The Disaster Before The Fire
By Anson Tong
On August 11, 2007, Nimisha Tiwari was running errands in Naperville, Illinois in the family’s silver Honda Odyssey. She purchased a can of gasoline from a Citgo gas station and then stopped by a toy store for a Thomas the Tank Engine toy for her 4-year-old son, Vardaan, and a Dora the Explorer doll for 18-month-old Ananya. In the afternoon, they returned home to Nutmeg Lane, where Tiwari locked herself and her children in her bedroom and then set the house on fire.
The Tiwari's were married in April of 1999, in Indore, India. Anand and Nimisha seemed to be an optimal match. Both were university-educated, of the same caste. Their families agreed that the match was suitable. In a two-day wedding with over 600 attendees in their hometown, the two became husband and wife. That same year, they moved to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. It was a promising start for a hopeful new couple.
The Naperville police were already aware of the Tiwaris—Nimisha had sought an order of protection on May 18 of 2007, requesting that Anand stay away from her, their home, and Vardaan’s preschool. In particular, she was terrified of him having the children’s visas and passports. That meant he could take them and leave the country at any time.
An order of protection is defined by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office as “a court order which restricts an abuser and only is available to family or household members,” and can mandate (or bar) a variety of actions, many of which are already illegal anyways. Nimisha detailed physical, emotional, and financial abuse. Anand had stolen her checkbook and credit cards. He placed a limit on how many phone calls she could make to friends and family, and recorded any calls she did make. He told friends and family that she was going insane. She began making secret phone calls at a neighbor’s house to escape his surveillance. Sometimes she would break down crying, wishing out loud for a normal life.
Anand responded to the order of protection saying he believed the children’s wellbeing was in danger because of Nimisha’s multiple sclerosis, and the order was vacated by a judge. There was no other legal protection available to Nimisha at this point.
The year before the fire, Nimisha filed a complaint with police in Trombay, India, while the family was visiting for a wedding. In a letter to Indian police on December 4, 2006, Tiwari wrote, "Because of the dictatorial behavior of my husband and constant instigation from my in-laws, he may take away my… children to U.S.A. and leave me in India… He has not allowed me to contact my parents in Mumbai, either through telephone or Internet, and also kept restrictions on me like not meeting my friends and neighbors in the U.S.A... Once, he has abused me by twisting my arm. He has warned me that I should not tell anybody about the abuse, especially not to my parents." There was no response from the police according to records.
Neighbors called 911 at 3:39 pm after seeing black smoke pouring out the windows of the Tiwari house. Anand Tiwari was 40 minutes away in Chicago when he received the call from the police. He rushed back to find his home burnt down, deemed uninhabitable by the fire marshal, and his entire family declared dead within the next 12 hours. Vardaan was pronounced dead upon arrival at the local hospital, while Nimisha and Ananya were airlifted to Loyola Medical Center, and passed at 9:45 pm and just after midnight, respectively. Nimisha died before Anand could see her.
The weeks following were full of questions from family, neighbors, and strangers alike. In a stereotypically peaceful and idyllic suburb, how could this happen? David Dial, the Naperville Police Chief at the time, said “It is tragic and it is senseless. I can’t explain why. I can’t give you the reason.” Anand Tiwari was questioned for four hours and passed a lie detector test. His explanation for the fire was a mental illness caused by multiple sclerosis and suggested to the Chicago Tribune that the fire was an act of “punishment” directed towards him as part of a custody battle for the children.
But why did Nimisha Tiwari kill not just herself, but also her young children? Why didn’t she just leave? The “just” that many people throw into that question ignores the difficult decision and process it is to leave an abusive situation. What does it look like to leave an abusive relationship, especially a marriage where children are involved? Nimisha Tiwari had already sought a court order, but it had been vacated. Even if it hadn’t been, orders of protection are difficult to enforce and the action is often reactionary rather than preventative. She did not have a job and reported that her husband had been cutting her off financially, so options for moving out were limited. The other available option would likely be a domestic violence shelter, which has successfully helped many victims of abuse transition but also means uprooting victims’ lives and their childrens’ lives with a lot of uncertainty ahead.
South Asian men and women face a particular set of challenges in escaping abusive marriages—their extended families are often not in the United States, they may face language or cultural barriers that make it hard to seek help from a generalized domestic violence agency, and they may experience more profound self-blame for their abusive relationships. Daya Houston is a culturally sensitive organization founded to address these challenges and to empower South Asian victims of domestic violence. It was founded in 1996 in response to a situation eerily similar to Nimisha Tiwari’s. A young South Asian woman in Fort Bend County shot and killed her abusive husband and three young children, and then set the house on fire, killing herself. Irfana Hussain, Director of Outreach and Volunteer Programs, detailed the barriers Daya works to eliminate: “Language, isolation, access to transportation, as well as people understanding where you’re coming from [are all issues]… so even if you call in, and they have a translator and can provide services in your language… but do those people actually understand your cultural nuances?” Recounting deeply personal and often shameful trauma is already an incredible act of bravery; expecting someone to willingly do this in a language they may not be comfortable with, to someone who doesn’t understand the pressures they’re facing is unreasonable. The stigma runs deeper in some South Asian subcultures, which is incredibly intimidating considering how deep the stigma already runs normally. To divorce might be culturally taboo, or feel like a profound personal failing.
Children also complicate the situation no matter your culture. There is a common fear of raising children in “a broken family,” seen as potentially worse than a child growing up in the middle of an abusive relationship. Contrary to this belief, children who witness domestic abuse in their households are at a higher risk for a wide range of lifelong mental health issues, as well as physiological manifestations of toxic stress such as heart disease and substance abuse disorders. They are more likely to withdraw from social life and school, engage in risky behavior as teenagers, and to perpetuate the cycle of violence in their own relationships as adults.
In the United States, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience severe physical violence in an intimate relationship within their lifetime, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Examples of severe physical violence include beating, burning, and strangling. Nearly 20 people per minute are being physically abused by their partners in the United States; in the time it takes to read this essay, that’s close to 400 people. The Center for Disease Control found that more than half of all women who are murdered are killed by their intimate partners. This is not an issue limited by region, socioeconomic status, race, or religion. It is not a problem of a few evil people and the solution does not exist in the criminal justice system alone. The news stories we hear are always the tragedies involving homicide or suicide, but that is not the only way that intimate partner violence manifests. There shouldn’t be a minimum body count for domestic violence to make it into public discussion.
Domestic violence is an issue that is simultaneously widespread (much more widespread than most people believe) and deeply personal and behind-the-scenes. A relationship is between two people, but how we behave in all our relationships is shaped by culture and society and the people around us.
Nobody wakes up one day in an abusive relationship. There’s no clean dichotomy of healthy relationships and abusive ones. We are all shaped by the rules and examples we glean from our parents, our friends, the media, and our own expectations that are often deeply entangled with self-worth and self-image. Gianna Trombino works as the Victim Advocate for the Naperville Police Department, a position that was created in 2018. She notes that at the beginning, many victims recall the same behaviors from their partners, such as, “isolation, removal from normalcy, from friends and family… so that when it does get bad, they’ve already cut off everyone in their social circle and they have no one to ask for help… being overly complimentary… these are things that come off as flattery, or a deep intense love, that down the line become much more controlling and abusive.” Relentless, intense love is often seen as aspirational, though. We spend our lives being sold the idea that real love is something you fight for, even if the other person is reluctant at first. Grand romantic gestures are a plus. And at first, it may be easy to be swept up in that image of romance. Nobody wants to believe that the one they love is capable of hurting them, even once it happens. Rachel Louise Snyder’s book, No Visible Bruises, notes the toxic cycle that emerges from this: “minimizing, rationalizing, blaming. And then comes the remorse. The deep, tearful apology, the promises of better behavior, the adoration, and claims of love. The script is strikingly similar no matter who’s saying it.” Can love balance out abuse? From a third-party perspective, it can seem so easy to identify this kind of problematic behavior and recognize signs of abuse. In retrospect and from a distance, many domestic violence stories, like Nimisha Tiwari’s, seem to pull subplots from the same shortlist.
The story might be different when it’s your own relationship, and you do not have the clarity of emotional distance. And it rarely begins with outright physical abuse or an abrupt cut-off from all friends and family. Instead, it is worth considering the small things we let slip by, and what they might add up to. A 2018 tweet that says, “You ever be like... wtf you really hurt me... and a boy is like... im sorry im such an asshole i fuckin hate myself... and you end up having to comfort HIM? Wack,” received over 16,000 retweets and 65,500 likes, with a thread of replies full of young women echoing the sentiment and praising its relatability. A TikTok of the same sentiment published in March of this year received over 504,800 likes. Users acknowledged that this was a hurtful and common occurrence, but no one could offer anything more than the agreement that it happens all the time. Men, as a sweeping and imperfectly generalizable category, are excusing themselves from fault in relationships by turning the problems brought up into their own fundamental failings. This alone is not necessarily abuse, but when the deflection of responsibility in a relationship is seen as permissible, it allows for worse behavior in the realm of emotional manipulation. It reads not unlike the “minimizing, rationalizing, blaming, remorse” cycle that Rachel Louise Snyder highlights. Longform article after long-form article diving into individual cases of domestic violence feature this cycle at least once, with the abuser apologizing profusely after one of the first outright acts of violence, often with the victim expressing some concept of wanting to “save” or “fix” them. So the victim stays, and the cycle rolls on.
The role of women as the bearers of emotional labor and the people responsible for keeping a relationship or marriage together creates a complicated dynamic for both parties. Violence and abuse are historically terms we reserve for the physical aspects, but the emotional violence committed in domestic violence situations is equally and oftentimes even more debilitating. This is why some experts have increasingly attempted to shift the terminology from “domestic violence” to “intimate partner terrorism.” It is incredibly difficult to know with confidence what is right and “normal” in a relationship because it’s treated as such a private matter, not appropriate for broader discussion. Disputes in a relationship are also often dismissed as trivial even when they qualify as abuse. Relationships are private, but the consequences of domestic violence go far beyond the two people in the marriage. Allowing domestic violence to continue without appropriate legal and social measures causes lasting damage and trauma to the abuser, the victim, anyone else in the household, and whole communities.
The people who perpetrate acts of abuse walk among us, normal everyday people, often people who are able to behave respectfully in their other relationships. The victims and survivors of their abuse do too, enduring pain and carrying trauma that goes unseen and unmentioned. In hindsight, there are often piles of red flags that family, friends, and even the police cite, like in Nimisha Tiwari’s case. The Tiwaris were a normal, happy suburban family, until suddenly they weren’t. Except that’s not true. There were signs, and there was more that could have been done. It is ultimately up to the victim in an intimate partner violence situation to determine when to seek help and to leave, and when it may be safer to stay put, but we fail victims when we do not offer social support, and look out for them when the warning signs are there. We also fail them by allowing perpetrators of abuse to move on without retribution. Orders of protection, even if they are not vacated like Nimisha’s, only incite retroactive punishment, which does not help the victim of abuse, whose life is over once they are brutally murdered, regardless of post-murder legal “justice.” The same goes for restraining orders. Shelters and similar paths to safety places the burden entirely on the shoulders of the victims, asking them to uproot their lives. There is no guarantee that this safety is sustainable either, as it is unlikely that an abuser would allow their spouse or significant other to vanish without question. Even when these options are logistically feasible, many victims are facing the additional consequences of social stigma, familial shame or ostracization, and doubts about whether their experiences are even real. Right now, we leave millions of people trapped in a position of extreme vulnerability. Home, which should be safe and comfortable, is instead a place of fear, danger, and abuse. When no options are left, the unthinkable becomes thinkable. The fire that burned down the Tiwari home was a tragedy, but that is not where the tragedy started.
Two months before the fire and one month after the vacated order of protection, Nimisha stopped sharing details of her marriage to Anand with her family. Instead, she filled their email inboxes with photos of Vardaan and Ananya. Her family was hopeful that she and Anand had finally reconciled, that everyone could move on and that the two could live the happy domestic life they’d always hoped for. The police received no further complaints. The emails arrived with just one request: “Save the pictures.” What was optimistically interpreted as peace was in reality resignation. She had exhausted all the options. On August 8, she emailed her brother one last time: "Now he wants to go everywhere with me. . . . [He] doesn't let me go alone much. Do not delete this mail. Keep it somewhere." Three days later, she doused her bedroom floor, and potentially herself according to investigators, with gasoline. Vardaan and Ananya would be 17 and 14 today.
“Domestic Violence and Children.” Womenshealth.gov, 2 Apr. 2019, www.womenshealth.gov/relationships-and-safety/domestic-violence/effects-do mestic-violence-children#8.
Esposito, Stefano. “Mom filed complaint in India - Feared husband would take children back to U.S., leave her there.” Chicago Sun-Times, August 19, 2007.
Esposito, Stefano. “'Why Did We Not Read the Signs?' - Mother Told of Unhappy Marriage in Secret Phone Calls, e-Mails.” Chicago Sun-Times (IL), 2007.
Snyder, Rachel Louise. No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us. New York City: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.