Domestic Violence — Why NJ lawmaker finally told her story
I remember sitting on my couch. My chin was still gushing blood. My eye was starting to really swell up. I was still in shock. I was completely like ... 'What happened?' And you text me, like 'Happy New Year's! You want to go to brunch?' I was like, 'I think I need to go to the hospital.'
Those are the words, offered through tears, of Maria Rodriguez-Gregg. She's a South Jersey resident, a roller derby player, a mother — and until this month, an assemblywoman representing the 8th Legislative District.
Rodriguez-Gregg on Tuesday sat with her longtime friend and New Jersey 101.5 contributor Jay Lassiter to discuss a story he already knew, a secret he'd helped her keep for a year — that on New Year's Eve leading into 2017, Rodriguez-Gregg was assaulted by her then-boyfriend, leaving her with bruises and abrasions all over her face and body.
"Having to put makeup on top of that burned," Rodriguez-Gregg says in the extended interview seen above, recounting how she tried to cover up her injuries before seeing other lawmakers at Gov. Chris Christie's State of the State address. "It just burned like hell."
Lassiter — known to the New Jersey 101.5 audience as an advocate for drug policy reform and the author of the "Heroin Uncut" podcast and video series — had taken Rodriguez-Gregg to a hospital the morning after her assault. He held her hand and stayed by her side as she made sense of her ordeal and received treatment. And he helped her come up with a cover story — that she'd been injured trying to stop a drunk driver.
That's the version of events to which friends and family who'd seen a post on Rodriguez-Gregg's personal Facebook page were made privy in early 2017. Some others were told or left to assume she'd been hurt playing roller derby.
It wasn't until last week that Rodriguez-Gregg, in another Facebook post, came forward with the truth — that she'd been assaulted, and not just once. That the encounter left a weight on her soul for months — that it made her irritable and angry. That she'd made the difficult choice to press charges, and that her assailant eventually pleaded guilty (she didn't provide New Jersey 101.5 with her assailant's name, but her attorney affirmed her ex-boyfriend submitted a plea later last year).
"When I opened up about it — it was a little selfish in just getting that weight off," Rodriguez-Gregg says.
And she says the emotional burden played a role in her most infamous moment of the year — a DWI arrest in April, after her car was rear-ended. In a video later obtained by the Trentonian and used with permission on NJ1015.com, she's seen losing her cool with police — who said they smelled marijuana in her car (though ultimately, none was found). She calls the officers "f**king a**holes" in the video. She tells them she's being mistreated because she's Latina. She tells the officers multiple times that she's an assemblywoman, and "everybody is going to know about this s**t."
Her DWI charge has not yet been resolved. Her attorney has been quoted by the Trentonian saying a "borderline" amount of alcohol was in her system, but no drugs were found in the car.
In her conversation with Lassiter, Rodriguez-Gregg says she accepts responsibility for the way she acted that night — but wants people to understand the strain trauma, any trauma, places on a person. And she urges those who are or have been victims of abuse to get help.
"I was having nightmares. I was having severe anxiety. I would have panic attacks in large groups — which to some extent, affected me as a legislator," she says. "Because it just would happen. I would think I was fine, and it would happen. There were times I really couldn't get out of bed.
"If you're not seeking help, it's going to manifest in really bad ways."
In her conversation, as in her recent Facebook post, Rodriguez-Gregg also urges support for pending legislation — bill A1548, sponsored by Assemblyman Erik Peterson, and A3833, sponsored by Assemblywoman Annette Quijano — to toughen penalties for domestic violence.
But as importantly, she says, she wants people to understand the impact of violence — and that victims need not suffer alone.
Lassiter, recounting his own role in events that weekend, remembers being confronted with anxieties he'd never expected — like those prompted when a nurse at the hospital told him abusers sometimes come to emergency rooms, seeking out their victims.
"I'm like, 'What if he brings a gun? What if he shoots me?'" Lassiter says.
He said it's a "selfish" thought, and perhaps a far-fetched idea – but not an impossible one. And he said he's emblematic of the ways abuse affects not only its most immediate victim, but those around them.
And he wonders how people without the resources Rodriguez-Gregg has — without insurance, without support — get help. He worries about those afraid to call for help, because of the repercussions they could face at home. He questions how secure those potentially on the wrong side of the law in other matters — for instance, possessing marijuana, as Lassiter himself does for medical purposes — could feel calling police.
And he says the emotional impact on those around abuse is significant enough that he has trouble fathoming the impact on its target. In the time since Rodriguez-Gregg disclosed her abuse, he says, other victims have reached out to him — including other former legislators.
"When I saw you that morning looking completely beat up, and swollen and bleeding — I had never seen anything like that," Lassiter tells his friend.
Rodriguez-Gregg says she's eager to address a culture that questions victims, that asks them to prove their abuse to be taken seriously. She said she's eager to make sure those in need get help.
"There were times I kept thinking, 'Maybe it was me. What did I do wrong?'" she said. "I wasn't OK. I wasn't OK."
The New Jersey Domestic Violence Hotline, at 800-572-SAFE (7233), operates 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Further resources, including legal aid and shelter, are available via the state Department of Children and Families.