Until recently, Cinderella was one of the most popular fairy tales. There are many versions all over the world, and it’s difficult to find a woman who doesn’t know the plot: a young woman is exploited by her stepmother when her father dies—and due to her extraordinary beauty—is saved by a charming prince. One of the most frequent criticisms of the tale is that Cinderella has no agency; her life is entirely determined by others. If you were Cinderella—scorned, abused, broke—what would you be able to do on your own? Elaina, an entrepreneurial mother of three boys and victorious survivor of twenty years of domestic violence, earned her freedom through the sheer force of her will power. Her story is amazing, far more impressive than any fairy tale.
When Elaina was a teenager, she was prohibited from participating in the every day activities of most teenagers. Her father’s greatest fear was that she (and her sisters) would become pregnant. “It wasn’t so much us getting pregnant; (he was terrified of) being embarrassed in front of his family. When we married, he said, ‘Phew, of all my siblings, my daughters were the only ones who weren’t pregnant when they married’.” Because of the restrictions she faced at home, she got married when she was seventeen. She believes that the decision to marry “was a way to escape, to break free.”
Eliana personifies being in a good mood. She loves to laugh and can make conversation with anyone. It’s easy to miss the physical and emotional scars she carries, but they exist and are deep. Her marriage was not an escape; it was a nightmare. From the very beginning, she understood that her husband was abusive, but the external message was that it was her fault (she didn’t take care of him, didn’t fix her hair, didn’t cook his favorite food), and she internalized the blame. After nearly nine years of marriage, Elaina began researching about domestic violence to understand what was happening to her and she realized that it really was not normal.
People ask why she tolerated the abuse for twenty years. Despite being a question that no one has the right to ask, she has a clear answer. He isolated her from her family, she didn’t have a support network, she had no money (because he didn’t allow her to work outside the home), he used her name to accumulate debts, and she had to think about her three children. She was very afraid all the time, trembled when he came home, and he did everything to feed her terror. He assaulted Eliana almost every day. When they would leave the house, he held the money and the key. If someone looked at her, or he imagined that she was looking at someone, he would beat her. One day, he hit her on the bus, and she didn’t leave because she had nowhere to go—without the key she couldn’t even go to her house. The question that people should ask is how did she have the courage to leave, given those conditions?
One day, something shifted and she was no longer afraid. That day, she called the police, but it was already 5PM, and the police department that deals with domestic violence was closed for the day. The police officer told her that she needed to file her complaint the next day. That night, her husband tortured her—he put a knife to her neck and pinned her against the wall. He threatened to kill her. Suddenly, free of the fear that had dominated her life, she said “if you don’t want me to go, then kill me now, because I am going.” To this day, she doesn’t understand what changed. It took a few more years, but eventually she divorced him.
Selling clothes helped her get out of the abusive relationship. In the most desperate moments of her marriage, her sister encouraged her to work and have more autonomy. Eliana bought clothes in a neighborhood in São Paulo known for having wholesale prices and sold everything in a few days. With the money she earned, she managed to do several things for the first time in her life. “I’d never been to a movie theater in my life and I went to the movies after I started working (in her early thirties). I went to see Harry Potter with the boys. It was wonderful to be able to pay for everyone with my money. What gave me joy was that.”
When she started selling clothes, her husband stopped working and never again contributed financially at home. Her sales did not cover the bills and her sister got her a job, doing housecleaning. “I don’t like to work (in a family’s home), not because it’s not decent work, it’s because I think it’s very humiliating. The service isn’t valued or recognized, and you end up doing things that you shouldn’t have to.” With the current economic crisis in Brazil, her boss often refer to a friend’s maid or an employee in the store they own and says, “with this crisis I can just fire them, because so many people are looking for jobs.” In addition to the subtle threat of being fired if she doesn’t do what the boss wants, there are no limits on what they understand she can and should do. She cooks, cleans, washes and irons clothes twice a week (Brazilian law requires that someone who works three days a week be given full time employment status). When she isn’t working, they do no domestic chores, so the two days she works is actually an accumulation of the other five days.
Elaina deals with the daily humiliations that are part of housecleaning because she has a long-term dream, to open her own store. She has been pursuing this ever since 2013 when she finished high school, divorced her husband and starting taking driver’s education classes. “Now I have the desire to dress up, get up early, and do everything I have to do. I can’t sit still. I worry that I’m wasting time. I always have to be doing something, and if not I feel useless. In my head, I’ve already lost a lot of time.”
Today, her biggest challenge is to open her own store. “I think a store, either online or brick and mortar, will give me self-esteem. I need a job that will give me dignity, that I have pride in—that will make me want to get up every day and do what I like, what I want. I want to do what I like.”