OCTOBER is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Last October, I wrote about domestic violence and offered some journaling and memoir writing prompts to help confront the subject head on. But I wrote as someone on the outside looking in. Someone looking on with concern and compassion. Someone who had not personally experienced its impact.
This year, domestic violence came home to me. I was not the victim, but a close loved one was, and in attempting to help her get away from her abuser and rebuild her life, I have shared in some of the cruelty, the blame-the-victim attitudes of police and courts, and subsequent feelings of helplessness and depression. Without a single blow to me personally, I have felt and seen the impact of domestic violence — not as ripples after a rock is thrown into calm water, but as a momentous displacement, a deluge hurled into the sky when a piece of a mountain cracks loose and crashes down into water, followed by huge, rocking waves that seem to never, ever end.
For me, domestic violence is no longer a concerning set of facts and charts. It’s personal.
It’s important to acknowledge here that not all domestic violence victims are women; it happens to men, too. But since the victims I know personally, especially my loved one, have been women, I write from the feminine perspective.
Warning: the following contains explicit language.
Those of us who have not been targets of abuse often wonder why victims stay in their relationships as long as they do, why they continue on after they know they should leave.We think we would not put up with being threatened or hit and have a difficult time understanding — even when we have compassion. It’s just beyond our comprehension.
But I know better now. It’s not as if one day everything is peachy and in the next there is full-blown violence. It’s more insidious, creeping up on you from behind. And by the time you understand fully what it is, you are already in chains.
The violence begins in small ways, with put-downs (You look ugly in that dress.) and with controlling behaviors that masquerade as caring (I don’t want you to drink coffee; it’s not good for you.). The violence stalks you, moves gradually from put-downs to full on emotional abuse — name calling (Stupid bitch! cunt!) and more words designed to hurt and erode your confidence (No one else could love you; You won’t find anyone else who would put up with you like I do.). Jealousy disguised as love (I don’t want other men looking at you.) and more control over relationships (I don’t want you to see Insert-Friend’s-Name-Here; she’s a bad influence) and money (You can’t handle money; from now on I’ll handle all the bills; don’t worry your pretty little head about it.).
Over time he manages to isolate you from friends and family, insists that he’ll take care of you, insists that you stay home when he goes out with friends. Grows more demanding about how he wants you to do things, what clothes and makeup you wear. The name calling and put-downs increase in frequency. When you question him, ask him why he’s being so mean to you, he tells you everything is normal. You’re crazy. You’re the problem, if there is one. After a while, you’re not sure which end is up. Is he right? Are you crazy? You see a counselor, hoping that she can give you the key to becoming a better person and improving your relationship. You mention, obliquely, that he’s mean to you sometimes, but you don’t give her specifics.
Then comes the day where he pinches you hard enough to leave a bruise. Ow! you say. Why did you do that? Can’t you take a joke? he says. Don’t be a baby. Another day, he shoves you. You were in his way. Or he puts his hand on your neck, squeezes and says lightly that he could snap your neck if he wanted to. He chokes you “just a little” and gets angry when you cry. Day by day, the verbal, emotional, and physical abuse escalates.
You start thinking about leaving, but where would you go? Besides, it’s not always bad. You think back to the beginning, when he was so good to you and you were over the moon in love. You’re still in love, you think. And sometimes he’s still loving and kind to you. We can work through this. If only I don’t make him mad, you think. You do your best to stay in line, to not offend. But something always triggers him — the yelling, the name calling, the insults, and then the pushing, shoving, hitting, and kicking.
You don’t have any friends left, and shame burns inside you. If you’ve had the bad luck or judgement to have a child with his person, you feel even more trapped. How will you live? How will you take care of your child? You have no income, no place to stay. And the organizations designed to help women like you are overwhelmed with requests. Everything they offer is short term.
But one day, he goes too far, and it’s as though a lightbulb goes off in your head. You realize that if you don’t leave, you could end up dead. You leave behind everything in your life — your belongings, your job (if you have one), your school (if you are going to one). You take your child and hide with someone who has offered to help.
But children, you see, are possessions. The court agrees; it forces you to take your child back, because your abuser owns half of her. It forces you to make another decision — if you want to rebuild your life and to stay way from his control, away from his sphere of influence, away from his bullying, you have to stay where you are, stay in a safe place and fight for possession of your child. Because if you go back, if you get too close, he will use your child to control you again. Every day. He will threaten you. Eventually, he will hit you again. And so you fight using the tools of the court, which sees things in black and white and does not take humanity and abuse into consideration (even when it says it does). You fight to get a new job. You fight to get back into school. And you fight to rebuild your dignity and confidence and autonomy, one day at a time.
- Write what you know about domestic violence.
- Write a scene depicting verbal or physical abuse (either from life or imagination). How difficult was it to write that scene? What emotions did writing it bring up?
- Write about a character — man or woman — who is a domestic abuse survivor. What is he or she like now? What inspires you about this person?
- Write about what autonomy and confidence mean to you.
- Write about a society in which no verbal or physical violence exists. What would that society be like?