Erin Gray

If there is one thing you can say about Erin Gray's performances as an actress, it is that she is most well known for her dynamic portrayals of strong and even "larger than life" women, never to be beaten down.

But “behind the scenes”, she was beaten down. Gray, who was also the first iconic “I’m Worth It” model for L’Oreal suffered for years as a victim of domestic violence while married to her first husband.

And each day that she stayed with her husband, who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after returning home from the Vietnam War, she felt “less worth it”, while she lived in a constant state of abject fear.

This was her high school sweetheart, she thought, and she was the All-American girl next door, but her marriage and her life suddenly became more of a nightmare than any dream she once hoped for.

She remembers the emotional abuse she suffered all too vividly. She recalls waking up in the middle of the night watching her husband attempt to kill an imaginary person in their bed. She immediately thought, “This is not the boy I knew in high school.” But she stayed anyway because she loved him.

She knew something was ‘terribly wrong”, but her first reaction was not to leave or abandon him in any way. “I wanted to take care of him, I wanted to love him,” Gray said. “I thought that love could solve everything and I thought ‘I’m strong, I can do this . . . he is a good person.”

After all, he was a nice man once upon a time, and her marriage vows included “for better or for worse”, so she put all of her faith in the belief that she could help him return to that innocent and gentle young man before he came tormented by the psychological terrors of war.

This is a classic response by most women who stay in dangerous relationships. Rather than holding their abusers responsible, they often hold themselves responsible and consequently become caught in what is called “the cycle of abuse.”

Sandra Goldman, a therapist who primarily helps battered women get their lives back on track, says: “When women are emotionally abused by their intimate partners, their first instinct is to wonder what ‘they’ are doing wrong, and they often go into a hyper-driven mode of trying to cure their mates, rather than help themselves.

Goldman also said most abused women come from homes in which they either witnessed their mothers being abused; or abuse victims themselves as children; or sadly, victims of both.

“If that is their only experience of what a family looks like, then they see abuse as a very normal type of relationship,” Goldman said. “And often, they are trying to cure their own sufferings of childhood through adult relationships. For example, if they can turn their abusive partner into a non-abusive one, they feel that in part they have resolved the anguish they themselves experienced in childhood.

Gray is no different than a lot of domestic violence victims in that she kept her abuse a well-hidden secret from her professional colleagues, her closest friends and her family. As most abused women report, she felt ashamed and feared that her reality may somehow be revealed, which placed an additional emotional stress upon her.

This was her most well-acted role she ever played, and she fooled everyone including herself that she somehow had the perfect, cookie-cutter and glamorous life, while on the home front she was terrified.

Gray said that she lived in constant fear of her husband’s chronic and “severe hallucinations” that he experienced from PTSD episodes in which he literally believed that he was back in Vietnam on the battlefields being attacked, whilst he took out his rage and anger out upon her, making “her life” feel like a battlefield of its own.

She said that each day when she came home from work, she never knew what she would find on the other side of the front door. Sometimes he was relatively “normal” while other times he was already having a flashback and acting out in a state of high paranoia, although he never physically abused her.

“In my situation, he more emotionally abusive; he didn’t hit me,” Gray said. “Although I was always walking on egg shells emotionally, never knowing when something might happen, trying to make sure that everything was all right.”

She also knew there were triggers for episodes. “But I didn’t necessarily think he was going to hit me.” “I just knew that he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and that she had to somehow deal with it each day.

Like most victims of domestic violence, she lived two separate lives, and was a believable actress on both fronts. In her personal life, she suffered the anxiety of “never knowing” what she would face each day which caused her to feel constantly on the edge, and also in a state of panic and fear.

But in her professional life, she seemed to effortlessly live the American dream as she had beauty, brains, talent and fame.

Ironically, Grey portrayed mostly strong, undefeatable characters such as the breakout role of “Colonel Wilma” in the hit T.V. series “Buck Rogers”. She also became a household name when she starred as “Kate”, the very iconic image of the ideal and confident American woman in the big prime time hit “Silver Spoons” for five years.

Erin’s character of Colonel Wilma, who played second only to lead actor Gil Gerard was one of television’s earliest and symbolic roles of an extremely strong and courageous female character and role model in a science fiction program.

In an interview she once said, “I enjoyed being that kind of role model for young women watching the show. A woman can be a colonel! A woman can be in charge! Those were new ideas then,” Gray said.

Sadly, Gray wasn’t able to be as “in charge” of her personal life at that time as well. This is the story for most victims of domestic violence. They carry their secrets with shame and fear and live double lives; portraying brave and independent women in their communities and even to their closest family members, while they carry the too-often fatal secret of abuse.

Domestic violence does not discriminate against women based on their race, class, religion, ethnic origin or status in society. Rather, it is a growing epidemic that is an equal opportunity destroyer that largely remains a stigma in society, and therefore makes it harder for women to come forward and ask for help.

For Erin, it was no different, even though this was the second time she had suffered through domestic abuse. As a child, she remembers hearing horrific stories about her own mother abused by her father. And as a teenager, she suffered abuse by her stepfather.

The cycle of domestic violence in families remains to be a constant theme and one that Gray and other victims and advocates are trying to help change.

According to statistics and specialists who study the impact of domestic violence in families, violence is a learned behavior, and many children who witness abuse grow up to repeat the behavior as spouses and parents, or become victims of abuse themselves.

According to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, females who witnessed violence between their parents may take either the victim or the abuser role, depending on the circumstances. Girls whose mothers enact only a victim role will generally model this role themselves.

And for boys, those who witness domestic violence when they are children are twice as likely to abuse their own partners and children when they become adults with 30 to 60 percent of also abused as children.

Gray said that it wasn’t so much that her husband “chipped away at her self esteem”, but that his volatile behavior re-triggered her own post-traumatic stress disorder that she suffered as an abused child.

“The pain is so much that you have what is called ‘muted senses’ where you have a form of amnesia,” Gray said. “So of you go to that place, it is so painful that you can’t feel it. And if you felt it, you would dissolve into 1,000 pieces.”

As a child she literally “shut down” in order to protect herself so that she wouldn’t feel the abuse. “As a child, I felt I had no voice, Gray said. “I didn’t know how to defend myself verbally or protect myself.”

Statistics show that domestic violence is more often than not generational and that children who are abused and those who witness abuse often become either abusers or victims of abuse.

And the fact that Erin suffered severe abuse as a child, while also growing up with a mother who was abused made it much more likely for her to become an abused woman when she grew up.

Statistics show that domestic violence is more often than not generational and that children who are abused as well as those who witness abuse in the home often become either abusers or abuse victims.

According to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Witnessing violence between one’s parents or caretakers is the strongest risk factor of transmitting violent behavior from one generation to the next.”

When Erin publicly tells the painful story of the sexual and emotional abuse that she suffered as a child, she often tells the story in the third person, as if the pain of her story is still too great to face and bare.

“The affectionate hugs from her stepfather turned to sexual abuse. The girl now lives in silent rage,” Erin said. “Until one day she picks up a knife and says, ‘If you ever tough me again, I’ll kill you.” That child, that woman, of course, is me.”

For Erin, she has made a commitment in both her personal and professional life to help educate people about the issue of domestic violence by telling her personal story; hoping to both educate and inspire the public at large and be an inspiration to women who are survivors of abuse, or who still suffer.

“We need to educate the public as to how to help people get out of abusive situations,” Gray said. “And we need to recognize what a negative situation is and to help women not to make the wrong choices with men and to create self esteem within every individual and particularly every child. It takes somebody in society to say, “there is something wrong here.”

“I know first hand what it is to be a child living in fear and how it damages the soul and damages the spirit. I was both physically and sexually abused as a child,” Gray said.

One of Gray’s important roles is as the spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and as board member for Haven House, the oldest battered women's shelter in the Unite States. She has also co-produced and written Public Service Announcements about domestic violence with “Women in Film.”

Because Erin is a survivor of domestic violence, she wants other women to realize a life free of fear and abuse, as she “gratefully” does now.

Today, she is raising two beautiful children and has been happily married for more than twenty years to her husband Richard Hissong, a Director of Photography with whom she produces a series of videos on two other subjects she is passionate about, Chi Kung and Tai Chi, which Erin teaches as well.

“We need to educate the public as to how to help people get out of abusive situations,” Gray said. “And we need to recognize what a negative situation is and to help women not to make the wrong choices with men and to create self esteem within every individual and particularly every child. It takes somebody in society to say, “there is something wrong here.”

There certainly is, but thanks to strong role models and activists like Gray who are willing to tell their stories on behalf of abuse victims, things will become certainly more right than wrong.


Erin Gray’s Additional Bio

  •  Hosts programs including Lifetime Cable's, ‘Drug & Alcohol Intervention Program’, and gives motivational speeches for such organizations as UPS, AFLAC, and Lady Remington
  • Established and runs ‘Heroes for Hire’, a company which books celebrities at personal appearances and speaking engagements, created along with her husband for Wu Wei Entertainment
  • The recipient of 9 community service awards, including The Leadership Award by The County of Los Angeles, The Guardian Angel Award from The Mothers Against Sexual Abuse, The YWCA's Women of Achievement Award of Distinction, the 1999 Women's Peace Power Media Award, and the 2002 Woman of the Year Award by The Commission For Women.