This isn’t uncommon; it’s why looking at old pictures of our parents is such a curious exercise. Our parents have histories we will never truly know, and this is doubly true for children of domestic violence.
In the few photos I have seen of my teenage mother, she is radiant. She poses under a large, shady tree in the mid-’80s, on her parents’ farm about 200 kilometers outside of Mumbai, wearing a sari, headwrap, and large sunglasses. She looks impossibly stylish. She is slim and fair, valuable qualities in a competitive marriage market (and qualities she still bemoans my sister and me for not having). Most strikingly to me, she looks happy.
A few years after that photo was taken, my father would be introduced to my mother as a potential suitor. She had her reservations about him and his bizarrely callous behavior (on the few dates they went on, she would sit silently and watch while he ordered for himself and ate alone in front of her). But she was one of her parents’ five daughters, in a country where unmarried women were still a burden, and though it’s true they would not have forced her to marry against her will, she felt the pressure. She married my father.
Three days later, when he came home to an unwashed dish on the counter, he grabbed her beautiful waist-length hair and hit her across the face for the first time. I have never known who she was before she was a victim.
When my sister and I came along, the abuse extended to us, as is common with intimate partner violence. We didn’t have words for it at the time, but every interaction with our father inevitably devolved into something hauntingly similar to what Neha Rastogi recorded. Our father would summon us under the pretense of teaching us something — a scientific concept or a life lesson. Minutes later, a voice similar to the one Abhishek Gattani uses in Rastogi’s video would emerge: low, dangerous, menacing. It was a surefire precursor to violence. As a child, I associated “abuse” with black eyes and bad boyfriends — I didn’t know it could also look like your own father, backing you into a corner, coming at you with a closed fist on all the parts of your body he knew other people wouldn’t see.
This happened every day, if not more frequently. He would wake us at dawn with slaps and berate us until we left for school. We’d do our schoolwork in hiding, because “useless” assignments triggered his anger and were liable to be ripped up. On weekends, frothing at the mouth, he would rant for four or five hours nonstop in a style a horrified friend once compared to sound torture. Our phones, internet, and sometimes electricity would be shut off at his whim, leaving us isolated. If he grew angry with us in the car, he would speed down Bay Area highways at over 100 mph, declaring that he had nothing to live for, until we begged him to slow down.
We grew accustomed to all this while operating at a relatively high-functioning level of normalcy outside of the house, mostly thanks to serious compartmentalization and a resilience that didn’t seem to have a limit. While my anger and frustration with my mother’s inaction grew, we literally rolled with the punches.
And then my father began threatening to shoot us. It came at a time when his dissatisfaction with his software job and his paranoia that we were conspiring against him were growing, and his rants were increasingly unhinged. The threats were vague at first, allusions to his ability to “end everything” for us. But then he began leaving evidence of the handgun safety course he was taking, a requirement to purchase a firearm in California, in convenient places for us to find, like a sick breadcrumb trail. I was keenly aware of the link between domestic violence and “family annihilators” and braced myself every time I stepped into the house, worried that I’d find my family massacred. And we grew accustomed to that too.
Calling the police was unthinkable for me. I felt that I could not go behind my mother’s back in such a way. For her to leave her abusive marriage would be to take a massive risk and leave behind everything she knew. She had already done that once before, when she married my father at the same age I am now — 21 — and left her entire family behind to follow him to the US with two young children in tow. And look at how that risk turned out.
So, when it became clear to me that my mother had no intention of leaving, I took the only subversive action I could. I began to document everything.
Recording my father’s violence felt like a clandestine operation. I collected his rampages on any device I could get my hands on. I installed computer programs that would record audio while my laptop appeared to be off. I downloaded recording apps whose “currently recording” indicators could be hidden on my phone’s lock screen, and slipped the phone under sheets and into slightly opened drawers when I sensed an impending rage, to escape detection. Listening to the audio now is an exercise in retraumatization — every recorded thwack feels like it’s happening in real time.
I never kept the devices with me. My father had suspected me of making the recordings once, when he saw me holding an old-school recorder I had checked out from my high school journalism class. The violent energy that always simmered around him exploded, and I returned the smashed pieces of the recorder to school the next day, ashamed of the ugly explanation and bruised under my clothes.
Despite the risk, I recorded whenever I could. I was 14, convinced I would not live to 16, and that red dot blinking somewhere out of my father’s sight, diligently documenting his violent rampages, became my sole focal point for the future. When I was recording, I was a darker version of Nancy Drew: cold, calculated, and vengeful. In the criminal prosecution that I dreamed of, the recordings would be the clinchers that would put my father away for life.
It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, for someone who has not experienced domestic violence to understand a victim’s mindset. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PSTD) is a variation of PTSD that results from prolonged interpersonal trauma from which the victim has or perceives themselves as having no option to escape. Since its coining in 1992, the term has increasingly been used to diagnose child and adult victims of domestic violence because it more accurately addresses the numerous levels on which long-term abuse produces long-term trauma.
So people who ask why victims don’t just put their foot down one day and leave, or why victims return to their abusers, fundamentally misunderstand the nature of domestic violence. Abusers might control much more than just their victims’ finances, bodies, and social interactions — after months or years of repeated abuse, they can also control their victims’ ability to think they can leave or even want to do so. It’s like an especially fucked-up version of Stockholm syndrome. My mother, for example, often still suggests that we simply need to be more conciliatory with my father, or that he just has an uncontrollable temper, instead of a demonstrated pattern of inflicting brutal and inhumane abuse.
At various times, Neha Rastogi and my mother both supported, in court, the men who abused them. In 2014, when Gattani was arrested on a felony battery charge for assaulting Rastogi in public, it was she who hired his lawyer. When my own father was arrested on domestic violence charges, my mother accompanied him to court, at his lawyer’s urging, to give the impression of reconciliation. Both men’s charges were lowered to misdemeanors and both were required to attend domestic violence/anger management classes. They still blamed their victims.
The women’s motives in both of these instances, from Rastogi’s own words in her searing victim impact statement and from my mother’s interviews with me, were driven by a reluctance to grapple with the intense stigma of divorce in Indian culture. “He is still my husband. He is still your father,” my mother often told me. “I don’t want a broken family for my daughter,” Rastogi told the Daily Beast. “I had never known or even seen anybody who ever went through this.” There is also, of course, a deep-seated belief that abusers will change, or that brief periods of reconciliation are signs of a hopeful future, despite overwhelming evidence that shows domestic violence often occurs in escalating cycles.
Still, I knew where my mother’s hope was coming from, as naive as it seemed. I researched C-PTSD and the psychological effects of domestic violence endlessly as a teenager, and often found myself explaining the concepts to therapists who lacked proper training on the subject (as Liz Lazzara has written, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, still does not recognize C-PTSD).
In college, I joined groups that taught peer-led workshops on relationship abuse, and had long, exhausting conversations online and offline with people who accused (often high-profile) victims of domestic violence of being complicit in their own abuse. Don’t you know how prolonged abuse can actually alter your brain chemistry? I asked. Don’t you know that it’s a well-documented fact that victims are often brainwashed into believing having another child will appease their abusers and stop the abuse?
But I struggled deeply to apply this nearly encyclopedic understanding and compassion for domestic violence victims to my mother. We would often have our own fights after a round of my father’s beatings, and she gave a myriad of simultaneously selfish, heartbreaking, practical, and infuriating reasons for not leaving him throughout my childhood. That we would have blamed her for not having a father. Wasn’t it your job to protect us? That she couldn’t afford to raise my younger sibling on her own. How could you possibly have brought another child into this house?
Race played a fundamental role in how I viewed my mother’s weakness. As a teenager, I had plenty of exposure to the media’s white feminism and very little to intersectionality; the result was a staunch and self-righteous feminist consciousness that conveniently disregarded the complexities of my mother’s life. She wasn’t leaning in and she wasn’t empowering herself, and I didn’t have space for women who weren’t strong, I decided (as if everything my immigrant mother accomplished on her own, despite her circumstances, wasn’t stronger and braver than anything I had ever done).
It is well understood among young Indian-Americans that our parents might be accepting of a variety of “transgressions” (drinking, smoking, being gay), as long their own children weren’t involved. I could empathize and hold tremendous amounts of compassion for other victims of domestic violence. But when it came to my own mother, I saw nothing but her failures.
By the time college came around, I was desperate to escape my house. I broke my mother’s heart by declining the nearby “public Ivy” she had dreamed I would attend, and moved across the country for a small liberal arts school she had never heard of. I thought it might be my only chance to get away. The distance has helped mend my relationship with my mother, but the grip of resentment is difficult to shake off. She and my siblings still live with my father, with no exit plan in sight. And I am painfully aware that the abuse is ongoing, though my mother speaks about it less and less on the phone.
I worry that it is because I have pushed too hard, that I’ve alienated her, that perhaps I am channeling my immense survivor’s guilt into victim-blaming. And so while I text her I love yous and exchange selfies to brighten her day, I don’t tell her how the mental illnesses I left our home with have consumed my life, or that I still panic and cry in the streets when I mistake a stranger for my father, or that I am still angry. I cannot shake the feeling that unlike my mother, Neha Rastogi has done everything “right.” She collected damning evidence; she decided enough was enough, filed for divorce and pressed charges. She did what she had to do to protect her daughter.
Which, of course, has made the tremendous incompetence and callousness with which Neha Rastogi’s case was handled all the more devastating. In part because the district attorney’s office was concerned about jeopardizing Abhishek Gattani’s immigration status, the charges against him were reduced from felony assault to felony accessory after the fact. The plea deal that was cut without Neha Rastogi’s approval or input also means Gattani will serve only 13 days in jail and have the opportunity to expunge the charges from his record after he completes probation.
Like Gattani, my father often dared my mother to get authorities involved. (“What are you going to do, call the cops on me?” Neha Rastogi recalled her husband saying, according to the Daily Beast. “I’ll call the cops for you.”) Why wouldn’t they have that kind of confidence, I wonder, if 13 days of jail time is the punishment for years of abuse?
The stunning injustice of Neha Rastogi’s case has proved to me, years after I wrote off my mother’s inaction as weakness, what she had known all along: that in this country, all brown women have is themselves. Under the current administration, more Americans are finally beginning to understand the deep mistrust immigrants have for state institutions. When you’re also a victim of abuse, that mistrust is compounded for many reasons. For example, the Department of Homeland Security has released a public, searchable database of detained immigrants that allows abusers to track their victims, and there are draconian laws in at least 29 states that can put mothers in prison for failing to protect their children from abuse, despite clear evidence that these women were abused themselves. (This type of evidence is often used against women instead of being considered a mitigating circumstance; one Oklahoma prosecutor told the court a battered mother charged with enabling child abuse had “made the decision to stay.”) In some of these cases, battered women actually received longer sentences than the men who had abused them and their children.
As far as I know, my mother was never explicitly aware of such failure-to-protect laws (in California, “willfully permitting or causing a child to suffer” carries a prison sentence of up to six years), but she harbored a genuine fear of such an outcome. The criminal justice system is somewhat of a black box to her; once outsiders were involved, anything could happen.
“What are they going to do?” was a phrase I often heard from my mother when I suggested we disclose our family “secret” to anyone. Why confide in my friends, because how could they possibly help? Why join me in therapy, because how could someone with a psychology degree right her life? Why call the police, because what were they going to do other than aggravate my father’s abuse with ultimately inconsequential legal proceedings, or worse, take her children away?
In her victim impact statement, Neha Rastogi expressed a similar sense of betrayal with the system. “What is the point of me speaking up now? I get heard to be ignored?” she asked. “To be told that the system understands the abuse and the impact it has had on our child and me but ‘sorry, it is what it is’? ... Honestly, I feel fooled not just by a convicted criminal, aggressor, wife beater, batterer, that I unfortunately married — the worst mistake of my life — but by this court as well.”
Whether my mother could not or would not take a stand to protect her children is a question that still lingers in the back of my mind every time I talk to her. I suspect the answer is a bit of both, but that is an answer that offers no closure. For all of her failures, I do believe my mother protected us the only way she knew how: by keeping us fed and clothed and in school. Economic stability is often the number one priority for first-generation immigrants, and staying in her abusive marriage to avoid breaking up our single-income household was more than just another immigrant sacrifice: For my mother, it might have been her only option. She wholeheartedly believed that the system would dismiss women like us, and the outcome of Neha Rastogi’s case proved her right.
At one point, I had dreamed that the recordings I made of my father’s abuse would put him away for life. Now I wonder if they might only put him away for a laughable 13 days, or if I’ll get a chance to share them in court at all. But still, in a way that feels foolishly hopeful, I keep them safe, tucked away in my digital cloud. My mother might have given up on justice. I cannot give up on her. ●