Where others have blinders, Kiryn Evans keenly sees abuse lurking in society’s shadows.

She knows that truth, because she endured it, every piercing and painful touch, threat and blow. Yet in an age of vast and varied communication, the 38-year-old nurse practitioner finds abuse as devastatingly secretive as during her hellish childhood.

“It’s funny to me that it’s 2019, that people want to stick their nose into your business — and it was the same way 30 years ago — but when they need to say something important, when there’s abuse, they do nothing,” she says. “They’ll say, on Facebook or otherwise, ‘This is how you should do your hair.’ But when there’s abuse, they don’t say anything. It just kills me.”

Evans is an abuse survivor. Her mother was not.

The man who abused Evans and her siblings, the man she refuses to reference as her father — “He doesn’t deserve that respect,” she says — killed her mother, his final brutality to the wife he had promised to cherish forever.

In her memory, Evans is a calm crusader, urging and nudging people (through public and private appearances, as well as a fundraiser in her mom's name next month) to do what hardly anyone did for her family: if you see or suspect abuse, take appropriate action.

“This is not just my story,” says Evans, who now lives in Washington with her husband and their 3-year-old. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, that was in the ′80s and ′90s. It doesn’t happen now. Of course it happens now.″

Proof? She’ll pepper you with statistics. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused in the United States. One of her startlers (as corroborated by politifact.com): more U.S. women were killed by intimate partner violence between 2002 and 2014 than all the Americans killed by the Sept. 11 attacks and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Evans admits she doesn’t have all the answers. But the cloak around abuse can be a death sentence, as with her mom. She says everyone — police, schools, health providers, social workers — essentially shrugged off an abundance of neon-bright tell-tale signs screaming of raging turmoil within her household.

“We were just a community joke," she says. "Everybody knew what was going on. It became normalized behavior.”

From the start

About 80 miles southwest of Peoria lies an old burg called Burnside. Home to fewer than 100 residents, the unincorporated community sits amid the endless crop fields of Hancock County, which claims fewer than 20,000 residents. Macomb is about 25 miles to the east, while Keokuk, Iowa, is a shade over 15 miles to the southwest.

There, in the mid 1970s, Evans’s parents — Kathy Baxter and Kevin Simmons — met while in high school, though she attended classes in Nauvoo and he went to Carthage. Evans isn’t sure what drew them together, though she knows Kevin Simmons carried a daring charisma.

“He liked motorcycles, and she probably liked that,” Evans says.

The battering started during their dating days, but Evans’ mom didn't flinch. Both of the parents′ family trees have roots in abuse. After the two wed, Kathy and Kevin Simmons settled in Burnside, where the beatings intensified behind closed doors. Simmons would strike his wife — sometimes nightly — with whatever weapons he had available: pans, chain-saw blade, hog whip.

The attacks continued after the kids arrived: a son in 1978, Evans in 1980 and another son in 1987. (Evans’s birth name was Kristi. As an adult, she changed her name to help move away from the past.) 

To many neighbors, Kevin Simmons came off like a generous, jack-of-all-trades. Fix a fence? Mow a yard? Paint a car? He’d be happy to lend a hand, with no expectation of payment.

Despite his many skills, Kevin Simmons preferred to spend his days awash in alcohol. When that got dull, he’d spice things up with cocaine. All the while, he let his wife scratch out a living for the household.

“There were many times we didn’t have enough to eat or didn’t have clothes appropriate for the weather,” Evans says.

In time, the assaults would include the children. He not only whacked the entire household around, but he would routinely threaten to kill each and every one of them. In time, his attacks occasionally spilled outside, such as the time neighbors witnessed his chasing the children with a baseball bat.

Cognizant of the chaos, neighbors and relatives might let Evans and her siblings use their phone to call police. But they refused to come forward to law enforcement.

“They didn’t want to ruffle feathers,” Evans says.

Neither did her mother.

Seeking help

Kathy Simmons shirked from turning on her husband, hoping he'd change his ways. Still, just as maternal relatives had done, Evans begged her to take the kids and leave.

“My mom and I had many, many arguments over the years,” she says.

Sometimes, Evans would win out. On several occasions, Kathy Simmons would go with the kids to relatives' homes or to shelters. But Kevin Simmons would turn on the charm and woo her back, promising that the drinking and beatings would stop. She’d relent and return to the Burnside residence, where his bad habits would roar back.

Still, Kathy Simmons carried an underlying strength. She got a nursing degree and went to work at McDonough District Hospital in Macomb. Her skills earned the respect of peers and supervisors, and she won at least one workplace award. However, her steady income meant her husband didn’t have to hold a job.

Amid the tumult, Evans tried to grab some control. She says she would go to police regarding her father’s heavy-handedness. But she was turned away.

She recalls one time complaining to an officer that her father had choked her younger brothers. The cop replied, “That’s your dad’s right. He can discipline as he sees fit.”

Evans was floored, blurting. “It’s strangulation, not discipline!’

Other obvious signs went ignored, Evans says. One time, her father had backed her against a refrigerator and put a gun’s muzzle to her head. When she told a neighbor, her father laughed and said he had been horsing around.

Another time, her mother took Evans to a doctor when Evans turned bulimic in her teens. The doctor did not care to investigate the reason behind the eating disorder.

“That was just one of the many things that didn’t happen,” she says.

Evans says the community — police, schools, social-service agencies and health-care workers — became dismissive about the ongoing roil of the Simmons household while Kathy Simmons made repeated excuses for her husband. Evans says she understands their frustration — the same frustration she and extended family had in not being able to convince Kathy Simmons to break free. But she wishes, in light of the repeated and obvious trouble, that someone would’ve pushed a little harder.

“It’s a terrible situation. And I get it to an extent from everybody’s (outside) perspective. But do you walk away every time, until somebody dies?

"And that’s what happened. Somebody died.”

Evans got out before that somebody was her.

Back to Burnside

At age 16, Evans left home for the first time, to live with a boyfriend. She would move back, then leave at times to live with kin. The cycle of dysfunction kept drawing her back to Burnside.

But one day at age 19, something triggered a repressed memory.

“I had a flashback of Kevin sexually abusing me," she says, referring to her father. "I had blocked that out for 10 years.”

Working with public agencies, she found opportunities for mental-health therapy. She felt a sense of hope.

Yet old habits and memories kept grabbing at her. Therapy would be slow. For years, Evans says she would battle alcohol and drug abuse, meantime tumbling in and out of abusive relationships and bouncing back and forth from the Burnside home.

“I was a mess for a very long time,” she says. “I’m surprised I’m not dead.”

During one contentious time in Burnside in 2001, Kathy Simmons took her youngest son (then 14 and the only sibling at home) and left. She went to live with relatives, and the son stayed with Evans. Evans believed her mother was making progress toward a better life.

But after a while, Simmons went back to her husband. Livid, Evans rushed to Burnside to confront her mother.

“You don’t understand,” her mother pleaded. “You don’t know what it’s like here!”

“I do know what it’s like!” Evans retorted. “I lived here.”

Evans gave her a choice: pick her husband or her daughter. Simmons chose to stay with her husband, so Evans left.

At home, she urged her younger brother to stay with her. But the pull back to Burnside was too strong.

“I have to go back,” he said. “I have to protect her.”

The fatal 'fall'

On the afternoon of March 26, 2003, two passersby spotted Kathy Simmons on the ground in front of the Burnside home. Still conscious, she said she had fallen from her porch. She pleaded with them not to call 911, but they summoned help. Simmons was taken to Carthage Memorial Hospital, then flown to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

She died later that day.

An autopsy showed she had suffered a fatal liver laceration from a beating. In May, a coroner’s jury in Peoria County ruled her death a homicide. The next month, an arrest warrant (with a $300,000 bond attached) was issued for the arrest of Kevin Simmons, who had vanished. An indictment by a Hancock County grand jury charged him with first-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Days later, he turned himself in to police. As he awaited trial in Hancock County Jail, police told reporters Kathy Simmons had a history of blaming injures on falls. 

Evans says, “My mom has to take some responsibility. Kevin has to take some of the responsibility. But the community has to take some of the responsibility.”

At trial the next year, prosecutors said Kevin Simmons became enraged with his wife for drinking beer that fatal morning. An inmate at the county jail testified that Simmons had confessed to pushing his wife off the porch and beating her with a dowel rod.

At trial, all three children testified to years of abuse in the household. They told the jury how their mom would hide injuries with turtlenecks, excessive makeup and long clothing.

Perhaps the most biting comment came from Evans. Asked who her father was, she replied, “I never had a father.”

As she testified to the mental, physical and sexual abuse at his hands, he angrily barked from the defense table, “Don’t lie, please.” As she continued her harrowing testimony, she thought to herself with satisfaction, “The truth is finally coming out, and he doesn’t like it.”

On the stand, Kevin Simmons denied any wrongdoing. To police, he had suggested the slaying could’ve been at the hands of a “mentally slow” person hanging around the town. But in court he blamed her death on the fall, despite forensic testimony indicating a beating, as evidenced by 30 bruises on her body.

The jury found him guilty of first-degree murder. He shook his head back and forth as the verdict was read. Afterward, his youngest son told reporters, “I’m glad that justice has been served.”

At sentencing, Simmons — hands and feet shackled, and clad in an orange jail jumpsuit — turned to the courtroom spectators and declared. “I had nothing to do with her death. … Someday, you will see it. You will.” At that, a woman yelled at him, “You beat her and you left her!” Minutes later, the judge handed down a 45-year sentence.

A new start

The conviction gave Evans public validation.

“As traumatic as the trial was, there were some very positive things. At times, it was very empowering to me. It was kind of a reinforcement of my story of 20-some years.”

Afterward, some community members told her, “We should’ve done more.” Others, though, were unmoved; one Burnside resident could not see how the neighborly Kevin could be capable of murder: “I just don’t know if I can believe it.”

Not long after the conviction, Evans decided to put away her old name — Kristi Simmons — as a way to draw a boundary from her former life. She became Kiryn Evans: “That sounds good,” she told herself. “That’s going to be my new name.”

It was a key step forward.

“That did a lot for me,” she says. “It helped propel me from victim to survivor.”

Soon, she had a new life. By her late 20s, after continuing with therapy, Evans went into what she calls “remission.” She pushed away alcohol and drugs, along with abusive relationships. She furthered her education, eventually rising to nurse, then nurse practitioner.

On the job, when she has noticed abuse, she has helped victims set out a recovery plan to put them and their children in safe places physically, mentally and financially.

“It’s hard,” she tells them. “But it can be done. Look at me.”

She often has been called on to speak to health-care students and at community events. To spread awareness and concern about abuse, she shared her story.

Six years ago, she married a mental-health therapist. (“That’s funny: I married a therapist,” she says with a chuckle). They have a 3-year-old girl, and their family life gives her a story of recovery to share with abuse victims. She stresses that childhood-learned habits are not forever etched in stone.

“Just look at me,” Evans says. “I have a fantastic relationship with my daughter. I’ve never hit her. I try to not even raise my voice.”

The only time she gets loud? When she speaks to groups about abuse awareness. She hopes her story and boldness prompts people to look for signs and report abuse.

“If we can’t talk about it, it’s never going to change,” she says.

PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at pluciano@pjstar.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.