Robin McGraw Shines a Spotlight on Domestic Violence

One terrible night, her mother’s fierce protective instinct taught Robin McGraw to stand strong.

As told to Liz Vaccariello
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine November 2013

Photos by Amanda FriedmanPhotos by Amanda Friedman

On my first date with Phillip (or Dr. Phil, as most of you know him), I asked, “Do you drink alcohol?” And he said, “Actually, I think I’m allergic to it.” We just celebrated 37 years of marriage, and I’ve never seen Phillip drink. We have two grown sons, Jay and Jordan, who have been the center of our lives. My oldest, Jay, has two precious children who have taught me the definition of being a grandparent: love without worry.

This year, I’m facing another pivotal moment in a woman’s life—I’m turning 60. I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother, and I credit so much of the woman, wife, mother, and grandmother I’ve turned out to be to her influence. She lived for her children and taught me that joy is being at home surrounded by family. But what I remember most of all is her smile. Even through the darkest times, my mother never failed to smile. It reassured my siblings and me that when we woke up, there would always be someone in the house taking care of us.

I look back with clearer eyes now, and I have to acknowledge that my mother taught me some negative lessons as well. My mother never got to see this stage of life, because she died of undiagnosed heart disease. My mother never put herself first, because she was so busy taking care of everyone else. I’ve vowed not to carry on her legacy of self-neglect, because I want to be here for my family.

I also believe my mother died young because she internalized the stress from all those years my father was drinking and gambling. Just to be clear, my parents adored each other, and my father was a kind and loving man when he wasn’t drinking. But he was a binge drinker, and when he drank, he stayed gone. We’d know he’d come home because the bedroom door would be closed and he’d be sleeping it off. When he came out, all cleaned up and dressed for work, he’d say, “Good morning!” and we’d say, “Good morning.”
No one ever talked about it.

My mother just pretended that my father hadn’t been missing for three days. We kids had no idea for many years how bad it was, how poor we were. My mother just smiled and took care of us through it all.

For the past 11 years, I’ve had the privilege of being in the audience at the Dr. Phil show. I will say, I can’t take my eyes off Phillip, and I listen to every word as if it’s the first time I’m hearing him because I think he’s just brilliant. But I’m truly mesmerized by the people who have the strength and courage to go on the show to ask for help. They are helping millions by sharing their stories.

I’ve been especially moved by the women who share stories about being victims of domestic violence. The number one tool abusers use is isolation. They keep the women from family and friends. Only one in four women reports her abuse. They think it’s normal or don’t think there is a way out.

Even though my mother was never the victim of domestic abuse, she pretended everything was normal and suffered in silence. It wasn’t until I was an adult with a family of my own that she finally told my father she’d leave him if he didn’t stop drinking. She actually filed divorce papers and allowed him to be served—he was shocked, and so was I! He stayed sober for their last years together. I feel great peace that they shared that time.

I’ve been searching for my purpose in this next phase of my life. Something I read in Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, a book Phillip gave me, stays with me. The gist is that you must have meaning to your suffering because otherwise, it’s all for naught. Someone can take control of your life, but they cannot control your mind. The night that the men came to take the furniture, I didn’t have control, but I made a choice to have personal power over my life. I think all women can make that choice.

I’m launching a foundation this month to help victims of domestic violence. I’m going to shine a spotlight on this issue. I want women to know: This is not normal. Don’t be ashamed. Tell someone. We must guard against judging these women, against saying, “Why don’t you just leave?” The resources each woman has within herself, her family, and her community at any given time vary greatly. I’m calling the foundation When Georgia Smiled because I want to give women the fierce strength I learned from my mother.

If my mother could talk to the women I’m trying to reach, the victims of abuse, she would say: Be strong. You deserve help. You’re worth it. She’d give them a hug. And then she’d smile.

  • Your Comments

    • ada

      I grew up in a same situation as well and cause of so many problems i grew up in… a not very stable family until my mom said enough thats when i was proud of her and now everything has change in her life…and i learn a lot and now i have my own family that i love and well take care for the rest of life.

    • RAMONA CARROLL

      THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS IT HITS HOME FOR ME AS WELL THANK YOU GIVING HOPE A PLACE TO SHINE,THANK YOU.

    • laura

      todays show hit home so much my parents drank ,I drank,my whle family.i was in a ten year relationship that I as abuse he die and I till love and miss him he messed me up so bad I never got help I hope and pray one day I will be as stronge as robin

    • Laura Rogers

      What do I do now? After I ended up in the ER, my fiance is in jail following CDV 2nd offence, CDV HAN, Kidnapping, using a weapon during a violent crime and intemidating a witness..along with several previous charges with no chance of bond.
      I’m alone, no income, failing transportation and so mentally and emotionally damaged, its become impossible to leave my apartment that I will soon lose..
      So ashamed so embarrassed so confused so heartbroken …all I want is my abuser to come and save me … which is exactly how this nightmare started

    • Bright Light

      I lived for 5 years in a verbal abusive relationship. Only by the grace of God was I able to gain the strength to leave that marriage. I now have a loving husband of over 40 years.
      My son came from an abusive marriage and has been divorced from that relationship for about 5 years. He has just now realized that he was an abused husband.
      Robin, thank you for all of your work. Your information, along with counseling, may help my son as well as men and women living with verbal and or physical abuse.

    • janette limon

      Reading the story was like reading my own life story. I was abused for 28 years and hid it well. Was always a believer that things would change but of coarse they never did. Finally walked out and was sure I would be shot before I got to the door. I made it….remarried years later to a man that never raised his voice to me….the man of my dreams….that died of cancer 1 year ago dec 21st.