I think people need to understand that—clergy, therapists, anyone—that identifying it as abuse is always going to help the victim. Always. If somebody in authority, like a bishop or a pastor or anyone, says, ‘This is abuse.’ It’s going to be helpful.
Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
It isn’t unusual for a woman to stay in an abusive relationship because, most often, she doesn’t realize it is abusive.
Tragically, betrayal and emotional abuse often leads to physical abuse, which begs the question: if a family or friend called it out as abuse, could they save a life?
This is one of the questions that Anne, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, asks Dave Cawley, a reporter and expert on the Susan Powell case. Read the full transcript and listen to the BTR podcast for more.
The Life Of Susan Powell: A Story That Sounds Familiar
I remember we were talking about [the Susan Powell case] at a family dinner, literally, everyone was there, my parents and my (now ex) husband, and I said, ‘If I go missing or if something happens to me, he did it.’
Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery
In December 2009, when Susan Powell disappeared, Dave was there to report on the story.
As a reporter, when the police began investigating her disappearance, Dave began his own investigation.
As he dug for clues, he discovered there was much more to her story than a disappearance. She was the victim of abuse.
Her disappearance still unsolved, Dave continues searching for answers to the questions behind her disappearance and possible murder.
What Does An Abusive Situation Look Like?
What do covertly abusive situations look like? Josh Powell employed these specific behaviors and subtle manipulations in Susan’s life; these characteristics are common among abusive and unfaithful men:
- Josh made sure to keep the focus on him and what he wanted
- Isolated Susan from friends, family, and professional opportunities
- Couldn’t hold down a job and always blamed the employer
- Subtly made himself the center of Susan’s life
- Stopped trying to serve and care for Susan in loving ways
- Controlled Susan’s behavior, specifically her religious-practices
- Blamed Susan for his abusiveness
- Disparaged Susan to the children
- Controlled the money and refused to pay for items that Susan needed/wanted
- Used pornography
- Refused to show affection
- Engaged (though rarely) in disconnected sexual intimacy
You Can’t “Fix” Your Abusive Partner
Susan, like many victims, bent over backwards to help Josh be happy and change. Walking on eggshells, her entire life became focused on appeasing Josh.
Victims who feel responsible for their abusive partner’s behaviors may employ some of these actions and thoughts that Susan used during her abusive marriage:
- Susan believed that moving to a new state would “fix him”
- Susan worked multiple jobs to support the family when Josh couldn’t/wouldn’t hold down a job
- Susan believed that having children would change and fix Josh
Abuse: Calling It What It Is Can Shock The Victim
In 2008, when her father, Chuck Cox, was in town, Susan was meeting with a counselor. Her father, who had attended the appointment with her, says that was when she first understood that she was in an abusive situation.
The counselor that she was talking to in 2008 did identify it and said, ‘You are being abused.’
Dave Cawley, host of Cold podcast
After this appointment, she asked her father if he thought she was being abused, and, of course, he replied with an absolute, “YES!”
Women can be blind-sided when they are told the truth: that they are victims of abuse.
During this time, victims need immense support and involvement from healthy individuals in their lives, to help them set boundaries, find safety, and begin the process of healing.
Abuse: Physical Abuse Isn’t The Only Kind In Marriage
When women report emotional, psychological, financial, and spiritual abuse, they are often dismissed by clergy, professionals, family, and friends because they say, “He’s not hurting you, so it’s not abuse.”
This is incredibly dangerous and damaging for a victim to internalize. Relational abuse in all its forms is just as harmful as physical battering.
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Supports Victims of Betrayal and Abuse
Victims of betrayal and relational abuse must be taken seriously, supported, and guided to safety.
When others correctly label abuse, they are validated the victim’s experience and affirming her right and need to seek safety and healing.
The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group offers women a safe place to share their stories, process trauma, ask important questions, and receive answers. Join today and find a community of validation, compassion, and support.
Welcome to the Betrayal Trauma Recovery podcast, this is Anne.
I am really excited and a little bit nervous to have Dave Cawley with us today. Dave Cawley is a 2003 graduate of the University of Utah’s journalism school. He went to work as a field reporter in Salt Lake City, directly out of college. Dave joined KSL in 2012, taking over as an executive producer for Utah Afternoon News.
In early 2018, he moved into a new role as Executive Producer of Digital Content. On November 14, 2018, KSL and Dave, launched the podcast series Cold, focused on the unsolved disappearance of Susan Powell.
The story was close to Dave. He reported on Susan’s suspected murder from the beginning, in December 2009, and continues to dig for new details. Cold reached #1 on the Apple podcast chart on the day of its release.
Outside the newsroom, Dave enjoys exploring the nooks of America’s backcountry. He has backpacked from the heights of Hawaiian cliffs to the depths of red rock canyons. The Natural History Museum of Utah and the High Desert Museum of Bend, Oregon have exhibited his photography.
Anne: Welcome, Dave.
Dave: Thanks, Anne. I really appreciate being on.
Susan Powell: A Familiar Story
Anne: This story of Susan Powell hits really close to home for me. I got married in 2008, and in 2009 when this story broke, I was following it really closely. One of the reasons why I was following it closely is because I was kind of concerned that my own marriage was dangerous.
I remember we were talking about it and we were at a family dinner, literally, everyone was there. My parents and my husband at the time was there and I said, “If I go missing or if something happens to me, he did it.”
I said it in front of him on purpose, and the reason I said it in front of him on purpose was because I thought that would make me safer. I thought it would help with the safety situation. I wouldn’t say at that time I could comprehend what was happening or that I was in an abusive relationship because he wasn’t arrested until 2015 on a domestic violence charge.
It was six years after me saying that, that I was trying to figure out what was going on. It really hits close to home because then, when Josh Powell killed his children and everyone was like, “Well, obviously he killed his wife.” It was pretty clear to everybody. I was just thinking, “At least the truth came out.”
In my situation, it’s been four years since my ex’s arrest, and I would say the truth isn’t out yet. He’s still lying and manipulating people around him and we’re still victims of his abuse. We protect ourselves as much as we can.
That’s why it hits really close to home. As I was listening to the podcast, the part that you explained before the murder was like listening to my own story, so let’s start there.
Why do you think women like Susan, and I, aren’t aware of the dangers of our situation? For Susan specifically, why do you think that she didn’t know she was in an abusive relationship for the first while?
Later, she really starts to get it and thinks she needs to get out, but in the beginning she’s just kind of like talking to people about it and sort of considering what she should do. Obviously, she knew something was wrong, but why do you think she didn’t recognize that the thing that was wrong was that she was married to an abusive man?
The Abuse Started Early In Their Marriage
Dave: Yeah. That’s a really good question. I can speak specifically to the circumstances of Josh and Susan’s marriage insofar as I had a somewhat unique opportunity to research and study those.
Certainly, I don’t know the totality of Susan’s mind at any given point in time. All I can go on are the clues that she left us and what she wrote in her journal and what she wrote to her friends in emails, messages, things like that, that we drew on, to use for the Cold podcast.
But I will say that, when Susan and Josh met, Susan was just barely out of high school. She was very young, and if you look at Susan at that time, she was a great student. She was very hardworking, going to cosmetology school.
Easily, in my opinion, she could have walked into any of the colleges around Washington, where she was living at the time, but Josh, very quickly after they started dating, isolated her and made her life all about him and their relationship. He did it very subtly.
He used kind of the creation almost of a mythology for their relationship. That this was a very, almost fated kind of thing that they’d met and fell in love and they’re so about one another. When, in reality, from an objective point of view, you can look and say, “Well, it was all about how she was serving him not how he was serving her.”
He was not doing things in their relationship that were advancing her best interests. He wasn’t going out of his way to do things to make her happy. But, because of her age and because of, I think, some of her experience dating as a teenager, when she met Josh and he talked the big talk, she kind of fell into the idea of being in love and being in this relationship.
They get married very quickly. Within six months of beginning to date, they’re married. It’s pretty clear from the get-go that things are not good in their relationship because Josh can’t keep a job. Every time he loses a job, it’s the fault of the employer. It’s never his fault. Something is always keeping him down.
Susan, from the beginning, has to work multiple jobs to try to make ends meet, help Josh get in a better place where he’ll be able to hold a job. They had to move in with family several times, which is not a good situation because we later learn that her father-in-law is a very unsavory individual—if I can put it mildly.
Then it gets more complicated, as well, when children enter the mix. Josh and Susan move away from Washington in part to get away from Josh’s dad and some of the bad things and make a fresh start.
Susan, at that point, in my opinion, still doesn’t see what the origin of the problems are, and thinks, “Hey, if we just get away from Washington, if we get to Utah, and we get away from the complicated family dynamics, then Josh and I, we can make it work.”
No sooner do they get here, then the same dynamic: Susan’s breadwinning. She is the one who’s able to hold a job, but they conceive their first child and that is really when Susan, I think, starts to begin to see the problems because Josh, as a father, is not helpful.
That is in 2005 and then it’s really kind of a downhill slide from there for a couple of years. After they have their second child, Braden, Josh really disconnects, and the conflict comes out into the open. Josh has been very dismissive of Susan for many years, at this point.
But once she starts sticking up for herself, once she starts realizing that she has things that matter to her and are of value to her in her life—her religion, her standards, and things like that—Josh is unwilling to not only practice those himself, but to allow her to practice her own religion and do things like pay her tithing, attend church with her, things like that.
He’s also actively undercutting her to the children, talking about how bad it is that mom goes to church and how they don’t need to go to church with mom and don’t listen to stuff that mom says, which, I think, any rational person in a marriage would say that is not an okay dynamic.
That’s when, I think, Susan starts recognizing that things are really not good. She starts dropping hints to friends that she does feel like she’s in danger, but then she also isn’t being, in my opinion, fully honest with herself in that when other people come up and tell her, “Hey, you’re in a bad situation, you need to get out of here.” She will justify why she’s kind of staying in.
Recognizing It As Abuse Is Difficult For Victims
Anne: Well, I think, at least for me, both situations are bad. Divorce is not good and staying in the marriage isn’t good. So, you’re presented with two bad scenarios and you’re trying to figure out which bad scenario is the best one.
You can’t figure it out, it’s really hard. So, during this time Susan actually reaches out for help. She goes to clergy and she goes to multiple therapists who become involved with “their marriage troubles.”
Dave: Uh-huh, right.
Anne: And nobody, from what I heard, and maybe you could correct me, actually identified it as an abuse situation. They didn’t say, “Susan, you’re a victim of abuse and Josh you are the perpetrator.”
Instead, she was accused of having a temper. They said, “Okay, Susan you work on your issues and Josh, you work on your issues, and if you both work on your issues then maybe this can be worked out.” That’s sort of how it was approached. No bishop ever said, “Josh, you’re an abuser. You can’t do this anymore and we’re going to protect Susan,” right?
Anne: Or no therapist did. Why do you think that the general society of therapists and clergy—by the way, we have a community of over 40,000 women. This happens all the time. It happened to me.
In fact, I was accused of being the abuser when I said that my husband was abusive. They were like, “Well, you’re treating him really bad because you’re telling people about his bad behaviors.” That’s how it came out. Why do you think that they don’t recognize abuse as a general rule?
Dave: That’s tough. Let me speak to some of the circumstances with Josh and Susan in counseling and we’ll kind of get there.
Anne: That’s great.
Dave: Because conversations with clergy are confidential, we’re pretty limited in knowing exactly what kind of advice Josh and Susan received, but Susan did write in a couple of places about going to see her bishop, both with Josh and on her own.
You can imagine that this is a marriage that’s at a very low point. They’re at each other’s throats, and, yeah, Susan is argumentative. I mean, she’s not one to passively just go with the flow. So, when she’s unhappy, she’s venting about it. Josh points at her as if she’s the one who’s causing all this conflict.
Anne: Fascinating, because what she’s “complaining about” is his abuse.
Dave: Right, but she’s not identified it as such, at this point.
Anne: Right. He’s basically saying, “I’m mad at her for being mad at me about my abuse.”
Dave: Right. In so many words, yeah.
Dave: Every indication I have is that the members of the clergy that they spoke to said, “We are not qualified to be your marriage counselor, so let’s connect you to services.” That’s how Susan originally gets involved with marriage counseling. This is in 2008, and Josh refuses to go. The counselor that she was talking to in 2008 did identify it and say, “You are being abused.”
Anne: Oh, okay.
Dave: This is kind of when Susan first understood that because her dad was in town and actually went to the session with her. Chuck Cox, Susan’s dad, talks about how afterward she turned to him and said, “Do you think that’s true? Am I really being abused?” And her dad’s going, “YES!”
Anne: I think it’s interesting, so clergy identified it as a marriage issue and sent them to a marriage counselor, rather than saying this is an abuse situation.
Dave: As far as I’m aware.
Anne: Yeah, and we see that in my community, literally, all the time.
Anne: All the time. I have only heard of one story of all the stories I’ve heard, and I have heard, literally, thousands, where the bishop said, “This is abuse. I’m removing your Temple Recommend, I’m removing this, and I’m removing this, and, Wife, you are the victim, what can we do to help you?” Other than that, they’re like, “I’m not qualified. This is above my head. I don’t know what to do, so go to this marriage counselor.”
Anne: I think that’s really interesting that clergy can’t see it. The victim can’t see it. In my case, it wasn’t until a therapist actually witnessed my ex—this was a month before his arrest—pound a desk, scream in my face, and break two doors, during a therapy session.
Anne: And he said, “You’re in an abusive relationship.” And I’m not dumb, but I was like, “What?!?” Kind of like Susan.
Anne: I think people need to understand that—clergy, therapists, anyone—that identifying it as abuse is always going to help the victim. Always. If somebody in authority, like a bishop or a pastor or anyone, says, “This is abuse.” It’s going to be helpful. I think they’re just worried that it’s too extreme, kind of.
Anne: And they’re like, “Uh, I don’t want to make that judgment.” When they don’t want to make that judgment, they are actually making a judgment and the judgment they’re making is “It’s not abuse because I’m not calling it that.”
Dave: I think too, Anne, what happens is, specifically in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have lay clergy and, oftentimes, especially at the local level, these people are your neighbors. It can feel very close, I think, even for some of those members of clergy to be really in the business of the personal lives of their neighbors and that’s uncomfortable.
I don’t want to say that there is not accountability in the same way there would be with maybe a professional clergy, but it’s a little different in that religious community just because of the way those relationships exists, I think, between sometimes the people who are approaching a bishop or stake president or something like that, as opposed to other faiths.
Anne: Yeah. I think the other issue is, to them, these guys seem like great guys.
Anne: Josh Powell didn’t because he couldn’t hold a job and he couldn’t do stuff, but in my case, my ex is an attorney who could totally hold a job.
He looked great at church, wore his white shirt and tie, always instigated family prayer, gave amazing sacrament meaning talks, gave great lessons, did his ministering every month.
In my case, when I would say that they were like, “No, he’s a great guy. I don’t know what you’re talking about. You must be crazy because clearly, he’s super cool.”
Pornography Contributed To The Abuse
Let’s talk about the pornography issue for a little bit. At Betrayal Trauma Recovery we view pornography as a domestic abuse issue because it usually involves lying, manipulation, and all kinds of other behaviors that are happening. How did pornography play a role in Josh Powell’s abuse before the murder?
Dave: Yeah. This is a very interesting topic for discussion because we have a pretty good record, thanks to the divorce filings for Josh’s parents going back into the mid-’90s. So, Josh is a teenager, and his mom divorces his dad, in part, because Josh’s dad was doing a lot of things that were not good.
There’s pretty good indication in those filings that he was introducing his kids to pornography when they were young. Both sons and daughters. Because of that we know that Josh was exposed to pornography at an early age.
We know that Josh was actually, by his own disclosure later in life to a psychologist, arrested at one point for stealing pornographic magazines out of a convenience store. You see early on that this is part of his life.
It’s not until after Susan disappears and police seize computers out of their home and those computers are scoured for evidence that we see what happened in the meantime, after he and Susan were married, because they locate a number of very concerning images on Josh’s computer that had been, for the most part, deleted—they were in what’s called “Free Space”—but Josh was regularly viewing pornography on the computer.
Susan talked a lot to her friends in messages and things about how Josh was very protective of his computer. She was not allowed to use his computer except to do his chores. Scanning his papers and receipts and things. If she wanted to get on the internet and Facebook or things like that, he would not allow her to do that on his computer. She had to have her own computer, which he was unwilling to pay for.
That really protective behavior, I think, personally speaks to Josh knowing that there is material on this computer that he does not want her to find. I know that there are some people in law enforcement who believe that the catalyst for Susan’s disappearance and murder may very well have been her locating something like that and calling Josh’s attention to it and saying, “This is a step too far, we’re done.”
That’s purely speculation, but I think you see that Josh’s viewing of pornography played a role, especially because Susan writes a lot about how he wouldn’t touch her. He wouldn’t show the normal types of affection that you would expect in a relationship like that. He would not hold her hand. He wouldn’t kiss her.
When they were physically intimate, which was very rarely, he did not view it as something that was beautiful and shared, it was very clinical. I’m trying not to be too graphic here. I want to be careful to protect Susan’s privacy. When they had sex, it was not something that was a beautiful and affirming experience for Susan. It was almost, I think, traumatic in itself because of the way he insisted on it being very quick and clean and then over.
Anne: There is another word for that and its sexual coercion, a form. It’s not necessarily what most people would say is sexual coercion, but women in our community are raped.
They experience sexual coercion in many different forms, but the most common one I would say, is that they tell their husband’s, at least in the member community of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is they assume that their husbands are not viewing pornography because they’re attending the temple or going to church and they expect that that’s what their relationship is like.
If their husband is having sex with them and not receiving their consent, that is a form of sexual coercion in and of itself right there because they’re under the impression that their relationship is a certain way and it is not, and they’re not being given all the information that they need to make a decision.
Anne: That form of sexual coercion is, I would say, the most common and also the least severe, but it’s still sexual coercion. I don’t think porn users understand that that, in and of itself, is a form of sexual abuse, which is really important.
Anne: Just thinking about her, right. What am I doing that would hurt her and how would she feel about this? It didn’t enter Josh’s mind, right?
Anne: He wasn’t concerned about Susan at all.
Dave: No, not in the least. I think when you look at the way he was raised and that early influence of his father and then continuing through their marriage. Josh and Susan moved from Washington to Utah to get away from Steve Powell, but Steve Powell continues to groom his son well into adulthood through these long phone conversations.
Steve Powell, you can’t argue that he was dysfunctional in his views on sex and intimacy. He wrote more than 2000 pages of very pornographic journals detailing his desire for his daughter-in-law, Susan, and so he is interested in poisoning his son’s marriage on the belief that it will allow him to spark his relationship with Susan, which was never going to happen.
Dave: But because of that, Josh is being fed this constant stream of negativity. If you look at some of Josh’s writings going back even into his teenage years, he struggled even with dating, before he met Susan, with being close. Even just being in physical proximity to a girl or woman made him uncomfortable.
Psychologically, he, definitely, has dysfunction there that’s unaddressed. When he takes that into his marriage with Susan, it’s Susan’s fault because he tells his dad, “Susan wants it all the time.” By the time their marriage really bottoms out, they are maybe having sex a couple of times a year if that.
You can imagine how Susan feels, as a 27- or 28-year-old woman, very unfulfilled by a husband who will show her no care in day-to-day life and no care in the bedroom. He seems to be repulsed by just the very thought of giving her a kiss or holding her hand.
Going back to your earlier point about not recognizing it as abuse, yeah, in our society abuse carries a lot of connotation. We expect it to be hitting, to be shouting, or slamming of doors. Well, I think it’s arguable that, if you are in a relationship with somebody and you are denying the person the things that they need in order to feel fulfilled, by withholding and playing these kind of mind games, that is a form of abuse and, unless we can call it such, we can’t really address it.
Anne: Yeah. Right before my ex’s arrest, I had always initiated sex. I finally stopped because I was like, “No, I’m not doing this anymore,” and he didn’t. I was like, “Why aren’t you doing anything?” Then, he started telling me that I was unattractive and that he never thought I was attractive and that he hated me. I was like, “Whoa!” He would say, “I don’t love you, but I love the kids.” Finally, I was like, “Well then, you should leave.”
Anne: You need to leave. I wasn’t going to leave my house. You need to leave. And then he wouldn’t leave. I was like, “Okay, this is weird. You don’t like me, you don’t want to have sex with me, you think I’m ugly, and you hate me, but you won’t leave?” It was so non-sensical. The whole thing was just insane. It was totally insane.
I’m going to continue this interview with Dave Cawley next week. If you’re interested in this story, which I am, I’m dying to find out the answers to some of my other questions. Please tune in next week when we continue and finish our interview with Dave Cawley.
Thanks for coming on today, Dave. I’ll see you next week.
Dave: Thanks, Anne.
Anne: If you are a victim of abuse in the form of your husband lying to you about his pornography use or other forms of sexual coercion, manipulation, pornography use, or infidelity, and this is the first time you’ve listened to this podcast. I encourage you to start back at the beginning of the Betrayal Trauma Recovery podcasts and listen from the beginning.
What you will hear is my journey from finding out that my husband was abusive until now, where I am much more healed and much more at peace. I still get triggered sometimes. You’ll probably hear that in my voice, but, overall, you’ll see this evolution of a woman coming out of the fog of abuse, which I have documented and am a little bit embarrassed about but also very proud of. I encourage you to do that.
For those of you who donate to make this podcast possible, thank you so much. Your donation helps women throughout the world learn about abuse and also learn about safety and how to become emotionally safe in their own homes.
For those of you who have not donated, please donate today to support abuse victims throughout the world. Go to our website btr.org, scroll to the bottom, and click on Make a Donation.
I just want to make all victims aware of the services that we have. We have a Daily Support Group, which is called Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group. We have multiple sessions a day that are online so that you can join anywhere throughout the world. We also have individual sessions for you to get professional help to know exactly how to establish emotional safety in your home.
Stay tuned for next week’s continued interview with Dave Cawley.
Until next week, stay safe out there.