(OPRAH.com) -- If you've ever been screamed at, humiliated, hit -- or know someone who has -- you're not alone. Every year, one out of every four women in America is abused by her partner.
Susan's 13-year-old son videotaped his mother being beaten by his father.
When Susan married her longtime boyfriend, Ulner Lee Still, in 1989, she never imagined that she'd be included in that statistic. They dated for years before walking down the aisle, and although she says Ulner was overprotective and controlling at times, she says she believed he was the love of her life.
Once they were married, she says things began to escalate at home. Susan says her husband abused her verbally and psychologically nearly every day of their marriage ... even when their three children were present. Often, Susan says Ulner made audio recordings of his tirades so that he could listen to them later.
For years, Susan says Ulner told her that she was stupid, alienated her from her family and accused her of being a bad mother. "There were times when I absolutely thought I was stupid. There were times that he absolutely had convinced me that I was a terrible mother," she says. Oprah.com: How to heal your teens
Then, after being married for more than 10 years, the emotional abuse took a violent turn. For the last two years of their marriage, Susan says she endured regular beatings at the hands of her husband. She says anything could set him off. "When you're in that life -- in that state of mind -- it's hard to make a decision over the simplest things," she says. "It's hard for you to walk across the room and make sure you're walking across the room the right way."
Domestic abuse is a crime that happens behind closed doors and is rarely, if ever, seen ... until now.
One Sunday afternoon in 2003, Susan says her husband became enraged when she asked him if she could fix him a sandwich for lunch. He went in search of his audio recorder to tape his verbal assault. When he couldn't find it, Susan says he chose the next best thing -- a video camera.
Ulner ordered his oldest son, who was 13 years old at the time, to record his tirade. What resulted was 51 minutes of horrifying footage. Susan says her oldest son operated the camera, while her 8-year-old son sat in the room, watching the abuse unfold.
During the first 40 minutes of the video, Ulner screams insults at his wife of 14 years and threatens her with physical violence.
"You play those stupid games with me, I'll knock your teeth out of your face. ... I'm going to knock your head across that wall," he tells Susan as their sons look on. Oprah.com: Susan's children speak out about her abuse
At first, Susan stands silently in the room with her head bowed. Looking back, she says she was trying to come up with a way to calm her husband down. "My mind was racing to find the right answer -- to find the answer that was going to make him happy for that second, to appease him so he wouldn't start hitting," she says.
Nothing she says works. Ulner punches, kicks and slaps his wife repeatedly during the final 10 minutes of the video. As he throws her around the room, he demands Susan's obedience. "You've been taught what to say to me, heifer," he says. "You follow what I say to the T."
In all, he calls her "stupid" 23 times and "heifer" 28 times in less than an hour.
After the camera stopped rolling, Susan says Ulner sent their son to the kitchen to get ice for her bruises. Then, Susan says she showered and spent the rest of the day downstairs, doing laundry and trying to stay far from her husband.
Susan's oldest son didn't just operate the video camera during the verbal and physical assault, he is also heard speaking in support of his father's actions. Over the years, Susan says Ulner brainwashed all three of their children and forced them to participate in her abuse.
On one occasion, Susan says she said something that made her husband so angry that he demanded a family meeting. "He called all the kids in the room ... and he made them call me a 'white ho slut' in unison," she says. "He would tell them when to start, and he would tell them to repeat. ... In my mind, I was screaming, 'That's not what I am. That's not what I am. How can you do this? How can you have my children do this to me?'"
Susan says she was devastated by her children's actions, but she understands why they did it. "I knew that my children needed to do what they needed to do to survive in that house," she says. "If that meant they needed to side with the power, then that's what they had to do."
The same day the video was shot, Susan made a fateful decision. As she was sitting in a room with her oldest son, her husband gestured toward her. "He looked at my son and he said, 'You see, that. That's the road you're headed down if you don't straighten up,'" Susan says.
With that comment, she says she came to the realization that Ulner could possibly end up killing her. So Susan made the decision to leave.
When Susan got to work the next day, she was covered in bruises from the previous day's beating. When Lynne, her friend and boss who knew about the abuse, came over to check on her, Susan says she said, "Today is the day."
Lynne called the police. "They came to my job, they took pictures, and we developed a plan," Susan says. "[I needed] time to decide, where are we going to go? What are we going to do? We had nowhere."
As Susan fled with her sons, Ulner called her repeatedly, trying to track her down. Police recorded the phone calls to document his violent threats. In one he screamed at her, "If you don't bring my son home, I'm going to kill you, heifer."
After years of abusing his wife, Ulner was finally arrested. At trial, Ulner's behavior shocked the prosecutor, Lisa Bloch Rodwin. "I've never seen such arrogance," she says.
"He was making eye contact with the female jurors and trying to look like he was king of the world and that he could control them the way he controlled everybody else. ... When he was interviewed by the probation department, he blamed Susan for putting him in this position. But the judge said to him, 'You still don't get it. You have destroyed these children. You have destroyed this woman.'"
In her closing arguments, Lisa played the videotape for the jury one more time. "What I said to the jury is, 'He keeps saying, I have to teach you.' And I asked the jury to teach him."
They did, finding Ulner guilty of 12 counts of assault and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The judge sentenced him to 36 years in prison -- reportedly the longest sentence ever given for this kind of domestic violence. He's not eligible for parole until 2022.
Lisa emphasizes that while the 51-minute videotape put a horrific face on the abuse, it was not the most important piece of evidence in the case. "That videotape shows a misdemeanor assault punishable by up to only one year in jail," she says. "You don't need a videotape. You need to document your injuries."
Ulner got such a stiff sentence, she says, because of the numerous times -- not recorded on any tape -- he beat Susan with items like books and belts. "Those dangerous instruments make it a felony," Lisa says.
Susan didn't keep records of her abuse...but Lynne, her vigilant boss, did. Oprah.com: Suspect abuse? What you can do to help
When Lynne began noticing signs of abuse in Susan, she wanted to make sure she wasn't overreacting. So she started making notes in a calendar every time she witnessed a sign of abuse -- the appearance of bruises, Susan acting withdrawn, coming to work late or being frequently absent.
Lynne even overheard Susan call Ulner "Master" in her frequent phone calls to check in with him.
"One of the huge tips to me was there was a time that [Ulner] had to leave town for a while. And while he was gone, she was a different person," Lynne says. "She was, you know, free and comfortable."
When she thinks of the tape of her own violent beating, Susan refers to the woman in it as a different person from herself -- calling her "she" rather than "I."
"She's a different person to me, but she's very much a part of this person here," Susan says. "I look at her and I think, 'How could you have let yourself get to that state? How could you have let this happen to you?' But I know how I did. So I guess she's a different person to me now. But I know she's here and she's helped me be who I am today."
Abuse comes in many forms -- yet it does not have to be as physically violent as this videotape to still be destructive. Sometimes the abuse is emotional control and isolation from family and friends. Other times, it consists of name-calling and humiliation, economic control or threats of violence.
Recognizing the signs of abuse -- especially in instances where physical violence is not involved -- is not easy, sometimes even for those being abused. Oprah.com: Get the signs of domestic violence
If you think you or someone you know is being abused, it's important to tell someone before it's too late.
Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-SAFE to find help in your area.
From The Oprah Winfrey Show
Subscribe to O, The Oprah Magazine for up to 75% off the newsstand price. That's like getting 18 issues FREE. Subscribe now!
TM & © 2009 Harpo Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
All About Domestic Violence