"The sexual assault, domestic violence, there's no way to make it pretty, so I might as well be up front about what happened," Ernst says of her memoir, which has brought her some liberation

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst
| Credit: Shutterstock

Joni Ernst isn’t shy about saying that the first time she read her new memoir from front to back, when she sat down to record the audiobook, parts of her own life story took her aback.

“I struggled reading through some of those passages, where I broke down, and they'd say, ‘Just take your time, Joni, just make sure that you get it right, we have time,’ ” the Iowa senator says of Daughter of the Heartland, published last week. “I would have to go back multiple times and re-read so that I could get through it, and it was very hard to do — to read that entire story from the front cover to the back cover and relive it. It became more real to me.”

Speaking with PEOPLE now, Ernst, 49, says she was not always ready to share how she has survived violence: a rape in college and abuse during her marriage.

That changed last year, though not entirely by choice: In January 2019, she disclosed in an interview that a boyfriend had sexually assaulted her while she was a student at Iowa State University. She spoke out to Bloomberg News in the wake of intimate details incidentally disclosed as part of her divorce from Gail Ernst, which was finalized earlier that January.

(The records, initially made public once the case was over, were soon sealed.)

“I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready,” she told Bloomberg last year, voice breaking. “And I was not ready.”

When she was elected as Iowa’s junior senator in 2014, Joni Ernst was known locally as a National Guard and Army Reserve veteran — deployed for a year to Kuwait during the Iraq War — and as a former state senator and county auditor.

She made history as Iowa’s first female member of Congress, of either house.

But, according to the Des Moines Register and other news outlets, an affidavit filed in October 2018 as part of her divorce described emotional, physical and verbal abuse behind closed doors — what she calls in her memoir “a personal crisis at home that had shaken me to the core.”

Her husband, in his own divorce affidavit, reportedly denied some of her allegations, including that he threatened to divorce her if she ran for re-election. But he said her time in Washington, D.C., was “all-consuming” and that some at their daughter’s school said it was like he was a single dad.

Gail also claimed Joni had an affair in the military and had dated in D.C.

He denied her allegation of an affair, and she denied his. His affidavit did not comment on her account of physical abuse.

“Although Gail seems to think he can live off my salary for the rest of his life,” Joni wrote in her affidavit, “he is doing everything he can to destroy me and ruin my chance for re-election, which would end the gravy train he apparently plans to ride.”

PEOPLE’s efforts to reach Gail this week were unsuccessful; an attorney who represented him previously said he would not be speaking publicly. (That attorney did not return a message seeking comment.)

The dueling accounts and Sen. Ernst’s description of what she called in court papers “a very dark and troubling time in our marriage” brought renewed attention to a split that had initially been quietly announced by her office in August 2018.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst
| Credit: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty

Tearfully, she told constituents at town hall meeting last January: “I would love to point the finger and say 'somebody screwed up, somebody leaked,' but they're out there, and now I will deal with that. But what I want people to understand is that I am the same person as I was last week. You just know more about what's inside of me now.”

Speaking with PEOPLE now, Ernst says the book-writing process and sharing her story more publicly was “a bit liberating.”

“I have found that I think other women and other men take great solace in knowing that there is life beyond assault, and so I think that was important,” she says.

Daughter of the Heartland largely details Ernst’s upbringing and career — early life on a farm in Montgomery County, Iowa; her years in military service; her time in office — but when it details her life’s darker moments, it does so directly.

“Back at home over a weekend in my second semester, I was visiting my boyfriend at his family home one night when he raped me,” she writes early in the book.

“I was so ashamed when it happened that I could not bring myself to tell my mother or sister or even my best friend,” she writes. “When I returned to college, I called the sexual assault counseling center’s hotline, and was encouraged to report the rape to the authorities. I refused. I couldn’t stomach the idea that my rape would become public knowledge. I was sure my boyfriend would find a way to blame me.”

The boyfriend — whom she has never named — “was not only abusive, but also manipulative,” she writes.

In the wake of her assault, “I was sickened and traumatized, and also felt overwhelmed with guilt. After that, I tried to break up with him. He became very agitated and threatened that if I left him, he’d kill himself.”

Later, she describes her “imploding” marriage to Gail, with whom she shares a 20-year-old daughter, Libby, now a cadet at West Point.

Joni Ernst, Gail Ernst
From left: Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst with her then-husband, Gail, in 2014
| Credit: Nati Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

She writes that she first met Gail, 17 years her senior, when she was in college and he was an ROTC supervisor. The two began dating shortly after she graduated. For years they were happy, “but that had started to change once Gail retired from the military and I took office.”

“Once he was a civilian … he started to get restless and look for ways to be the center of attention again,” she writes. “Which he could be with another woman.”

It was what she calls her ex’s “close relationship” with their daughter’s former babysitter that sparked a violent encounter at their home, which the senator told Bloomberg was in either 2007 or 2008.

In her book, she writes: “He dismissed my concerns without a thought. ‘There’s nothing wrong here,’ he insisted. It infuriated me that … he could be so placid in the face of a situation that was causing me so much pain. We were shouting back and forth. ‘You have to give her up,’ I declared, frantically issuing ultimatums.”

The fight continued, and she followed him down the staircase.

“Suddenly he turned around and grabbed me by the neck with one hand and threw me down on the landing,” she writes. “It all happened so fast that I had no time to react. As I tried to get up, Gail put both of his hands on my neck and started pounding my head onto the floor. His anger and strength were too much for me. Dizzy and caught off guard, I was unable to fight. My throat was closed and I couldn’t scream. I honest to God thought he was going to kill me. My only thought was ‘I am going to die.’ Finally, he let go and walked off.”

She fled that night with their young daughter to her mother’s house. She met with a victim’s advocate the next day, who said she could report the abuse. But she blanched at the thought. And though she considered filing for divorce then, her husband said they could “work on this,” she writes.

They stayed together for another decade.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst
| Credit: J Scott Applewhite/AP/Shutterstock
Libby Ernst, Joni Ernst
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst (right) with her daughter, Libby
| Credit: Joni Ernst/Twitter

“I didn't want to gloss over it,” Sen. Ernst tells PEOPLE. “I wanted people to understand that this was hard for me to go through, this is what happened, and understanding that there's so many other men and women that have experienced much, much worse, but still being able to show this is what happened to me, and it was very hard. It was hard."

She recalls mom Marilyn’s reaction to the candor in her memoir.

“My mother was a wonderful collaborator with me on the book,” Ernst says, “and when she read that first draft, she was like, ‘Wow, do you need to tell it like that, or can you say it in a different way?’ I was like, ‘The sexual assault, domestic violence, there's no way to make it pretty, so I might as well be up front about what happened.”

She heard from so many others as well, she says: "so many women that reached out to me, and men. It was surprising to me how many men have. I'd never take it for granted, because I've noted men go through sexual assaults, they go through domestic violence, but the number of men [that have reached out]."

Looking back, she says, "I think if I had known differently about unhealthy relationships early on, I think maybe that first boyfriend experience would have been different."

"And then," she continues, "I even think going through my marriage maybe I wouldn't have been with my former husband, if I had felt better about myself."

In Congress, Ernst has focused on addressing sexual assault in the military, working with Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kyrsten Sinema.

A supporter of President Donald Trump who voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual assault by Christine Blasey Ford — telling Bloomberg, “It’s outrageous to suggest that anyone who has been the victim of sexual assault should therefore be a Hillary Clinton supporter” — Ernst is in the middle of a high-profile re-election campaign against Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

She says her book was not driven by politics, despite the timing.

Instead, she talks about something adjacent to policy: the kind of example she can set — as a conservative Iowan yes, with rural roots, and as a mother and soldier and survivor and leader.

"I want other women to know that you don't have to be defined by your challenges," she says. "You are the one that sets the stage, and you can overcome that. I hope I can give a little bit of hope."