It was 11 p.m. and a quiet fell over the house when Mary Beth Hyatt turned to God.

She had a lot on her mind that night. Archie Parnell, the Democratic congressional candidate she believed in, had suddenly let her down.

His divorce documents, now public, described the dark details of his past: Parnell had abused his ex-wife in 1973. He used a tire iron to break open the door at the apartment where she was staying. He threatened her, striking her across the face several times. His ex-wife said he later beat her again.

Parnell did not deny it, calling the episode something he has "regretted every single day since."

As a victim of domestic violence herself, Hyatt now had to decide whether she should believe him.

Heading into Tuesday's Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District seat, domestic violence in the #MeToo era has become the singular issue for the four candidates in the race. One will emerge to take on Republican incumbent Ralph Norman — the overwhelming favorite to win — in the fall.

While Parnell has apologized, he has also declined to withdraw from the race. For many, this incident is not one to forgive and forget.

"The choice to use violence is part and parcel of who you are," said Lynn Hawkins, executive director of SAFE Homes Rape Crisis Coalition. "It's part of your personal culture, part of your upbringing and part of what has worked for you in the past."

SAFE Homes helps victims of domestic violence in Spartanburg, as well as Cherokee and Union counties, both of which lie in the 5th District. Last year, Hawkins said the organization served 3,838 domestic violence victims.

But can abusers change?

"Rarely," Hawkins said. "But it does happen."

'This was caused by me'

Parnell did not expect forgiveness. When his abuse record was first made public by The Post and Courier, Parnell canceled the five or six fundraisers on the campaign calendar. "We weren't clear on what we were going to be doing," he said.

"The easier path would have been to stay in the background and go away, but that just seemed like the wrong thing to do," Parnell told the newspaper this week. "But I did it to myself. I'm not blaming anybody. This was caused by me."

Parnell left the house occasionally in the two weeks that followed, mainly for trips to the grocery store and a promise to attend his 50th high school reunion at Sumter High School. He watched as party leaders abandoned him and as support slipped away, along with his status as the overwhelming Democratic favorite.

"You cannot, you cannot ..." Parnell said, as he struggled to find the words, "You, you just have to face things. You cannot ignore them. You can't wish them away. It happened."

At the same time, Hyatt agonized over her voting choice for a week. As the executive committeewoman of the Cherokee County Democratic Party, she felt duty-bound to vote for the person she considered to be the best candidate, the best Democrat and the person best-suited to represent South Carolina in Congress.

Before the abuse allegations, that person for Hyatt was Parnell, the quirky tax code geek she met in February, or Mark Ali, an immigrant calling for a more inclusive South Carolina. Two other Democrats — Steve Lough and Sidney Moore — are also vying for the party's nomination.

But in a state that ranks among the worst in the nation for women killed by men, Hyatt now found her painful personal experiences colliding with a difficult political choice.

"I've had shotguns held to my head. One time, he shot through the house," she said, recalling traumatic events from a man she was involved with. "Another time, he held me on the ground and kicked me with steel-toed boots."

Hyatt said she felt trapped in a cycle of abuse that never seemed to end.

The day Hyatt left him was the day she said he pinned her down on the couch with a knife to her throat while her daughter screamed, "Don't kill my mama!" 

The abuse stopped when she escaped. 

Now, she had to ask herself: Could she, a survivor of domestic violence, ever support an abuser?

Unlike Roy Moore's re-election bid for an Alabama Senate seat, in which the Republican faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations that he went out with teenagers decades ago while serving as county prosecutor in his 30s, Parnell did not deny the abuse claims from 1973.

"That was victim-blaming all the way," Hyatt said of Moore's response to the allegations.

Parnell, she said, owned up to his past.

But Parnell did not freely share this dimension of his life, either. His former staffers did not learn about the divorce records until they heard rumors that Republican operatives had been digging into them.

Hyatt brushed that aside. 

"We really can't legislate morality," she said.

A phone call and an endorsement

When Hyatt met Parnell at the Cherokee County Democratic Party convention earlier this year, they talked about change. Specifically, they discussed changes to Medicaid, changes to the tax code and changes to gun laws.

Now, the concept of change has taken on a somber tone in the Parnell campaign. With the primary just days away, Parnell is not talking about what distinguishes him from other Democrats.

His main pitch to voters is differentiating himself from the man he used to be.

"I think he could be a light for men who are abusers because he has changed," Hyatt said.

On Monday, she sent a message to Parnell's campaign Facebook page in which she briefly told him about her past and asked him to call her. They spoke by phone for about 30 minutes on Tuesday.

"I was ready for her to tell me anything, and I've heard a lot of negative things — that what I did was wrong and what I did was terrible, and they are right," Parnell said.

"But then she told me this was an opportunity. She said yes, it was negative and, yes, it will always be negative, but there's also the fact that you can get help. You can change."

Hyatt said Parnell really listened when she shared her story with him. When he spoke, she said she could hear his remorse.

Hyatt plans to vote for Parnell on Tuesday.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at 843-937-5590 and follow her on Twitter @MaryCaitlinByrd.

Caitlin Byrd is a political reporter at The Post and Courier and author of the Palmetto Politics newsletter. Before moving to Charleston in 2016, her byline appeared in the Asheville Citizen-Times. To date, Byrd has won 17 awards for her work.