Back in the 80s I fought against domestic violence, and abuse against women in general. Not that I thought it was okay to abuse men.
I marched. I protested. I volunteered in shelters and courtrooms. I held candles at vigils and had the wax-burn blisters to prove it. I served on boards and I served meals. I gave rides and watched kids. I hugged and I listened and I supported and I gave what money I could spare.
I may have made a difference in the lives of the few starfish I was able to fling back into the ocean. Collectively, I believe we did make some small changes: Today, fewer doctors say, “you must like it or you would have left him.” Fewer police officers say, “what did you do to make him mad?” Fewer judges say, “it’s a man’s job to discipline his wife.” Fewer presidents say, “rape is just assault with a friendly weapon.”
But I’m still heartbroken at the level of violence against women out there. And at the number of young women who think it’s normal to put up with it. “He was just drunk” is not okay. “I set him off” is not okay. “I shouldn’t have been at the store/on my couch/in my car at 8pm/midnight/2am” is not okay. “Bitch, please” is not okay.
Women who are in abusive relationships are shamed (at least) twice – first by their abuser, and second by people who think they have a lack of character for not standing up to him.
So here’s my story.
At 19, I met an older guy who swept me off my feet. We’ll call him Bob, since that was his name. (I’ve always referred to him as “Bob the Slob,” but his last name was actually different.) He was intense. I thought the intensity was love, but it was merely distilled douchebaggery. I was stupid. Come on, I was 19.
He had some odd behaviors that I could always explain away, if I tried. And I really tried hard. Every time he was caught exposing himself, stealing, doing drugs or committing an act of general malicious idiocy, he had an excuse, and I believed it.
Getting thrown against the wall was my fault because I missed a sock in the laundry.
Getting slammed into the floor was my fault because I put cheese on the pasta.
Getting backhanded across the face was my fault because he had told me to shut up.
I stood in the yard and cried hysterically because he was getting his gun and he’d promised that if I stayed there he’d just shoot me in the leg, but if I ran he’d shoot me in the head.
He stole and/or destroyed many things that were dear to me and I learned to keep a blank expression as my world fell apart.
And I was so desperately embarrassed that I learned to pretend to the world that all was well when I was living in ugly, ugly chaos.
I was a sucker for a great apology and promises of reformation. Until I wasn’t. And once I wasn’t, I wanted out.
That was the scariest time of all.
Temporary restraining orders were still pretty new back in the late 80s, but you could get one. I did. I worked in superior court, and the judge knew me. He voiced his surprise when I showed up in his courtroom for a protective order, but he granted it.
But while getting one was easy, having it enforced was not. I filed 13 official complaints about answering machine messages, notes on my door, flowers in my house, and most of all, the gigantic rumbling tyrannosaur of the public works county dump truck (which Bob drove) tracking me to work. Every morning. As he screamed epithets out the window.
Thirteen official complaints. Thirteen talks with clerks and officers. Not one speck of enforcement. I was very afraid.
Thank the heavens above and the earth below for my friend Debbie, who worked in municipal court and did a very bad thing. A bad thing that could have cost her her job, and she had three kids to support. Debbie looked into Bob’s criminal record, and found, in a sealed case based on one of his public exposure trials, a suspended sentence.
In essence, it said that if he were arrested for another misdemeanor, he would have to serve time for forcing other women to look at what was truly not worth seeing.
Debbie called in a few favors, and had two officers visit Bob’s truck at the public works yard and kindly explain things to him. They did. And he left me alone, mostly.
Mostly was good enough.
My experience was not happymaking. Living in unrelenting, abject fear for years makes your soul shrivel at the edges. Three decades later, I can’t watch violence on TV or movies unless it’s really cartoony, and even that’s pushing it. I yelp at loud noises, and feel like crying afterward. Hands coming anywhere near my face put me in immediate panic mode. I see subtle clues of relationship abuse that normal people miss and it makes me all trembly and so, so sad.
On the plus side, my experience led me to volunteer at shelters. I met brave women who stood up to patriarchal families and churches to save themselves. I met extraordinary women who had had nearly all their bones broken by the fathers of their children and lived through unimaginable fear to give those kids a better life. I met wives of attorneys and CEOs in bloodied Chanel suits who needed to hide their Mercedes and BMWs or their husbands would find them and “finish the job.”
I thought this was all behind me, behind US as a society. But no. Boys record gang rapes and become internet celebrities with the support of school administrators and town fathers. (Google “Steubenville.”) Family homes are torched in protest of rape and abuse allegations. (Look up “Daisy Coleman.”) And everything is the woman’s fault again. How she was dressed. Where she was. What she drank. What she said or did or didn’t say or do.
People, this has to stop.
It stopped for me when law enforcement finally stepped in.
It stopped for Bob when he went to prison for domestic abuse of another poor soul, but he may well be out again now and finding a few more victims.
It stops for many victims only when they die. And that is not okay.
Please, if you see abuse, call 911. If you have an abused friend, let them know there’s help out there, and that it’s better to be embarrassed and alive than still faking it and dead. When you hear about a woman being attacked, don’t assume it was her fault.
Teach your kids that violence is not the answer.
And if you are being abused, especially by someone who is supposed to love you, know that you don’t deserve this. Your abuser might control your behavior, but he can’t control your heart. Make your plan. Know that you can.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1−800−799−7233.