In 2004, Dayton, Ohio native Diona Clark just graduated from Howard University and had moved back home. She was eventually introduced to a friend of her brother-in-law, Larry Belcher. They hit it off and she started traveling to Columbus, Ohio to hang out with him. During one of their frequent visits early in the relationship, Clark says Belcher asked to see her phone. “I was being naive and didn’t think anything of it initially,” she recalls. “Then he looked at me and said, ‘when you come back next weekend, you better have all the male contacts deleted off your phone.’ I ignored the feeling I had about it.”
The gut reaction to her boyfriend’s request shook Clark to the core – so much that she called him the next day and to end things. He dissuaded her from breaking up with him and promised her a shopping spree to make up for it. Belcher’s tactic to redeem himself is not uncommon. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), one of the barriers to leaving an abusive relationship is, “the victim feeling that the relationship is a mix of good times, love and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear.” Clark admits to “putting her blinders on” and moving forward despite the glaring red flags.
In fact, she relocated from Dayton to Columbus to move in with Belcher. But the red flags didn’t stop waving. She claims her then-boyfriend began to drink more heavily and demand she pick him up from his overnight job, even though she had to work early. “He had broken my self-esteem down so low, I didn’t feel anything about myself,” Clark says. “I was on autopilot.”
Clark remembers that for much of the relationship, her ex-boyfriend never got physical with her. He would, however, attempt to control her every move. Everything from the way she dressed to where she went was under a magnifying glass. A defining shift in their relationship came when Belcher joined Clark at a family dinner and made a comment that had her entire family on high alert. “He told [my family] that once he got through with me, I was going to be better than all of them. At that moment, I realized he no longer looked at me as a human, but as an object.”
Fear crept in when one evening in 2005, Clark went out for drinks with Belcher’s sister. When she returned to their home, she says he was sitting in the dark drinking a bottle of liquor. He began to probe and ask where she’d been and with whom. The next morning, Clark decided she’d had enough. She broke up with him and moved into her own apartment. Belcher didn’t put up a fight, and even helped her move. Understandably, Clark assumed she was out of the woods and able to start over in peace. Then one night, he called to ask if he could come over and retrieve some dishes he let her borrow. Upon arrival, Clark immediately noticed that Belcher was drunk. “I asked him to leave, but he wouldn’t,” she says. “He kept telling me that he didn’t appreciate me saying that I didn’t want to be with him. I told him I loved him, but needed to keep my distance. Eventually, he reached into his sweatpants and pulled out a gun.”
After being barricaded in her apartment for an hour and a half, screaming, begging and pleading for Belcher to put the gun down, Clark was shot twice – once in the wrist and again in her chest – before he turned the gun on himself. The second gunshot missed her heart by inches. “I ran and could hear the blood coming out of me,” says Clark. “In my mind, that was my last night on Earth.”
Clark miraculously survived the shooting, but the PTSD was extraordinary. She had to undergo Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy to deal with triggers. Unbeknownst to Clark at the time, Belcher had also survived his self-inflicted injuries. Because he was in a coma and wasn’t expected to survive, Columbus police never followed through with its criminal investigation against him. By the time he’d healed from the injuries, the statute of limitations on felony assault had run out.
Part of her healing also involved advocacy to save young Black women and girls from experiencing what she went through. For the past 15 years, Clark has been using her platform, Liv Out Loud, to help gun and domestic violence victims to rebuild their self-esteem. She’s also been advocating to change laws on the local, state and federal level to improve gun laws and domestic violence protections. Teaming up with local politicians, Clark was able to get her assailant’s case revisited for kidnapping charges. Belcher is now serving a three-year sentence.
Though this traumatic incident is now in her rearview, Clark is on to pursue her life’s mission. In her new book Survival is Victory, Diona shares how she was able to recover from a traumatic experience that was designed to kill her and come out on top. She also wants women to pay closer attention to the subtle yet telling signs of an abusive partner. “Watch out for controlling behaviors, like inquiring about your ‘wheres’ and ‘whys,'” she says. “Gaslighting is [another red fleg], where the person makes you feel crazy or like you’re misinterpreting things. I would say exit the relationship at the first sign of these things. But more importantly, Liv Out Loud is pushing for prevention. [Victims] teeter-totter with the relationship because they haven’t been taught boundaries before the abuser steps over them.”
Diona Clark’s book, Survival Is Victory, is available now where books are sold.