My friend, Rebecca Doverspike, took Reed and me in when I left Caleb. She was a tremendous source of support and healing for me. She was on the front lines during the worst period of my life. She also loved Reed and me as though we were her own family. I’ve talked before about connection, and about how important connection is in recovering from abuse. Part of the reason I struggled with leaving Caleb is because he was my family, and I was terrified of losing that, of being alone. Rebecca showed me that family can be found anywhere we make it. Rebecca is my family. She is one of the loves of my life.
By: Rebecca Doverspike
Between academic semesters, I sometimes work at a vegetable stand for a farmer who’s like family. The other day at the stand, I was thinking about intimacy with strangers and how much I love it. My friend Bonnie had visited earlier in the day, and as we sat on the tailgate with the corn, she asked me if I ever wonder about the fate of the vegetables, where they’re going. I then pictured various countertops and kitchens, composts in yards, tones of voice passing through rooms. After Bonnie left, the question opened into new forms and I found myself focusing on touch. I love handing someone change back in a way that’s not afraid to briefly touch his/her palm. Our culture is so afraid of touch, afraid of intimacy or actual connection. We move with cold monetary exchanges, traffic, constant background music. But when I pass tomatoes from my hands to another’s after weighing them, why be ginger about touching? There’s an intimacy to holding ears of corn in my hand for a second as I place them in a plastic bag that another’s hand will soon hold. I say to a man, “watch your head,” as he ducks under the canopy upon leaving with a tenderness that seems as if I’ve known him for years. This is a kind of grace between people, these small ways of caring.
I was thinking about touch, intimacy, and grace as I multi-tasked with several customers, when I saw the woman next in line put on dark lipgloss as she was getting ready to speak with me. I thought it an odd time to put lipgloss on (without even a mirror), in the sunlight, coming up to the stand. But when I saw her more closely, I saw bruises and cuts on her lip. The place where her lip had cracked most was a deep purple; the burgundy shade of gloss probably covered the brighter parts, but not that deep shade. Because my heart had been holding gentle tenderness (the kind that strengthens), my heart then sunk with absolution at the sight of her lips. It did not negate or take away previous feelings of grace; it’s because that tenderness was there that I felt the impact of her appearance so deeply. Tenderness is tenderness whether in love or grief.
Her lips were a doorway. I thought of Kelly and I sitting at the Golden Finch on High St., drinking a glass of Malbec (a different stain on the lips), staring out the huge storefront windows. In that day, I’d sat there thinking of her strength. We’d just moved many of her things from the temporary dorm apartment she’d shared with Caleb into their old house in overflowing laundry baskets balanced on our hips, arm loads of lamps and plants. I had no idea where she was finding the motivation to cook delicious meals for all of us, for speaking patiently with Reed about his homework as he’d sit with a pencil and fill in the blanks, to talk with me so openly about what the abuse had been like. Of course, she probably found the strength because for years she cooked delicious meals and spoke patiently with her son through the abuse.
“How can I give this woman corn and say nothing?” I thought. What would I say? “You don’t deserve that.” “It’s not right.” I knew she’d tell me she fell on something and split it open, making her cheeks pink with the lie. I knew she was holding together very well, just getting corn after having put on gloss with no mirror so she doesn’t even know I can see. The invisibility of it is her strength, and I can’t break that. Her lips are a doorway into a life in which a man gets angry and reacts to the one closest to him. She might then reflect on what she’d said to provoke him. She’d maybe tell herself it could be worse, wasn’t that bad, and maybe wouldn’t happen again. She’d think of all the horrible stories in the news and separate her own situation from them as the real kinds of abuse, whereas she was just overly sensitive. She might have felt that this is just how women are treated. She might’ve felt that way so much that it’s not even a conscious thought. She probably feels all the names he calls her, the ways he knows where to hurt her the most, the way that anything emotional she’s shared with him can become ammunition. She seemed to me a woman absolutely worn but able to hold together only with invisibility. It sometimes irks me when people don’t smile back, as if it’s a personal offense. Here, I barely smiled at her, knowing it would hurt her to smile back. I didn’t think of our hands as I handed back her change; instead, I thought about everyone in the world who has to be afraid of touch.
How much am I projecting others’ experiences onto her? Yet, another can serve as a mirror, unveiling some held insight, opening new lines of sight, rather than “projection” meaning putting something onto a situation that isn’t really there. Each story is particular and unique, and yet some commonalities offer connection.
Should I break down the fence of “self” and “other” and tell her that I know, to some degree, through combined various experiences of my own and listening closely to several dear friends, the loneliness of working to understand another’s psychology while one’s own gets intentionally warped? The strangeness of loving someone who holds enough locked-in grief that you want to protect him from himself even at the same time that you feel sad effects from reactions to that grief? Someone who thinks he’s bad, but you see good, so you tell him he’s good, knowing if he didn’t feel he was so bad, he would also act differently? How it feels like the most loving thing to try to understand another, but what it if hurts fundamental parts of one’s self to do so? To be so far inside that that you don’t realize what’s happening, but you just feel sad and confused, and unlike yourself?
I could tell her my own stories of disproportionate sarcasm to genuineness, of listening to someone spiral out of control and not having the ability to analyze because you’re so in it. I could say, “Get out, so you can learn to see it.” I could say, softer, “I know it isn’t his fault, and you can see the cause and effect from his life, like a snake whose belly is cut open will bite, like a plant without enough nutrients twisting for the sun. But it isn’t your fault, either. You can’t fill holes you didn’t create.” I could say, “I know you remember when he wasn’t like that and that maybe he could change. And maybe he can. But while you’re busy protecting him from himself, and your family from your own sadness, and the girl at the vegetable stand from your bruises, please, God, try to protect something of yourself, too. Protect that part that makes you feel like yourself; don’t let it go.” Also, “You are brave. Find that piece of bravery that refuses to give up on him, and put it toward remembering yourself.”
Maybe that, most, remembering yourself. One of the beautiful things about an intimate relationship is learning the language between two people, the process of finding where that’s most mutual. The most loving goal in any kind of relation to another is collaborative work. One of the ugly things about abuse is that it takes what’s beautiful about intimacy and warps it. If the healthy and loving ways you’ve learned to process things don’t work, or are broken down, it can feel as if you have to speak another person’s language to be understood. You might feel pain you need to express without knowing how to productively do so anymore. How can you hold onto yourself if your own language isn’t understood or heard? Yet, it’s vital. In a relationship, it can be a beautiful thing to teach one another how to love. So you must ask yourself: how am I being taught here? Is it the way I most want to learn?
I could say, “Find an opening even the size of a sliver that lets in joy and move toward it.” Her lips are a doorway, a window, a glimpse. Kelly told me that for a long time, she just looked forward to a cup of coffee every morning as her one peace for the day.
I think of this as I bag corn, knowing I will say nothing.
I began this post wanting it to about the question: how do you best support someone going through an abusive relationship? I didn’t intend to answer that, but to pose it and circle around its facets. Kelly wrote a recent post about connection, and how it heals after such isolation, and it got me thinking about all an abused person has to try to balance and how distorted outside perception can be, and how crucial authentic connection truly is.
Kelly told me that she felt she had to keep the abuse secret for a long time because what if she told her friends and she wasn’t ready to leave him yet? Can you imagine the kinds of pressure an abused person feels? Abuse makes someone feel like they have to manage everything on their own. If you’re in love with the abuser, it’s natural to focus on the good qualities, the intimate moments, to keep narrating those qualities to yourself, and to others. It isn’t because they aren’t real. It isn’t a lie you’re telling yourself. So many women say to me in retrospect, “I was such an idiot! I should’ve seen those things. Everyone warned me.” No, you were not an idiot. All the good and beautiful things that you saw in that person are real, too. All the intimacies and moments of tenderness are real, too. Part of what’s heartbreaking is the discrepancy between contradictory realities, which Kelly has written about beautifully.
Imagine at once being in love with someone, being continually damaged by someone (confusing enough on its own), knowing you have to protect others both from learning the truth about that situation and because you love your friends and don’t want them to see you sad (and if they’re sad or worried about you, what if you get sad and worried too, and this only works if it’s invisible, if there is no mirror), and you have to protect your partner who is trying to change and you have to protect yourself against external narratives that seem one-dimensional and don’t really apply? How? How does one do all of that?
Sometimes cultures place a stigma that equates abused people to weakness. But in that paragraph above, you see how much internal work is happening in ways that the abused person doesn’t even know she’s having to do. That internal work takes strength. And on top of that may also be a person who’s going to work, maybe raising a child, perhaps, as in Kelly’s case, trying (and successfully) furthering her own career. That takes strength.
The same strength that resides in a person to be your loving friend is also what allows her to love someone who causes pain and want to not give up on that love.
Loving someone who’s being abused might begin with letting that person be the authority on her own experience, from the inside out, and realizing how complicated the situation can really feel (and be). Often I feel like a way to “help” someone is to admit you don’t know what’s best, and let that person guide. There doesn’t need to be formulas if you trust your friend to take you along. Your voice is not what’s needed. Your listening is, because your friend is in the process of finding her voice, and it’s a privilege to be anywhere near that intimate and most important process. Or, your voice is needed only to the extent that it makes space for her voice, for the internal narrative to shift. You’re there to create space for that.
Just because you may have seen someone was a jerk and your friend didn’t doesn’t make you smarter (it means you were at different angles of vision, and yours was actually the less privileged in terms of a full picture). What’s needed from supporters may change at different times (sometimes being understanding that the person who abused your friend was also tender with her in some moments and hearing about that, other times vehemently being on her side about what a dick he is, which is of course the much easier of the two–in essence, being able to hold simultaneous truths because, unfortunately, that _is_ the complexity of abuse).
Yet, I go back on some of these thoughts a little. It goes back to connection. I guess maybe what’s best in supporting another is doing so from your best self. Hopefully that person will have a whole network of support in which you are only one piece. Maybe I listen while another rails. Both are needed. Coming from a place of your best self will help encourage that person to do the same. Even saying something seemingly “wrong” can help someone find her voice again.
It felt like a privilege to me to know and share time with Kelly when she was leaving Caleb. I was privy to spontaneous insights that arose from her sharing and our conversations. I got to see something closer to the whole picture of someone I’d liked, but realized, as I learned more, that I’d only known from particular angles, and this fuller picture made me love her. What I saw was not weakness in any way shape or form, but immense strength. I admired the hell out of her every day. It was nothing less than privilege for her to share her voice with me.
And to think of hours of conversation on the couch, tears and horrendous, sickening, stories, to remember the amounts of self-doubt she felt from the inside-out, to hear how she’d blame herself for falling apart in the grocery store at someone’s, “how are you?” (after years of teaching herself not to), and to see how she’s become an advocate, how she can write about the complexities of her experience with incredible, breathtaking insight, beauty, and openness– how she continues to pursue her career and raise her child and develop close relationships with those around her– astounds me. I read her essays and see their structured edges compared to the rivers of stories she has told me and understand how brilliant of a writer and creator she is on top of having lived through something life-threatening. That strong, independent woman was always her, and he took that away for some time. What’s real in us stays, even when we have to work to get back in touch with it.
I remember looking at her in those days and seeing her beauty. She felt like she was falling apart. But undoing in order to become one’s best self takes so much bravery, and that is what I saw. Layers of pain and confusion coming off, and that piece of bravery shining.
Culture should shift from viewing abused women as weak (or God forbid sensitive) and instead to holding insight into human psychology and experience that’s vital to understanding the problems in our world and searching for their root causes.
Probably what I should have said to that woman at the vegetable stand was, “how do you feel? Because you have insight that no one else does, and I have so much to learn from you.” I have to remind myself over and over that my best form is receptivity, openness, unseeing in order to see, emptying in order to truly hear.
The most worthy goal of any connection is true collaboration. I think we need to break down barriers between public and private. Kelly does this beautifully and bravely with her work. It is our business how each other is treated and how we treat others. It affects everyone. Where did it come from, this idea that who we are in private is different than who we are in public, in such a fundamental way that it can function as disguise? How is that we are shocked when we know someone who turns out to have done something horrible and we think, “but he was my neighbor,” “but he was so nice,” or, in my case, something I find myself saying a lot, “but I babysat his children.” Who we are in every moment matters and we don’t need to live in a world where someone can be a teacher by day and abuser by night. This idea of minding one’s own business (sorry Hank Williams) encourages people not to bridge their interrelated behaviors with reflection. We could be mirrors rather than veils.
I think we should continue collaboration as we struggle through being human. Connection heals; we are interconnected and thus collaboration acknowledges reality. Struggle does not stop and will continue to take on different permutations and manifestations, but connection and collaboration can continue. And even while Kelly continues to face her experiences and Caleb’s presence in her life, I take comfort in knowing, too, that she’s connected, collaborating, and that she enjoys more moments in a day now than just that cup of coffee. Because she also has herself.
Thoughts on abuse continue to stir in me the more stories that I hear (some from old friends who have locked their stories away without the language to tell them until recently in a society that normalizes unhealthy behavior, some on the news domestically and internationally); psychological and physical violence toward women (and others) is an epidemic that needs to be addressed with urgency and from all angles. And we don’t have to address it in isolation.
Rebecca met Kelly during their shared time in the MFA program in West Virginia. These days, she spends her time with family as well as writing poems, letters, comments on a friend’s novel, and essays she needs to finish, and reading. She watches Packer games, waitresses, and is hopefully soon to begin a job lesson planning in an after-school program designed to help struggling youth. She’ll begin Harvard Divinity School next summer, where she intends to continue studying Buddhism.