Breaking the uncomfortable silence

Natalie's story

Natalie Novak was no more than 5 years old and she was fearless.

A grinning little girl. A Muskoka lake. A summer day. On the dock, she did not hesitate. She flew down the water slide into the lake, splashing into water over her head, making sure to do it when her parents, Dawn and Ed, weren’t looking.

Natalie Novak a little girl

She was the opposite of most kids, who holler: “Mom, look! Watch me!”

Not Natalie.

She didn’t want to be told “no.” She didn’t want to hear she couldn’t do something.

Several years later, when her parents were out for the evening, she and her adored older brother, Nicolas, got the idea to leap from the second floor of their house into a pile of pillows on the floor below. Natalie went first.

And then there was the day she slipped on the ice as she got out of the car. She was 4 years old and there was no way she was going to admit she’d fallen. “I must have fainted,” Natalie announced as she popped to her feet.

That was Natalie. A bit of a rascal. Confident. Curious. Afraid of nothing, except perhaps looking foolish.

“A fiercely independent girl,” her mother calls her.

There are so many stories, so many memories.

Dawn shares them while sitting in a chair by the fire in the living room. She smiles and laughs as she talks about her daughter. Her eyes fill occasionally. Ed can be heard in his studio just off the living room. He’s listening, always there for Dawn, but she tells the story.

There’s a watch on her wrist. It has a fashionably chunky silver bracelet and small, blue crystal face. It’s a good watch, one that Natalie had saved up to buy. Years later, it was found among 20-year-old Natalie’s things after she was murdered in 2006, stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in the bedroom of her Toronto apartment.

Now Dawn wears it.

Natalie's watch.
The one she saved up to buy.

How can Dawn bear to tell it again? There is such sorrow coming in this part of Natalie’s story, such heartbreak, frustration and anger about a death both predictable and preventable.

There’s a reason why her mother bears to keep on telling it. It’s all for Natalie, to keep this from happening to another woman and her family. To tell people this could happen to anyone, to warn and to educate.

“This is such a powerful message. We all think we’re special or smarter, that those things will protect you, or those things happen to other people,” Dawn says.

Western's domestic violence research team

The Research Team

Our interdisciplinary team of researchers is committed to the development and application of knowledge that aims to prevent violence against women and children by promoting innovation, collaboration and equality.

Natalie met Arssei Hindessa in her first year of university, 21 months before her death. They had an off-and-on relationship. For 16 months, he abused her.

He was a slick fellow, Dawn thought when she first met him. Easy with the charm and quick to share information that could never be verified, he was older than Natalie. Dawn likened him to Leave It To Beaver’s insincere Eddie Haskell.

She had no clue that Hindessa was abusing and terrorizing her daughter for months before he murdered her in her apartment bedroom because she wanted to end their relationship.

There were so many warning signs.

He had assaulted Natalie three times in the past. There had been restraining orders and parole requirements that he stay away from her. Five days before her murder, Hindessa failed to show up for a meeting with his parole officer. There was no follow-up.

“It was the final instalment in a history of physical violence perpetuated by him,” Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy said in sentencing Hindessa to life in prison for second-degree murder in 2009 without eligibility for parole for 18 years. “He is a danger to society, particularly women.”

Her friends knew and were sometimes nearby when Natalie was verbally and physically attacked. Natalie, who called 911 when she was assaulted, revealed nothing about what she was going through to her family.

She was confident and extremely bright, but she was also naive.

Dawn says her daughter was terrified, ashamed and unable to process what was happening or how to stop it. Her self-confidence eroded. At the same time, she felt responsible for helping Hindessa because of his difficult past as an Ethiopian refugee.

She didn’t feel like a victim.

Natalie mentioned things in passing when she came home to visit or when she and her mom met in Toronto. Dawn later realized these were ways of blocking questions that would reveal her violent relationship.

Natalie volunteered she had sudden hair loss and showed her mother some bruises. Maybe she needed to change her diet? She’d read lack of certain vitamins could cause people to bruise more easily. Maybe she should see her doctor?

Dawn had no way of knowing Hindessa was hitting her and pulling out handfuls of hair.

natalie novak black and white photo

Natalie also seemed less confident and, uncharacteristically, she doubted herself.

She just wasn’t the same.

She was not the same dance-crazy teen who had a remarkable sense of style and a domestic streak, working part-time as a waitress to buy just the right clothes and beautiful bed linens to make her room a showplace. This wasn’t the same little girl who took ballet lessons, then jazz and hip-hop, or who, as a teen, loved animals, music, hanging out with her large group of girlfriends, laughing when they got caught sneaking smokes outside after dance class.

Natalie had no idea of the danger she was in, had never been taught or told about the escalating dangers of abuse and its warning signs.

Education could have saved Natalie. Or so her mother thinks. So would awareness among her friends about the need to speak up. But they were hesitant to talk about the abuse and they didn’t want to embarrass Natalie. Someone closer to her would mention it. Right?

And finally, co-ordination and communication and following procedure and policy among police, courts and social services could have raised red flags that might have kept Hindessa away from Natalie.

When Dawn speaks to police training classes she tells them they must believe women when they reach out for help. Don’t minimize trauma.

“It’s not for men and people to say how traumatized you’ve been, how destructive this behaviour is being to your personality. Natalie was really struggling,” Dawn says. “She was a frightened, confused young woman who thought she was doing better because she was leaving him. That was what happened the night she died.”

Since 1992, collaborative research at Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women and Children (CREVAWC) has been ongoing to understand and prevent relationship violence through education and awareness.

Among the community education tools the centre provides is education for young people on healthy dating relationships. It also details dozens of warning signs of abuse and ways of reporting and helping.

Peter Jaffe, CREVAWC Academic Director, says what happened to Natalie was tragically typical.

“Obviously, the outcome is the most extreme. It is every parent’s nightmare,” he says. “But it’s typical in terms of being in a dating relationship, not necessarily talking openly to parents and friends about what’s happening, trying to put up with abuse and look for excuses about someone’s mental health problems or stress.”

Jaffe is also a founding member of the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee, where research has shown young women aged 15-24 are at greatest risk of relationship violence.

“People don’t recognize the risk,” he says. They dismiss it, saying, “It’s only dating, they’re not married.” The assumption is that it’s older women, those who are married or in partnerships with a home and kids that are at the greatest risk of relationship violence.

And then there were the warning signs. Western’s research shows in 80 per cent of domestic homicides, at least seven risk factors were present. Natalie’s case had 21 warning signs of abuse.

Risk factors include stalking, physical abuse, lying by the aggressor, being isolated, planning to leave the relationship, enduring put downs and being dominated.

Jaffe says women need an “ongoing safety plan and how to stay safe and how to stay away,” when leaving an abusive situation.

Dawn didn’t know about or recognize the signs of abuse. If only she’d known what her daughter was going through, she would have gotten Natalie out of Toronto and home immediately. Meanwhile, Natalie didn’t know she was at risk and didn’t know about making a safety plan to get out.

Natalie did talk to her girlfriends about what was happening in her relationship, which Jaffe explains is also common. Women are five times more likely to discuss partner violence with friends than an adult.

Jaffe says initiating a final break-up is a big risk factor in an abusive relationship built on exerting power and having control. Natalie was trying to end her relationship when she was killed. Dawn believes her daughter hoped they could remain friends.

Education is key and the fact that Dawn and Ed have continued to share Natalie’s story in such depth has been “very important” to his work, Jaffe says.

Dawn uses the research and recommendations of the Death Review Committee in her talks.

“I talk a great deal about the importance of risks, understanding what to do. Once you know that the information is there, it’s the blueprint of what you can do about it and the infrastructure exists,” she says, emphasizing the need for collaboration in case management among “all the different factions,” including the legal system.

“Education, education, education.”

Natalie Novak with her mom Dawn, dad Ed, and brother Nicolas.

When Natalie was born, she came “in a flurry and hurry” in a maternity waiting room in Hamilton, Ont. When she was a toddler, the family decided to move just north of Bracebridge, where Natalie and Nicolas grew up in the family home Ed built largely by himself over a number of years.

The Novak house is on the crest of a wooded hill, up a curving driveway. Modern and cozy, it’s a light-filled space where you can warm yourself by the stone fireplace or watch the sun move along a curved wall, shining on one of artist Ed’s many paintings.

There are crafts from Mexico on display. The family’s adventures there helped spark an interest in travel for Natalie that would lead her to study Hospitality and Tourism Management as a 17-year-old undergraduate. Maybe she would run a hotel someday, but it had to be in a warm climate. She’d become fluent in Spanish.

natalie novak and brother

They delighted in living like pioneers in the early years while Ed worked on the house. Dawn was a teacher, focusing in her later career on special-needs children. The kids played in one part of the house while Ed worked on another.

In winter, Natalie skated on the ice rink Ed made on a flat patch near the house.

In summer, she and Nicolas went for daily afternoon walks in the woods surrounding the house with their dad. They collected monarch butterfly cocoons. Natalie took them home and nurtured them, full of questions and anxious to see the brilliantly coloured insects that fascinated her emerge and fly.

A photo of her intently examining a monarch butterfly in her gently cupped hands before it flies for the first time is one of her parents’ favourites.

For many, that photo has come to symbolize more than Natalie’s spirit. It has come to symbolize hope.

The butterfly photo is the first that greet website visitors to the Natalie Novak Fund for the Education and Prevention of Relationship Violence. Through that group, Dawn leads workshops on healthy relationships in schools and in the community and speaks to police officer training groups about the need for communication around domestic abuse.

The video that Dawn uses in her presentations to introduce Natalie is titled If Only ... Nat’s Story.

“You know it took us a long time to come up with the title and when it came, it was like we all just looked at each other and went ‘Oh my God, that’s it.’ Because there are so many ‘If Onlys’ in Natalie’s story.”

Dawn reads from the back of a pamphlet given out at her talks. If only Natalie had been educated, she says. If only she knew anything about relationship violence. If only she had been connected with a women’s shelter or support line. If only friends understood the danger she was in.

“If she just knew this isn’t nothing, honey,” Dawn says. “My mission is just to protect young people with awareness and education and educate frontline workers.”

Dawn and Ed also created a comprehensive study, A Constructive Analysis of the Murder of Natalie Novak, which details the case and has been used as a policing teaching tool at Wilfrid Laurier University and police colleges in Aylmer and Orillia.

Natalie’s second-floor bedroom has been changed, but there’s still a painting of young ballerinas over the bed that Ed painted for Natalie. Her white figure skates are still in the closet. There’s a heavy earthenware mug Natalie loved in a low, glass-fronted cupboard, tucked among baby shoes, books and dried flowers.

There is also a small urn containing some of her ashes.

Dawn stands at the bedroom window overlooking the woods, with the lake in sight, and recalls Natalie calling down to her while she was working in the garden about a phone call or with a question. There are so many stories, so many memories.

Dawn will continue to tell people about what happened to their beloved Natalie.

“I wish very much and I hope very much that there is a spirit of Natalie but there’s a part of me that understands that perhaps all that exists of Natalie is what’s in my heart and my memories,” she says. “So another reason I talk, is to not let her go.”

Linda Barnard

Written by Linda Barnard