Holding My Hand Through Hell

Pilgrim of The Cross, Thomas Cole, 1846-47


Who’s going to believe you? I’m a policeman, I’ll have you locked up, Roberta, and you’ll never see your children again. If you even think of leaving me, I’ll kill you and the kids, set the house on fire and get away with it.

Raw, palpable honesty like a Sawzall gnawing furiously down to the bone—that’s what Susan Murphy Milano’s biography Holding My Hand Through Hell is. As someone who has both lived and studied the garish specter of police officer-involved domestic violence, I found Susan’s life journey to contain many familiar elements. But the level of abuse and depravity this titan of victim advocacy has endured at the hands of her family, law enforcement, spouses, and colleagues is particularly horrific.

Just a few sentences into the first page you’ll find yourself emotionally absorbed in the content. As the book progresses it jumps around in time to give readers a widescreen view of how decades of unconscionable abuse shaped the lives of the Murphy children and led to a murder-suicide. As in most police officer-involved domestic violence cases, there is a veneer over the Murphy family that the outside world gets to see while hell on earth goes on below it. We find self-proclaimed saints to be the vilest of sinners while innocents suffer from the guilt and shame of violence they did not cause or choose. We find those sworn to serve and protect mocking the victims and enabling the psychopaths.

Welcome to the mind-bending world of family violence cop-style, where up is down and down is up and sideways is backwards, and the only truth, the only law, is the bully behind the badge. In this alternate universe—a state of being so far removed from the Creator’s intentions you can almost see grisly, deformed, demonic agents scurrying up and down the walls in glee– a uniformed abuser will do anything to maintain control. The last thing he wants is his victims convincing others of the truth.

“Bitch! You’re worthless!” Phil Murphy screamed as he beat his wife Roberta. Such words are all too familiar to victims of domestic violence, but they are especially caustic and immobilizing to victims of abusive cops because they have fewer options to end the violence. Susan’s father, who abused his family in every sense of the word, liked to tease her mother that she couldn’t go to the police because he was the police. The graphic descriptions of violence in the Murphy household illustrate exactly why we as a society need to take abuse seriously—especially when committed by those sworn to serve and protect.

Susan’s father was a dictator and terrorist who had an “anything goes” ethic about his own life but made his family conform to his totalitarian expectations. He reeked of legalism, racism, and booze, disappearing for days at a time, but wanted to be waited on as soon as he walked in the door. Her mother was younger and much smaller physically, not allowed to get a driver’s license and micromanaged by her uniformed handler. He kept tabs on her obsessively and she sometimes had to lie to protect the children.

For decades Susan’s mother was beaten, broken, and raped, even dragged off of a train by her husband after taking the kids and trying to escape. From a young age Susan wanted to save her mother and brother, sometimes going to daring extremes to help them and always planning for the future. All three suffered physical, emotional, and sexual violence at the hands of this predator, the man who should have been protecting them, the man who enjoyed his peer-protected status as a hero cop out on the streets.

In Susan’s words, “we were fed fear for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” yet her attempts to obtain help from family friends, the clergy, and even teachers resulted in taunting, punishment, and accusations of lying. Even as a child she was treated like an attention-seeking drama queen rather than a little girl looking, sometimes quite literally, down the barrel of a gun. While trying desperately to get help for her family, she was treated as the problem. Her life seemed to be the epitome of the line from Titanic that says, “it’s like I’m standing in a crowded room screaming and no one’s listening.”

Her father liked to remind her of how fortunate she was to have a family who loved her and a roof over her head while at the same time terrorizing her whole being, body, mind, soul, and spirit. She knew well that the conditions of her life were dictated by her father’s moods and she was always at the mercy of his tirades. What her father didn’t know, though, was that this prolonged torture would not break his daughter, but harden her into a unique kind of steel that would find justice for others and help them escape from others like him.

As Susan grew up and left home, she found that she had a knack for helping victims of abuse and became a trailblazer in the arena of domestic violence. She had no road map or travel guide; she simply jumped in and started making waves. But there are those of both sexes who find a tall, attractive, justice-minded, ethics-oriented, outspoken woman who challenges the status quo immensely threatening. Some insecure or bigoted people would rather our female heroes be grossly deficient in certain areas to more easily find something to feel superior about.

This is why I find Susan so relatable. Susan wasn’t one of the good ‘ol boys and she wasn’t going to play ball old school-style. She wasn’t a butt-kissing, ego-stroking floozy who would use flattery to somehow coerce the legal system into being more sensitive to victims. This was someone who, by the grace of God, had walked through of the furnace of her own hell and was ready to snatch others from the flames. What is so notable about Susan’s story is that her own hell continued to smolder while she was passionately solving life and death situations for others.

As is the case with many children of abuse, the sharks found Susan and more than once she lived through the nightmare of being used and abused again. Unstable, sociopathic men instinctively latch onto women who possess traits that they will never have, using them as a food source to fuel their recklessness. These same denizens of the deep seem to smell the blood trail, however faint, caused by previous abuse, and when the honeymoon is over, they seize upon their prey. Victims of abuse may also subconsciously gravitate towards what they are used to.

Thankfully Susan’s heavenly Father gave her the strength to break free from these vampires and continue her work. But she paid a heavy price for standing up to them, a cost sure to make most readers’ hearts somersault as it was fueled by a Stygian cocktail of psychopathy, government corruption, and vindictiveness. Most gut-wrenching of all, though, was the account of the day she knew something was horribly wrong at home and arrived to find that her father had murdered her mother, then killed himself.

Her father had been stalking her mother in every conceivable sense of the word but when Susan tried to find help, she was laughed at and told he wasn’t committing any crimes. Her father felt that her mother owed him “for all he’d done for her” and saw himself as the victim in true O.J. fashion. Later revelations showed that he’d been planning to murder multiple family members for quite awhile because of the problems they had allegedly caused him (up is down, down is up…).

The details become even more shocking as the book progresses and a specific action during the murder-suicide is so cold it can only be perceived as yet another devilish jab at the daughter who had somehow “wronged” the killer. Remember, as I always say, the abuser might not want you anymore, but they certainly want control over you, even if that’s manipulating your emotions from beyond the grave. They have to have the last word, the last laugh, the final say. That’s exactly what the note Phil Murphy left said—“no one leaves me and gets away with it.”

While her parents’ bodies were still at the crime scene, her father’s colleagues showed their true colors by displaying insensitivity and blind loyalty that progressed to harassment at the funeral and beyond. I was flabbergasted at the drama surrounding the funeral (singular, not plural) even apart from the police involvement. But the actions of her father’s buddies didn’t surprise me; some police cliques, subcultures, or departments circle the wagons to protect their own no matter how heinous the circumstances. As Susan said, “the police department was the keeper of my father’s dark secret.”

That brings me back to a sentence that encapsulates the mentality that kept these officers from ever stopping the abuse Susan, her mother, and her siblings suffered. It comes from the scene where her father is standing there with fresh blood on his shirt after beating her mother to a pulp. Susan noted that the other cops were standing there laughing with him “like he was some sort of royalty.”

That nails the mindset of police officers who turn a blind eye to domestic violence within their ranks: royalty. They perceive themselves as being above the average man and exempt from the same rules. They believe they should be able to get away with hurting and controlling others because they are “special.” They will not “rat each other out” because they are part of what they see as an elite brotherhood and believe their jobs are sacrosanct. Some view standing up to the unethical behavior of a fellow cop a betrayal, something you just don’t do if you want your buddies to have your back.

If Phil Murphy had superiors and coworkers who were true to their oath of office, who remembered that they were public servants–not royalty– and who believed in justice for all, they could have saved the Murphy family from a lifetime of pain. This book gives us the exact reasons that domestic violence should be taken seriously and why police officers need to be held accountable for the crimes they commit just like anyone else. Holding My Hand Through Hell is also a great tool for anyone who wants to understand domestic violence better.

There is an even greater lesson in Susan’s story than learning what happens when family violence goes unchecked. Although corralled in a brief epilogue, it is alluded to throughout the chapters as Susan cries out to God in her trials: where are you? The lesson is this: God has been there all along. On this side of the veil we might never know why He allows what He does, especially given the horrors that Susan and others have faced in this life. But we know, as Jerry Bridges said, that God has a purpose in every pain He brings or allows in our lives—we can be sure that in some way He intends it for our profit and His glory.

After reading Holding My Hand Through Hell, it’s not difficult to see that God intended for Susan to do what T.D. Jakes said, which is one of my personal mottos—take your misery and make it your ministry. From the dungeon of domestic hell at the Murphy house came a woman determined to achieve justice for others no matter how many times she was knocked down herself.

Through this daringly veracious testimony, you can see how God sent key people into Susan’s life to encourage the fulfillment of her purpose, from a childhood pastor to business associates later on. You will gain a greater understanding of how someone can believe in God despite having every reason not to. This is Susan Murphy Milano’s story, and because of her decision to believe in a good God despite the relentless darkness, He has used her story to change countless lives.


Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

-Psalm 139:7-8, NKJV


Susan is currently fighting Stage IV cancer. You can follow her progress, and learn how to help, at http://www.conqueringcancer.me/.


©2012 H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com. All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/wildninja.wordpress.com.

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5 thoughts on “Holding My Hand Through Hell

  1. Your review article is so well done, Heidi. You brought the essence of not only the book and it’s content, but of Susan herself into your review. Unfortunately, you both understand the plot turns too well. I hope other readers of Holding My Hand Through Hell will see the timely lessons that can be learned from this book, a “true crime memoir.” Not only does it tell the truth of a person’s life, it’s holding out hope to others by being a teaching tool as well.


  2. Wow!….all Wendy and I can say is “Wow! You captured the essence of life in it’s sadly lower form! There are those out there who prey on people and it’s even sadder when it’s not only someone in a position of trust but even more so when it’s someone who supposedly has dedicated their life to protect others! You’ve nailed it Heidi! Excellent article! You should be being paid for this! ~David and Wendy


    1. Once again, thank you The book is the real “wow” though. I didn’t want to reveal all its plot twists but I was floored at several turns that the story took even though I thought I was prepared for it. Let’s hope it gives people a greater understanding of why an abusive cop is a very dangerous cop.

      You guys are too good to me! Thanks, as always, for the encouragement!


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