KHON2's Jai Cunningham shares strength, inspiration after overcoming difficult youth
His earliest memory is of crimson drops of blood staining a crisp, white carpet.
Drip, drip, drip - they were falling pretty fast. She was bleeding quite a bit from a gash her husband had delivered to her eye, cutting the lid open.
"I was about three, and I still remember it vividly," recalls my friend Jai Cunningham, tears moistening his eyes at the thought, now more than 40 years later.
His mother had suffered another domestic violence episode, and had carried her two boys, ages four and two, a mile away to seek refuge at her mother's house.
He tells me about his traumatic childhood of violence and terror, living with a father who beat him, his mother Linda, and his brother Jason regularly.
"When he hit us, it was very one-sided. My father was six foot two, 220 pounds. My mother was a full foot shorter, and 110 pounds," he illustrates.
The memories pour out fast like the blood droplets. He tells me about the time his mother slept in her car overnight after a heated argument, but woke up the next morning to the feeling of cold metal on her forehead.
Tap-tap-tap. She opened her eyes. It was Jack Cunningham, holding a gun to her head.
Tired in her soul, she was, says Jai. Tired of living this life.
"Just do it, Jack. Just shoot me," she said wearily.
Then there were the weekend benders. The Cunninghams lived in a dry county in Centre, Alabama. Jack'd have to drive over county lines to stock up on his weekend libations.
"He'd leave Friday, buy four or five cases of beer, and party through the weekend - two days without sleeping," recalls Jai.
At this point, Jack and Linda were divorced, but Jack still wanted to see his kids on the weekend. Jai says often, his father would drive straight to a friend's house to play cards, leaving the boys in the truck cab all alone.
"I don't remember how long he left us because I was young, maybe five, but I remember huddling up with Jason during the winter because we didn't have coats," he says of those weekends. Winter temperatures in Alabama get into the 30s.
Jack also had a short fuse. He beat the boys.
Jai recounts too many whippings to remember. "Me, with the belt. I had it easy. Jason got the belt buckle. Those weekends could feel pretty long."
Those weekend visits would end shortly thereafter.
"Violence folds in with neglect, and because my dad would stay up Friday and Saturday drinking, he'd crash by Sunday morning. Usually it was around 2 a.m., and he'd fall asleep hard on the sofa. My brother and I had to look for food; we would be hungry," he says.
"I had fallen asleep, and Jason was scavenging through the cupboards. He found my dad's loaded 22 caliber and tried to imitate the cowboys on TV, so he pointed the pistol and tried to pull the trigger, but his index fingers were too weak. So he turned the gun to face himself and used his thumb to pull the trigger," explains Jai.
Jason was about two years old and shot himself in the abdomen. The bullet went over his stomach, hit his pancreas, and exited out his back, a quarter inch from his spine. Doctors thought the toddler would die.
The tears fall easily now as he recounts the horror. Somehow, Jason didn't bleed to death.
Jason tried to wake up Jack, but couldn't, so the boy laid on the floor and took a nap. Then he woke up again and shook Jack a second time, and this time Jack woke up.
I only remember my dad yelling, "'Jai! Get up!' I saw my brother lying on the bed and with every beat of his heart, blood gurgled out his stomach. 'I shot myself,' Jason said."
The freezing cold car - the panic - the emergency room. Jason spent weeks in the hospital, arms and legs black and blue from shots given to keep him alive.
"I didn't speak for six weeks," Jai reveals of the shock that followed.
The boys didn't see much of Jack after that. Jai isn't sure what happened, but it was a relief.
Perhaps two years later, when Jai was six, Jack died, killing himself and injuring three. Jai says his father got behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated.
"We were vacationing in Hawaii, in fact, when we got the news. My mother told us we wouldn't be going back early for the funeral. It was like, 'OK,'" he says indifferently.
This is a man I've been acquainted with for nearly 20 years, but have worked with and come to know better only over the past year. He is smart, friendly, funny, sweet, and positive.
I'm very fond of him, and admire him moreso after knowing his personal drama. I don't understand how he survives so well.
"My mom," he replies without hesitation. "She is a tough lady. Remember, she divorced him in the early '70s in rural Alabama, when that just wasn't done. She was brave. We struggled, but we survived. She was there for us every day."
Linda made sure Jai went to college and made something of himself. He says he's close to his mother today.
Of his father, whom he refers to as Jack, "I don't remember him telling me 'I love you.' And I only have one nice memory, of him being happy and picking my mother up in a bear hug and her feet being a foot off the ground."
About five years ago, Jai was invited to speak at the Men's March Against Violence event, which features a short walk and rally in support of non-violence. He had never spoken publicly about his childhood before, but decided maybe it was time. After securing his mother's approval, he shared his story with the crowd, to widespread support.
"Jai is an exquisite juxtaposition of the fact that men who grew up with violence are six times more likely to become abusers. His courage to share his story and suffer the searing pain publicly is power enough for us to understand it is possible," says Nancy Kreidman, CEO of the Domestic Violence Action Center, which organizes the march. "But much more is needed. Not everyone grows up with a violent parent. And not everyone can overcome the suffering, and the sadness. The may imitate what they see. They may use drugs or alcohol to numb their pain. They may have difficulty with intimate relationships as adults. They may have adverse health effects. All of these coping mechanisms impact our community."
It awakened something in Jai. "I want people to know how destructive it is. Forty years later, my strongest memories of my father are of him beating us. The violence, for me, stopped - but really, it never stops. It affects my relationship with others, it paints who I am," he says.
Kreidman applauds his efforts. "Domestic violence does not discriminate. We teach boys and men it is their duty and their right to be in charge, take control of their circumstances and their family. Our definitions of masculinity and femininity are limiting for both men and women, and contribute to the perpetuation of domestic violence. With Jai’s message of promise and conviction, we can see that change is possible."
He didn't stop speaking out against domestic violence. In 2013, Jai, a news anchor, shaved his head live on KHON2's Wake Up 2day, a statement he pledged to make for a full year, every time a woman or child was killed by domestic violence. He ended up shaving his head seven or eight times on air.
The first time, it was for his friend, Heather Rosa, killed on October 29, 2013. "Heather was kind, she had a beautiful smile, she loved her kids and all our kids. Yet a large part of her legacy will be that she was a murder victim. She doesn't deserve to be remembered like that," says Jai.
While Jai hoped to inspire change in others, he wasn't prepared for the change it provoked in himself - "the emotions I could feel for a complete stranger."
"The work to address domestic violence is still an enormous challenge. The need to dispel persistent misconceptions remains. And the imperative to engage our community to reduce, or better yet, prevent domestic violence is essential. Why? Because safe families are at the core of a healthy community," urges Kreidman.
If he can affect just one life, he says, it's worth his effort. He says this as he struggles daily with his own demons of a life that might have been even better lived, of a father whose bruises still hurt, of relationships fractured.
"Do you love your dad?" I ask.
A long pause. "No."
"Do you forgive him?" I continue.
Contemplation. "Yes. But I still think about it in some way, every day. It's always there. A little dark spot."
Today, Jai says his pain fuels his desire to keep speaking at events that support survivors of domestic violence. "It's incredibly rewarding and emotional for me when people approach me to say I've made a difference in their lives; that my words could help someone live better."
He has a beautiful wife, Carla, and two school-aged girls, 13-year-old Cara and 11-year-old Chay, and is involved in the kids' activities: cheerleading, track, volleyball, gymnastics.
His family, he says, is what he's most grateful for. "I am lucky to have my beautiful and loving family, but I appreciate it even more when I think about where I came from. I'm proud to say the cycle of violence ends with me."
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, help is available. Contact the Domestic Violence Action Center at (808) 531-3771 or firstname.lastname@example.org; more details at http://www.stoptheviolence.org/.
A NOTE TO VICTIMS FROM THE DOMESTIC VIOLENCE ACTION CENTER
from Nancy Kreidman
The transformative journey from victim to survivor is an effortful undertaking, and worth considering.
We want you to think about your safety. We want you to know, also, that you have the right to live free from abuse and nothing you have done warrants abuse.
You do not deserve to be treated with anything less than respect for your opinions, choices, decisions. No one wants to think of themselves as a victim, and it is common to believe there is something you can do to change the situation or support your partner.
You likely assume promises to change will come true. There is also the tendency to minimize the abuse, or rationalize your partner’s behavior ("I could have been home on time, I should have known he was tired, the kids should have been quiet," etc).
Violence and abuse is the responsibility of the person who uses it. If you had been able to make it stop, or change him, you would have!
Making the first phone call is an important step. Collect information, ask questions, consider the options, gain an understanding of domestic violence.
Your safety is the most crucial thing to consider. Your children's safety and their well-being are also key.
It is difficult to be a good parent when threats, intimidation, and fear characterize your home. When you decide to call a domestic violence program, you can call anonymously. Be sure to ask for help in creating a safety plan.
It is a big step, but there is plenty of help from good community programs committed to helping you make good decisions, regain your self-respect, and live free from violence. Call us at the Domestic Violence Action Center at (808) 531-3771.