Trigger warning for domestic violence and death threats.
You see it happening in the world. You see how the abused stay with their abusers to be hurt again and again, and you tell yourself that will never be you.
It was never going to be me. But then, at age 19, when I moved from California to Texas with my not-quite-2-year-old to follow my 36-year-old “boyfriend,” I didn’t know that the man I thought I was in love with had a dark side that would scar me for life in more ways than one.
But he was charming and he made me feel loved. We had a nice life and I felt useful and grown up, helping him run the family business and keeping our house while I cared for my daughter. And at 19 I had no real understanding of how relationships are supposed to work. I’m not sure I do at 53.
The first red flag I can remember is when his nephew, an old neighborhood friend much closer to my age, came to visit. When he came in the door from the airport we hugged, and I learned that hugging other men was not allowed. Before long I learned that looking at other men out the car window wasn’t allowed, either.
But he made me feel loved and he was sweet most of the time and I just kept telling myself that love was enough. Because that’s what I had learned from everything I’d seen in the movies and on tv. If you love someone enough, it all works out. You find your diamond in the rough, polish him up, and bam, happily ever after.
Things got worse. He got more controlling and critical and left me alone for long periods to deal with things like packing our entire house for fumigation while he took his son to play softball and then putting the fear of God in me when I showed up at the diamond to tell him off. I wrote my mom long, anguished letters comparing him to my dad, for reasons that make even more sense in retrospect. I got a job and was terrified to form relationships with my male coworkers lest he catch me laughing with them (he never visited me at work, but he kept me vigilant all the same).
I was miserable and so I got together enough cash for a Greyhound ticket and spent 3 days on that bastard with my toddler. I woke in the spare room at my dad’s house a few days later from a dream that I was back in Texas, back in that house with my abuser, and before the flood of relief had fully hit, my dad was in the doorway telling me that my abuser was on the phone and I should deal with him directly rather than avoiding the situation. But on the phone he begged and pleaded, he said he was getting help for his anger, he wanted to have babies, he was driving out to get me. And I capitulated. And even as I awaited his coming, a sick feeling formed in my gut. But our reunion was sweet and passionate and romantic and we drove back to Texas a family. We went back to our life and things were okay for a while.
The real darkness fell one early evening during the holiday season. We were at a party, we’d both had drinks, and I made the mistake of thinking I could joke with his right-hand man, who I saw every day. I was wrong, and was reprimanded right there and then. Alcohol gave me courage, and I left the party and hitchhiked home in the dark.
He came home in a rage—not only had I left him at the party but I’d allowed a man to drive me home—and knocked me around our bedroom a bit. He picked up a putty knife from the dresser (being a house painter by profession) and jabbed me in the face with it, saying he’d make sure no man would ever find me attractive again (cliché much?). He jabbed fingers into my eyes, and in a certain light, I can see the scars he left there (in addition to the one on my cheek which has faded now). He said he’d bury me out in one of the empty fields near our growing housing development and I believed him.
My daughter woke up crying in her room during all this and he let me go and get her. I don’t know what all she saw, but I know she cried as he shouted and threatened me. It wasn’t long, thankfully, before someone knocked on the door. He left the room and I grabbed my daughter and fled out a back door off the master bath. I’ve never seen a master bath with a back door before or since, but I’ll always be grateful for that one. I ran out the back gate across a field carrying my 30lb child and came to a house where a family let me in and called a local pastor to come and take me to a shelter. I sat in their living room waiting and said “I know about those women who go back, and that’s not going to be me.”
We spent the night in a women’s shelter, had breakfast, listened to a sermon, and then I started making phone calls. The first was to a mentor who I truly thought would come to my rescue, but she told me that it was his responsibility to get me home from Texas. Then I called my dad, who told me I probably did something to piss him off and I should go back and work it out. My dad promised to send me some money I could put away if I ever wanted to come home. I don’t remember whether that money ever came, but it wasn’t there when I needed it.
My final call was to the man who had put me in the women’s shelter, and he was SO relieved to hear from me. He said he’d woken up on the living room floor blacked out and couldn’t remember what happened. I told him what he’d done and he apologized, cried, swore he’d never do it again, begged me to come home. So I did.
All was lovely for a time, but of course it wasn’t long before he blew another fuse, and all it took this time was an angry tongue-lashing for me to pack a few things, call a cab, and get out. That cabby drove me all over Katy, TX as I pawned jewelry and he ultimately didn’t charge me when he dropped us off near a bus station. I bought a ticket to Waco, home of Dr. Pepper and the Branch Davidians, and at 2am, I introduced myself and my 2-yr-old to my paternal grandfather for the first time. My grandpa was a flawed man, but in that moment he was my hero. He took us in, paraded us around town proudly for all his friends to see, showed us where our ancestors are buried, and spent his Social Security check to buy us a plane ticket back home and there we stayed, me looking over my shoulder for months and waking up from that same dream of being back in Texas and wondering how the hell I was going to get us out again.
But…that’s where it finally ended.
Why did I stay with my abuser? I thought he loved me and I loved him and I thought that love would get us through it.
Why did I go back? The support network I thought I had—that I should have had—failed me and he said all the right things. Twice.
How did I get out? I was lucky. If he’d found me, he might have killed me like he promised to do the first time and for months I was terrified he would. Most abused women whose abusers murder them don’t die until after they leave.
What can we do? We can listen to survivors of domestic abuse when they tell their stories and give them space to do so. We can donate to the organizations that support them before and after they leave. And finally, we can stop asking the first two questions above because they aren’t useful. They don’t help us ensure that when an abuse victim decides it’s time to get out, they can formulate a plan to do so safely. They don’t help us ensure that once they’re out, they are protected from their abuser. What they do—what our society so often does—is focus on how the abused might have behaved differently while ignoring the fact that the behavioral problem here is with the person who perpetrated the abuse.
So, that’s my call to action: Support abuse survivors. Stop putting the blame on the victim. And if you’re determined to ask “why?”
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
A Brief History (the Bad Parts Version) (Make Me a Sammich)
National Domestic Violence Hotline (online chat available)
[Trigger warning: graphic discussion of domestic violence]
Or at least, one can hope, because these assholes obviously haven’t learned anything. (It’s been dead to me since Quvenzhané.)
Hey, The Onion? Violence against women isn’t funny. It wasn’t funny at the Oscars, and it isn’t funny now. It’s time for you to sit the fuck down and take a time out. Forever.*
Beyond that, I have far too much rage to form words right now. More later.
Full disclosure: One of my exes beat me because we fought and I left a party without him and caught ride home with a passing car that happened to be driven by a man. This particular ex always figured if I could talk to another man–Hell, if I could look at him–I might as well be fucking him. So, you know, I might as well have fucked that guy who gave me a ride home. Fuckhead beat me, cut my face with a paint-scraper (so no one would find me attractive again), poked my eyes with his fingers (I still have scars I can see when the light is right and I look at a blank surface), and told me that when he was done with me he was going to bury me in a field where no one would find me.
Perhaps some of you who think I don’t “get” satire will understand that some things just aren’t funny to some people. And considering HOW FUCKING MANY OF US HAVE BEEN THROUGH THIS (and how many haven’t survived it), I don’t think asking for a little sensitivity is out of order. I don’t think asking the Onion to find a way to poke fun at Chris Brown without making a joke out of domestic violence is too much to ask. I just don’t. Chris Brown deserves whatever shit life throws at him, but I think it’s ok to ask questions about whether a work of satire meant to draw attention to domestic violence might actually be harming the people it seeks to help.
And no matter how many of you come here to tell me I really ought to get mad at something else or someone else or expend my energy elsewhere and stop making feminists look bad, I’m not shutting up. When something strikes me as wrong–when it hits me in the gut like this did–I’m going to talk about it. Write about it. And as so many have said to me here and elsewhere regarding just “not reading” the Onion? If you don’t like what I have to say, you know how to avoid this page.
*Something an acquaintance said today reminded me of the above line, written in a fit of rage, which I didn’t mean literally and have neglected to address before now (3/10). I’m never in favor of shutting anyone up. I do think The Onion needs to examine whether they are actually achieving their goals (I don’t pretend to know what those goals are, but I used to feel they were more aligned with my own). Satire should point up, and too often, The Onion ridicules and trivializes the people it seeks to champion.
Hope Fiending has written something very like what I would have if I’d been able, so off you go to read her piece:
Also, Salon chimes in:
Aaaand here’s an article written from the POV of the three Cleveland, OH women recently freed in which they lay the blame for all of society’s ills squarely at the feet of men. I don’t even know what to say about that except #FUCKTHEONION.
- And the Award for the Most Vile Piece of Crap on the Internet Goes to… (makemeasammich.org)
- Internet Finds Onion Rape & Incest Story Deeply Unfunny (theatlanticwire.com)
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.
Guest post by Sid
Three of those relationships were abusive.
Guy one (G1) was fine in this regard, as was guy five (G5). They each had their own issues, of course, but they weren’t abusive.
Guy number two (G2) choked me one day. We had been together for well over a year, closing in on a year and a half. Some months later, he dragged me with his car for about twenty feet. Any time I tried to break up with him, he sobbed and sobbed, berating himself until I recanted. He yelled at me if I disagreed with him, prayed before a meal, or called him out on one of dozens of pathological lies.
Guy number three (G3) also choked me, but it was much softer. It was as though he didn’t intend to actually hurt me, but wanted to remind me what being choked was like (because of course he knew G2 had done it) and wanted to show me he could do it just as easily. To my mind, this is just as bad. It was more threat than act, but it amounted to the same. Some months later, he was holding my hand while angry and crushed it. It hurt for several days.
Guy number four (G4), though…he’s the tricky one. He didn’t choke me. He didn’t drag me with a car or crush my hand. His thing was all about how much I wasn’t listening to him. He was also quite tall, so when he felt I wasn’t listening to him, he would bring himself up to his full height and grab me by the arms—tightly, so that I couldn’t get away. He would then push his face into mine so that my head went back, and he would scream at me.
I struggled away whenever I could, but often I was backed up against a wall or into a corner and had nowhere to go.
I would scream back, of course, because I felt trapped and threatened, and I was trying to understand what was happening. Any time we had an argument, if I tried to step away from it to calm down and sort my thoughts, he would follow me after just a few minutes. In one of our homes, as soon as I closed the bedroom door behind me, I would sneak out the sliding glass door and walk down the street so I could get some peace. It wasn’t long before he figured that out, though, and ran down the street after me. A couple times, when I’d gotten far enough that he couldn’t see me, he came after me in his car, window rolled down and sobbing for me to get in.
Honestly, I just wanted thirty minutes to be alone. I couldn’t get five.
When we moved, my office didn’t have a sliding glass door (or a window on the first floor), but that’s still where I went when I wanted space. When he still wouldn’t respect my request to be alone, I started sitting in front of the door. It didn’t have a lock.
This worked for about ten minutes, at which point he panicked and forced himself into the room. This happened so many times, I couldn’t even tell you how many. I often ended up hurt because the door would throw me into the wall or would hit me, or he would step on me on accident because I was right there on the floor. Once he was in the room, he would start calm, but would eventually escalate, sobbing about how we had to work this out right now and no I couldn’t take any time to work through the problem on my own. Often, it would take us back to him grabbing me by the arms and pushing his face into mine, and screaming.
Like I said, my office didn’t have a lock. But the bathroom did. Once I locked myself in there with my back against the door. He used a credit card and forced his way in. I got hurt this time because I was leveraging myself against the door by pushing against the toilet with my feet, and eventually my knees gave out.
I started leaving the apartment when we argued. But I would literally need to run, because he would be after me in about two minutes. It was kind of amazing, actually. The first time I went to leave, he looked at me and said, “Really? You really think you have to leave the apartment?” He was aghast at my lack of trust—after all, he’d agreed to give me time to think in my office. Again. Two minutes later, he was behind me on the street, begging me to come back with him.
Finally, I started heading for the stairs instead of the elevator—but I went upstairs instead of down. That was the one thing he never figured out. I finally had some time and space to think—about being a grown woman who was hiding on the floor above her own just to escape her boyfriend who literally made a habit of chasing her.
This relationship did not last.
Now, was I an angel in this relationship? Good God, no. I mean, I tried. The good times were so good that we were engaged, and we both thought our relationship was fine. (I didn’t notice the pattern, see. Not at first. Not for a long time.) At the end of the day, though, I was not my best in this relationship, as much as I wanted to be. As much as I tried to be. But that doesn’t mean—and will never mean—that I deserved what I got.
What makes him tricky, though, isn’t that he never choked me or took a direct swing. What makes him tricky is how entwined he was with so many of my other friends. They had become our friends, and it didn’t seem right to air all our dirty laundry to them. I told two of my very closest friends, though, which was difficult because they were also very close to him. And then one of my friends said something I didn’t expect.
“Well, you know, I think a lot of it came down to you two just not being right for each other. I mean, I don’t think that’s his real personality.”
I could have the very specifics of the words wrong—it was a few years ago now—but the sentiment is dead-on. And I was confused. I had been trying to attach the word “abusive” to this relationship as I sorted through the wreckage (I say “trying” because, as with many things, it is difficult for a victim to call out what is true), and this reaction made me feel all the more like I shouldn’t attach that word. It made me feel even more strongly that the problem wasn’t him—the problem was that I evoked the reaction.
I fought with myself for a long time on this one, and honestly I don’t know when in the last three years I settled on the word “abusive,” but I know it was more recent than not. Maybe it was when I heard this same friend say that she couldn’t imagine what goes through people’s heads when they defend a friend of theirs who was called out for assaulting another friend. “How can you look someone in the face and say that he wouldn’t do that? That it was just a misunderstanding?”
I don’t know. How can you?
Or maybe it was just this last week when I stood two feet away as she hugged Rosie and said, “I unfriended that guy because I couldn’t stand to hear him say on Facebook how he was…” something. I didn’t hear the end of the sentence. I was too far inside my own head trying to figure out how it was that B was so despicable she couldn’t stand to be friends with him on Facebook, yet she had managed to remain very close friends with my abuser since I left him.
Abuser. That’s such a strong word. I look at it even now and think, “Come on now, Sid. Surely that’s not the right word. He didn’t even hit you.” Honestly. That’s the thought: “He didn’t even hit you.” I know better than that, and still.
The thing with a lot of victim blaming, I think, is that it comes from a place not of malice but of pleading. When you say, “You must have misinterpreted the situation,” you’re not really saying, “You’re a liar and I don’t believe you.” At least not most of the time. Sure, there are people who outright say that, but I think even they are really saying, “Don’t let this be true. Please, just leave me any margin for error so I can continue to hang out with my friend who has never shown this horrible side to me.”
It works like this, I think:
- You acknowledge the accusation is horrible.
- If the accusation is true, then you feel you can no longer be friends with the accused.
- You have never seen the accused display any behavior like this; in fact, you would declare the accused to be one of the nicest fellows you know.
- As a result of (3), you choose to believe that it couldn’t have been as bad as it sounds. Your natural inclination is to assume there was a misunderstanding.
- You report this to the accusing party.
You aren’t trying to disregard your friend’s feelings—in truth, you’re just trying to protect your own—but what you’ve done here is opened the door for second-guessing. Second-guessing something that was probably hard to talk about in the first place. Without even intending to, you have silenced her.
Victim blaming isn’t something any friend sets out to do. (Anyone who does so openly and candidly is honestly not a friend—I have stories about that, too.) Victim blaming is something so subtle it can slip by us without so much as a glance.
After my first two abusive relationships (G2 and G3), I was re-applying for a job as a dispatcher. During one of the interviews, the abuse came up in conversation. My interviewers informed me that these relationships proved I had poor decision-making skills and denied me the job. (Before you jump into legality, I can’t prove that was the reason. It was, though.)
It took me several years to get over the shame and the self-blame of those first two, but now I won’t apologize when I tell you that I have been abused. I won’t shrink away and say, “I…I know I should have gotten out sooner, but…” I notice the signs now, and I avoid them. In the case of G4, it took a while to notice the pattern, but when I did—and I realized it was slowly getting worse and worse—I got out, six months before the wedding.
Getting out isn’t as easy as it sounds, and I won’t look down on anyone going through a similar experience. Women in these situations need help and encouragement—not shame, not blame, not doubt. Strength.
My roommate once asked me what my biggest regret was, and I said I didn’t have any. “None at all?” “Nope. Because it’s all important. Our pasts make up who we are, and I like who I am. I wouldn’t be who I am without everything that’s brought me to this point. It’s all important.”
It’s a part of my history. I can’t change it, and honestly, I don’t know that I would given the chance. Not changing your past doesn’t mean you have to relive it, after all. I love and appreciate every lesson I’ve learned, however hard it was.
I don’t make billboards about my abusive relationships, but I don’t make any effort to hide them. And sometimes people still try to shame me—whether it’s with words, body language, or a sudden, superior attitude. It doesn’t work, though. Here’s a quick tip: you can’t shame me about my life, my choices, my hobbies, my aspirations, my friends, or my past. It’s pointless trying.
You can’t shame me because I am not ashamed.